How to Plan a Diverse Conference

diverse conference

A programmer who is planning a tech conference in his hometown shares the steps he’s taken to ensure the event is as diverse as possible.

By Nick Quaranto (Programmer, 37signals)

I’m running a conference, NickelCityRuby, in my hometown of Buffalo, NY this fall. I’m no stranger to getting people to code or work together, but organizing an event like this is a new challenge for me. My main goal with the conference has been simply to bring plenty of awesome people to see Buffalo, but another of mine has been to ensure the conference is as diverse as possible. Full disclosure: 37signals is a sponsor of NickelCityRuby.

Diversity is a tough subject in the tech world, and I think it’s something we just can’t ignore. I care about this deeply because I’ve witnessed exclusion happen before (myself being at fault too!), and the only way to make sure it stops is by making conscious decisions to change for the better. There have been several scandals at conferences recently, and this has been my biggest fear of about organizing a conference: Can we deliver a conference that is diverse?

We recently announced our speaker lineup, and I’m really happy with how diverse it turned out. However, I think this is just the beginning of making sure we meet the mark. By no means is being inclusive a checkbox you can just tick off while organizing something: it has to be baked into your decision making process from the start. Here’s a few things we’ve done so far that I think any similar event should think about.

Find Mentors

Our team of seven in Buffalo has put on Ruby meetups for years now, but organizing something of this scale is new. I wanted to make sure we had a group of advisors from the beginning that we could look up as role models, and to help us with questions. Luckily, we had several willing to donate their time to help us out who have organized large conferences before in small cities like Buffalo.

One of our advisors, Ashe, has helped immensely with being a guide for how to run a diverse conference. She’s literally written a instruction manual on how to put on a diverse, inclusive conference that’s packed with useful tips and eye-opening information.

If you’re looking for someone to advise you, even if it’s for a one-night hackfest, it’s worth it. Getting advice from someone who’s been there before is invaluable, and I can’t stress enough how much it matters to get an opinion from a third-party in the middle of a heated argument. It’s not imposing to ask for advice: it’s essential. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to guide you.

Choose Anonymously

Removing bias when choosing speakers is not easy. We all have favorite subjects, people who we encouraged to submit, and in some cases, even family members who wanted to speak. We decided from the start to anonymize the talk proposals, which many other conferences have successfully included in their organizing process to increase diversity.

We had one organizer run through all of our proposals and anonymize them by extracting just the title and abstract. He also edited out any pronouns, names, or company references that could somehow change our perception of the speaker. It felt right to do this: it puts every talk on a level playing field. The other organizers rated each talk from one to five, and then we had a meeting to select speakers for the ten slots we had space for.

After much skepticism about this process, I’m very proud to say it worked well. I don’t think we would have ended up with the same speaker lineup if we didn’t choose to anonymize each proposal.

A Diverse Audience

We still have a few months to finish up preparing, but there’s something I wanted to lock down from the start: a code of conduct. I was extremely impressed with PyCon’s code of conduct, and the fact that it’s Creative Commons licensed means that we could fork it for our use. We’ll be mentioning the code as the conference opens up each day, and I hope we won’t have to refer to it at all beyond that.

The next wall to jump is probably the highest: a diverse audience. We have a fair price point for a regional conference, a large range of topics, and we’ll hopefully be providing different opportunities for socialization once the event is over. Other conferences are doing great things to be more inclusive, such as travel scholarships and student tickets. I’d love to offer these in the future for our conference.

The Long Haul

We haven’t put on the show yet, but I wanted to share what we’ve done so far. I’m in this game for the long haul: I love showing people this wonderful city I call home, and I want to do everything possible to put on inclusive events for the tech community. I hope you’ll join me this September in Buffalo to see how it turns out.

This post originally appeared on Signal vs. Noise. Photo credit: JD Lasica via Flickr

Are there any other steps organizers can take to maximize diversity at their events?

Nick QAbout the blogger: Nick Quaranto is a programmer at @37signals, husband to @aquaranto@coworkbuffalo shipmaster, and rubygems.org mechanic. A short, sturdy creature fond of drink and industry. Follow him on Twitter @qrush