Why I Won't Go To Your Conference

I’m feeling a bit left out. You see, a lot of my peers attend a lot of programming conferences in a typical year, whereas I fail to see any value in doing so. And then, over the past couple of days, I was considering buying tickets for two of them: Scottish Ruby Conference 2014 and Arrrcamp 2013, before deciding that I could see no justification for doing so. Let me explain, by picking on these two conferences in an entirely unfair way.

##Scottish Ruby Conference

I’m only aware of the Scottish Ruby Conference through word-of-mouth. Friends of mine who have been there say that they always had a good time and the standard of the talks was high. I am a fan of the area of Scotland in which it takes place, and would like an excuse to hang out with these people. But let’s look at what’s being offered on that landing page. First of all, the “Ultra Early Bird” ticket costs £185. This annoys me immediately; I don’t like being segmented based on when I bought my ticket, purely to help the organizers with ‘assessing demand’ or ‘cash flow’, but that’s another story.

So what am I getting for my £185 Ultra Early Bird (or perhaps £200 Super Early Bird, or perhaps £215 Early Bird or perhaps £230 Bird) ticket? Erm… a “[d]iscounted conference room” at the hotel, apparently. There’s zero information about the content of the conference on this page except for the dates, the venue, and the price. Presumably, this being a fairly remotely-held conference, I don’t have much choice but to book a room at the venue (although Mr Battley presented a compelling alternative), so I’m now being asked to stump up £452 to attend. OK, so this is a day’s pre-tax - on which, more later - work for a senior developer working freelance in London. And I’m not a senior developer working freelance in London. So what am I being offered in return for this? Well, again, there is nothing on the website to tell me, except an oblique reference to “all the things that make ScotRuby legendary”.


I became aware of Arrrcamp purely through an acquaintance linking on Twitter to his trip to some Belgian breweries, timed to coincide with the conference. “Hmm,” I thought, “I like lambic beer. Maybe I should think about going to Arrrcamp.” On the website, I see that the price tag is €220, but at least they’re offering me something in return; there’s a list of speakers, along with their topics1. Unfortunately, given that I’ve attended a couple of conferences this year, I’ve already heard a lot of these speakers this year. Even if I hadn’t, most conferences video-record their talks and publish them online free-of-charge, so it’s hard to see the talks as the main attraction2. So, what else am I being offered for my cash?

  • Breakfast and lunch for both days
  • Ample coffee and refreshments throughout the day
  • A goodiebag and a t-shirt
  • Access to the gatherings and parties before, after and during the conference
  • Free Mojito’s, made by our Captain

Let’s say - for the sake of argument - that I follow a strict diet, like to choose my own clothes, am capable of contacting like- or differently-minded people to gather and talk, and don’t drink. There’s not really a lot to offer here, is there? And I guess I still need to sort out my own sleeping arrangements? Is there some way to pay for a cheaper ticket and just get to see the talks? How much do these extras add to my ticket? Given that I have to hear about sponsors and the goodie-bags are inevitably branded with their logos and full of their paraphernalia, what is the sponsorship money going on? How do we explain the wild divergence in pricing between conferences with ostensibly similar themes and content: £15 for Ruby Manor 4, €149 for Eurucamp, £185 for Scottish Ruby Conf, €975 (including accommodation) for Nordic Ruby? If they’re not deriving their value from the talks, what am I spending my money on?

##The value of a conference

I suspect that if you ask most conferences attendees (not the people on the speaker circuit), they’d tell you that, while they derive some value from the talks, they attend conferences mostly to hang out with friends, meet people who were previously only Twitter avatars, perhaps to get away from the office and hack on things in the stimulating environment of the conference. All of which is fine, but raises the question; do these things need centralized organization? Does it make sense to fly speakers around the world to give a sideshow to what people consider the primary value of a conference?

##Who foots the bill?

Being uncool, I am a permanent employee, via some levels of indirection, of a venture capital firm. Which means that, unlike a freelancer - who, although they have to pay for tickets themselves, can be unavailable during the conference(s) of their choice, and list the cost of the tickets, travel and accommodation as ‘education’ on their tax return - I have to justify the time away from work (or take annual leave), and then convince my employer that the benefit I derive from attending the conference in terms of education, raising their profile, or whatever else I call it, outstrips the cost of the ticket. Or pay for it myself.

It should be obvious from this that a) this (the effort of justifying a conference, not necessarily going to it) is easier to do as a freelance developer, for whom - for tax reasons - the costs are lower, and - because networking helps with finding contracts - the benefits higher; b) the attendance of a conference in itself requires a highly privileged position. It is a privilege to be able to freelance; some people require more security in their employment, for a variety of reasons, others don’t have the confidence to make the jump - and self-confidence is a privilege - and so on. It is a privilege to work for a company willing to send you to a conference, or to have enough money and spare annual leave to be able to send yourself, in spite of being a full-time employee.

These factors, in turn, entail that the people I’m likely to meet at a tech conference are likely to be similarly privileged people, meaning that the range of people I’m going to get to interact with is going to be from a smaller demographic. And that makes it even less appealing.

##So what do we do?

OK, so perhaps you agree with me that the majority of tech conferences fail to represent good value to a large part of their potential audience. Perhaps you agree that this will have all kinds of undesireable knock-on effects. What do we do about it? Well, I’d suggest we need to think differently, at the very least. Conference organizers need to question the assumption that you need sponsorship, that you need parties, that you should pay your speakers’ travel expenses, and so on. Conference attendees need to ask conference organizers what is different about their conference to justify the extra cost compared to an event like Ruby Manor3, and then - if they’re employed - relay this accounting to the people paying for the ticket.

And this is where the conclusion is supposed to go in the blog post.

UPDATE - the first version could be read as saying attending conferences was easier for freelance developers. I meant it’s easier to justify the costs if it’s decided to be worthwhile, and have made some edits to try and make this clearer.

  1. Although, given that this is the first I’ve heard about arrrcamp this year, I have to wonder how they heard about the call for papers. Is there a secret chat channel sharing this information? Might lack of CFP visibility be a problem for speaker panel diversity? 

  2. And let’s be honest, talks given at technical conferences tend to vary wildly in their quality. If the conference organizers want the talks to be the main draw, they should make efforts to improve the quality of talks given - for example, with the kind of coaching that Ruby Manor’s organizers offer their speakers - and advertize that this happens. 

  3. Obviously, I subscribe to Ruby Manor’s manifesto. I’d like to believe that I would do this even if they hadn’t indulged me by letting me speak twice. But you should bear in mind that I’m probably biased on this point. 

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