On making a conference lineup more diverse

(Or, why I didn’t submit to the PHP Unicorn conference)

I don’t usually blog about internal community struggles. They’re often important discussions to have, sure, but I usually don’t like to get involved. But this one is important to me, because I had an opinion on it before it was a problem. But I decided to keep silent at the time. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have done.

So. The problem: (another) conference has a speaker lineup which is 10% female, 0% PoC. This problem is far too common; I’ve called out conferences for this in the past. But the main difference in this case is Peter has held his hands up, admitted he could’ve done better, and openly asked for (and importantly, listened to) advice on how to be better next year.

[By the way, Peter, if you’re reading this (and I hope you are): hats off for making this a learning experience for both you and other conference organisers. I have no beef with you or your conference, I want to watch but sadly I cannot get the day off work. I just wanted to share my experience to add to the pool of knowledge that’s out there.]

From what I can tell, the generally accepted reason why the conference doesn’t have a very diverse speakers lineup is because there wasn’t a very diverse choice of talk submissions. Which was caused by who the CfP was marketed to.

I saw the tweets advertising the CfP, but deliberately chose not to submit. I spent the last couple of days putting into words why that was. Here’s my attempt.

The tweet that I saw advertising the CfP was very close to this one:

Watch 8 of the top PHP experts (unicorns) in the world streaming live (or access the videos later) for just $50. https://t.co/fRWxIoGuZW

— PHP Unicorn Conf (@PHPUnicornConf) March 14, 2017

The three important words are “top PHP experts”.

There were also two initial (I assume invited) speakers already announced: I guess this was to drive ticket sales. They are undoubtedly two well respected names in the community. And they’re both incredibly smart and accomplished people. Between them they have contributed to Core, written books, written very popular development tools, and keynoted at conferences.

So, that’s the level of this conference. Experts (or unicorns: legendary creatures known to be hard to capture). People who have contributed to php in a big way. Like, for example, writing books or contributing to Core.

Which is why I didn’t submit. I have never written a book (the most I’ve done is written articles for other blogs), and I wouldn’t even know where to begin when it comes to contributing to the php language itself.

And is, probably, why many other people -- especially underrepresented people -- thought the same as me. That the CfP probably isn’t for them. The conference wants more intelligent people. More accomplished people. What am I doing even considering I deserve to share a stage with these giants of php?

Which is a lesson to all other conference organisers. I see the same faces on conference websites all the time. Some of these faces I saw at my very first conference I attended, almost 10 years ago. I literally learned my craft from these people.

If we want to bring in more speakers -- more diverse speakers -- we need to say that yes, you can submit to a CfP. It’s not for the elite, chosen, few. You don’t have to look, sound, or act like the other speakers you’ve been watching and learning from for the last ten years.

We need to be say that even if you’ve only been developing for a few years, you absolutely have something to say. Something which the most experienced developer can learn from. You bring something to the table, and we want to hear it. We promise.

We need to say that we don’t need unicorns on stage. We need YOU.