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Adam Trachtenberg is the Director of the LinkedIn Developer Network, where he oversees developer relations and marketing for the LinkedIn Platform. Before LinkedIn, Adam worked at eBay in platform product management and marketing. Even earlier, he co-founded Student.Com and TVGrid.com. Adam is the author of PHP Cookbook and Upgrading to PHP 5. He lives in San Francisco.

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How to get your conference proposal accepted

There’s been a little discussion lately on how to get more female speakers at technical conferences. This post is more aimed at new speakers in general than female speakers in particular, but I think it applies pretty well to both topics.

First of all, my tech conference experience is pretty complete: I attend shows as a participant, I speak at shows, I select sessions for shows, I exhibit at shows, and I run a show. Sometimes I will do multiple parts, such as speak and exhibit, but not the others. I’ve even selected sessions for a show that I never attended.

I actually speak at a lot of shows because it’s my job. In the past two weeks, I spoke at CTIA and Web 2.0. In the next two weeks, I will speak at the SD Forum Etech SIG, 4D Summit, and Zend/PHP Conference. Later this year, I’ll be speaking at ApacheCon, and a few more places that I still need to line up.

I also chaired the PHP track at OSCON and was on the planning committee for the Zend/PHP conference. On top of that, I run the evangelism team for the eBay Developers Program, and we put on a three day conference every June, with 4 tracks running in parallel. Our eBay Developers Conference gets bigger every year.

Okay, enough of all that shit. Let’s just say I think I have a pretty good perspective from all sides on this issue, and I agree with Kathy 100%.

When I’m putting together a schedule, I want a wide range of people and topics. Sure, I need some A-list celebs, but I also want some new blood. I’m going to do my best to be proactive and reach out to the people I want to talk, but that’s only because I want a great show. If you can help me make that happen, then I want you to participate.

I do my best to make people feel comfortable and even go so far as to tell them the decision criteria and what I am and am not looking for. I’m not sure if people listen, but I can’t help that.

I strongly encourage people new to speaking circuit to submit multiple proposals because sometimes I don’t select a talk because of anything bad with the speaker or the proposal, but because I have a much better speaker for that position. If you want to talk about, for example, “What’s new in PHP,” but I can get Rasmus to give that talk, then I’m going to pick Rasmus 100% of the time. You might know everything there is about what’s new in PHP, but that’s not the point.

However, if you also submit “PHP and Web Services,” then there’s still a chance you can get selected for that slot. Unless, of course, I get a proposal from someone who wrote the SOAP extension.

Therefore, the more quality topics you offer up, the better chance you have.

I had never heard of Neil Green before he submitted talks to the Zend Conference, yet he ended up getting a slot on “Elements of an Enterprise PHP Framework.” Neil submitted at least three different proposals, and also indicated that he was open to similar topics, if they turned out to be a better fit. Well, we decided we really wanted a MVC-style talk, and his proposals looked the best, so we reached out and came up with a topic that worked for everybody.

One common problem is that people often submit really specific talks about topics nobody cares about. For example, there are too many database abstraction layers already for PHP. Yours may be better, but if you don’t have a community of people using it to prove that to me, I’m never going to select it over a talk on PDO, PEAR::DB, ADODB, or even MDB. You need to give me a topic that when other people read about it in the program, they say one of a few things:

  1. That’s interesting, and I want to learn more about that for personal enrichment. (For me at OSCON, this was Brian Aker’s talk on the open source PBX, Asterisk.)
  2. That’s interesting, and I want to learn more to share with others or for work. (For me at OSCON, this was Jason Hunter’s talk on XQuery.)
  3. That’s interesting, and I want to learn more to tell my boss I learned more, so he’ll let me come back to another conference. (For me at OSCON, this was a number of talks on Firefox extensions, including XUL and Greasemonkey.)

That’s why I always try and schedule talks on security and scalability. They’ll great for selling tickets and justifying the trip back home. (Oddly enough, none of these talks was on PHP.)

Another word of advice. I know you get more money when you give a tutorial, but don’t waste your time submitting them unless you’re sure somebody on the conference committee knows who you are and will agree that you’re either the expert on the topic, or a good speaker who will give a strong three hour talk.

I have very few tutorial slots. People pay lots of money to attend those sessions. It’s really hard to put together three hours worth of material, and it’s even harder to deliver it well. I can’t afford to waste a spot with a bozo.

Now, you might be great, but if I don’t know for certain, I’m far more risk adverse when it comes to selecting tutorials. Also, since tutorials do cost more, I like to schedule more celebrity-style speakers in those slots, since it helps with the marketing. (They have to be good speakers, of course. There’s nothing lower than sitting through three hours of your idol giving the world’s worst talk.)

I don’t know if this will end up getting more women to speak at shows, but I hope it at least stimulates someone beyond the usual suspects to submit proposals the next time their favorite show comes around.

There Are 2 Responses So Far. »

  1. I see your point on the tutorials, never thought about it like that (never submitted one, but good to know for the future).

  2. Please keep in mind this is just my opinion and how I think about tutorials. Other people / companies may have different attitudes.

    My attitude is that if there’s a stinky session you will leave in the middle or treat it as a minor less. However, if there’s a stinky tutorial, you will be really angry.

    And, since it’s much harder to come up with 180 minutes of material than 45, it’s all that more important to have a proven tutotial speaker.

    I gave one tutorial once. I was able to generate slides from a book I wrote. It still took a long time to put together well and when I finished delivering it, I was totally drained of all energy.

    In comparison, I can give a 45 minute session with pretty much no preparation.