The Worst Way To Find Women Speakers

I am a female speaker, and a software developer, which puts me in a fairly small minority at the events I usually attend (I'm a PHP consultant based in the UK, to give you an idea of what kind of events those are). Recently I've been asked my opinion more than once on the issue of women speakers being in a minority at technical events, and I've also been the "token" women speaker at a technical event.

The worst thing you can do is find some random, underqualified person who represents the demographic you want to include, and put them on the stage. Although gender is often the issue we hear most about, the same applies to anyone who isn't a young, white male; it's just that gender is easier to see and talk about than either age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or anything else, and also since I'm a young, white female, it's the only aspect I can comment on.Women are in such a minority that they are, almost by definition, representative (see http://xkcd.com/385). Anyone who sees your randomly-selected woman speak will simply go away thinking that women aren't really good at speaking. Continue reading

How to Be a Good Conference Citizen

I get to a lot of events and the crowds at each one are different and there's a different atmosphere - but at every event there are people who are making the whole thing less enjoyable for everyone else. Probably a lot of those people don't much care what effect their behaviour has on other people, but if you want to avoid being one of those people, these are my tips:

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Lame Excuses for Avoiding Conferences

At the moment I am getting to quite a few conferences, as a speaker, as an organiser, and sometimes as a plain old attendee. I get so much from these opportunities to learn from experts in their various fields, meet people in the flesh whose blogs I read or whom I know from IRC. I also hugely value the opportunity to socialse and build personal connections, and to be a bystander for technical conversations between leaders where I understand most of the words but can barely follow the flow. I can quite appreciate that different people come to conferences for different reasons, but I cannot accept that people actively avoid conferences because they think its not for them - and the reasons for this, from people who have never been to a conference, are wild and varied. Most are based on misconceptions and I'd like to take the time to examine some of these.

I won't know anyone

This situation will persist until you go to a conference and meet some people! Then, you'll know some people at the next event. When I went to IPC in Frankfurt in 2007, I knew nobody but while I was there I met Derick, Sebastian and Zoe ... and these three are now conference friends wherever I go! Lots of people at conferences are there on their own and will be happy to chat to you and find out who you are.

Its too expensive

While I'm lucky enough to have the support of my employers, Ibuildings, to send me to at least a couple of conferences per year, I've worked for plenty of other organisations that didn't invest in their people. I think this is unforgivable but the reality is there are plenty of us in this situation. If you are paying your own way to these events I can appreciate that $1100 (~700 GBP) plus international flights plus a week in a hotel in Silicon Valley can seem pretty expensive if you want to get to ZendCon. But there are cheaper and closer conferences are available for most of us - so do your homework and get to something you can afford, even if you don't do it every year. I've yet to get to a conference where the cost outweighed the benefit so in my view this excuse is invalid.

My employer won't pay

No, well, see previous point. This is true for plenty of people and while I don't have any numbers on people paying their own way - they do exist and they almost invariably move on to work for employers that do invest in their future. Do this for you, not for them.

I might have to talk to people/strangers

This is the excuse I hear the most often, or a variation on this. Actually you don't have to talk to anyone if you don't want to. I went to an event last year and introduced myself to a guy who said "Hi, I'm James. I don't have any social skills" and proceeded to say nothing further (his name may or may not have been James, I can't really remember). To be honest I didn't really think anything of it. Conferences are firstly about the technical content so if you want to come and get the technical sessions and then disappear again - that is your call. I can't agree this is a good idea but there is absolutely no pressure to be the life and soul of the party, and in fact if you want to sit in the corner and mutter to yourself that is also fine ... we're all geeks after all! Nobody will judge you, in fact if you don't talk to anyone probably nobody will notice you - just COME and you might be surprised :)

I haven't been to a conference

Why not? Pick an event you like the sound of, join in the preconference hype (more about this in my post about making friends at a conference) and see how it goes. If you hate it, then don't go to another. But don't stay home immobilised by lack of experience, you're missing out :)

Avoiding Conferences

Getting to a conference costs time, money and effort and if you don't want to invest any of those things in your professional development then I respect your decision. However if you think you'd like to attend something, but you don't know what to expect or you have concerns about what is expected of you, then try to put those fears aside and dive in! I think I've covered the things I hear most often - what excuses do you hear from conference-avoiders?

5 Ways to Make Friends at a Technical Conference

These are my top tips for getting along and meeting new people at a technical conference.

Take an extension cable

Conferences are notorious for having too few and too short power leads, and everyone needs to recharge laptops, especially in hands-on sessions like tutorial day. Having an extension cable will make you instant friends as you bring power to more people.

Join in the pre-conference hype

Follow the nominated twitter tag and log into the IRC channel if there is one. Find out who is staying in the same place as you or arriving at the same time, arrange to travel together or meet for a pre-conference drink to break the ice.

Attend the extra-curricular events

Don't think for a moment that when the official schedule ends, you are off-duty for the night! Find out about any social activities going on - and if there is an informal track such as an unconference, make sure you attend, or even participate. This is a great opportunity to meet more people and see more talks in a much less structured environment.

Take business cards

Or if you don't have that kind of job (or even if you do!) get some moo cards to take with you so you can pass on your blog/email address, name and twitter details to people you want to stay in touch with after the event.

Stay an extra day

The party starts when the conference ends, so hang around for 24 hours or so and join in :) Especially for the speakers (whose rooms are paid for) and those travelling internationally, there's no need to rush off straight away. Some of the best times I've had at conferences have been after the main event.

Keep in touch

Write up your experiences on your blog (do you have a blog? If not, this is a great place to start) and tag it appropriately. Comment on other people's and stay in touch with the new friends that you made at the conference.

OK, so technically this is six ways to make friends, but I won't apologise for that :) What's your top tip for conference attendees?