A Tale of Two Conferences

Diverse Conferences Are Better Conferences

A Tale of Two Conferences

I went to two technical conferences recently which couldn’t have been more different in their approach to diversity and the quality of the material presented.

Top Tips for Conference Organisers:

  • Don’t be afraid to set ambitious goals in your call for proposals. It’s much more intellectually rewarding to watch talks that draw connections between disparate disciplines than to see the same industry dogma repeated over and over. Talks that tell stories and draw on metaphors from other areas encourage the audience to creatively engage with the material by understanding the parallels between the presentations and their own line of work. Seeing a similar problem from another angle—even from an area that seems completely different from your own—can help a problem you’ve been working on for a while "click."
  • Do have a well-curated diversity programme; this will pay off in more ways than I can count. You’ll attract perspectives that are different from the status quo, you’ll build a reputation as a great place to be, and the quality of the material presented will outshine other events. When diversity and inclusion are a priority, your events will be better for everyone, not just those who are part of your diversity programme.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the "hallway track." Leave plenty of time for attendees to circulate and speak with one another one-on-one or in small groups, as well as watching the big show. This gives your audience the mental space to process all the ideas presented during the main talks and form new links between concepts through discussion and conversation. These are where the seeds sown by the talks can grow into future projects.

After the first conference, I wrote this guide to managing emotional labor in teams where I mentioned the notable lack of diversity among conference attendees and speakers. What I didn’t mention in that article was just how dull and repetitive the talks were. Aside from a few momentary highlights, the material at this conference seemed to be the same three watered-down platitudes repeated as though they were earth-shattering insights in every set of slides. For a conference purportedly showcasing the best of industry leadership for data and insights, the visualisations were poor, many conclusions drawn from data were shoddy, and there was remarkably little practical advice on how to achieve the astounding impacts each speaker claimed to have had. The information wasn’t specific enough to be actionable in a different context, nor was it compelling enough to make it worthwhile when generalised to be accessible to audiences from different sectors.

By contrast, Monki Gras, the freewheeling state-of-the-industry tech conference focused this year on "sustaining craft," managed to keep hold of its guiding narrative thread through a refreshingly diverse array of topics. Through presentations on the power of medieval craft guilds, parallels between the Luddites of old and the current state of the software development industry, why we shouldn’t take fonts for granted, how Marie Curie’s struggle to be recognised for her scientific achievements parallel difficulties in the software development industry today, and many more, Monki Gras drew useful and interesting connections between disparate concepts. At Monki Gras, the topics were accessible to a general audience but specific in the value they held for its technical listeners. Here, each talk was a colourful piece fitting perfectly into a fascinating jigsaw, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Monki Gras put effort into curating its experience for all attendees, fostering a diversity & inclusion programme designed to lower barriers to participation in the tech industry. Research shows that diverse teams are able to innovate more effectively than homogeneous teams. In case there is any remaining shadow of a doubt about the power of diversity, McKinsey’s latest research shows a clear link between diversity and financial performance in both short-term profitability and long-term value creation. Diversity pays off.

At Monki Gras, the diversity & inclusion programme isn’t just an add-on paying lip service to the idea. It’s clear that the organisers wholeheartedly embrace diversity for the benefits it offers to the industry overall. If all conferences approached their lineup with the same mindset, we might be lucky enough to see the calibre of conference presentations step up to a whole new level.

Keep an eye on RedMonk’s YouTube channel for the release of the Monki Gras videos. In the meantime, catch up on very thorough Monki Gras writeups from Kichwa Coders, happymelly, aondioarianna, numergent, Matthew Gilliard, and letory.

Caitlin McDonald
Caitlin McDonald
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Caitlin McDonald

Award-winning scholar & writer on digital communities, data science, and dance. Tweets @cmcd_phd. Holds PhD in suitably unexpected & obscure subject. Very tall. Frequently a bit silly.

See all posts by Caitlin McDonald