The title is the first line of Justin Searls’ latest blog post. It also happens to be true of me, albeit by a very thin margin. That is, it’s been two years (I think) since I spoke as the result of a CFP.

By the strict definition of his post–someone who is invited to speak at conferences–I’m a celebrity, at least on the Ruby conference circuit. And it took me several invitations before I worked out what was going on. So yeah, is seems like some greater transparency about conference invitations wouldn’t hurt. Not that conference organizers are deliberately keeping secrets; they are just really busy, and it’s entirely possible they assume that everyone already knows how this game works.

For those who don’t: typically when I get an invitation to speak at a conference, it’s months before the CFP even goes out. As soon as I reply in the affirmative, they rush to get my picture and bio at the top of their website, along with all the other invited speakers. The reason for this is simple, as far as I know. (note: I am not a conference organizer. If you are, feel free to correct me on what follows)

Conferences are hard to pull together. It’s difficult to get sponsors; it’s difficult to fill seats (at least it is outside of big tech hubs); and believe it or not, it can even be hard to get CFP submissions, especially for brand-new conferences. As weird as it still is for me to imagine my face conferring legitimacy on anything, that’s exactly what organizers are after when they invite speakers. They want to be able to show that initial slate of “known quantities” as quickly as possible, in order to raise their profile, woo sponsors, and draw in attendees from a wider area. And most likely to draw more submissions once the CFP is open as well. In a way, those invited speakers ultimately help make the CFP slots possible.

So when you see a bunch of well-known faces at the top of a conference’s landing page, you can usually assume that they are the invited speakers. I agree that it probably wouldn’t hurt to explicitly say this somewhere.

You can also usually assume they are having their travel expenses covered. Why? It boils down to cost/benefit analysis from the speaker’s perspective. People who are “known” are also, almost always, really, really busy. They have a lot of people asking for their time. When a conference asks them to speak, they are, in effect, saying: “Would you please turn down anyone else asking for those 3-6 days, push your other projects back, spend hours or days agonizing your talk, and leave your family so that our conference’s profile can be raised? In return, you’ll get the appreciation of the attendees, and… the notoriety you already enjoy”.

I don’t want to make it sound like attending a conference as an invited speaker is a chore. Without exception, once I’ve finally at the venue chatting with attendees, I’m always thrilled that I said “yes”. But for me, that’s preceded by:

  • Pushing other commitments around
  • A couple of weeks spent working overtime so that I don’t have to worry about the RubyTapas schedule slipping while I’m away, or coming home to an overflowing inbox.
  • Lots of talk angst; even if I’ve more or less done the talk before I always try to make it better and tailor it to the conference.
  • Telling my wife and 5 kids goodbye. This part is easily the worst, and it gets harder every year.

I’m not saying I get nothing in return; hanging out with other programmers is its own reward, and a lot of conferences afford opportunities for some fun extra activities or sightseeing. But the blunt truth is that I don’t need the exposure at this point. And if you add $500-$2000 of travel expenses to the bullet list above, I will almost certainly say “no”. I’d rather put that money into my savings for a house that can actually fit all these kids. The cost-benefit analysis in that case says “stay home”.

Which brings me to another of Justin’s points, about what invited speakers can afford. I think he’s probably right that it’s more likely for invited speakers to be people of means, inasmuch as some invited speakers are C?Os of successful companies. But a lot of them are well-known precisely because they’ve chosen to spend more time on community events than on making money. Especially if you do consulting for a living, the choice to do the conference circuit is a choice to make less money.

That said, I’m very much in favor of conferences helping non-invited speakers with their travel costs. Doing so is good for diversity. I have no idea what the economics of it look like from an organizer’s perspective, but I’m in favor of it. I know I wouldn’t have spoken at nearly as many conferences in my first year of speaking if it weren’t for the generosity of the organizers that I wrote to, asking for help with travel costs or for a place to crash.

I don’t think anything in this post is actually disagreeing with Justin’s post; I just thought I’d try and shed some light from my perspective. I agree that conferences should be up-front with proposal submitters about the breakdown of invited slots to CFP slots. I doubt any conference is deliberately hiding that information. I think they just have other things on their minds, and from their perspective the role that invited speakers play in making a conference happen is old hat.

Published by Avdi Grimm

8 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for writing a response post, Avdi. It won’t surprise you to hear that there’s nothing I disagree with in this post, either!

    To anyone landing here before my post, I want to be clear that I’m only asking for greater transparency about how speakers are selected when the conference suggests that their CFP is a fair competition. That might mean nothing more than publishing in the CFP rules something like: “We project that 14 sessions will be held at the conference, 4 of which will be offered to speakers by direct invitation, and the other 10 will be awarded upon review of this CFP”

    I’m definitely not trying to criticize how conferences pick their lineups or that they invite some speakers—organizers have the right and the responsibility to assemble the very best event they can as they see fit.

    Reply
    • I saw Avdi’s tweet, read your blog post and the Twiter conversation. As I read your blog, it really read–as someone else put it–like “sour grapes,” from beginning to end. And please, receive that as constructive feedback, not just excoriation.

      Selection of anything is never a fair process, regardless how much we’d like to think otherwise. In the end, it boils down to supplying a demand.

      While I understand your perspective, I don’t see anything to be transparent about, thus no added value. Where is the value in acknowledging selection bias? Does this provide a better speaker line-up? Encourage more attendees? More speaker submissions?

      From my perspective, this only serves to direct people’s attention to a “problem to solve” who are, through their own inherent actions, in some way responsible. If people were inclined to “search for the most tolerable imperfections (Richard A. Epstein)” this would be great. Except, the masses rarely aim their wagging finger at themselves.

      In short, I’d argue explicitly acknowledging bias (intentional or otherwise) would have a negative impact.

      Reply
      • My post wasn’t about bias in the selection process, it was about the lack of clarity in the rules of most advertised-as-fair-and-inclusive CFP processes. I would not hold conferences who simply put a form on their website to this standard, only conference who tout the fairness of their process. And even then, I’d only ask that they specify in the call for proposals what number will be awarded by invitation and what number of slots are being competed for by proposal.

        I’m not asking for much, and the benefit is obvious insofar as it treats submitters (who tend to often also be attendees) with respect. If a conference had a lineup of 12 talks, invited 11 speakers, and then announced a fair, blind CFP (for the sole remaining slot), it’d be unfair not to mention that fact (separately, it’d be a waste of time for most people submitting, given the likelihood that they’d be playing long odds).

        Reply
        • I see it as having everything to do with the selection process, clearly identified as unfair. Which is why it may become problematic when one claims it so.

          The last parenthetical, and examples from your blog, lead me to think you are really after a more informed success potential. But then, it’s not really a waste of time. According to your own blog post, more than once you found yourself the only non-invitee.

          But my question is this: How fair is it to the attendees when submitters think in terms of the odds? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for the best submissions.

          Sorry, but I’m not really seeing an issue of fairness here.

          Reply
      • Many conferences are explicitly embracing practices to reduce bias in selection, and I’m really happy that this is happening.

        Reply
        • Embracing better practices is always great. I’m just unconvinced what searls is advocating is one.

          Still, an enlightening and interesting conversation nonetheless.

          Reply
      • The problem is that many conference organizers are particularly closed about this. e.g. sending out messages that “no travel expenses are paid” while at the same time doing so to invited speakers. And not all conferences pay their invited speakers. It’s frustrating to find that out when you speak to other speakers. An it’s not necessary to to sp. There are all ranges: at some Python conferences, speakers even have to pay the consumption part of the ticket. And they have a great program, too!

        Making this explicit only helps, because it also doesn’t hurt. Invitations are one of the tools of an organiser and there is no shame in admitting that. I also think they are overrated and often badly used. I yawn at conferences with always the same names and some random topic from their set of topics they are speaking about this year.

        And yes, I firmly believe that being open about your process provides a better lineup.

        I should mention that I do run two conferences that pay no expenses beyond the hotel room, but for all speakers. If we paid the flights of invited speakers, we would have to raise the ticket prices considerably.

        Reply
  2. Thanks for the post, and thanks to the linked post as well. As a conference organizer who is considering invited speakers for next years’ event it is good to see a speaker’s perspective.

    Reply

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