Are Ruby conferences taking us in the wrong direction?

I just got back from Baruco. I had a wonderful time, made new friends and caught up with some old ones. but I was still left with a concern. That’s what this post is about.

The whole event felt very professional and well-run. Many of the speakers were people who I recognised or knew from the Ruby community, and I was excited to see what they had to say. The talks varied from heavily technical to very non-technical, and each speaker was well-prepared and delivered their talk in an engaging way. We also had a first-rate MC in the guise of Dr. Nic Williams. The promotional video was brilliant, and the space theme ran on into the conference, with a really theatrical beginning to the conference: the sounds of a rocket-launch, dry ice and Dr. Nic coming on-stage in a full space suit.

As a speaker, I was treated incredibly well. The Codegram staff were just lovely, and checked with me several times a day whether I was OK, if I needed anything. We had our own private room where we could go to chill out away from the crowds. I had free drinks all night long at the parties.

So what am I complaining about?

Well, let me get this straight first. I’m not complaining about Baruco itself. I can’t imagine a nicer bunch of people than the Codegram team, doing a better job of a conference in this single-track, speaker-to-audience format. It’s the format that leaves me uncomfortable.

This format, where big names deliver polished talks to a large audience, seems to be incredibly popular in the Ruby community, yet means that most of the people who attend hardly participate at all. Yes, there are Q&A after the talks and yes, there is usually a slot for lightning talks, but it’s often put towards the bottom of the bill, or sidelined into an evening slot. Mostly, you just turn up and consume ideas from the people on the stage.

This, to me, defeats the primary purpose of a conference. If we just turn up and listen, when do we get a chance to think for ourselves? How do we make new friends when we’re spending so much time in a darkened theatre?

I think that a straight speaker-audience format conference promotes a hero or rock-star culture within the Ruby community, and I think that rock-star culture is poisonous.

I’d like to see our Ruby conferences be much more level playing fields, where we really feel like a community coming together.

Some specific things I’d like to see a lot more of from our conference organisers:

Mix up the session format

Instead of just talks, let’s have a mix of talks and hands-on sessions. Hands-on sessions give you a chance to experience a new idea instead of just hearing about it. Plus you get to make friends with the people sitting next to you by doing something you both have in common: playing with Ruby.

Make more space for unplanned sessions

I’ve been to lots of open-spaces (sometimes called unconferences) and even run a couple myself. What I think is so wonderful about this format is that you can come up with conference content during the conference so if you’re inspired to hack on or discuss something, you can find some like minds to join up with.

I think you need planned, scheduled talks to give a conference some structure and to inspire people, but when the only outlet for spontaneity is lightning talks or hallway cliques, it limits the life of the conference. Don’t make open-space an afterthought: give it equal prominence with the planned parts of the schedule.

Design for fun and new friendships

Free booze is one way to help people make new friends, but there are others.

Mealtimes are a good time for conversation, so having sit-down meals planned into the conference is great. Interactive workshops and hands-on sessions, as I’ve mentioned, give people more chance to get to know each other. I’ve also been to conferences where they deliberately matched up new attendees with old timers, so that the newbies had a friend from day one. I notice that GoRuCo does this, so kudos to them.

You’ll notice I haven’t included anything in this list about the selection process. I think enough has been said about that already, particularly by the good people of Ruby Manor, Nordic Ruby and Jez Humble of FlowCon. I’m making a wider point about the format, and the spirit of the conference scene.

Let’s stop promoting heroes within our community and make our conferences be more egalitarian, more exploratory, more fun.

Published by Matt

I write software, and love learning how to do it even better.

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