AR2007 Thoughts – The Bad

This was originally posted on the Voices of CAA Blog, which got fatally dismembered in a CMS upgrade.

In my last post, AR2007 Thoughts - The Good, I discussed the things I liked about the conference. Now I’ll reveal my cranky side. “Reveal” probably isn’t the right word though, since it’s not exactly hidden.

The Bad

The bad part of the conference was basically the “official” stuff. The conference could be better organized in a number of ways. Logistically, it needs some serious help, and the presentation sessions were mostly unsatisfying.

I’m going to continually contrast this to the many programming conferences I’ve attended, which have excellent coordination and logistics. The majority of the programming conferences I’ve attended are organized entirely by volunteers, so my standards are not unreasonably high. I’ll also point out that at AR2007 I mostly attended the more practically focused (in theory) “how-to” type sessions.

To be blunt, most of the speakers weren’t very good. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to blast individuals, but there were some recurring problems. The most common problem was with content. Many speakers lacked a focus, and basically rambled on about personal experiences, without connecting that experience back to any sort of practical knowledge that listeners could use. They spoke about the “what” without the “how”. This is obviously a problem for a “how-to”! I think this problem was probably exacerbated by the weird way speakers are selected and scheduled, which I’ll talk about later.

And how about some visual aids, folks? Most speakers had no slides (aka PowerPoint) and no handouts. I hate handouts, since they’re a waste of paper, but they’re better than nothing. To those who did have slides, please do not read the slides to the audience! This is almost worse than no slides at all. (If you saw me in your talk and for some reason you want to hear my specific take on your presentation, you can email me. I’m full of opinions ;).

I will pick on one person by name, however, and that’s Alex Hershaft. Alex is the founder of FARM, which hosts the conference, and I think he’s in charge of scheduling. Alex scheduled himself to participate in a whopping thirteen sessions out of about eighty-something in total (a little more than an eighth). Holy egomania, Batman! I’m excluding the opening and closing remarks from my count, since that’s where you’d typically expect to find the conference organizer(s) speaking.

Alex has worked in animal rights for over thirty years, which is really cool, and I’m sure he’s learned many things. But don’t we have other people who know about these topics? Shouldn’t we be trying to cultivate speaking and presentation skills? Given that scheduling was so tight that most people were given 10 minute speaking slots, couldn’t he have given those slots to others?

I think I’m a pretty good speaker, and I know about lots of things, but when CAA does a conference I promise not to schedule myself in an eighth of the sessions!

Let’s get to the scheduling and speaker selection problems. First of all, there’s no call for speakers on the conference website. I don’t think FARM’s intention is to exclude newcomers, but it sure gives the impression that there’s an “in group” and “the rest of us”.

I submitted two talk proposals with titles and outlines. Both of these talks were on technical topics (wikis, email, online donations, etc). I picked these topics because that’s where my expertise lies, being a programmer by profession and geek by choice.

The first thing I heard back was that I had been accepted to speak, but there was no indication of which talks had been accepted. Then, about a month before the conference, I got an email telling me I was assigned to two sessions, “Publishing on the Internet” and “Running a Local Group”. Why was I assigned to “Running a Local Group”? I have no idea. Gil Schwartz, CAA’s Volunteer Coordinator, submitted a talk on this same topic and was rejected, even though this is his area of expertise. I found the whole experience disrespectful and discouraging, as if speakers were merely interchangeable cogs in the conference machine.

By contrast, for a technical conference, I submit a talk with a title and description, and it’s accepted as-is, or not accepted at all. On occasion, the organizers may ask me to tweak the content to avoid overlap with other speakers, or to choose a clearer title, but this is not done without discussing it with me. I also get more than a month’s notice, giving me ample time to prepare and do my best.

At the AR conference, the session titles are extremely generic, like “Publishing on the Internet”. Speakers are not identified individually by talk, they don’t get to “advertise” their talks with their chosen titles, and they may not even be assigned to their choice of topic! To make it worse, they’re assigned with a group of other people they don’t know and left to coordinate specific topics, times, and speaking order by themselves.

This discourages a sense of ownership, and I think it contributed to the poor quality of many presentations. When people are given both power and responsibility together, they will rise to the occassion and give it their best effort. When you take this away, it’s easy to be discouraged.

This sort of scheduling also doesn’t serve attendees very well. They don’t know what individual speakers will talk about, they can’t easily hop between sessions, and they can’t “follow” their favorite speakers with any granularity. By contrast, check out the schedule from YAPC::NA 2007, the last tech conference I attended.

At YAPC, the schedule details every single talk for every single speaker. It’s easy to leave a session early if you’re bored. Take a look at Tuesday starting at 10:30 AM. If you attend the session in the Houston Room and don’t like it, you know that there will be a number of other sessions beginning at 10:55.

The ridiculously small amount of time allocated to most speakers at AR2007 is also problematic. Ten to twelve minutes isn’t enough to do more than scratch the surface of most topics. At tech conferences, a short session is twenty minutes, and longer ones may be fifty minutes or two hours.

The conference quality would be better with fewer speakers who spoke longer. Sure, there’d still be bad presentations, but the good ones would go longer, and with a post-conference survey, the organizers could make sure to get the good speakers back next year.

Another irritation was the how hard it was to self-organize informal sessions. People planning to attend the conference had no mechanism to connect with each other before or during the conference, other than word-of-mouth. At tech conferences, we always have a wiki and a mailing list for the conference. People use them to plan get-togethers for early arrivals, birds of a feather sessions (BOFs) during the conference, dinner outings, game playing (Go, anyone?), and so on.

We also make sure to leave plenty of space for self-organized sessions at tech conferences. The presentation part of the day ends around 4:30 or 5:00. There may be a social event in the evening (bowling, dinner, etc), but we always leave a few hours of down time before that, and we make it easy to schedule BOFs, social events, and outings.

I would’ve loved to have met up with VegGuide.Org users and shown them the alpha version of VegGuide 3.0, talked about what they like and dislike about the guide, and just meet people. I think there was some sort of mechanism for doing this through the conference organizers, but that’s yet another barrier to entry. I shouldn’t have to ask anyone, particularly the people who are going to be the busiest at the conference! To make this even harder, there were sessions scheduled every evening from 7:15 to 9:30, which meant that the only free times for self-organizing were over lunch, or after 9:30, when we were all exhausted and just wanted to chill.

Given that the best part of every conference is always hanging out with people, it’s really important to make this as easy as possible. No matter how good the sessions are, the hallway track is more fun, and a good conference puts a lot of effort into facilitating spontaneous organization.

Anyway, that’s enough complaining. There was a good side to the conference as well, and I would still go back, mostly to meet people. I also just enjoyed being around a lot of people enthused about animal rights activism. Ultimately the conference was energizing for me, reminding me how important this movement is, and how far we have to go.