They say you never forget your first…
Actually, I’m not sure they do say that about tech conferences.
Regardless, I’ll always be grateful that my first conference experience was such a thoughtful, warm and well-designed one. 2018 was the last year of CSSConf and JSConf AU and I feel really lucky to have had the chance to attend. I hope everyone had the inspiring, positive and fun experience that I did.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the initiatives taken by the organisers, nor a “guide to hosting inclusive events” — something that I would be completely unqualified to write about. These are just some of the things that I noticed that helped make the event inclusive and enjoyable.
1. Diverse speakers
I didn’t go to a tech conference to hear from people exactly like me. Engaging with new ideas from a variety of perspectives was literally the entire point of the exercise, and the lineup did not let anyone down.
2. A clearly communicated, enforceable Code of Conduct
I had read the Code of Conduct three or four times before I even turned up to the event, as it was constantly referenced in email and social media messages. At the start of each event it was highlighted and made exceedingly clear that it wasn’t just a piece of paper — it was a real commitment to creating a welcoming environment, and the team was serious about enforcing it.
3. Gender-neutral bathrooms
It’s 2018, and gender-neutral bathrooms are finally, thankfully becoming more common. CSSConf / JSConfAU went the extra mile and provided items like pads, make-up wipes, and floss in all bathrooms. I’m sure that thoughtful touches like this go a long way.
A sign on the door of each bathroom read something like:
If you think a stranger’s gender doesn’t match the sign on the door, follow these steps:
1. Don’t worry about it, they know better than you.
I think this was was originally inspired by the University of Bristol’s LGBT+ Society. For the record, the signs were properly referenced, so I’m trying to reference it here — I just didn’t snap a photo, so can’t be sure 😅
4. Genuine catering for dietary requirements
I’m vegan. Part of being vegan is accepting that while you can control your own choices, in situations such as catered events you are in the hands of other people, and many of them just don’t care enough to provide an option that will leave you feeling satisfied. That’s if they provide an option at all, which definitely isn’t guaranteed — especially at “pizza and beer” meetups.
At CSSConf and JSConf AU all dietary requirements were covered, and not just in a tick-the-box sense. Genuine care and attention was put in. Put simply, the food was delicious, nutritious and there was enough of it. This is still a novelty for me at tech events!
5. Live captioning of all talks
As is usually the case with inclusive design, this didn’t just improve the experience for those with a disability. There were many times where I looked to the live-caption screens when I didn’t quite catch what a speaker said, or I encountered a word that I didn’t know.
6. Not pushing drinking culture
The team went beyond providing non-alcoholic drink options at the after-parties, creating spaces that didn’t rely on drinking to be fun. Multi-player arcade games and a wide variety of board games helped attendees to meet each other and enjoy being in a group. I spoke to multiple people at the JSConf after-party who were still there past 11pm who hadn’t been drinking — in general, it just wasn’t a super boozey event.
Karaoke on the final night of JSConf might have suggested otherwise… but I definitely believe the fun was fueled far more by good vibes than by alcohol!
7. A really simple media policy
There were colored lanyards for attendees to indicate their comfort level with being photographed:
- Black: ask beforehand
- Green: fine to photograph
- Red: do not photograph
Simple, but so effective.
8. Quiet spaces and live-streamed talks
This is really two points in one, but I wanted to group them thematically.
Conferences are full-on, and there are many reasons why someone might not be able to spend the whole time in the main room. It’s so great that there were quiet spaces where someone can take a break, answer work messages, review that urgent pull request… or just pretend that they have something on because they don’t have the energy at this very moment to approach new people. Maybe that last one was just me 🙃
Live streaming the talks on TVs around the venue allowed people to take that phone call and still catch most of a talk, or maybe just watch the talk from a different perspective with a fresh coffee in hand.
Thank you to everyone involved with organising and running these events.
It’s no accident that these conferences felt the way that they did. They were designed and facilitated purposefully and attentively, at great expense of time and effort. Good design is often invisible, so there are undoubtedly a million other things that were thought about and woven into the conference experience that I haven’t mentioned.
It should also be noted that there was also a fantastic Opportunity Program that gave the chance for many individuals who couldn’t attend otherwise to experience the conference (and the associated career benefits that come along with attendance). I didn’t focus on this as I am fortunate enough to have not needed it, but it’s extremely important and a wonderful thing to see championed.
I’ll leave this article on the same note that each conference was left on: it’s everyone’s responsibility to foster a welcoming community. Thank you to CSSConf and JSConf AU for setting the bar high and providing an amazing example to follow.