Over the last four years or so, I have attended numerous conferences in
many different locations. It has been, really without any exceptions, an
incredible experience. Conferences are one of the main ways that our communities
come together and meet face-to-face—something that's important to
counterbalance the standard email and IRC development environment.
time, I have
also seen many different ways to organize, schedule, and produce those
conferences, and, as is the case with free software projects, there are
bits and pieces that conferences can learn from each other. What follows
is my—fairly opinionated obviously—distillation of what works
well and less well, which will hopefully be useful as new conferences
spring up, or as existing ones plan for next year.
Location location location
Conferences are generally located in interesting cities throughout the
world. This is a good thing as it means that folks get a chance to see
different cities and countries. Moving the conferences around every year
distance will become less of a factor as the conference will be "nearby"
every once in a while. Because of that, those on a limited budget still
have a chance to
attend. Smaller, regional conferences may not move around very much (or at
all), but their focus is typically more on gathering people from the
than trying to attract a large presence from elsewhere.
Regardless of which city the conference is held in, it is very important
that it be held in a "downtown" location, close to restaurants, bars, and
sightseeing. One of the more important parts of any conference is the
so-called "hallway track", where informal gatherings of attendees take
place. Nearby bars and restaurants are an integral part of the hallway
track. In a well-situated conference setting, it is not unusual to stumble
into several different discussions during the conference, when eating
dinner or visiting a
pub. Requiring taxis, public transportation, or rental cars to access food
choices is definitely sub-optimal, especially for lunch breaks.
Being in a downtown location also likely increases the options for hotels
or other accommodations. While the rates at the conference hotel are
generally pretty reasonable from the standpoint of other, similar hotels,
they certainly aren't cheap. Folks that have a limited budget will
appreciate having other options that are still within easy walking (or public
transport) distance of the conference site.
Putting together a map with the conference venue, the various accommodation
options, restaurants, pubs, clubs, and so on, is extremely useful. Adding
information about how to use any public transport systems, directions on
getting to and from the airport or train stations, as well as a bit of
sightseeing information is invaluable as well.
The conference lineup is getting larger each year it seems, which makes it
difficult to avoid date conflicts. It's obviously beneficial to do so, but
may ultimately be hard to pull off. Even when they don't overlap, it's not
uncommon for two conferences, in different places, to bump right up against
each other, or only be a few days apart. That will make it difficult or
impossible for folks to attend both—making it important to at least
try to avoid conflicts between conferences with closely related topics or
themes. A recent movement to collect up multiple conferences and run them
back-to-back (or even concurrently) in a single location certainly has its
advantages, but it also leads to attendees being away from home for up to
two weeks—and possibly falling prey to conference burnout
part way through. Obviously, there are various pros and cons here.
Something that is more easily controlled by the conference organizers is
the actual schedule of talks. There are tradeoffs there as well, of
course, but it is important to find the right balance between time for
presentations, time for hallway chats, and time to move between various
parts of the venue. If there are long distances between the farthest
meeting rooms, it may make sense to have larger breaks between sessions.
It is frustrating for attendees to be sitting in on a good talk, perhaps
one that is running a little bit late, and having to watch the clock so that there
is enough time to get to another session all the way across the venue.
Worse yet, arriving on-time sometimes means the room is already full.
Timing is tricky too, though, because a staggered schedule (with, say,
50-minute slots and 20 minutes in between) makes it harder for attendees to
keep track of when the next session starts. On the other hand, starting
each session on the hour (or half-hour) may lead to shortened slots or very
short room switching times. One possible solution is to have longer and
shorter slots that are alternated in some clear pattern—it is
sometimes the case that a speaker doesn't really have enough material for a
full slot anyway. For hallway track
purposes, 30-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, as well as a
90-minute lunch break, should be strongly considered. All of that is
pretty difficult to balance and still get in plenty of talks—at least
in a one or two-day conference—but fewer,
higher-quality talks with lots of discussion and social time makes for a
better conference in my experience.
While meeting up with friends and colleagues, and visiting an interesting
are certainly part of the draw for a conference, it is the presentations
that provide much of the impetus for attending. Make no mistake, there
some excellent talks with great presenters at all of the conferences I have
attended. Keynote talks are another story unfortunately. Some conferences
choose keynote speakers based on their merits, but some of the bigger
conferences give keynote slots to sponsors, which can be something of a
There is nothing inherently wrong with providing keynote slots to sponsors,
but those talks often end up being extended advertisements for the
company and its products. There are exceptions, and even some of the
ad-oriented talks are
still interesting, but it is unfortunate that they are often some of the
weakest talks at the conference. It may be unavoidable, as large corporate
sponsors expect to get something for the money they put in, but
there is no reason that the technical level of the talks couldn't be
better. There certainly is a lot to be gained both for the company and for
the attendees if the talks are genuinely interesting and
informative—even if they must stray a ways into marketing.
Conference organizers are largely at the mercy of the presentation
proposals that they get, but it is nice to have related talks collected up
into themes (or whole tracks if there are enough). It's also important to
try to ensure that related subjects are not scheduled at the same time.
Scheduling is undoubtedly a tricky balancing act at times, but having
several related talks arranged back-to-back in the same room makes it that
much easier for attendees.
A grab bag of other thoughts
Conferences often hand out bags with a schedule/program, a T-shirt, and a
few handouts (flyers, pens, notebooks, etc.) from sponsors. Most of it is
fairly useful (though the flyers generally don't do much for me) and can be
given to a friend or family member—except the bag itself. One has to
wonder how many of the bags—often fairly attractive, made of cloth,
with a conference logo—never make it home with attendees.
reason is that most of those bags are essentially useless for any purpose
other than carrying around the small amount of stuff that originally comes
in them. In general, they are much too small to do anything with,
so they get tossed out—or re-gifted to people who don't know any
better. Either spending less money on a paper/plastic
bag or, better still, handing out a bag that can be used for other purposes
(perhaps a laptop bag or even a cloth grocery bag) would be good. It just seems like
most conference bags are an expensive waste. For some, T-shirts may fall
into the same category, but at least those can be donated to someone else
or to a local organization for the needy.
While schedule apps for mobile phones (or tablets) are all the rage, it's a
little hard to see what they offer beyond what a
simple—up-to-date!—web page could. If the schedule is changing
frequently, an app may remind you to update its data, unlike a web page,
but that value is lost in the cumbersome navigation that the apps tend to
have. Is it really so hard to recognize what day it is and make that the
default? Bonus points would be awarded for noting the time and
auto-scrolling to the right
place in the schedule. It seems wrong somehow to have a
separate app per event that needs to be downloaded before and deleted
after, but I guess that's part of what apps are all about.
Of course, either apps or a web page require reasonable WiFi at the
conference venue. For the most part, WiFi works pretty well at conferences
these days. It can be overwhelmed when the majority of attendees are in
one place (like for keynotes), but the rest of the time it seems to work
pretty reliably, which stands in (sometimes stark) contrast to five (or even
fewer) years ago. It's important for attendees to be able to keep up with
email and such, though it can be a distraction as well. It's pretty easy
to recognize a talk that isn't going very well by the number of head-down,
In closing ...
Here are some of the things that I noted about some of the conferences I have attended in
2011. It is by no means comprehensive, but just some quick-hit thoughts
about things that each did well that other conferences should at least
consider as part of their planning. For example, one of the things that
struck me about the Prague conferences in October (LinuxCon Europe,
Embedded Linux Conference Europe, GStreamer Conference, and Kernel Summit)
was the large open area in the center of the venue between all of the
rooms. There was plenty of
space for chatting, raiding the snack/beverage tables, and even sitting
down (if you were quick or paying close attention anyway).
While it probably complicated scheduling even further, I certainly
appreciated the 10am start for the second day of the GStreamer
Conference. Staying up too late at conferences, whether carousing or
writing/editing, is all too common, so a later start (with perhaps a
correspondingly late finish) is welcome. Like many conferences, Ubuntu
Developer Summit in Budapest had an excellent location, with plenty of nearby
restaurants and a walking mall with lots of food and beverage choices just
two blocks away.
Not to mention the fact that it was close enough to walk to some of the
sightseeing highlights of the city.
The Desktop Summit in Berlin was memorable for many reasons, but one thing that
really stood out was the wiki with a great deal
of useful information about the city, how to get around, and so on.
The Embedded Linux Conference Europe had videos (in free formats) available
soon after the conference from Free Electrons
(the GStreamer conference also had prompt videos that were made by
It should also be noted that the Linux Foundation either runs or assists
with many of the conferences that I have attended and it does a uniformly
great job in putting those conferences on, from the venues to the
program and keeping everything running smoothly as well.
We are lucky to have so many high quality conferences for Linux and free
software. The schedule is packed, and there are good choices for most any
area of our communities. While there are clearly areas where conferences
could do better, it's hardly a weak point. It's certainly worth finding
the time and budget to attend those that are in your areas of interest.
[ I'd like to thank the various sponsors, LWN subscribers in particular,
for making it possible for me to attend—and report on—a wide
variety of conferences. ]
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