🦠COVID-19 has well and truly hit the tech scene this week. As well as being full of "WFH tips" for all the tech workers suddenly banished from their offices, my particular Twitter bubble is full of DevRel folk musing and debating about what this interruption means to our profession. For sure, in the short term, the Spring conference season is screwed— all the conferences are cancelled (or postponed).
But what about the future? No-one would ever want to take such a forced hiatus but what an excellent opportunity it is to take a step back and consider why we’re doing what we’re doing - and if we should go back to business as usual once things calm down.
Tech conferences: the good, the bad, and the damn ugly
Let’s get our definitions and context sorted first, because sometimes one person’s good is another’s bad. Here I’m talking from the point of view of the conference participant - the developer, the architect, the engineer. Things that make an excellent conference, in my experience, include:
ring-fenced time to consume and discuss said content
opportunity to interact with the speakers and with other like-minded developers
safe & inclusive environment
There are lots of conferences that tick all these boxes, including (but not exclusively; sorry if I’ve left your favourite one out here) Devoxx, code.talks, JavaZone, QCon, Øredev, NDC, and Kafka Summit. The unifying factor across all these is that they are curated and designed for the benefit and edification of their audience. It’s not a coincidence that many are led by local user groups.
But…there are other conferences that have become—or maybe always were—a commercial enterprise based around vendor sponsorship and ticket sales, with the content and audience experience playing second fiddle to whatever the sponsors want to hawk. Many "pay-to-play" talks are not always as useful as those accepted on merit alone, nor are they always as well delivered.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a conference to be commercially successful (from the point of view of the sponsors, marketing lead-gen, etc) whilst also providing a great experience for the audience. But, there is a significant tension that does not always play out to the benefit of those attending.
Do we even still need conferences IRL?
(IRL=In Real Life)
There’s a lot of justifiable excitement right now about the potential for what can be done online to replace the 🦠-forced cancellation of so many conferences. Why go to the hassle, and create such a huge carbon footprint, of flying half-way around the globe if you can do it from the comfort of your study?
I would love to see more conference-like experiences available online. There are some significant reasons for doing this:
Reduced travel costs
Reduced environmental impact of travel
By definition, the material can be recorded and so consumed asynchronously at the viewer’s leisure
More accessible to those who might be intimidated by the idea of attending an event in-person
More convenient to those who can’t commit the contiguous block of time necessary to attend a conference
But…there’s always a but…
What’s so good about conferences, anyway?
Interacting with people is why I travel for eight hours to speak to 100 people and then travel eight hours home again.
There’s a really good reason that the hallway track gets talked about so much. The hallway track is what people refer to when they’re talking about conversations they have in the hallway (hence the name) at a conference, between sessions, on the way to lunch, after the conference.
It more broadly covers just generally hanging out at a conference, grabbing a drink, heading to get some food, with people who are interested in the same technologies and ideas as you are—and now you’re in a place with no calls on your time other than to talk about this stuff and build relationships with other people. It’s where fun ideas are had, friendships are built, where an increased meaning to the eight hours a day we spend staring at a screen is given.
Other challenges for online events
These are not insurmountable, but they cannot be ignored.
How do you replicate the hallway track? How do you replicate the camaraderie and community of an in-person event with the shared experiences of the same crap conference food, inspiring keynote talks, fun parties, etc?
I grew up in the BBS era and subsequent IRC days of the internet, and there were chat-rooms and Usenet groups where you really got to know people, and communities genuinely formed. I know that communities can and do form online, but you have to find a way to cultivate and nurture them in a way that goes beyond sticking a chat window onto a webinar.
As a speaker being there in person with your audience makes it MUCH easier to read the room. Are people nodding and smiling and following along, or are they glued to their phones desperately waiting for the session to end? Are they looking perplexed and puzzled, or excited and engaged? This is infinitely easier to gauge in-person than it is in a virtual setting.
h/t to Kent Graziano for articulating this.
A conference that you physically attend is dedicated, ring fenced time. Perhaps it’s just me and poor discipline, but I always intend to watch the videos from a conference I didn’t make it to…but I rarely do. At a conference, you’re there to learn and listen and talk, and everything else is relegated to waiting. Back at work, the risk is that consuming conference content becomes secondary and a “luxury” to do in between “real work”.
When you’re physically present at a conference, you’re on the same timezone, with far fewer demands on your time. The talks start at 07:30? Unconference is going on until 22:00? No problem. For a virtual event you’re at home/in the office, quite possibly in a different timezone, with the usual commute / school run / family interactions to attend to.
Are Tech Conferences Dead? No. But they might benefit from a bit of pruning.
In-Person and Online are not mutually exclusive. This is not a battle to be won and lost.
There is a frenzied and important discussion going on right now in the DevRel world and beyond about if and how you can replicate the meetup and conference experience online. My hope is that more events are enabled this way (for the reasons above). But these are simply another medium through which developers can participate and engage.
In-person conferences will always be a thing because most people value the face-to-face interactions. Maybe less frequently, maybe VendorConf will end up virtual, and that’s fine - but my view (and hope) is that when the dust has settled, there will be a 'correction' in the conference 'market'.
At the heart of in-person conferences are the social interactions and the passionate programmes curated to enable people to immerse themselves over the course of a day or more in the technology, the culture, the people. These conferences are the ones that happen by the sheer will-power and dedication of the organisers, and they happened before and will happen again 🤞
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