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Glen Maddern
@glenmaddern

A better Call For Proposals

This is the third time that we’re running CSSConf and JSConf in Australia, and this year we’re planning on doing things a little differently. While we believe that past editions were a success, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve, and some changes require an explanation. So if you’re interested in applying to come to Melbourne this year and want to know why our CFP form looks a little strange, or if you’re involved in a conference yourself, this is for you.

2016 — 100% CFP

In previous years, we’ve made sure to reach out to individuals we personally wanted to hear speak and invited them directly. It enabled us to announce the conference with a couple of “big names”. This was essential for a new, volunteer-run event like ours to establish itself as a high-quality conference, sell enough tickets to break even, gain credibility with sponsors, and set the tone for the CFP. I’d encourage any new event to do the same.

The downside was, when the proposals eventually came in, we realised we had to say no to some exceptional talks by talented individuals, simply because we only had a few slots remaining. And the presence of illustrious names wasn’t encouraging to everyone — some people felt intimidated by the thought of sharing the stage with one of their heroes.

This year we’ve been lucky enough to attract some sponsors (though we’re still looking for more!) and sell tickets purely on the reputation of the previous years’ events. As organisers, that is a seriously 😍 feeling, and gives us an opportunity to step up to the level of the larger, more well-known JSConf and CSSConf events worldwide.

This year we’re not directly inviting speakers, every speaking slot will be chosen through the Call for Proposals. Which means if you’ve ever wanted to speak at JSConf or CSSConf AU, your chances have never been better.

Speaker package

Melbourne is, as anyone who’s ever looked at a map before, not close to anything. It’s not even that close to most of Australia. So if you’re chosen to come speak, we want to make sure you enjoy yourselves, and are relaxed for your talk & get a chance to meet attendees at some of the social events. Here’s what we’re offering if your talk is selected:

  • Your travel expenses. Wherever you are in the world, we’ll cover the cost of reasonable* flights. If you want to fly somehow differently, or plan your stop here in Melbourne as part of a longer holiday, go right ahead. We’ll just reimburse you the amount we would have paid to fly you here directly.
    * basically, flights we would be happy to take ourselves. Economy class, favouring overall travel time and quality of the airline over getting the absolute cheapest.
  • For Australian & New Zealand speakers, we think you should get the same deluxe treatment as overseas guests, so we’ll cover the cost of two flights. You can bring your partner, kids or whoever else you wish!
  • 5 nights in a nice hotel in central Melbourne. We think you should have a chance to get over your jetlag and enjoy the city. There’s lots to explore and at the beginning of summer it’s absolutely stunning.
  • Entrance to the other conference days. It doesn’t matter which one you’re speaking at, you’re an automatic attendee of the others. This is a big community event, the more time you can spend amongst it the better.
  • A fun, relaxing activity day for speakers and their partners or families. Last year after the conference we rented a bus and went up to Healesville Sanctuary to get to know some of Australia’s famous, not-at-all-deadly animals.
  • An account with a cab company so you can get around without worrying about expenses (including trips to and from the airport).

We’re not offering a speaker fee, partially due to visa entry reasons, but also because we could never properly compensate speakers for the amount of time it takes to prepare a talk. Instead we’re covering a generous, hassle-free 5-day trip to Melbourne.

Who/What are we looking for?

To put it as simply as possible:

We want exceptional talks covering a wide range of ideas, presented from interesting points-of-view, by a set of speakers that makes every attendee feel included — like next year it could be them up on stage.

This is the closest any of us can come to a description of the “best” possible lineup — the one that is the most valuable to our attendees and the community. I want to take a brief moment here and talk about some of the consequences of aiming for an “inclusive” lineup.

You can’t make someone feel included and encouraged to participate if the lineup of speakers clearly displays implicit or explicit bias on behalf of the organisers. Gender diversity is just one part of this, albeit an essential one. We also want to see people who’ve never spoken before, people who work in unusual companies or in non-tech industries, people who live in very different countries than our audience or write code for people who do. The web is an amazingly powerful and inclusive platform, let’s reflect that.

Moreover, if a candidate has demonstrated themselves to be incapable of participating in an inclusive environment in the past, or whose presence would undermine the inclusivity of the event as a whole, they cannot be selected.

So this is our goal for the conference. And it’s what we’re designing the new CFP process to facilitate.

The Process

In previous years, we’ve solely considered the TITLE and DESCRIPTION fields in judging a talk. Furthermore, we manually remove any personally-identifying information from these — typically the names of relevant companies, projects, or people. This is fairly typical of CFP processes in an attempt to judge a talk purely on the merits of the talk, not of the speaker or the circumstances. But it has some inherent problems.

The biggest problem is that it overwhelmingly favours experienced speakers and talks that have been accepted at other conferences. This isn’t a problem per se, but makes it harder to identify promising newcomers. There’s also the problem that the anonymising process can remove some of the most compelling parts of a potential talk. A talk can be good for a whole host of reasons, but not all of them match nicely to a good talk description, particularly once anonymised. For example:

  • Someone could be talking about a career switch into programming, but not yet have developed the tone for punchy talk proposals. The person’s accomplishments since switching careers may be the point of interest, but we may sanitise those details out in order to keep things anonymous.
  • A talk could be about changes to a product or company, where the talk description is fairly generic but the audience would be interested in the particular case study, which we would sanitise. Knowing a project took place in a prominent, local company or government department is valuable to us and our audience.
  • A talk description could be quite promising, albeit unpolished, from a person who has never spoken before. We’d like to identify this and potentially work with the person to develop their talk & their speaking skills.
  • Two talks often cover similar topics from similar perspectives, and in that case I’d like to favour the talk from an underrepresented groups or Australian residents.
  • A talk might be on a tangential topic but from a person with a unique perspective that our audience would love.

So, this year we’re asking for quite a bit more information, such as whether the talk has been given before, your gender, your level of speaking experience and the length of time you’ve spent in the tech industry. These will be used alongside your talk submission to better understand how the final talk will fit in to our lineup, without any of us having to know the identity of any particular candidate.

But we’re also asking people to anonymise their own proposal. This, we hope, will let a speaker explain why their talk description is interesting, without giving away who they are.

Anonymised Description field

If your submission involves a company, person, project or something else that would personally identify you, we ask you to replace the real name with something like COMPANY_A, PERSON_B, PROJECT_C, etc. Our CFP form will detect these strings and give you the chance to describe the company in generic terms. For example:

example

We want you to think about the relevance of your experience to our audience. So describing your company as “Extremely well-known company. Makes a product almost everyone in the audience would use every day. People will be interested to see our internal process” is good, saying “A popular product company” is bad. Describing an open-source project as “A new way to handle front-end assets” is bad, saying “An open-source project most of the audience will have heard about but very few will have actually used yet” is good. A person might be “A prominent personality in the early days of the web. People in the audience will know who they are, and will be excited about the work I was able to do with them”

This is definitely an experiment on our part. Don’t sweat it if your talk doesn’t rely on information like this, either, this is just for the cases where the talk description naturally requires it.

Start submitting!

We can’t wait to see what you’ll submit. You have until the end of the month, so get cracking! And, please, tell your friends. Even if they’re never submitted to a conference before, we’d love to hear from them. The more the merrier! 💖👬👫👭💖

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