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37. Bonus: Organizing a Memorable Tech Conference
Hosted by Jamie White, with guest Leah Silber.
Leah Silber has been running tech conferences for over thirteen years. In this supplemental episode to her previous conversation with Jamie White, she'll introduce us to all the little things that make a big difference in ensuring that conference attendees feel appreciated, valued, and free to have a good time.
Leah organizes both RustConf and EmberConf, and has been organizing tech conferences for well over a decade. She talks about some of the lessons she's learned in building inclusivity and accessibility into the conferences, outside of the technical talks. Childcare, for example, is one feature she's introduced that has had a positive effect on both parents and children. Suddenly, workers don't need to fret between networking with their peers and finding quality day care. Leah cautions that the first few years she offered this space, there weren't many enrollments, primarily because attendees didn't know that the option was available. But year after year, more parents are participating.
As ideas on gender are evolving, Leah has experimented with applying pronoun usage onto badges. At first, she made this mandatory, requiring attendees to provide their preferred pronoun while registering for the conference. She thought that this would help normalize the terminology, but she says her opinion has changed after speaking to several people. Instead, she provides pronoun stickers to attendees when they collect their badges at the conference.
Some smaller opportunities, like building fitness activities into the schedule, also helps attendees maintain their routine and connect with other conference-goers in ways they might not otherwise be able to.
Links from this episode
Jamie: Welcome to Code[ish]. My name's Jamie White. I'm a front end engineer at Heroku. For this episode we have some bonus material from our prior interview with Leah Silber this time focusing on conferences and tech events.
Jamie: You are a veteran of organizing tech conferences, so I couldn't let you go without talking about this area of expertise for a little while. What have you worked on this year? What conferences this 2019.
Leah: So just last week, Thursday, Friday was RustConf. I've simplified my roster a little bit down to one to three per year because of various other things going on. But I do still enjoy a good tech con. RustConf was really fun. It's a little bit smaller than EmberConf and that's been really useful for me to have a one event where I can test new ideas before using them at a larger scale. RustConf was 600 people so I guess it's not even that small anymore.
Jamie: Yeah, I want to call out two things in particular that I observed at Emberconf this year. One, which I think you've had for a while is, free daycare and when I popped my head into the daycare room, it was absolutely wild. The amount of cool toys and stuff going on and there was great. But it's also amazing, the idea that it opens the conference up to parents of young children to allow them to travel with those children, bring them somewhere they might not otherwise go and potentially bring someone into the community who might not participate otherwise is a big achievement I think.
Jamie: And then the other one is this year at Emberconf I noticed there was two types of lanyard. And one of them was color coded and there were signs around the event explaining what this meant. Color coded to say, "I'd rather not have my photo taken or appear on video please." People might have all sorts of reasons for that being the case, but it was such a nice detail, such a careful thought. And for some people probably makes the difference between having a comfortable conference experience and having a deeply uncomfortable one.
Leah: Yeah, absolutely. Things like childcare. The first few times you try them, you're going to think that they weren't worth doing. Because the first year or the first two years, no one's going to know it was a thing yet. And people aren't going to bring their children and you're going to think to yourself, "Oh, I just spent a couple of thousand dollars on something that was essentially useless." But no, it's an investment in the future events and in communicating to your attendees like, "Hey you can do this and tell your friends who have small children that they are welcome." So I think we had one kid the first year at Emberconf and three kids the second year at EmberConf and this year at RustConf we had seven kids. And obviously it can't scale infinitely because I can't actually run a school. But it was more fun for the kids also that there were more kids in the room and it was more fun for the parents. Because when I went in to check on a kid there was another person from the community in there and we exchanged stories about our kids. And it just felt really good.
Leah: And last year at Emberconf there were these two little girls who weren't that young anymore. They were like four and six. And so their dad was going to pick them up at all the breaks and they were just hanging out in the hallways and at the snack breaks with their dad. And it just made the whole environment feel so much friendlier and so much more like this professional environment was acknowledging that all these attendees were also people outside of that professional environment. And that there were things outside of that professional environment that were priorities. And you know what those priorities, even though they're not about writing code or being here, they're welcome in this space. And I think that's tremendously empowering and welcoming to people.
Leah: And then obviously it also just opens it up to like, I'm a nursing mom or a stay at home dad. Like I just straight up couldn't come if I didn't have anywhere to put my baby. And they're fairly easy things to accomplish. You have to find the right vendor and put them in a room. But it's not by a long shot one of the more complicated parts of running a conference. And the lanyards, that's a perfect example of a thing where if I had heard about it 10 years ago, I would have probably just rolled my eyes like, "Oh, why does everybody need some special accommodation?" But now that I'm more mature and grown up, why not? It was super easy for me to do it for the conference and it made a tremendous difference, yes to only the five or six people who chose to take advantage of it. But those five or six people are just as important as all the other people.
Leah: Pronoun stickers is a big one that I really like to do at conferences these days. And the way that we innovate in that area is just by making them adorable and making them fit in with the badges and the look and feel. That's a thing that I have actually gotten a little bit of pushback on pronoun stickers because there's a push to normalize it and to normalize the fact that people have different ones and so some people who are very, very invested in that happening will critically say, "It shouldn't be a sticker. It should be a thing that you're asked on registration that everybody has to do it because if everybody has to do it, that will help normalize it." But after a fair amount of talking to people and doing research and whatnot, I really don't want registering for a conference ticket for one of my events to be like an existential crisis or decision making moment for somebody. And the whole thing that's happening is that we're acknowledging that people want different things in this regard and that it's meaningful to people and that people can transition and change their needs and their preferences.
Leah: And so I don't want you to have to stop when you register for our conference and think like, "What's my pronoun right now? Am I in the middle of like a really tough life decision? And in three months when the conference happens, it's going to be different." Or, "I'm in the middle of figuring it out. And so I really just don't want to draw attention to it right now because I'm thinking it through. I'm figuring out who and how I want people to acknowledge me." And these are all things that society has come to realize are deeply personal decisions that people get to make for themselves and that the people around them should respect. And I want that to be on everyone's terms.
Leah: So we put that pronoun sticker sheet in everybody's bag. Myself and the staff all wear them to normalize it for everybody. We encourage in the literature about it or signage or whatever. Even if you're not somebody who will perhaps be assigned the wrong pronoun by a random person talking to you, put it on your badge anyway so that it is normalized for people who maybe are struggling with this.
Leah: Or don't. It's a hard thing to balance because you want to help it be normalized, but not force anybody to do it, but make it as easy as possible. And so the best solution I've come up with are these stickers. And the worst part of the solution is that it's wasteful. Because some people don't end up using them. Or if you get a sheet that has all the possible pronouns, you're only using two of them. But that seems like a good trade to me. Like I'm okay with trashing a couple of extra stickers so that everybody can, in their own time, sit down and think about what they want on their badge or what they don't want on their badge and feel like they're comfortable and will be acknowledged the way that they want to be acknowledged by everyone around them.
Jamie: Yes. And different people will want to bring different amounts of their personal life into the mix at these kinds of events and in these kinds of settings. To walk into a conference space and see children running around with their parents looking like they're on vacation and having fun, to see people proudly wearing pronoun stickers. All these things are, I feel like, healthy signs and make it feel healthy to be part of that community. As opposed to I would say seeing people who, yes they've been very successful at getting involved in open source but have ended up disappearing into it and burning themselves out as a result. And if the open source community has lots of built in affordances for family life and going to another thing where the Ember conferences, there are fitness activities built into the schedule so that you can avoid it if you want to. I will admit that I tend to. Just because jet lag and so on.
Leah: But there are totally people out there for whom like it's an annoying thing to think about. Like, "Oh, I'm being really diligent about my fitness routine right now and I'm going to go to this conference and completely fall off the wagon." And again, that was something where it was just like, "Oh, you know what? It's not actually that hard to give this opportunity to people to do a thing that they like to do."
Jamie: So you wrote a book. I actually can't remember when this was, must have been a few years ago now. Event-driven.
Leah: It turns out, it was a really long time ago because somebody was asking me about it yesterday and I went to check and it was in 2015. So I was like, "Oh yeah, I wrote a book. It probably has the answers to these questions, but asterisk, I really need to take another pass at it." Because since 2015 the industry has made tremendous strides. Especially in the areas of the things that we're talking about right now. The areas of diversity and inclusion and accessibility and having a more holistically welcoming environment.
Leah: So it's back on the active task list to go back through it. And I don't even think I knew that pronoun stickers were a thing when I wrote this in 2015. And there's a lot of things like that. So yeah, so I wrote a book, it has a lot of information on how to avoid a lot of the mistakes that I made in running my first conferences, whenever it was, 12, 13 years ago. It has a lot of information on pro tips that are obviously specifically related to our industry, but also at large. It has a spreadsheet included, which is a really good organizational tool for the very beginnings of getting started in a conference and I hope to do an update pretty soon and give people insights into new things that are happening and better tools that have developed since 2015.
Jamie: Yeah, I mean I think the diff between the second edition of Event Driven and the first, would be a really insightful look at everything that's changed in this realm.
Leah: I hope so. I'm scared. I don't want to go back and read it and read certain parts and be like, "I was so dumb." Even though that in and of itself I'm sure is a good diff of a human and I should feel good about learnings and whatnot, but we'll see how it goes.
Jamie: Thanks again to Leah for joining us on Code[ish] and for all the incredible work she does in open source and across the industry. And thanks to you for listening.
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
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