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Call for proposals: !!Con 2015

This year, for the second year in a row, my friends and I are organizing !!Con (pronounced bang bang con), a conference about the joy, excitement, and surprise of programming. !!Con is a conference with “a mission of radical inclusivity” where all the talks are ten minutes long1 and cover a bewilderingly wide range of topics.

I’m writing this post to encourage you to submit a talk proposal to !!Con 2015. Our call for talk proposals has already been open for a few weeks, so you may have already heard about us. Indeed, we’ve already received many more talk proposals than we could possibly accept! But we’re greedy; we want more. We want talk proposals from you.2

I’ve written in the past about !!Con’s real-time captioning of talks. Here are two more things !!Con does that I think set it apart from many other conferences. We’re not the only conference that does these things, although we’re in the minority for the time being.

Anonymous proposal review, with “advocates”

At !!Con, we anonymize talk proposals before reviewing them. My co-organizer, Julia Evans, has written in detail about how this process worked last year; I recommend reading her post to learn all about it. It involved much more than just removing the names from talk submissions — our anonymizer, Alex Clemmer, actually removed all identifying information that it was possible to remove without compromising the content of the proposal. When a submission had an attached video, for example, Alex watched the video and wrote an anonymized summary for the rest of us! Then, the other five organizers all reviewed the proposal independently (minus anyone who had a conflict of interest — say, anyone who’d already discussed the proposal with the author) and assigned it a grade from A (“I will fight for this proposal to be accepted”) to D (“I will fight for this proposal to be rejected”).

Obviously, the anonymization process isn’t perfect. There are inevitably some talk proposals that lose some of their punch as a result of anonymization. But, as Julia pointed out, anonymization has a number of benefits: it gives would-be speakers more confidence that they’ll be judged fairly; it eliminates the advantage of being a “famous” speaker; and it makes it impossible for us to give preferential treatment to our friends. To me, these benefits outweigh the disadvantages of anonymization, and they justify the amount of work it takes.

There’s one other aspect of our talk selection process that doesn’t have to do with anonymization, but that I think is worth mentioning: as Julia explains, we used a version of the “Make Champions Explicit” approach to talk selection. In order for a proposal to get serious consideration, at least one reviewer had to give it an A. Even a proposal that got one A and four D grades would have gotten serious consideration (although there weren’t any like that last year). Then, once a proposal reached the “serious consideration” stage, at least one reviewer (who may or may not have been someone who previously gave it an A grade) had to explicitly step up to be the “advocate” or “champion” for each proposal that we ended up accepting.

This approach worked really well for !!Con last year, and although we might tweak some of the details, our talk selection process will be similar for 2015. Making sure that every proposal that someone loves receives serious consideration means that every reviewer’s opinion is valued. It also has the effect that if a proposal gets, say, five B grades, then it won’t get serious consideration. Whether that’s good or bad is an open question, but I think it works out well for !!Con because it means that we give serious consideration to oddball or provocative talks that at least one reviewer loves, instead of talks that every reviewer thinks are merely okay. Those oddball talks often end up being a huge hit at the conference. In fact, one might even say that !!Con consists entirely of oddball talks, and that’s part of what makes it so great.

No Q&A periods after talks

Another thing we do at !!Con is to eschew Q&A periods after talks in favor of having lots of breaks and unstructured time during which attendees and speakers can interact. Q&A can be great, but it’s often annoying, boring, or an exercise in rudeness. Other times, there are no questions at all, which can be even worse than rude questions, because the speaker is left to wonder: Did no one listen? Was my whole talk incomprehensible?

I’ve personally been rude to speakers during Q&A sessions at conferences. I don’t mean to be rude, but since there are usually only a couple of minutes of Q&A time available, I have to make my question blunt in order to use up as little of that scarce resource as possible. As a questioner, one is left with a nasty choice: be blunt to the speaker, or be rude to the whole room by causing the session to run long. The speaker has a similar nasty choice to make when answering the question. Even under the best of circumstances, when a wonderful question is asked, a wonderful answer is provided, and no one is being rude, there’s still not enough time for either the question or the answer to get the treatment they deserve. Some questions call for twenty minutes and a whiteboard, not two minutes and a microphone. (Sometimes, Q&A discussions end with a promise to “take the discussion offline”, but it’s anyone’s guess whether that follow-up ever actually occurs. It’s often hard for the questioner and speaker to find each other later, and that’s even if they both actually want to be found.)

Given all this, it’s no surprise that so many speakers and audiences dislike Q&A. So, at !!Con, we just don’t do it. Instead, we encourage people with questions to talk with the speakers during meals, breaks, or other unstructured time. I found that this worked really well for me at !!Con last year. I had a nitpicky question about someone’s talk, and had I brought it up during a traditional Q&A session, I’m sure it would have sounded smug and pedantic. Instead, the thing I was nitpicking about came up naturally in the course of a chat with the speaker over ice cream later in the day. As we talked, I learned that there was some context that I was missing, and I came away from the conversation with a more nuanced understanding of the topic at hand. I reached a level of understanding that I doubt I would have been able to reach if we’d had an ordinary Q&A format, and I didn’t even have to be a smug jerk to anyone to get there.

So, submit a talk proposal!

If all that sounds good to you, then I’d love it if you submitted a talk proposal to !!Con 2015! You have a little more than a day to get your talk proposals in. That’s not much time to put a proposal together, but hey, we’re talking ten-minute talks here — you can totally do this. (If you’re short on ideas, perhaps last year’s talk descriptions will inspire you.) And if you’d like to submit a proposal, but you need some advice or assistance or you have a question, just ask one of the organizers — we’re here to help. (Your question may already be answered in our code of conduct, accessibility information, or information about speaker funding.)

  1. There are also two keynote talks, which have historically clocked in at around twenty or thirty minutes.

  2. If you’ve already submitted a proposal, thank you! But don’t feel like you have to stop at one! Fact: last year, one of our speakers submitted at least four proposals. All but one were rejected. You only need one acceptance in order to speak!

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