I’ve been asked this question ever since the I started the first indieconf a few years ago. Recently I was asked about this from the perspective of someone who is hoping to get in to tech-conference speaking (and I hope most people in the tech field give it a shot at least once – you might like it!) So… I decided to post some thoughts here about the selection process.
Firstly, every conference is different. Some will have a full selection committee and go through a full ‘call for speakers’ process. If you have a reputation, that often won’t hurt, and may help, but I’ve done it enough as a speaker to realize there’s no magic formula.
As an organizer, so far I’ve done it ‘my way’ (for better or worse). I’ve got a ‘call for speakers’ process – people submit their ideas and background, and I make choices. Making people aware of the call for speakers may be the hardest part – I try to cast as wide a net as possible, to get the largest pool of good sessions. This is easier every year, but is not easy for most people to do.
My choices are based on a few criteria:
1. Ability of speaker – have I seen them present before, in person or online? People who are better at speaking get a few extra points. I don’t disqualify first time speakers by any stretch, but having done it before helps.
2. Reputation of speaker – in the field/topic they’re going to talk on.
3. Topic – Does it fit the gist of this event? This is our third year, and I’m constantly reacting to last year’s feedback about the subjects we did and didn’t cover.
4. Gender – To me, this *is* a factor. Not a huge one, but with the little platform I have, if I can do something to help encourage more visibility of women in a tech-friendly conference, that will be a factor too. You don’t get in just because you’re a woman – I’ve turned down submissions from female applicants – but it is another factor in the process.
Some conferences will let people vote on submissions. This feels more inclusive, but I’m not sure any of those conference still use that as 100% of the criteria – I suspect they still do filtering of their own, but having ‘voting’ probably gives a sense of community that I don’t (yet) try to engender at that stage of the process.
CodeStock, in Knoxville, does an interesting thing where they let you vote on topics once you’ve bought a ticket – that’s an approach I’d considered trying, but our community doesn’t feel large enough to support something like that yet (classic chicken and egg problem, perhaps?)
From the submissions I get, I contact speakers by phone or email. Sometimes it turns out not to be a good fit, or there’s a conflict, but about 50-70% of the talks we run come from that process. There are usually some people I know personally, perhaps that I’ve seen talk at another conference, that I want at indieconf, so I approach them directly, irrespective of the “call for speakers” process.
I’ve also been asked if technical competence matters. Given the focus of indieconf – the non-technical side of freelancing , I’d say no, it’s not a primary consideration. I’d rather have a great speaker who might only be ‘good’ with the subject matter but ‘great’ with people. Certainly there’s a basic level of competency that I strive to filter for, but with multiple speakers who all have a basic level of competency in the subject matter, I will opt for the speaker who is more engaging, comfortable with speaking, networking and generally being around people. And honestly, with tech-oriented conferences, *often* the bar isn’t set that high (sadly).
My thinking on that is this – you’re at a physical face to face conference. You’re there partially to network and meet people and deal with them face to face. If you’re not comfortable with that, and prefer to focus just on your code, or simply just your *self*, stick to blogging. You can build a great reputation that way, but for face to face meetings, give me the friendly people who will engage each other. You don’t have to be the life and soul of the room, but you better be able to look people in the eye, talk to them, follow up when you say you will, treat them professionally both at the conference and afterwards. I hear back on these things, and it informs who I will and won’t invite back, and who I won’t recommend to other conferences.
There’s some people I happily recommend to organizers to fill in on last minute slots, and it’s not because they’re necessarily the best expert at subject X. It’s because I know they treat people well (beyond knowing what the heck they’re talking about). They make me look good when I recommend them. They make the organizer look good because they’re genuinely good people. And so on…
Tech skills are overrated, people skills are vastly underrated. Outside of the immediate tech circles we sometimes travel in, NO ONE CARES if your queries are 50ms or 150ms, or if your CSS is in 5 files or 1. They care that you’re not a jerk to them, their guests, friends, clients and so on.
Speaking of being a jerk: I’ve been at conferences where people have made extremely caustic remarks about “other” tech (PHP, Java, whatever). These people are on my mental list of speakers to never invite, or recommend to others for speaking engagements (or indeed, business in general). Pot, meet the kettle: I’ve been partisan myself in the past (both for and against MS, for example), then realized that not only does that get me nowhere, it’s often actively insulting to people around me. I don’t do that anymore, and I expect speakers at my event to hold themselves to a higher standard of behaviour.
Disclosure – I’ve done a poor job of contacting some speakers back in a timely basis, both for acceptance and rejection, and I think I even missed a couple this year totally, which I’m embarrassed by – I simply had too much on my plate this summer to do this part justice, and I apologize to any speakers who felt I left them hanging.
I hope this helps your understand of indieconf’s speaker selection process.