Leader of Birmingham.pm [pm.org] and a CPAN author [cpan.org]. Co-organised YAPC::Europe in 2006 and the 2009 QA Hackathon, responsible for the YAPC Conference Surveys [yapc-surveys.org] and the QA Hackathon [qa-hackathon.org] websites. Also the current caretaker for the CPAN Testers websites and data stores.
If you really want to find out more, buy me a Guinness
So a couple of weeks ago, I was over in Copenhagen for YAPC::Europe. Putting on a YAPC::Europe event, or any YAPC event for that matter, takes up a lot of thought and preparation time before the event. The organisers want to put on the best conference they can and the previous organisers and the supporting team from the YEF Venue Committee try and help with documents, advice and the like every year, but we are all still learning. So it's understandable that sometimes we don't get everything right, or we miss something. Having said that, each year the organisers do try something new or build on previous ideas with the aim of making the whole event a better experience for everyone. This year the Copenhagen guys tried some new things, some worked some didn't, and built on ideas from previous conferences, again some worked some didn't. In between all that there were also a few areas that lapsed. Overall it was a good conference, but it also highlighted some areas we can improve on for the future. In the survey feedback, several have picked on the successes and pitfalls, and most so far have offered some very good feedback and offered suggestions and ideas where they can, which is great, and is part of the purpose of the survey.
However, I would say it's worth bearing in mind that this is a completely volunteer effort (i.e. we don't get paid), none of us are professional conference organisers and we largely do it because we're passionate about Perl and love to bring the European community together to share ideas and meet each other in person. If things go wrong, think about the positive ways to suggest improvements. We're all human, and don't necessarily remember some of the obvious things. I'm sure if the Copenhagen guys were to do it all again, there would be several alterations they would have made to their planning.
This year's event was slightly more subdued than normal, partly I think due to the growing contingent for whom this is the first or second YAPC::Europe. In some respects that is good, as it means we are encouraging new people to the event each year, however, it also potentially means we are losing those who only make it to their local YAPC::Europe. The latter happens at all the YAPC::Europe events, and I can understand several reasons why people don't return for a second or more year. However, some of the reasons are perhaps that the event wasn't quite what they were expecting. I'd like to help that and perhaps make it something more of what people are expecting. What follows are some observations that I took away from Copenhagen and are meant to be food for thought, partly for future YAPC::Europe conferences, but also for any conference. Some are small niggles, while others will need to be addressed more suitably.
Communication before the event wasn't the best and caused a number of people, particularly regulars, to not attend as it was far too late to arrange anything once they had confirmation of costs and the like. This was unfortunate and has emphasised how important a PR type person is needed in the organising team. The Copenhagen team were focused on getting many other aspects of the conference organisation tasks done, that promotion of the event fell behind. Plans are afoot to make the communication much easier in the future, to the point that Twitter accounts and the like have been created to keep the information flow going. But I would say that if anyone has questions for the organisers, please email them. If they've forgotten something, more often than not they'll be glad of the reminder.
The one thing that I'm really glad Copenhagen did, was to provide lunchtime bags of food. It worked very well in the main, and saved attendees the hassle of going out to the nearby shops to find food. However, it wasn't perfect, as unfortunately the bags for the vegetarian options were mixed with the regular bags, and meant a lot of searching through the bags was required. But it was something that could have been easily resolved, had the organisers been made aware of it. In a similar situation, a large number of us are tea drinkers and abhor coffee. Now while I'm sure some were delighted to see Earl Grey and some fruit infusions, many were a bit disappointed to not find any regular tea (it turns out they call it "Classic Tea" in Denmark). As such I made a request for more such tea bags were made available, and they were for the rest of the conference breaks. My suggestion is to try and resolve similar situations at the time, rather than wait until a survey comes out to criticise the organisers.
The venue itself was brand new, and as such made it a little difficult to find. One comment from the survey suggested doing as Birmingham had done (which in turn, we built on from the Braga guys), with pictorial references of how to get from the airport to hotels and the venue. It meant the attendees could find their way with little problem of taking the wrong route. Despite some confusion, everyone pretty much did find the right building eventually, but it would have been better to have provided some clearer signage from the Metro station to the venue itself. As a note to future organisers of any conference, pretend you've just landed in the country, have no guide book and cannot speak the language. This applies equally to English speaking countries too. Could you get to your hotel or the venue with the instructions you've provided?
As with Birmingham and Vienna, Copenhagen utilised the "plasma screen" code, that Birmingham had in turn pinched from the LUGRadio guys. Projected on the main wall outside the main auditorium, the hourly schedule, together with a regular drop of Flickr photos, were highlighted for all to see. Even if you didn't have the schedule to hand, you could easily see what was coming up. I hope future organisers take this further, as it was a useful aid to remember what the time was, and what was coming up next. Plus it was nice to see the photos that people had posted without having to check on Flickr yourself. As the organisers chose not have any printed proceedings, some have mentioned that having something to hand that expanded beyond the title of a talk, such as a talk abstract, would have given them a much better idea of what to see. In future it might be interesting to see whether ACT can provide a simple PDF of all the talks and abstracts, which attendees can print out for themselves. Although, it does depend whether the author actually does include a decent abstract of course.
Although the main auditorium and first two rooms were more than adequate for their size, the 4th room, which proved rather popular for several talks, was more of a classroom size. Thankfully none of the talks I saw there were over subscribed, thanks partly due to the spread of attendees across 4 rather than 3 rooms, but it did highlight that getting the popular talks out of smaller rooms is important. In Birmingham we suffered with this, despite trying to rearrange some of the talks at short notice. This year, just before the conference, Éric Cholet managed to add a feature to ACT that enabled attendees to select the talks they planned to see. While a fun feature, it's usefulness for future organisers is likely to be a life-saver. Having the ability to see which talks are likely to generate the most interest, will mean they have more options before the event to juggle the schedule to get all the talks into the right rooms.
Regards the talks themselves, there was a good selection of talks, covering all sorts of interests and levels of ability. However, it isn't always obvious from the title or abstract what level of knowledge is required for the talk, and whether it is an introduction, in-depth or discussion type talk. As a consequence it makes it a little difficult when there are several talks to choose from, which one is most likely to be most appropriate for you. Hopefully speakers can be prompted better in future to describe their talks a little better, so beginners don't attend expert talks and visa versa.
The 30 minute length for talks also didn't work for me. I was fortunate, as my Understanding Malware talk was able to span two sessions, but I was the only one to do so, and the talk needed that time slot to cover the subject matter. There were several other talks that I felt would have benefited from more time and equally several talks that really only merited 20 minutes, as the extra 10 minutes felt like padding. We had a cross-section of experienced speakers and new speakers this year, and while some of the newer speakers handled their presentations well, some didn't. At more corporate conferences, I've seen Mark Jason Dominus and Damian Conway give excellent presentations on how to give presentations. There are some techniques suggested by both that I now use in my own presentations. Now while those presentations are on the web somewhere, it would be wonderful to get those guys to do a special session, particularly for new speakers, so they can help all speakers improve both their presentation materials and the way they present the subject matter. Some of the new guys just need that little bit of guidance, as their subject matter is interesting.
The four tracks idea can work, but it can also spread talks too thin. This year, I didn't feel there was a lot of benefit to having four tracks, apart from making sure everyone who submitted a talk got accepted. Although I would encourage new speakers to propose talks, I do think the acceptance of talks from new speakers needs a bit of a review. Is the speaker qualified to speak on the subject? Have other similar talks already been submitted by more experienced speakers? We should also get a stronger weighting of experienced speakers rather than new speakers, as in the main most want to be taught something. General interest talks or discussion talks are worth having, but they're usually better handled by experienced speakers. As mentioned above, some of the new speakers did have interesting subject matter to present, so there are definitely some that would still get through the selection criteria, but I feel it's more important to have a strong line-up of talks, than necessarily having a slot for everyone who submitted a talk.
Regarding this last aspect, one post on use.perl, has annoyed me perhaps rather more than it should have. I have no idea who was supposedly promoting themselves rather a lot, as it wasn't obvious to me (or maybe it was me!). But what offended me is the inference that once you've presented a talk, that you should never speak again! Perhaps that wasn't the intention of the original poster, but it does bother me that people assume that they can see all 70+ talks throughout the whole 3 days. In previous years the survey has been useful to see who attendees would like to have seen, both in terms of talks they missed, or speakers that were unable to attend the event. Usually it highlights a few talks that would be worth repeating, following several requests to see them. Surely knowing you've seen a few talks before, gives you more opportunity to see the other talks! A good portion of the attendees have never seen those talks, and as far as they are concerned everyone is fresh blood. Anyway why shouldn't experienced speakers have the chance to give others the benefit of their knowledge? If they're good presenters, get them back as much as possible, both to present new and interesting ideas, but to also help new presenters of the future see how well it can be done. I also wonder whether the OP has ever submitted a talk? If you want fresh blood, put yourself on the spot, and don't expect others to give you a comfortable life.
There are some talks I've given, which having gone down well I've considered repeating every so often, but hearing such comments from people that they've seen it all before puts me off. However, probably over half of the attendance have never seen some of the talks I've previously presented. Do we really have to have completely fresh talks every year? Personally I don't think so and I think there is some value in repeating talks, especially if they cover a worthwhile subject for new attendees. I was actually pleased to have Chris Williams speaking about CPAN Testers, as it gives others a chance to carry on the promotion, and not just me. Had he not have done so, I would have done it, as I think reminding people about CPAN Testers and encouraging people to get involved is important. There are other projects that are equally deserving of promotion and involvement, and talks at YAPCs are an ideal opportunity to repeatedly promote them.
Something that is becoming more and more obvious regarding the scheduling these days, is that we are trying to cram far too much into the day. The early starts were a trial for many, as they were fighting late nights (including hangovers for some), jet-lag and the general intensive mental focus of the day. Remember that most of us don't get away from our computers that much during the general work-day, so focused training, discussion and socialising can be extremely exhausting. While it may well mean that you have to accept less talks, I would rather see more time given to discussion periods. One such casulty were The Birds of a Feather sessions this year as due to over-running it left little time after the main event to hold them. On Wednesday the CPAN Testers BOF went ahead, and was reasonably well attended, but after an hour of discussion, at 7pm it made for a very long conference day. It also meant we were far too late for the Vertical Metre Of Beer Party that Adam Kennedy and Jos Boumans were hosting. On Thursday, again due to over-running, there was no time left for any BOFs, as we were supposed to be at the Conference Dinner venue by 6.30pm. I was disappointed that the Perl Mongers BOF didn't happen, as from previous versions of this BOF, it has been a good sounding board to get new groups started, and energize groups into thinking about organising a YAPC::Europe themselves. This year we didn't get that chance.
Speaking of the socialising aspect, the pub that was chosen for the pre-conference meeting point, and subsequent free evenings, wasn't really suitable for the large number of people that came along. Understandably finding one pub or bar that can accommodate everyone is going to be difficult, but if there is anywhere that has a selection, so that attendees can hop from one to the other is often much better. This worked well in Braga, as in the town centre, even if people disappeared off for food, they all came back later and there was plenty of room outside for us to chat and drink. Of course it helps that Portugal mostly has decent weather! The pub suggested by the Copenhagen guys, The Globe, was an Irish pub, and wasn't too bad. Certainly several of the UK contingent liked the food and beer served up. But it didn't allow for everyone to easily mingle and chat. As a consequence, after meeting there for a first pint, people organised eating parties and headed off to other restaurants. It meant there wasn't really a place where people could meet up together, drink, chat and socialise into the evening and night. There were several people I never quite felt I got the chance to really chat to over the week, and would have loved to have spent more time just relaxing in good company.
Although it might sound like I didn't have a great time in Copenhagen, I did. These are just observations that I thought were worth sharing, rather than just in the feedback form of the survey. There was a lot of things that I really liked about the conference, but there were several things that I do hope future organisers, whether a YAPC or any other conference, might bare in mind. I am now planning to completely overhaul the conference documents that have been on Google Docs, as although a lot of the content is still relevant, there is more to add, and I want to better present it for organisers. At the moment it's a long read and I'm not convinced it gets digested as it currently is.
I would like to thank all the Copenhagen crew for their efforts. While there were some problems and lessons to be learnt, the event itself largely did go well. The crew were very friendly and helpful, there were some great talks, it was a good venue and I'm glad I finally got to visit the city of Copenhagen. I had a great time, and would love to go back to Copenhagen for a longer sight seeing visit.
My biggest disappointment of the event though, is completely and utterly my own fault. As with Vienna I had plans to make a note of people attending who I would like to meet in person and find them and say hello. Once again this year I failed miserably. So next time around, in case I forget, can Aristotle, Diego, George and Steffen come and say hello
Next year I'm sure that they'll be other things that I'll be thinking didn't go as planned, but I'm pretty sure I'll still have a great time regardless, as I did this year. I guess I just worry too much