How to Run a Great Conference

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How do you run a great conference?

I spent the first three days of this week, Monday March 4th through Wednesday March 6th, attending and speaking at QCon London. In my case, I spoke about LinuxKit, a toolkit for composing lightweight, minimal and optimized runnable operating system images.

Those who know my focus on technology operations might wonder why I gave a talk on so deeply a technical subject as composing operating system images. There are three answers:

  1. I still love technology, its complexities, challenges and solutions.
  2. I find it critical to understand technology to depth in order to be able to have a real impact on operations, and thus avoid the “handwavy fluffy magic pixie dust” solutions offered by many vendors and large consulting firms.
  3. Some technologies have a real impact on operations, which I find worthy of my investment of time; LinuxKit is one of them.

Besides, the people involved in the project are great.

What about the conference itself?

Arguably, QCon is one of the best run conferences I have attended. It isn’t just the smooth administration, although that played an important part. Rooms were ready and prepared; audio-visual worked; sessions started on time and ended on time. They had people at the back of the room - where attendees couldn’t easily see them but presenters could - who had very large signs. The first was a yellow yield sign saying, “5 minutes”, while the second was a big red stop sign. This wasn’t just for sessions, but keynotes as well.

Scheduling was important. There were 25 minutes between each session. This not only provides sufficient time to have a few post-presentation follow-up questions and use the facilities, get a hot drink and make it to the next session, even for the next presenter, but enabled - nay, encouraged networking throughout the day. Most conferences have “mixer” times, usually at the end of the day. Not everyone can stay the whole day; many are tired; people have to fill booths.

Small touches made a big difference. The name badges were much shorter, hanging comfortably on the mid-chest rather than the stomach. I far prefer not having people try to decide how in-shape I am while getting my name (nor do I enjoy doing it to others). However, because you sometimes need to extend the badge, it sits at the end of two extenders, one on each side, to make it easy to pull when needed.

Even better, first names were printed in LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS. This made it very easy to see someone’s name without really looking down at all. One of the surprising effects was that speakers were able to see the names of the first 5-6 rows of the audience. I never have had that experience as a presenter before, Even when I didn’t use the name of someone in the audience, as part of my own involving the audience or responding to a question, just seeing their name created a better connection and thus a warmer and more comfortable presentation. This was quite the pleasant surprise for me, both as a speaker and as an audience member.

At the end of each session, staff stood at the exit to the room with their own three-part badges: green, yellow, red. Each attendee put their RFID-enabled badge over the staff’s, voting if the presentation was right-on; needed some work; or just failed. They further encouraged feedback on that vote on the Website.

However, in many ways, the most important part was not all of the above, as good as it was. The best part was the quality of the presentations. It came down to three key things they do:

  • Each day is divided into six tracks, each track has a chair, and each speaker is selected, or curated, by the track chair.
  • There are no sponsored presentations or keynotes. There was one sponsored track, but they were very explicit about it.
  • Finally, QCon invest in speakers.

They really invest. There are optional Webinars, an interview, and even a rehearsal session with an experienced QCon speaker or the chair (Wes) himself. They believe great speakers are made, not necessarily born, and they probably are right. I have given quite a few presentations in my career, from internal to companies to large family affairs with hundreds of people, to conferences, both technology and business, but I would have been a fool not to take advantage of the opportunities to improve. Due to travel, I had to do it at 8:00pm after 12 hours on a plane, but Wes stepped up and did it without a second’s hesitation… and it was worth every moment.

I wish I could say everyone took advantage of these opportunities, but clearly some did and some did not. QCon cannot force them to without cutting out valuable speakers, but I wish it could.

Jessie Frazelle, who also spoke on the “Modern Operating Systems” track, summed it up nicely:

QCon is not cheap, at something in the range of $1,500-2,000 USD for three days, yet ~1,600 people paid to attend. Quality shows.

Thank you, QCon, for inviting me to speak and attend. I look forward to joining again.