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 Monday, August 26, 2013
On speakers, expenses, and stipends

In the past, I've been asked about my thoughts on conferences and the potential "death" of conferences, and the question came up again more recently in a social setting. It's been a while since I commented on it, and if anything, my thoughts have only gotten sharper and clearer.

On speaking professionally

When you go to the dentist's office, who do you want holding the drill--the "enthused, excited amateur", or the "practiced professional"?

The use of the term "professional" here, by the way, is not in its technical use of the term, meaning "one who gets paid to perform a particular task", but more in a follow-on to that, meaning, "one who takes their commitment very seriously, and holds themselves to the same morals and ethics as one who would be acting in a professional capacity, particularly with an eye towards actually being paid to perform said task at some point". There is an implicit separation between someone who plays football because they love it, for example, going out on Sunday afternoons and body-slamming other like-minded individuals just because of the adrenaline rush and the male bonding, and those who go out on Sunday afternoons and command a rather decently-sized salary ($300k at a minimum, I think?) to do so. Being a professional means that not only is there a paycheck associated with the activity, but a number of responsibilities--this means not engaging in stupid activity that prevents you from being able to perform your paid activity. In the aforementioned professional athlete's case, this means not going out and doing backflips on a dance floor (*ahem*, Gronkowski) or playing some other sport at a dangerous level of activity. (In the professional speaker's case, it means arranging travel plans to arrive at the conference at least a day before your session--never the day of--and so on.)

For a lot of people, speaking at an event is an opportunity for them to share their passion and excitement about a given topic--and I never want to take that opportunity away from them. By all means, go out and speak--and maybe in so doing, you will find that you enjoy it, and will be willing to put the kind of time and energy required into doing it well.

Because, really, at the end of the day, the speakers you see in the industry that are very, very good at what they do, they weren't just "born" that way. They got that way the same way professional athletes got that way, by doing a lot of preparation and work behind the scenes. They got that way because they got a lot of "first team reps", speaking at a variety of events. And they continue to get better because they continue to speak, which means continuously putting effort and energy into new talks, into revising old talks, and so on.

But all of that time can't be for free, or else people won't do it.

Go back to the amateur athlete scenario: the more time said athlete has to work at a different job to pay the bills, the less time they have to prep and master their athletic skills. This is no different for speakers--if someone is already spending 8 hours a day working, and another 6 to 8 hours a day sleeping, then that's 8 to 10 hours in the day for everything else, including time spent with the family, eating, personal hygiene, and so on, including whatever relaxation time they can carve out. (And yes, we all need some degree of relaxation time.) When, exactly, is this individual, excited, passionate, enthused (or not), supposed to get those "first team reps" in? By sacrificing something else: time with the family, sleep, a hobby, whatever.

Don't you think that they deserve some kind of compensation for that time?

I know, I know, the usual response is, "But they're giving back to the community!" Yes, I know, you never really figured anything out on your own, you just ran off to StackOverflow or Google and found all the code you needed in order to learn the new technology--it was never any more effort on your own part than that. You OWE the community this engagement. And, by the way, you should also owe them all the code you ever write, for the same reason, because it's not like your employer ever gave you anything for that code, and it's not like you did all that research and study for the code you work on for them.

See, the tangled threads of "why" we do something are often way too hard to unravel. So let's instead focus on the "what" you did. You submitted an abstract, you created an outline, you concocted some slides, you built some demos, you practiced your talk, you delivered it to the audience, and you submitted yourself to "life's slings and arrows" in the form of evaluations. And for all that, the conference organizers owe you nothing? In fact, you're required to pay for the privilege of doing all that?

On "professional" conferences

One dangerous trend I see in conferences, and it's not the same one I saw in 2009, is that the main focus of a conference is shifting; no longer is it a gathering of like-minded professionals who want to improve their technical skills by learning from others. Instead, it's turning into a gathering of people who want to party, play board games, gorge themselves on bacon, drink themselves to a stupor, play in a waterpark or go catch a Vegas show with naked women in it. Somehow, "professional developer conference" has taken on all the overtones of a Bacchanalian orgy, all in the name of "community".

Don't get me wrong--I think it can be useful to blow off some steam during a show, particularly because for most people, absorbing all this new information is mentally exhausting, and you need time to process it, both socially (in the form of hallway conversations) and physically (meaning, go give your body something to do while your mind is churning away). But when the focus of the conference shifts from "speakers" to "bacon bar", that's a dangerous, dangerous sign.

And you know what the first sign is that the conference doesn't think it's principal offering is the technical content? When they won't even cover the speakers' costs to be at that event.

Seriously, think about it for a moment: if the principal focus of this event is the exchange of intellectual and industrial information, through the medium of a lecture given by an individual, then where should your money go? The bacon bar? Or towards making sure that you have the best damn lecturers your budget can afford?

When a conference doesn't offer to pick up airfare and hotel, then in my mind that conference is automatically telling the world, "We're willing to bring in the best speakers that are willing to do this all for free!" And how many of you would be willing to eat at a restaurant that said, "We're willing to bring in the best chefs that are willing to cook for free!"? Or go to a hospital that brings in "the best doctors that are willing to operate for free!"?

And how many of you are willing to part of your own money to go to it?

For community events like CodeCamps, it's an understood proposition that this is more about the networking and community-building than it is about the quality of the information you're going to get, and frankly, given that the CodeCamp is a free event, there's also an implicit "everybody here is a volunteer" that goes with it that explains--and, to my mind, encourages--people who've never spoken before to get up and speak.

But when you're a CodeMash, a devLink, or some of these other shows that are charging you, the attendee, a non-trivial amount of money to attend, and they're not covering speakers' expenses at a minimum, then they're telling you that your money is going towards bacon bars and waterparks, not the quality of the information you're receiving.

Yes, there are some great speakers who will continue to do those events, and Gods' honest truth, if I had somebody to cover my mortgage and/or paid me to be there, I'd love to do that, too. But many of those people who are paid by a company to be speaking at events are called "evangelists" and "salespeople", and developers have already voted with their feet often enough to make it easy to say that we don't want a conference filled with "evangelists" and "salespeople". You want an unbiased technical view of something? You want people to talk about a technology that don't have an implicit desire to sell it to you, so that they can tell you both what it's good for and where it sucks? Then you want speakers who aren't being paid by a company to be there; instead, you want speakers who can give you the "harsh truth" about a technology without fear of reprisal from their management. (And yes, there are a lot of evangelists who are very straight-shooting speakers, and I love 'em, every one. But there's a lot more of them out there who aren't.)

In many cases, for the conference to deliver both the bacon bar and the speakers' T&E, it would require your attendance fee to go up some. By rough back-of-the-napkin calculations, probably about $50 for each of you, depending on the venue, the length of the conference, the number of speakers (and the number of talks they each do), and the total number of attendees. Is it worth it?

When you go to the dentist's office, do you want the "excited, enthused amateur", or the "practiced professional"?