How to run a good tech conference

I founded and helped to run the first PIPELINE Conference in 2014 and I have been part of the team that has run 5 of these events to date. Here are my thoughts on how to run a good tech conference based on my experience with PIPELINE and with other events I have attended and spoken at.

tl;dr: fabulous team + great attendee experience.

PIPELINE Conference team - photo by Fabienne Jung
PIPELINE Conference team – photo by Fabienne Jung

1 – Find a fabulous organising team

When I first had the idea for a conference dedicated to Continuous Delivery (that became PIPELINE Conference), there was no precedent in the UK or Europe. I had been running London Continuous Delivery meetup group for 14 months or so, and I had built up a good network of smart people through the meetup group, so I reached out to that community and found a fabulous core group. I knew that I wanted an organising team composed of 50:50 women:men, and so from the very start we had a gender balance – this proved to be just one aspect of balance and diversity that made the team great.

When we started organising for the 2014 conference, many of the tools available today to simplify conference organising didn’t exist or were not too polished, so we had to collaborate closely on all kinds of aspects to get things working.

We had regular (weekly) Skype/Slack calls to coordinate on lead times, dates, schedules, and then practical things like speaker selection, sponsorship, tickets, etc. Having people in the team that are passionate about the conference theme is crucial, I think; there is a lot of fairly boring work that “just needs to happen” and so you need people with intrinsic motivation to pull together the conference.

Dividing up the work is crucial. For many of the preparation activities, we paired up on things: two people would look at t-shirts, or printing, or ticketing, etc. This was a useful way to avoid one person blocking progress because they were too busy (I was guilty of this in the early years of PIPELINE Conference, and it taught me to share, delegate, and simply “not care” about things that were not crucial to my role (finance, sponsors, branding)). Other people were responsible for speaker liaison, the venue, buying stationery and supplies, social media, etc.

On the day, you will need some volunteers to help with microphones, badges on the door, questions from attendees and sponsors, collecting feedback forms, etc. Make your volunteers feel loved and (obviously) give them a free ticket to the conference; in return, you will have a magic team of helpers that keeps the day working smoothly.

2 – Choose a venue wisely

After the 2014 conference in an older venue, we realised that we needed to find a venue that worked really well for attendees. We wanted all rooms on the same floor (no stairs or lifts needed). We wanted some outside space for people to be able to breathe (and smoke!). We wanted somewhere friendly but efficient with good food and helpful staff. And most importantly, we wanted a venue that did not “split up” the conference, so that every one of the 250 attendees would feel part of the same shared experience.

We found what we were looking for in etc.venues Victoria, a wonderful venue holding 250 people in central London. We held 4 conference years there, and everything about the venue was excellent: food, staff, facilities. It’s really worth exploring different venues to get a “feel” for each place – the investment in time will be a massive help for your conference.

We built up a really good relationship with the venue staff. The manager recently told me:

You and the team have been great – by far my favourite clients to work with and so organised!!!

Food at etc.venues Victoria - photo by Fabienne Jung
Food at etc.venues Victoria – photo by Fabienne Jung

3 – Make the conference practitioner-led

Some conferences feel “dead” because they are clearly being run as a for-profit exercise by events organisers rather than people actually interested. It’s very difficult for pure event organising firms to make tech conferences engaging, although not impossible: one for-profit company that does do really good tech conferences in the UK is Software Acumen, but they are one of a very small number doing this well.

Your organising team and volunteers should care about the theme of the conference. Everyone should be learning from the talks and conversations that happen during the day. In my experience, because attendees know that the organisers and volunteers are practitioners like them, they interact as equals and feel able to share more.

4 – Make the conference inclusive

One of the aims of PIPELINE Conference was to provide a platform for new and less experienced speakers. We supported newer speakers if they needed help with the material or slides, and in 2017 ran Tech Talks for Beginners training to help widen the pool of people submitting talk proposals (one of the training graduates ended up being selected anonymously!). Over 5 years of PIPELINE Conference we improved our ratio of women:men quite noticeably, particularly in the speakers. Consider using blind/anonymous submission/review for the talks to combat bias in the selection panel.

We made sure we had a range of food options: not just veggie and non-veggie, but also halal, kosher, vegan, gluten-free and other important dietary options that we know helped to encourage a wider set of people to feel comfortable in the conference. We also made sure that the venue was not exclusionary by finding a venue where all the rooms were on the same floor and all accessible step-free.

We ran scholarships and discounted tickets for underrepresented groups and encouraged people from these groups to attend.

Diversity across many dimensions was a key driver for us, because we all believed that diversity in tech conferences is a real enabler for good learning, for moving the industry forward, and for better quality conversations and talks.

5 – Find good sponsors and suppliers

Sponsorship is not just about money. Don’t make the mistake of taking any company’s coin just because they offer it. Consider the brand suitability for your event. Is sponsorship from Oracle *really* suitable for your 150-person boutique conference on Serverless or Raspberry Pi?

Sponsor - XebiaLabs - photo by Fabienne Jung
Sponsor – XebiaLabs – photo by Fabienne Jung

A good sponsor helps to provide context for your conference. A good sponsor is well-behaved towards attendees and doesn’t pull silly marketing stunts with sexist give-aways or videos. Choose your sponsors to provide the right experience for attendees.

Your suppliers (video, photo, wifi, bookstall, etc.) should also enhance the attendee experience (AX?). Every different organisation that you invite into the conference should enhance the experience for attendees in some way.

6 – Plan the money side carefully

A one-day conference for 250 people (like PIPELINE Conference) in London, UK costs about 34k GBP (45k USD or 38k EUR) to put on if you use a decent venue with good food. We used professional videography, professional photography & sound, dedicated event WiFi, and other nice things that made the conference experience exceptional for attendees. This means that you need to be able to refund the full amount in the event of a venue complication, bad weather, etc. Can you really afford to take on that financial risk personally?

Early on I decided to run PIPELINE Conference as a not-for-profit initiative (rather than for-profit) so that it had a good community feel to it. I think that this community spirit was really enabled by the not-for-profit outlook because it helped to set expectations about the underlying purpose of the event. We donated decent amounts each year to good causes (CodeClub and CodeYourFuture) from the “profits” and this also felt like A Good Thing.

I therefore decided to form a Company Limited By Guarantee (a kind of not-for-profit in the UK) in order to process all the sponsorship and ticket money and pay suppliers. Having a limited company also meant I could arrange business insurance for things like Professional Indemnity, Public Liability, etc. which are more tricky to get as a private individual (at least in the UK). Large corporate entities (like some of our sponsors) seem to prefer dealing with other corporate entities rather than individuals, so using a company made that part much smoother.

7 – Use a decent ticketing platform like Tito

In the first few years we used Eventbrite for tickets but we had protracted problems with all kind of aspects of tickets with Eventbrite. Refunds were a nightmare. Contacting ticketholders was cumbersome. Various other aspects of the Eventbrite data model just seemed so broken, like having to add VAT details to each event rather than just a single time. What made Eventbrite truly bad was that they held onto all the ticket fees until 15 days after the event, which caused real headaches for cash flow.

When we moved to Tito for ticketing, it was like a breath of fresh air. A nice, modern web UI with sensible default behaviours. Markdown in pages and emails! Refunds are so simple with Tito, and best of all, Tito pays ticket money on a weekly or monthly basis directly into your bank account via Stripe. Use Tito for ticketing.

8 – Treat attendees, speakers, sponsors, and suppliers with respect

It sounds obvious, but consider the needs of all the different people and try to meet those needs. This means:

  • For attendees: don’t overload them with email campaigns, but keep the reminders timely. Use printed signs around the venue. Respond to feedback. Use a Code of Conduct and make it completely clear that you will EJECT people from the venue without refund if they break the CoC.
  • For speakers: keep them informed when you are doing talk selection. After they have been selected, provide them a pack (PDF or page) with all the details they need (timings, dates, venue, technical equipment specs, hotel details, etc.). Pay travel expenses and hotel bills, up front if needed. Provide a quiet room for talk preparation or “decompression” after giving their talk. Consider paying for childcare too, if that would help a speaker attend. Never charge speakers to speak – that’s just horrible.
  • For sponsors and suppliers: give them a pack (PDF) with all the details they need. Thank them afterwards.

Remember, the attendees are giving up a day of their time for your conference: they are your customers.

9 – Find great keynote speakers

The keynote speakers set the tone for your event. Who you choose makes a big impression on people, so cultivate contacts and relationships with people and get them to introduce you to their contacts too. Make sure that your diversity drive extends to your keynote speakers as well as attendees and other speakers.

Elisabeth Hendrickson - photo by Fabienne Jung
Elisabeth Hendrickson – photo by Fabienne Jung

Treat your keynote speakers well: buy them dinner, make sure their hotel is relaxing and close to the venue; they may have travelled a long way to reach you. Thank them before and after the event and suggest making a donation to a good cause of their choosing as a gift.

Finally: have fun and enjoy it!


 

With special thanks to the awesome PIPELINE team for 5 years of rewarding, hard work!

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