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In our local city in the UK, there are as far as I am aware no developer conferences.

I am confident that our region has many professional developers as well as many graduating students whom who really benefit from a conference.

I would like to ask the following questions:

  • What steps or advice would one take if the task was given to set up a local developers conference?
  • What would the costing look like? (excluding building/hosting of website(s))
  • How would one build interest and promote this?
  • How would I approach, Local Companies & Universities to collaborate with them?

I'm not just aiming this question to users who may have experience in setting up such conferences (but are highly welcome). Rather how would you attack this if you was tasked with this?

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To me it feels backwards. Usually you figure out what to have a conference about, then if somebody would go, and then where to have it. But I could be wrong. What would be the purpose of this conference? What's the audience? Etc. But for budgets I know the Plone Conference budgets have been published several times, and I think PyCon also publishes their budgets. Take a good look at the PyCon 2009 results. Massive loss. Running conferences are not easy. :) –  Lennart Regebro Dec 18 '10 at 21:32
I suggest contacting the Open Source Developers Conference for some discussions. –  Alec the Geek Dec 19 '10 at 19:12

3 Answers 3

I'm the creator of the Strange Loop conference and a couple local user groups, and an advisor for a few other developer events.

Running a conference is a lot of work but I think what makes organizers successful is a clear vision and the ability to manage many small details.

Some major aspects of a conference include:

  • Location - location is one of the most important aspects of an event. You typically have to choose it early in the process and it affects every decision you can make thereafter. It impacts your choices on some of the biggest costs (food, A/V). Creative venues are fun and bring people in - movie theaters, art galleries, rock venues, etc. Creative venues also come with unique cost structures and challenges (movie theaters have surprisingly complicated for A/V).
  • Speakers/scheduling - are you going to have one track or many? Sessions, panels, lightning talks, unconference? Local speakers or national? All of these interact with location and budgeting. Will speakers be paid? Stipend? Travel? What are the tracks or topics? Open call for presentation or invited speakers or a mix?
  • Food - food is often the biggest expense. If you're creative, it can be done at a reasonable cost but places like hotels will charge you shocking amounts.
  • Web site - there are many ways to build a static web site for very little cost. Many registration systems will let you build a simple site as part of the registration process with little effort. You could create a static site on GitHub, or use a CMS like Wordpress or Drupal, all the way up to a full custom site (I've done all of these).
  • Registration - there are many easy ways to get started such as EventBrite etc all the way up to fairly complicated and expensive management systems.
  • Sponsors - will you want sponors? If so, what are the cost levels? Usually conferences provide a sponsorship prospectus to outline price levels and benefits. Why would a company want to sponsor? Usually this is affected by your target topics and audience.
  • A/V - do you need projectors? mics? (if coding, speakers want lavaliers, not handheld), do you need a sound system? video?
  • Promotion - go where your audience is - if it's local developers, then go to user groups and meetups and job fairs - wherever local developers might congregate. Both Facebook and LinkedIn have excellent ad systems that let you target by both geography, role, keyword, etc and let you set daily cost limits to keep it in your budget.

A couple of key pieces of advice I'd give:

  • Make a budget - building a spreadsheet and estimate every income and expense you can think of. Some costs are per-person and some are fixed. The better you can model the true cost structure of your conference, the better you will be able to make real decisions. Once you model estimates for major costs like food and A/V and estimated attendance (be conservative), you can look at price structures. Building a spreadsheet with key variables lets you play with those variables. When you start, you will make wild guesses at things - call people up and get quotes for those. Ask at least 2-3 venues/caterers/etc to understand the range.
  • Keep it simple - when you first start out, keep things as simple as you can. They will get complicated faster than you expect. One track is easier than two. Using a registration app's web site is easier than building your own. Cut every corner you can to still have a successful conference: one that a) gets people together b) and they enjoy it and c) you don't go broke.
  • Find a mentor - it is incredibly helpful to have someone to ask questions when you're getting started. Finding someone nearby who has done something like this is invaluable. I'm always happy to answer questions - alex at thestrangeloop.com.
  • Find co-organizers - I did way too many things by myself in the beginning when having even one other organizer would have been so much smarter.

I find organizing developer events to be incredibly fun, creative, and energizing. It can also be draining and stressful. Don't let anyone tell you it can't be done - there are many many ways to run a successful event.

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Running even a small conference can be enjoyable and very worthwhile, but also complicated, a lot of work, and a big pain in the neck. For bigger ones, you should figure on putting the rest of your life on hold for months before and after, and maybe gambling everything you own. So you need to be sure you really love doing it!

My wife ran academic conferences in grad school, and I'm sure she'd never do it again. An acquaintance of mine runs the annual Hackers Conference, which only has a hundred-ish invited attendees, and at times he's had to dip into his retirement fund to cover tens of thousands of dollars of expenses and beg for donations to bail him out.

Many great conferences grow out of smaller meet-ups. I used to be on the board of directors for the North Texas Irish Festival, which grew out of a pub party in 1983, and had 62,000 attendees in 2010.

If you really want to go ahead with something like this, here's what I'd suggest:

  1. Start a programmers' club that meets once or twice a month for a talk, perhaps in the evening at a local restaurant with a meeting room so people can enjoy dinner and a beer.
  2. After you've had dozens of people showing up regularly for a few months and you have a good idea what topics are most interesting, set up a four-hour conference on a Saturday afternoon for your club. Nothing fancy, just arrange a big room with lots of folding chairs, a projector and screen, and some folding tables for people to show off whatever they want to show off. You will quickly find out about arranging speakers, renting meeting halls and equipment, contracts and liability, financing out-of-pocket expenses before anybody pays their entrance fees, and the fact that helpful volunteers are few but many people have opinions.
  3. If that succeeds and you haven't run screaming into the night, contact Andrew Hutton. He organizes the annual Ottawa Linux Symposium, and can discuss how he runs that very large, sophisticated conference.
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I get the "we need to get our coders in one place to talk, teach, and share" impulse, but the first step is always to get to know that community and figure out what there is interest in having a conference about. A "programmers' conference" is too general, and thus not likely to get much interest.

If you don't feel there's enough going on in a single area of programming, you can try to get several related areas together. For example, in 2007 when DrupalCon was less than 1/10th the size it is now, it was held in conjunction with an Open Source CMS Summit.

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