The consequences of speakers-pay tech conferences

A friend reached out to me the other day to tell me how he had encouraged someone to submit a talk to a certain programming language’s flagship conference. The talk had been accepted, but the conference, by default, doesn’t cover the cost of a speaker’s travel, accommodations, or conference ticket. The speaker could request “financial aid,” which, if approved, would cover some unknown portion of those expenses.

I continue to be flabbergasted by these stories. I am happy to accept, in the spirit of “open source,” that community conferences do not pay speakers a fee for speaking. I am not willing to accept conferences that ask their speakers to pay to speak.

To speakers both aspiring and experienced: Your time, your absence from home and work and family, your knowledge, your skills, your preparation, your practice, your presentation: they are valuable, and they should be valued. A conference that asks you to provide that value in exchange for the privilege of being at the conference and then asks you to throw in hundreds more dollars for airfare and accommodations (and, in the worst cases, a ticket to the event itself) — that conference does not deserve you, and I will recommend every time that you do not speak there, whether this is your first speaking gig or your fiftieth. If you are seeking “exposure,” there are plenty of more equitable options; if you want to go to the conference, then just go to the conference — don’t spend time stressing about a talk you paid to give.

To speakers whose companies pay their travel and accommodation costs: Be grateful, and then realize that your company’s thumb is on the scales (which is exactly why smart companies pay in the first place). You don’t need to ask conferences to pay your costs on principle, but you must make sure conferences are using your company’s generosity to ensure speaker costs are paid by default for others.

To conferences that could realistically adjust their ticket price or budget to cover speaker costs by default, and yet choose otherwise: This is your choice, but let’s be honest about what you’re choosing. A speakers-pay model will decrease the pool of submissions, which will make it that much harder for you to have an event with a diverse lineup. Some prospective speakers will simply not submit if they believe they will have to spend scarce money, while others may only be persuaded to submit with the enticement of getting to go to a city or an event for free. You can perhaps somewhat mitigate this with a “financial aid” model, but realize that such a model asks already disadvantaged potential speakers to further declare their different-ness from the prototypical young, well-paid, child-free, white male programmer we’re so used to seeing on stage.

To conferences that believe they truly cannot possibly come up with a way to cover all costs for all speakers: The lower your ticket price, the more likely I am to buy this. It is imperative that you figure this out before opening a CFP, that you communicate it clearly when soliciting proposals, that you acknowledge publicly that speakers paid to be able to speak, and that you ensure a diverse lineup nonetheless. “I could only afford the rich white dudes who are paid by their companies to speak” is not an excuse for a lineup full of rich white dudes. If you can only cover costs for some speakers, don’t ask accepted speakers to come begging. Make all prospective speakers answer a simple question during the CFP process: “Would you be willing to cover any of your own travel and accommodation costs?”

To conferences that ask speakers to buy a ticket to the event: Your event literally couldn’t happen without speakers. There is no “right” to run a conference. Maybe you shouldn’t be running yours.

Engineering Manager @ Stripe. Based in Durham, NC.

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