Broadening the Responses to our Conference CFP

The Lead Developer conference, which focuses on three key themes of team, tech & tools for technical leaders — be they tech leads, senior developers, engineering managers or VP Eng / VP Tech / CTOs — is into its second year now. We are taking it international in 2017, with our first conference outside of London in New York in February 2017. The conference is organised by White October Events and chaired and co-curated by me (@Geek_Manager).

We care deeply about making sure that our speaker line-up is representative. Part of the value of conferences is to hear diverse opinions and experiences from a broad range of people.

A number of people have commented on the (positive) balance in our speaker line-up, and asked us to write about how we achieved it, hence this post. It’s quite a long read, for quite a big topic.

NOTE: To be clear, we don’t think we are perfect, nor do we think that we are at the end of the journey with this. But waiting for perfection before sharing feels selfish — like we are withholding useful strategies & tactics from other event organisers who want to do better — and so we’d rather share what we’ve done, and what’s worked, and then still keep trying harder in future.

YEAR 1

In our first year, the majority of the conference line-up was invited. Because we were a new conference, we knew that people didn’t necessarily know what we were about yet, and so crafting the line-up by hand made more sense. We ran a Call for Papers just for the 10 minute tech talks that peppered the agenda, and got the word out about that through Twitter and various Slack groups and newsletters.

In order to find great speakers with interesting stories and experience to share, we did research and looked for recommendations. We found Lanyrd and the Articulate Network to both be very useful, as was asking for and following up on recommendations from great speakers that we knew.

It likely helped that our initial network was pretty diverse — this is an important thing to check before you rely on networks and recommendations to find speakers. If your initial network isn’t broad, then it may be worth finding someone quite different from you to be on your organising committee or panel to help with this.

YEAR 2

This year, the conference grew to two days and we filled the majority of slots with speakers who submitted a proposal through our Call for Papers.

We were delighted to find that this year 40+% of our CFP respondents self-identified as part of a group in some way traditionally under-represented in tech. This made selecting a diverse and representative line-up less of a challenge — the “top of the funnel” (the initial proposals) was representative, and so it was logical that the “bottom of the funnel” (the chosen proposals) was representative too.

That said, choosing the actual talks was incredibly hard — we had an amazingly high quality of submissions, and deciding between them was very very difficult. We could have easily programmed a 4 or 5 day conference!

So our story here is mostly about how we approached the CFP.

Steps to Broaden Participation in Your CFP

Make sure you are creating a safe, accessible & inclusive space

The first thing that many speakers need to know is that you care about creating a safe, accessible and inclusive space. This is more about what you DO than what you SAY.

At The Lead Developer, we have a strong, well-publicised Code of Conduct. We highlight it to attendees before they arrive, in our Slack group that attendees and speakers can join ahead of time, and on each morning of the conference. We are specific about what is not OK, how issues can be reported, and that we will deal with them swiftly and appropriately. Our conference staff and volunteers are properly briefed, and we have a senior point person who ensures consistency of response.

We are also clear early about the venue’s accessibility, that there is a speaker lounge (for speakers who might need quiet space to prepare or decompress — this matters!) and that help will be on hand for anything someone might need.

This year we also invested in getting live captioning from the excellent team at White Coat Captioning. This was SUCH a good investment. The stenographers were outstanding, and we had a number of folks comment to us how wonderful they thought it was. It was especially interesting to see what a large percentage of the audience “used” the captioning with many people commenting that it helped them understand better, overcome differences in accents, or see technical terms that had flown by a little swiftly in the talk.

Ground the initial line-up appropriately

Though we filled most speaker slots with CFP respondents this year, we did still have a few invited speakers, including our two keynotes. It seems to have been important that this initial published line-up was representative — both as a statement of intent and as a way of broadcasting that we welcome diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. Our initial line-up was diverse in the demographic sense, but also in the industry/experience sense.

Be clear about what you are offering speakers (and offer what matters)

We cover travel and expenses for speakers, and will book and pay things upfront so that people don’t have to “carry the cost”. Rachel Andrew recently wrote about this after doing a talk about it at ConfConf. We already offered taxis for speakers to get to and from the venue, but we have made sure that we actively talk about this in advance as well now. We offer an honorarium as a thank you for the speaker’s time.

We also provide speakers with professionally taken photos of them speaking on stage, and publish the videos after the event (with speakers retaining copyright), so for those wanting to build their profile as a conference speaker we are hopefully helping them in that regard as well. You can see the videos from The Lead Dev on Vimeo.

Earn the trust of the community

Honestly, this year’s CFP being so representative was largely down to having earned the right to ask under-indexed folks to submit by having a representative line-up last year. It’s really hard to get people to trust your intentions; you need to show in your actions that you really value and care about this stuff.

If your CFP is currently only getting responses from one group or type of person, consider keeping some slots for invited talks, and figure out how to make your conference one that an invited speaker will want to say yes to.

Pro tip: indicating to an invited speaker that you are inviting them for their “difference” rather than their content is a sure way to put them off.

Get the word out about the CFP far & wide

Ask role models to help

We are privileged to have the support of many of the speakers from our first year’s conference as brilliant advocates for us. Again that initial representative line-up paid off, as their networks, Twitter followers, etc, were also more diverse.

Approach affinity groups to share

“If you build it they will come” only works in baseball movies.

You need to actively reach out to affinity groups where the people who you are trying to reach are. We promoted the CFP through @CallBackWomen (which is excellent, and definitely drove a bunch of interest), Technically Speaking (a fab email newsletter for folks wanting to get into speaking), Ada’s List, and more.

One additional thing we are doing this year is to both reach out to more groups, and to ask on our CFP form where somebody heard about us so that we can do this better in future. If you have an affinity group to suggest, please give us a shout.

Proactively approach speakers who you’d love to see submit a talk

When we’ve had speakers recommended to us, or we’ve come across them in our research and particularly love their talk, we pro-actively reach out to encourage them to submit to the CFP. There are a lot of conferences out there, and expecting everyone to hear about yours is a little bit arrogant. So we follow up and highlight and encourage — and make sure that we are doing so to a balanced group of folks.

Communicate well, put speakers at the heart of what you do

Communication before, during and after the event all matters. We’ve had feedback from a number of speakers that this has really been a key positive in their experience dealing with us and part of why they are happy to spread the word / help advocate for us after the conference. Invest in your speakers, treat them well — without them you wouldn’t have a conference at all!

So What’s Next?

We’ll continue to focus on finding great speakers to give brilliant talks — and making sure that we reflect the diversity of the world in our line-ups.

We’re also actively looking to increase participation in the conference itself, and there will be a blog post about what we have done in this arena coming soon.

Sound Like Your Kind of Conference?

The CFP for The Lead Developer New York 2017 is open until 26 August 2016, and the CFP for The Lead Developer in London next year until 30 Sept 2016. We’ve written some guidance about our key themes and the kind of talks we are looking for, and there are also links to the CFP therein.