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SeConf and Our Transition to Paying Speakers’ Expenses

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Guest post by Ashley Hunsberger and Marcus Merrell, co-chairs of the Selenium Conference Organizing Committee

 

 

There’s a touchy subject in the Twittersphere these days around conferences that require speakers to pay to speak (or, #paytospeak). Cassandra Leung discusses in depth why she doesn’t pay to speak in her blog, raising some really great points. Marcus (organizing since 2012) and I (joining in 2016) wanted to share our perspective as organizers for Selenium Conference (SeConf) – which used to be #paytospeak – our transition to paying speakers’ expenses, the benefits we have seen, and why we’ll never be #paytospeak again.

 

 

A Little Background…

 

SeConf started in 2011 in San Francisco, run entirely by volunteers passionate about the Selenium Project. It brought the contributors to the Selenium Project together with the broader community, fostering a collaborative environment that reminded us all that Open Source projects can be fun. We believe the conference continues to do so!

 

For several years, speakers had to get to the conference on their own. As Maaret Pyhäjärvi explains in her post about #paytospeak, conferences (particularly young ones, like SeConf) have to decide where to put their money. Selenium started with a focus on the community, so the ticket prices were kept low for motivated individuals who wanted to come, but whose employer wouldn’t provide a ticket. We also moved the conference from city to city to allow people from those communities to participate without needing to travel as far.

 

We never intended to make a ton of money; the Selenium Project is a proud member project of the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) – a non-profit that helps “promote, improve, develop, and defend Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) projects.” To be honest, one primary goal was just to not lose money. Most of our conferences barely broke even, some ran at a loss, and those that generated profits did so very modestly. Money earned went back into the Selenium Project, and a portion to support the SFC.

 

 

The WOE Difference

 

Fast forward to 2016: relationships with sponsors had evolved and matured, and the all-volunteer organizing committee wanted to explore partnering with event organizers. This would allow the committee to focus on content and leave administrative details (venue management, sponsorship acquisition, ticket sales, etc.) to the organizers. This led us to White October Events (WOE). In signing with them, the organizing committee committed to two very key components:

  1. The conference must include a Code of Conduct (which we take very seriously by not only having one, but also a means of reporting and enforcing it)
  2. Speaker travel and accommodation expenses are covered within the budget

 

The first was a no-brainer. While the conference generally operated under the assumption of “be kind,” when WOE brought it up as a condition, they had our full support (and a thought of, “duh! Why didn’t we do this before?!”).

 

For the latter, the committee was skeptical. Any profits we had run previously were marginal — we didn’t see how we could cover costs for over 24 speakers. However, with the budget WOE presented, a modest increase in ticket pricing, a slight uptick in the number of attendees, and a strict cap on the travel budget, it seemed like it could work.

 

As far as the travel budget is concerned, we did this by estimating a certain amount for domestic and international speakers, and placed a cap to keep us within a reasonable range. This cap was not advertised, as our experience has shown that the reimbursements have largely evened out for the overall travel budget, and we’ve not had to push back. We’ve also had to limit the number of international speakers we could accept, in order to remain within budget.

 

 

The Results of Sponsoring Speakers

 

Right off the bat, the committee saw major differences that we could directly attribute to sponsoring speaker expenses:

  • CFP process – “Making the conference accessible to any speaker” meant people were free from having to consider cost, whether from their own pocket or requesting budget from their company. We went from seeing around 65 submissions to over 220 for each conference that offered speaker travel reimbursement. That’s a 238% increase in submissions.
  • New voices – This increase brought in new subjects, new speakers, new nationalities, and new perspectives. Admittedly, we’ve historically had issues around recycling speakers due to having the same pool of applicants. To be honest, we still see this but we recognize it and want to improve with each conference. One step is our new partnership with the Speak Easy program to guarantee a spot for mentees. We hope to see many applications through Speak Easy!
  • Diverse voices – Along with the uptick in submissions and variety of subjects, we also saw more submissions by women and other underrepresented groups. Looking at the historical data of women speaking at SeConf, this is something we are most proud of. There is still a long way to go – in 2016 – 2017, the submissions from women range from 10-20% of all CFPs (out of 220 submissions, we see around 20 from women), but seeing such a drastic improvement upon partnering with WOE really made me believe that #paytospeak is directly related to how many women even consider submitting to conferences. Although we saw 10-20% percent women applying, the quality of the applications helped increase the representation in selected speakers for the conferences. You be the judge…
    • 2011 – San Francisco (data unavailable)
    • 2012 – London – 2 women out of 33 (6%)
    • 2013 – Boston – 1 woman out of 33 (3%)
    • 2014 – Bangalore – 2 women out of 28 (7%)
    • 2015 – Portland – 6 women out of 29 (20%)
    • 2016 – Bangalore – 6 women out of 42 (14%)
    • 2016 – London* – 11 women out of 28 (39%)
    • 2017 – Austin – 7 women out of 29 (24%)
    • 2017 – Berlin* – 9 women out of 23 (39%)

* Denotes conference partnership with WOE

 

To us, the proof is in the pudding. SeConf will now always be #nopaytospeak. While we originally focused on including more women, we still have plenty of work to do with all underrepresented minorities (URMs). We believe that #nopaytospeak is just one element of being more inclusive, and we’re dedicated to removing all the barriers we can.

 

 

Considerations for #nopaytospeak

 

While SeConf has found this doable, there are some considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Where are speakers coming from? Unless you have more money than you know what to do with, have a strict budget allocated based on location. As we mentioned, we don’t fund a program full of international speakers, so this helps us to manage costs. We looked at average domestic airfare and international airfare (economy) to the location, and agree to 2-3 nights of hotel. As we considered ticket pricing, we thought about what we would need to charge to be able to accommodate paying for speakers’ travel and accommodation.
  2. Are door to door expenses reimbursed? Does the conference include getting to / from the airport at departure and arrival cities? My favorite arrangement is having the conference send a driver to pick me up after an overnight flight, leaving me without the worry of how to get to the hotel after a long flight and all that goes with it
  3. How quickly are expenses reimbursed? It’s daunting to have a balance on my credit card carried over. We wanted to be prepared to handle invoicing and reimbursement before the event. When is the latest after the event that speakers can expect full reimbursement?

 

There’s probably a lot more to consider, but those were top of mind. We’d love to have more suggestions from you in the comments!

 

 

Our Dream for SeConf and Beyond

 

Of course, there is still more work to be done, but we firmly believe our transition to #nopaytospeak is a way to enable those who would otherwise be unable to participate and be part of our community. As we make some tweaks in our budget models for upcoming conferences, we need to consider our fiduciary responsibility as conference organizers. That said, we’d love to consider further ways to enable speakers, such as a stipend or profit share. Imagine any number of scenarios:

  1. As a working parent, it’s difficult to leave young children. Having a little extra helps to get extra care, or, if one is fortunate enough to have assistance, allows us to do something special as a family after being away
  2. Loss of pay — some people end up turning down consulting gigs, while others work hourly and lose those hours paying to speak
  3. Some speakers are coming from an area that does not have the same cost of living as our host countries. Offering a speaker stipend helps offset costs of lost wages

 

We are excited about the future, and are committed to our speakers! Supporting them is important to us, and it has helped us to build a stronger community and a better conference. The SeConf India CFP is open until 19 March, and SeConf Chicago is open 19 March through 10 May!  We hope you’ll consider submitting, and remember to get in touch with Speak Easy at any time for new speaker mentoring.

 

 

Author Bios

 

Ashley Hunsberger is a Product Quality Architect at Blackboard, Inc, a leading provider of educational technology, where she helps establish and drive testing practices throughout the organization. She’s an international speaker that has shared her experiences at industry events including Selenium Conference, Software Test Professionals Conference, and soon at TISQA, SauceCon, Quality Jam, and Better Software Conference/DevOps West. She also enjoys sharing her experiences through writing as a guest blogger for SauceLabs. A proponent of open source, Ashley believes in giving back to the software community and serves as a member of the Selenium Project Steering Committee and now co-chair of the Selenium Conference, with a focus and passion for diversity and inclusion throughout the industry.

 

Marcus Merrell has written UI and API test frameworks since 2001. He is obsessed with code design and holds sacred the philosophy that test frameworks should be approached, developed, and tested just as carefully as the production software they seek to examine. He is the Lead Quality Engineer for RetailMeNot’s Platform Teams, and works with other QA/Developers to evangelize industry best practices to the rest of the company.

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