Great ideas

Here are some great ideas to add to your next conference from

Good Presentations

Good conferences need good organization and even better speakers. Garr Reynolds has some good advice and a book list to give to your speakers.

Blogging conferences

Here are some tips from experienced conference-goer and blogger Ethan Zuckerman.

Software to help you organize conferences

Many conferences are still organized with some spreadsheets, some hacked web forms and maybe a wiki. There are not many programs out there to help you with all the things a conference organizer needs. Here is a short list of some software I came across, although I haven’t used any of them myself:


Recently I was invited to the O’Reilly Euro Foo Camp in Bruxelles, Belgium. Tim O’Reilly invented those Foo (Friends of O’Reilly) Camps a few years ago. He invites interesting people to talk among them about their projects, ideas, etc. There is no real structure to the event, not much is pre-planned, the event doesn’t follow conventional conference structures, but is free-form and spontaneous. Recently this idea has caught on and there are many “Bar Camps” or other un-conferences, as this form has been dubbed.

I had never been to such an un-conference before and didn’t really know what to expect. After an introductory meeting we split up in smaller groups. There were five or six rooms available, the time was devided into one-hour slots. There were large boards where everyone could write in the session(s) he wanted to lead subject to availability of a room and timslot. The boards quickly filled and everybody moved off in their respective rooms. There was ample coffee and lunch break time also, but most of the day was spent in the many sessions.

The sessions were very different. Some more technical oriented, some more social or just entertaining. Anything was allowed. And there was the constant problem of where to go. Do you go to those events that you already have some interest in or do you go to something else to learn something new? Do you go to the more practical sounding things or the more visionary sounding ones? As it was very hard to tell from many of the session titles on the board what the session was really about it was more of a gamble. But that makes sense because a session is mostly not this preplanned thing but a free flow of ideas and you could shape it yourself in the way you might want to.

In the beginning I had the problem that I was seeing them as normal “corporate-type” meetings where you should have a proper agenda and everybody leaves the meeting with a clear idea on what the next steps for the project are. But these sessions were nothing like that. In many cases much time was spent getting everybody up to speed on the subject before a real discussion could start. And once you got going the time was up and everybody moved on. This was a bit frustrating at the beginning. But after a while I got into the flow of things and saw it more like semi-organized serendipity. You never knew what to expect, but if you just go with whatever happens you get a lot out of it. There were many faszinating ideas, new points of views on old things and thought-provoking discussions. It is hard to single out specific items, because after a while it all became a blur of one new thing after another, one thing moving to the next and then a jump to a completely different topic for the next session. A lot of fun but also quite strenuous.

The most important thing though were the people. So many interesting people. And this is what I think makes the event a success. You need lots of genuinely interesting and smart people to make this work. Without them its just a bunch of sessions on topics which might or might not be interesting. But every subject in the world is interesting if somebody passionate and smart talks about it. And even those for which the subject is new are intelligent enough to quickly grasp it and make intelligent remarks coming from their own background. And that is when you get a fast-paced and interesting discussion.

4th German Anti Spam Summit

I have been very busy in the last weeks with my “other job” as a consultant for email systems and anti spam systems design etc. And in that function I was at the 4th German Anti Spam Summit yesterday. And I want to write about it a little bit.

The one-day one-track conference had about 150 attendees, smaller than in the last years, with a smaller exhibition area also. While smaller in many cases translates to less interesting it can also mean more comfortable in a way. You could actually stand around and chat without people jostling you around or having so many booths and talks to go to and so many people you want to talk to that you are totally overwhelmed. So I think the atmosphere was good and I enjoyed myself. I spent most of my time talking to people though and didn’t go to many of the talks. From the program and what I heard from other attendees it was a bit heavy on the sponsored talk side and a bit light on the independant advice sort of talk.

One complaint that I heard (which I hear at almost any event) was that the talks were not right for his or her taste. But this is the eternal problem with a conference that attracts different kinds of audience at the same time. There were many technical people but also marketing and management people. Hard to bring them together into one event and get something for everybody. On the other hand I find the mix to be very interesting and stimulating. Less so in the talks but more because of the people you meet over a coffee. Not only beeing around your own type of people means a chance to open your horizon. But if you came to the conference only to meet your peers you might miss that that opportunity. I try to come to any event with the open mindset of “lets see what is going to happen” and less with the mindset of “I want to learn x, y, and z at this event”. So while some people would have liked a stronger focus I was mostly happy with the mix. And many people come back every year, so others probably feel the same.
The event was free of charge, but there was a registration required. But, contrary to all other conferences I have been to, you had to pay cash on the spot for coffee, other beverages, and food. I understand that this makes it easier and cheaper for the organizers, but there are good reasons not to do this. It means you have to get your money out several times a day, standing in line to wait for a waitress to take your money, etc. And then they couldn’t give the right change and the people from overseas might not have the right kind of money. And you have to think whether it is worth to spend two euros for a coffee or nearly six for a tiny bowl of soup at lunch. It is just very distracting to not be able to just grab a bottle of water when you are talking to somebody but to actually turn away, buy a bottle and come back. Also at lunch time many people left the building and went to get cheaper food somewhere else. I am sure this not only messed up the calculations of the caterer, it also means many people you might have wanted to talk to weren’t at the conference for an hour or so. Meeting people is one of the most important aspects of any conference and any minute this can be done is precious. I suspect most people who went outside for lunch went in a group with those they knew (and maybe see every day) anyway. Had they stayed at the conference location they could have used this time more productively by talking to new people. So I think it would be better to to charge an entrance fee and then have the food and coffee included in the price. Moneywise it wouldn’t make a huge difference because the average amount of money people spend on the food would look like peanuts if it was a conference fee.

Darker side of speaking

Kevin Shockey shares some thoughts on speaking at OSCON. Well worth reading for anybody who plans to speak at a conference. Especially the observation that many speakers only finish their talk at the last minute seems very true. I have the same problem. And I can also recommend Damian Conways “Presentation Aikido” tutorial which I attended at last years EuroOSCON.

Switch to WordPress

Today I switched this blog over to WordPress. I wasn’t happy with Typo and hope the more mature WordPress will work better for me. I imported all the content. The blog post permalinks haven’t changed, but some other URLs have, including the feed URLs. I put in some redirects, but if you read this through a news aggregator, you should update the feed URLs.

Guidebook as conference introduction

At the RailsConf 2006 there was an event called Guidebook, a one day introduction into ruby and rails as a help for those who are totally new to the subject. The price for admission was a charitable contribution.

Maybe this could be a model for other events, but it is very similar to the tutorials which are offered at many conferences. And they bring in the money. So I don’t expect many events to do this “guidebook” introductory day for free. But even if you have to pay for this, it is an interesting concept.

Via Dave Thomas’ Blog.

No alternative

Many presentations at conferences aren’t all that compelling. It would have worked equally well to read something about the subject in a book or on the web. But for some subjects there is no alternative to a video or even life presentation.

Webstock LogoI recently stumbled over a recording of the talk Web Accessibility - a users perspective by Darren Fittler at the Webstock conference. Darren works as a lawyer and website accessibility consultant and he is blind. In this fascinating presentation the audience can see and hear what it is like to surf the web with a screen reader and how important good website design is to help visually impaired people. There are audio and video recordings in several formats available, see for yourself.

I have read through web accessibility guidelines before and tried to make my web pages not suck totally in that regard, but actually seeing how websites are browsed by blind people gives me a whole new perspective.