How I Pick Speakers for JSConf
One of the main appeals of JSConf for the past two years running is the level and quality of presentations that are displayed by our speakers. Given that we are right in the middle of announcing our speaking roster for JSConf US 2011, I felt it would be a good idea to provide some insight as to how we select speakers and thus how we are able to curate a conference that seems to always be at the forefront of technology, not at the mid point. My hope is that you take this knowledge and apply it in conferences and events that you might curate AND demand better from other conferences. I don’t know about you, but I am quite tired of seeing the same set of speakers presenting the same set of topics over and over and over again. The current process of having “elite” or “must-have” speakers only creates an elitist and “good-ole-boy” community, both of which are complete crap and we should actively try to tear down, not build up or perpetuate.
First I want to start out by describing my intentions for JSConf. I believe any conference at the national or international level has a responsibility to its attendees and its following community at large to present the next generation of things. I believe that conferences are not a platform for repeating what has already been said, but a launchpad for announcing what is new, different, and amazing. When a conference costs more than $500 per attendee, I, as an attendee, demand to see stuff that I cannot see on the internet for free. This is in part why conference attendance is down for most events, but consistently (and crazily) sold out for JSConf and JSConf-like events - its new content that I can’t get elsewhere regardless of the cost. Think about it from a business perspective, would you pay $1200.00 (plus airfare and hotel) for your employees to go and see presentations that clearly blip.tv, vimeo, or youtube has for free? On top of that, most people attend these events for the “hallconf”, which is little more than job interviews by sponsors who are trying to pick up the talent, your talent that you just paid $1200 to $2000 to send. Of course you wouldn’t, but you would probably pay twice as much for your employees to WANT to be in the presentations BECAUSE it will make them ahead of the curve, thus not being “picked up” and even better coming back jazzed that they work at a company that is at the forefront of the world. That, that feeling, is what we target for JSConf.
This is one of the biggest driving forces for how I structured JSConf and specifically speaker selection. I have been both a company owner and an employee so I have seen both sides of the coin. When we pick speakers for each JSConf event, I am evaluating each one almost with a strong multiple personality disorder, where I am viewing it as:
- a business owner in that would I send my people in order to get a competitive advantage by having my employees at the lead of technology.
- an attendee and would I feel that I have to see this, like if I miss this talk would my life be over.
- a sponsor from the perspective of will this bring out the best people, and thus make it the event to sponsor and more important, the event that we have to be a part of.
As you can see, the target for each one is creating something that is “have to see” and most importantly “can’t find elsewhere”. This means breaking the general expectation or model of how speakers are selected. Most conferences do selections based on sure-wins or safe bets, they pick presentations that they can see beforehand in order to ensure that it and the conference is good. Note, I said good - not great. Most conferences also pick speakers that they know personally and are friends with and perpetuates the previously described elitist society. Both of these suck and make for a par but rapid approaching sub-par speaker roster. Why do they suck, if you look at it the previously described contexts, you can clearly see that talks selected like this are clearly missing the mark.
It is easy to pick a part others, but it is harder and better to provide answers. So here you go. To select JSConf speakers, I first make a list of all titles, descriptions and UUIDs, but specifically excluding names and contact information. I go through each of these proposals and categorize them into one of a handful of pre-determined groups. For JSConf I use the following:
- Mobile - anything relating to small device (phone/tablet) development, design, testing, etc. If it moves, it goes in here.
- Nerdcore - anything that is complete and total mindsex in terms of philosophy, theory, coding practice, etc.
- WTF - anything that is complete insanity and most likely vaporware OR bullshit or some combination there of.
- Infrastructure - all things related to infrasctructure elements (networking, SCM, tools, etc).
- Data - all things related to data transport, storage, and querying.
- UX/UI - all items related to the visual side of life.
- Other - every year there is something insane that is not categorizable above.
Once all of the talks are categorized, I evaluate each group and rank them based on the merit of their title and description. I do this for many reasons. First, the topic needs to be compelling enough to steal my heart and mind if it isn’t no “celebrity power” will help that. I don’t care who the speaker is. Second, by doing it via groups and ranked within the group, I ensure balanced content at the conference because I am pulling the same number from each group and the top of each group. Finally, and this is my most important point, I AM SELECTING FAIRLY. I am not picking talks because they are friends or because I have to hit a minimum quota of gender or race, or any other hairbrained reason. I am picking talks solely and completely on their merit and importance OF THEIR TALK. The reason I am harping on this point is that many people believe that the way to increase gender and racial diversity at a conference is to tokenize the speakers. To have a token female speaker just to say “we have a female speaker”. Worse I see people blackmailing conferences about this point BEFORE A SINGLE SPEAKER IS ANNOUNCED. Hell, it happened to JSConf (US 2010). That is not gender and racial equality - it is bullshit. TALKS SHOULD BE SELECTED BASED ON THE TOPIC NOT THE SPEAKER. PERIOD. Increasing gender and racial diversity needs to start by increasing the number of speaking proposals coming from those groups, not by selection committees force-adding them. This is a very strong stand on a very touchy subject, but it has to be made and I will not budge on it. I have been very happy to see more and more gender and racially diverse submissions in JSConf and that shows up through our resulting selection.
Once talks are categorized and ranked, I look at the names of the speakers. If they have spoken on the same or similar topic at any other conference they are docked half a point. If they have been making the rounds of pimping their topic (podcasts, interviews, etc) they are docked half a point. If they are friends or colleagues of mine, they are docked half a point. If they are a “celebrity” they are docked half a point. As you can see from this ranking, it actually hurts you to be closer to JSConf if you want to speak. Doesn’t mean its impossible, but makes it very hard. Brian Leroux is one of the greatest people I have had the pleasure of meeting through JSConf, he is also one of the most unfortunate. I invited him to speak at the first JSConf based off these exact same metrics. His talk was absolutely epic, it was the perfect balance of professional unprofessionalism. He went on to present at almost every conference there after even to this day his line up of conferences rivals that of Doug Crockford. At JSConf 2009, he and phonegap were known to a small set of people and his presentation was killer because of that fact. The unfortunate side is that because his talk was so awesome, it became a hinderance from having him speak again. Honestly I would love to have Brian present, he is the right type of crazy for JSConf, but for reasons listed above, it is very hard to do so. Hopefully Brian doesn’t hate me too much for this, but I think he understands because (luckily for the conference) he keeps coming back each year.
The Downside of Being a JSConf Speaker
Once the rankings are settled, I take the top two from each category for my first round of selection. Nearly all first round options say yes, and we have our speakers for that year. Well almost complete. I always challenge myself to find one insane talk. Something that has no right being presented at JSConf, but yet for that reason becomes the most critical to have. I call this “my talk” because I get to pick it with wild abandonment. Last year, this was Aaron Quint’s amazing bacon talk, which resulted in one of the best talks I have ever seen, anywhere. It set the tone for JSConf and gave people a lot to think about on many topics. To this day, when I pitch sponsorships, I lead with the bacon talk. I say this is the kind of talks we have at JSConf and this is why you must be part of this event. Most organizers wouldn’t do that, arguably it is suicide to have a talk like this at a “professional” conference. However, that is what brings people back year over year and also what causes the energy of JSConf to continually expand and accelerate.
There you have it, that is how I pick the speakers for JSConf, that is how we make it “OMGzAWESOME” each year. It is also why when speakers are announced a lot of the “established leaders” look at the list and scratch their heads. It really doesn’t and wouldn’t make sense, not before the talks. After the conference though it is very obvious especially as time goes on and the excitement and energy of the talk and how it “changed my life/view/world” spreads. I would ask that we stop blackmailing conferences into diversity and instead do our best to solve the problem where the problem lies. Hint, organizers aren’t saying “oh crap that’s a woman I can’t have her speak” when they review proposals and to even think like that, let alone tweet about it, that is just insane. If you want a more diverse speaking population, encourage what you want to see speak to put in proposals. It is that easy. Most people don’t even know they can, worse most people don’t even know that they should. You look at how we pick speakers and it is unfair for established speakers at the benefit of new speakers, perfect for making a more diverse speaking population. Finally, I would love to see others use this technique for speaker selection - we need crazier speakers but more importantly we need conferences that are showing us the future, not the past.
A quick note about first time conferences, this article isn’t targeted to them. I actually encourage you in the first year to invite a “name” in order to essentially bootstrap your event with their “social capital”. We did it for JSConf (in full disclosure). This article is more targeted for established second, third, fourth year conferences.