My friend Ed runs a project called “Open Sourcing Mental Illness“, which seeks to change how the tech industry talks about mental health (to the extent we talk about it at all). Part of the work involves the publication of handbooks developed by mental health professionals, but a big part of it is Ed giving talks at conferences. Last month he shared some feedback on Twitter:
So I got feedback from a conf a while back where I did a keynote. A few people said they felt like it wasn’t right for a tech conf. It was the only keynote. Some felt it wasn’t appropriate for a programming conf. Time could’ve been spent on stuff that’d help career. Tonight a guy from a company that sponsored the conf said one of team members is going to seek help for anxiety about work bc of my talk. That’s why I do it. Maybe it didn’t mean much to you, but there are lots of hurting, scared people who need help. Ones you don’t see.
Cate Huston had similar feedback from a talk she gave in 2016:
the speaker kept talking about useless things like feelings
The tech industry as a whole, and some areas more than others, likes to imagine that it is as cool and rational as the computers it works with. Conferences should be full of pure technology. And yet we bemoan the fact that so many of our community are real jerks to work with.
I have a solution: maybe your tech conference needs less technology. After all, the only reason anyone pays us to do this stuff is because it (theoretically) solves problems for human beings. I’m biased, but I think the USENIX LISA conference does a great job of this. LISA has three core areas: architecture, engineering, and culture. You could look at it this way: designing, implementing, and making it so people will help you the next time around.
Culture is more than just sitting around asking “how does this make you feeeeeeeel?” It includes things like how to avoid burnout and how to train the next generation of practitioners. It also, of course, includes how to not be a insensitive jerk who inflicts harm on others with no regard for the impact they cause.
I enjoy good technical content, but I find that over the course of a multi-day conference I don’t retain very much of it. For a few brief hours in 2011, I understood SELinux and I was all set to get it going at home and work. Then I attended a dozen other sessions and by the time I got home, I forgot all of the details. My notes helped, but it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, the cultural talks tend to be the ones that stick with me. I might not remember the details, but the general principles are lasting and actionable.
Every conference is different, but I like having one-third of content be not-tech as a general starting point. We’re all humans participating in these communities, and it serves no one to pretend we aren’t.