Speakers Creativity Budget

Node in the enterprise

TL;DR – if you are producing a conference, please offer your speakers a ‘creativity budget’ to make their presentations better.

I’m been a public speaker for a while. I derive great pleasure from speaking to a live audience, big or small. While preparing for and then delivering a talk takes huge amount of my time and energy, I keep accepting more speaking opportunities because it forces me to push the envelope on my craft. That is, my engineering, creative craft.

I set very high standard for myself (which I usually fall short of, but isn’t that the point?) which include:

Discovery

  • Talks should be entertaining first, educating second
  • Slides and props are meant to delight and excite, not document or narrate
  • Never repeat a talk (training sessions excluded)

For the same reason I believe most developers should not do design, I contract the artwork for my presentations. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed a fantastic artistic collaboration with Chris Carrasco who has created all the artwork used in my presentations. I have also learned to rely on props and other costly production elements. These all play a significant role in enhancing my talks.

They also cost money.

realtime

Most of my talks this year cost around $500 to produce. Some much more.

My ReatimeFood presentation cost over $5000 (which was paid for jointly by &yet, me, and the 24 participants who sat the special tables where food was served). My Fuck OAuth talk cost $1200 on artwork and shirts (and it would not have been as good without the shirts – it was absolutely an essential element). The Leek Seed bedtime story at NodeSummit cost $450 to produce (and it will be the main thing anyone will remember from that talk).

NodeSummit2013

Creativity is expensive and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the means to cover these costs out of my own pocket (I rarely ask my employer to cover these costs since they don’t really benefit from them). You can see a sample of my slides on the right and can find some of my decks here.

Quality conferences like NodeConf and RealtimeConf have long offered to cover speakers’ travel costs. They are produced by people who care deeply about quality and they recognize that top speaking talent demands top treatment. Conferences are business after all. But I think we need to go one step further.

I’d like to propose a new speaker benefit: a creativity budget.

Fuck OAuth

This is pretty simple. Each conference will make available a budget to reimburse speakers for costs such as artwork, props, hardware, or other materials that will enhance and elevate their presentations. For most conferences, I would set this at $300-500.

This will work similarly to how travel is covered today, by reimbursing speakers for submitted invoices, or by the event produce paying the costs directly. I would also encourage the organizers to promote and push speakers to spend the money. Almost every presentation can benefit from higher production value and the conference as a whole will be elevated. There is a reason so many people attend conferences these days, just to stare at their laptop all day.

Sled and OAuth 2.0

As for how to fund it, there are many creative ways. Asking for talk sponsorship, selling premium experiences, asking those with means to crowdfund it, or simply charging a bit more for tickets in exchange for a better conference experience. We’ve seen conferences with incredible production values over the last couple of years, but we have not seen any noticeable improvement in the quality of the talks. Let’s fix it.

Diversity

The biggest misconception about affirmative action is that it puts less qualified individuals ahead because of their gender or the color of their skin. If an affirmative action program results in lesser individuals getting ahead, it is poorly designed. This misconception is based on the misguided notion that we can score every person on a linear scale and simply pick off the top of the list. Human beings just don’t work that way.

In a rich, multidimensional reality, we must consider not only the attributes of the individuals, but also the makeup of the community we are trying to build. Setting a goal of more women, blacks, gays, etc. is pointless. That’s a stupid goal. Setting quotas is mechanical and more likely alienate others instead of bringing them in.

The point is to take a look at your community and ask yourself what would make it more open and accepting? Who are the people at the margin trying to join? Why don’t they feel comfortable and welcomed? This is not an academic, theoretical exercise. You actually have to ask and listen.

In geek culture at present time, that’s often women. When men hang out together, especially at a conference where alcohol is served, they create (without intention or malice) an environment that can be unwelcoming to women. This is something we’ve been hearing from many people trying to be part of our community.

Affirmative action is not about getting less qualified women to speak at a conference at the expense of more qualified men. That would be wrong and unsustainable. It is about finding the best female talent and showcasing it so that other women feel motivated and welcomed. So that everyone will benefit from a diverse range of opinions. When hiring a new engineer or curating a conference, the goal is to enrich the team or experience, not just to add a few skill sets.

I resent members of an outsider group (be it women, blacks, gays, etc.) use their own personal success story as a way of dismissing the real adversity others in their group still face. The fact that I have been very fortunate in my life as a gay man to never experience intolerance aimed at me does not, even for a second, diminish the real and painful challenges facing many gay men today. Drawing a conclusion that just because I found a welcoming home within my community means that it is no longer an issue for others is egotistical and hurtful. I wouldn’t even assume that the geek subculture I belong to is completely beyond bias, given that I don’t know more than a handful of other openly gay men within that subculture.

If you have been successful, you have a responsibility to help those who are still looking from the outside in. If you are a woman or a minority, just showing up can accomplish plenty. If you are gay, vegan, Mormon, etc., talk about it so that others will know and appreciate the unique perspective you bring in from that experience. You don’t need to perform an interpretive dance on stage or put it on a t-shirt. Just mention it in conversation, on Twitter, or in a blog post. Letting others know that they are not alone is an immensely powerful gesture.

The measurement of diversity isn’t in numbers. It is in the perception of those trying to join as to how welcoming a community is.

Realtime Conference, the Imagination Platform

Last year, if you recall, I was a bit upset about some specification I participated in… I wrote a blog post, followed by another post, then went silent. I felt very strongly that everything I had to say was right there in the posts and that an ongoing online feud will only weaken the points I was trying to make. For a couple of months I received weekly requests to come speak at conferences about it. These were all security, platform, or API conferences where this topic would be a perfect match. I turned them all down.

What bothered me was the feeling that if I were to do a talk about it, it has to be to a completely different audience. I would have to break out of the echo chamber and turn a very technical and procedural set of arguments into something more culturally and emotionally meaningful. And it must be funny, which none of the people my posts were aimed at found amusing.

So when the invitation from the Realtime Conference team showed up in my inbox, my first reaction was to turn it down like all the others. But then when I read it, something clicked. For the first time, I wasn’t invited to explain why the protocol sucked. I was asked if I was interested in “sharing some of what [I] feel are [my] ‘lessons learned’ from that experience”. Here was an invitation to engage in a meaningful, emotional exercise that wasn’t trying to recreate my posts. It was about moving on. I immediately replied “sure!”. Continue reading

Is the Party Winding Down at Facebook?

A picture started to emerge from casual conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks with friends working at Facebook. I have noticed how Facebook engineers are using a different, more restrained vocabulary to describe their jobs. What once was ‘amazing’ is now ‘challenging’, ‘exciting technology’ turned to ‘learning a lot’, and ‘having fun’ toned down to ‘still engaged’. They are all very ‘content’. Continue reading

Netflix Forcing the Issue Too Soon

(A note to my long-time readers, I’m planning on expanding this blog to include opinions about current technology trends and news beyond my usual fare of standards, open web, and engineering posts.)

This morning I logged into my Netflix account and changed my plan from 3 DVDs + Streaming to DVDs Only. Despite the excellent analysis by many about Netflix’s reasons for the recent changes, the fact is that today the company is making $95.88 less annually from me than they did the day before. That’s a lot of money to lose from a single, loyal customer. Continue reading