Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Why You Weren’t Picked For NDC London

Over the past two weeks, a small team of us has been putting together the agenda for NDC London 2018, which is happening at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster this coming January. As somebody who’s submitted a lot of conference talks over the years, I know how exciting it is getting the email confirming that you’ve been accepted — and how demoralizing it can be getting the email saying ‘We’re sorry to say that…’

Well, now that I’ve been on the other side of that process a few times, I see things very differently, so I wanted to take this chance to tell you all how the selection programme actually works, why you didn’t get picked, and why it shouldn’t put you off.

First, though, I want to say a huge thank you to everybody who submitted, and congratulations to the people who have been selected. It’s been a lot of work to pull everything together, but I’m really happy about the programme of amazing people and top-class talks that we’ve got this year — and I’m particularly excited that we’ve been able to include so many great speakers from the developer community who will be speaking at NDC for the first time. Welcome, all of you.

For all the speakers who didn’t get selected this time around, I really hope this article might help you understand why. (TL;DR: we just had too many good talks submitted!)

First, a basic rule of conferences — they have to generate a certain amount of money in order to operate. Yes, there’s community events like DDD that are free to attend and are run with minimal sponsorship — and I think those events are every bit as valuable to our community as the big commercial conferences — but once you start dealing with international speakers and multi-track events running across several days, you need to start thinking about commercial considerations. Conferences generate revenue from two sources — ticket sales and sponsorship. Both of those boil down to creating an event that people want to attend (and, in many cases, can persuade their boss is worth the cost and the time), so that’s what we, as the programme committee, are trying to do.

I should mention that on every conference I’ve worked with, the programme committee has consisted entirely of volunteers — four or five people from within the industry who are happy to donate their free time to help put the programme together. They’ll normally get a complimentary ticket to the conference in return, but it’s not a job, and nobody’s getting paid to do it.

Most software conferences run a public ‘call for submissions’ (aka ‘call for papers’ or CfP) where anybody interested in speaking can submit talks for consideration. Once the CfP has closed, the programme committee has the unenviable task of going through all the talks that have been submitted and picking the ones that they think should be included. NDC London has five tracks of one-hour talks, over three days. Once you’ve allowed for keynotes and lunch breaks, that gives you fewer than 100 talk slots. We had 732 sessions submitted. If we’d said ‘yes’ to all of them, we’d have ended up with a conference lasting three weeks with a ticket price of over £7,500… good luck getting your manager to sign off on attending that one.

So, how do you pick the top 100 talks from 732 submissions? Well, here’s what we look for.

First — quality. This one doesn’t really help much, because the vast majority of the talks submitted to a high-profile event like NDC are excellent, but there might be a handful that you can reject outright. These tend to be the talks that look like sales pitches — single-vendor solutions submitted by somebody who works for the vendor in question. You want to use a conference to sell your product? No problem — get a booth, or buy a sponsorship package. But we’re not going to include your sales pitch at the expense of someone else’s submission.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we get to the final round of submissions, when it’s getting really hard to make a call, we’ll look very critically at the quality of the submission itself. We’ll look for a good title, a clear, concise summary, a succinct speaker biography and a good-quality headshot — basically, a submission that makes it really clear who you are, what you’re talking about, why it’ll be interesting, and that you’re going to put in the effort required to deliver a great presentation. There’s no hard-and-fast rule to this; there are some excellent articles out there about how to write good proposals. My own rule of thumb when I’m submitting is 100 characters for the title, 2,000 for the abstract and 1,000 for the speaker bio, and I often use Ted Neward’s approach of ‘pain and promise’ — ‘here’s a problem you’ve had, here’s an idea that might fix it’ — when I’m writing proposals. Every speaker is different, and we all have our own style, but if your talk summary is only one or two lines or you’ve pasted in your entire professional CV instead of writing a short speaker bio, you may well get rejected in favour of somebody who’s clearly put more time into drafting their submission.

Second — relevance. Conferences have a target audience; NDC has evolved from being primarily a .NET conference into an event with a much broader scope, but we know the kind of developers who normally come to NDC London and what sort of things they’re interested in. For example, this year we decided to decline any C++ talks, purely because there’s very few C++ developers in our target audience. That said, we do try to include things that might be interesting to our audience, even if they’re not immediately relevant. Topics like Kotlin and Elm are still relatively esoteric in terms of numbers of users, but the industry buzz around them means we try to include things like this on the programme because we’re confident that people will want to see them.

Third — diversity. We could very easily have filled the entire programme with well-known white male speakers talking about JavaScript — but we think a good conference should feature diverse speakers, presenting diverse topics, with a range of presentation styles. We’re not just talking about gender and ethnicity, either — we want to see new faces alongside regular speakers, and bleeding-edge technology topics alongside established patterns and practices. That said, we would never accept a substandard talk purely for the sake of diversity; the way to get more balance in the programme without compromising quality is to start with a wider range of submissions. Many conferences suffer from a lack of diversity in the talks that get submitted — it’s just the same people submitting the same topics year after year — so throughout the year people like me go to tech events and conferences, look out for great speakers and talks that haven’t appeared at NDC before, and invite them to submit.

Finally, there’s the invited speakers — the people who we definitely want to see on the programme. They fall into two broad camps. There’s the big names — the people with 100K+ Twitter followers, the published authors, the high-profile open source project leaders. Now, being famous-on-the-internet doesn’t automatically mean you’re a brilliant speaker — speaking for an hour in front of a few hundred people takes a very different set of skills from running an open-source project or writing a book — but we’re lucky in our industry to have a lot of people who are well known, well respected, and really, really good on a conference stage. And these people are important, because their involvement gives us a fantastic signal boost. More interest translates into more ticket sales — which means more budget for covering speaker travel, catering, facilities, the entertainment at the afterparty, and all the other things that make a good conference such a positive experience for the attendees.

The programme committee also invites a lot of new speakers because it’s a great way of getting some new faces and new ideas on to the programme. As I mentioned above, many of us spend a lot of time going to user groups, meetups and conferences, and when I see somebody deliver a really good talk, I’ll invariably get in touch afterwards and ask if they’d be interested in submitting it to an event like NDC.

So, those are our constraints. We want to deliver a balanced mix of big names and new faces. We want to promote diversity in an industry that’s still overwhelmingly white and male (never mind the ongoing fascination with JS frameworks and microservices). We want to offer a compelling combination of established technology and interesting esoterica; of stuff that’s interesting, stuff that’s relevant, and stuff that’s fun…

And we get to pick fewer than 100 talks out of 750 submissions, which means whatever we do, we’re going to be sending a whole lot of emails at the end of it saying ‘Sorry, your talk wasn’t accepted…’ — and that’s not much fun, because we’re turning down good content from good speakers. In many cases those people are good friends as well — the tech industry is a very friendly place and I count the people I’ve met through it among my closest friends. But that’s how it works.

It’s humbling to be part of an industry where so many talented people are willing to invest their time in sharing their own expertise. Speaking at conferences is a really rewarding experience, but it’s also a huge amount of work, preparation, rehearsal, logistics, and time away from home. Without speakers, there’d be no conferences — but, as I hope I’ve explained here, there are more excellent people and talks out there than any one event can ever hope to accommodate.

The thing is, there’s absolutely no shortage of great conferences and events. Don’t be discouraged. Keep submitting. If you didn’t make the cut for NDC London, submit to Oslo and Sydney. And BuildStuff, and DevSum, and Øredev, and FullStack, and Progressive.NET, and DotNext, and Sela Developer Practice, and SDD, and QCon, and WebSummit. And if none of those grab you, sign up for services like The Weekly CFP and Technically Speaking that will email you about conferences that are looking for speakers and submissions.

Finally, you know the one thing that every really good speaker I’ve ever seen has in common? It’s that they work hard on interesting things, and they love what they do. Maybe it’s their job. Maybe they lead an open-source project, or run a user group, or they’re writing a book. But if you love what you do and you want to share that enthusiasm, it’ll happen. Just give it time.

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