Scheduling Talks for a Conference

I've been a co-founder of two successful and profitable conferences, RubyNation and DevIgnition, now heading into their 5th an 2nd years respectively. In this time, I've learned a more than a little bit about running conferences. In this article, I'm going to pull aside the veil and reveal some organizer secrets for scheduling talks at conferences.

Conference speaker schedules are all about balance. According to Jim Freeze, the chief organizer of the highly successful Lone Star Ruby Conference, "There's enough technical content at a typical conference to make people's eyes glaze over. You've got to balance that with entertainment."

Frankly, even the most hardcore techies can only take so many in-depth technical dives into the internals of the Ruby interpreter before they reach saturation point. Even more importantly, you'll have a mix of attendees, of different technicals levels and with differing interests. A conference schedule has to provide all of the attendees with a variety of choices.

Starting with RubyNation 2010, we expanded to a grand total of 29 speaking slots (28 scheduled speakers plus a slot for Lightning Talks). This covered a two-day period with two tracks of talks, except for keynotes which were single-track. We were able to offer attendees lots of choices.

As organizers, we make a deliberate effort to balance technical content with entertainment. Deep-dive technical talks need to be spread out to avoid attendee overload, often preceded or followed by more entertaining talks, i.e. - typically a more general topic presented by a polished performer. As an example, at RubyNation 2010 an 2011, Jeff Casimir, who runs his own technical education business, functioned admirably in this role.

We've tried to provide a venue where attendees can see some of the community's top Rubyists, but also where some of the local and/or lesser-known Rubyists can have a chance to shine. While we hand-pick some speakers, we also pick a lot of speakers through our Call for Papers.

There are also some topics you just have to cover, e.g. - a Ruby conference has to have at least one talk about software testing (it's like an unwritten rule).

With 29 slots, and a dual-track format, we also feel that we can venture into territories that might be a little off the beaten path for other Ruby conferences. Primarily, this is because we feel there are tangential topics to Ruby that might reasonably be of interest to attendees, such as agile development techniques, tools like JQuery, new technologies like NoSQL databases, etc.

As Neil Ford once said, we are not just Ruby developers, we are polyglot developers. The typical Ruby developer has to be conversant in a number of technologies in order to be truly effective.

Two recent examples of talks that were well off the beaten path are Jeff Casimir's 2010 talk "How to Teach Anything to Anybody, Even Your Dev Team," and my own 2011 talk, "Creating Killer Business Models." The first was a talk on educational principles and the second was a big-picture business talk. Both were extremely well received.

Additionally, we deliberately try to combat a trend where many Ruby conferences have a significant number of overlapping speakers. It's hard to be uniquely valuable when you share most of the same speakers as another conference, and most of them are giving the same talks.

We've even gone as far as arranging tracks of related talks. RubyNation 2010 had three consecutive talks on NOSQL databases. RubyNation 2011 had a track of JavaScript-related talks.

How did this all pay off for us? RubyNation 2010 was our most highly-rated conference ever...until RubyNation 2011 came along and was even higher-rated. Our strategies have grown RubyNation from a 135 attendees in 2008 to 216 attendees in 2011.


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