Event Lessons from RubyConf AU

It’s been several months since RubyConf AU 2015 happened. Melissa, Matt, Sebastian and myself are really proud of what we put together, but a lot of it was built on top of wisdom gathered from so many other conferences and events. So to pay it forward, I want to highlight some of what we did (plus a few things I wish we did) in the hope that other organisers may find it useful for their events!

Extended Team

Due to having some serious financial support from our sponsors, we were able to bring on an event manager to help run the conference, and this was the biggest element that kept us all sane. Unless organising events is your business, and if you’ve got a budget that allows for it, I highly recommend bringing a professional on board: Deb Langley of Eventism took care of so much for us (speaker flights and hotels, venue negotiations, council permits, etc). There were times when she pointed out things we hadn’t considered and others where she provided valued advice, and all of this meant that we could focus on making RubyConf AU special.

Alongside Deb we had Liam Esler and Maxine Sherrin as our amazing and dedicated Volunteer Manager and Stage Manager respectively. Between Deb, Liam and Maxine, all moment-to-moment management of the conference while it was actually happening was taken care of - leaving the four of us organisers to sit back and enjoy things, and only deal with serious problems (and there were so very few of those, thankfully).

Speakers

Again, the blessings of a sizeable budget meant that we could offer to cover flights and accommodation for every speaker (although it was certainly appreciated when their employer could step in instead). We didn’t want cost to be a factor for any speaker not being able to present - Australia is an expensive place to travel to from overseas! - and speakers put in so much of their own energy and time as is, we’d really rather they not have to wear a financial cost as well.

Our MCs were treated like speakers as well - they’re on stage working hard across the entire duration of the conference, and that’s no small thing. And yes, having MCs is a wise move - organisers have enough to look after without worrying about speaker introductions. (It’s a gig I wouldn’t mind doing at some point too!)

One ball we dropped with all this was visas for our American speakers: it turns out they needed to register their visit to Australia. Thankfully, they all could remedy this before they boarded their international flights, and they were very understanding with us not doing the research there.

Workshops

We ran two Call-for-Proposal processes - one for conference speakers, and another for workshop presenters. It was an honour to get so many amazing proposals across both - but I’d recommend being a bit more organised than us and run both CFPs to the same schedule, instead of different timings.

Alongside our workshops, we were lucky enough to have volunteers organise two Rails Girls workshops: the first being the standard introductory event, the second aimed at those who had already done the first event and wanted to learn even more. I’m really happy that we had both - it’s not enough to just provide a single introduction to code and then leave people to it. (The same advice applies to Rails Bridge and other technical outreach/introduction programs.)

Sessions

We changed things from previous RubyConfs in Australia with our schedule, switching to a single track of talks (instead of two), limiting those talks to 20 minutes (instead of 40), and not allowing questions.

While some speakers found this challenging, we found the shorter times helped people stay focused, and a single track providing a better shared experience. One piece of feedback we heard afterwards is that the more heavily technical talks could have been a bit longer - and RubyConf AU 2016 have adjusted their talk lengths accordingly.

We aimed (and mostly succeeded) in having no more than two talks in a row between breaks - we felt it was important to give people the chance to move about and chat, and thankfully we had wonderful weather to enjoy those moments even more.

Safe and Welcoming Space

We of course had a Code of Conduct and an Anti-Harassment Policy, but an additional step we took to make it even easier for anyone to report issues to us, was provide a phone number that people could call or send an SMS to.

This was just a pre-paid SIM we purchased for this sole purpose, put into an old phone of mine that was always with a conference organiser over the course of event. Not only did we list this phone number on our website, but it was also on our badges - convenient and discreet.

We also borrowed and tweaked eurucamp’s accessibility statement, making it clear that we were keen to remove as many barriers as possible for anyone considering attending. Feel free to take theirs or ours and do the same!

One thing we didn’t do, but I wish we did, was find some community regulars to be social hosts. For those who are new to the community, rocking up to a conference with 500 other people can be a daunting experience, and I’d love to have a few people wandering around, keeping an eye out for anyone looking lost or lonely, and say hello. Of course this happens organically, but formalising it wouldn’t hurt. Having a conference buddy system could fill a similar need - something like what RailsConf in the US did this year with their Guides.

Diversity

As part of making RubyConf AU especially welcoming, we worked hard to increase the diversity of the event. Our organising team wasn’t all straight, white men, and nor was our talk selection panel. Half of our invited speakers were women, and a third of all speakers overall. We’re also stoked that many of those women were presenting on technical topics.

Gender is but one aspect of many, though: we chose a varied set of talks, with speakers from different parts of the world and with different levels of experience. There was room for improvement, mind you: I wish our line-up wasn’t quite so white.

As part of our focus on accessibility, we had live captioning of all sessions, which was clearly appreciated. We did investigate providing childcare (which we publicised), but chose not to go ahead given we didn’t have much demand. Next time around, I’d rather just lock it in and make it clear that it’ll be happening from the outset. Kudos to GovHack and Yow who have since done this!

We also worked on getting better representation from disadvantaged communities along to the conference. The 2014 Australian Rails Girls Summer of Code team were given complimentary tickets, and we promoted both the conference and the Rails Girls events to local universities and women-focused technical groups. We also got in touch with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and gave them complimentary tickets to two of their community. A similar effort was made for Indigenous Australians, but sadly we didn’t get any response from the groups we reached out to on this front.

These latter two efforts were done quite quietly - I’m really proud we made that effort, but we didn’t want to seek plaudits. However, I mention them now because they are things that other events should consider as well. I think there is room for improvement in how we go about this, and offer these complimentary/outreach/scholarship tickets in a more open way.

Also: if you know any associations around Melbourne or Australia who would appreciate such offers, I’d love to hear from you - especially if they’re related to Indigenous groups, given we didn’t have success with that this time around.

On a related note: we had a proper Welcome to Country from the local Wurundjuri community organised to begin the conference, but sadly the elder was injured the night before and could not make it. We made do with an Acknowledgement of Country. One of these marks of respect should be standard at every conference in Australia - the larger the event, the more I’d be pushing for a Welcome to Country.

Social Events

Inspired by this blog post from Chris Williams of JSConf, I knew from the outset that our conference would take a different approach to social events instead of just bars and alcohol. Together, we put together a fantastic schedule:

  • Wednesday evening’s Opening Party: yes, at a bar, but with excellent food and not dominated by loud music.
  • Thursday night’s Rooftop Cinema session.
  • Friday night’s group dinners at some excellent restaurants around Melbourne.
  • Saturday’s selection of daytime activities: a bike ride, a walking tour, a hack day, or a visit to the local Australian animal sanctuary (the last being a particular hit for the international visitors).
  • Saturday evening’s Family Picnic in the park with food trucks, deck chairs, bean bags and games, and explicitly no alcohol.
  • Saturday night’s afterparty at the nearby lawn bowling green.
Family Picnic

It was great to remove the focus on alcohol (though certainly people were welcome to drink at many of the events), and also bring in family members for the Saturday activities. Conferences parties at bars are like pizza at tech meetups: lazy, and they’ve been done to death. Time to get creative.

Hopefully all of this is at least food for thought, and perhaps useful to future conference organisers. Feel free to get in touch via Twitter or email if you’ve got questions or feedback.

And don’t forget to grab a ticket to the next RubyConf AU! The speakers and social events look amazing, and I can’t wait to go along and enjoy it as an attendee this time around.

(Photos by Princy James, Sebastian von Conrad, Erik Michaels-Ober, Pete Yandell, and Keith Pitt.)