The Syntax of Tech Communities

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Just like the programming languages that are the centers of our communities, each community has its own set of rules and idioms — they have a real life syntax.

In my (almost) three years of being in a developer relations type role I have attended events in several communities and have observed how they differ from my primary community (PHP). As I’ve tried to understand those differences and the reasons behind them, I have had many discussions with members of many more communities also.

After attending my first PyCon (US) I was struck by just how welcoming and diverse the community is and had many conversations trying to understand why this is. This is not what this post is about. This post is about conferences specifically, and how communities place different priorities on different things when it comes to how they run, organize, speak at, and attend events.

PHP

The first thing I found that was unique about the PHP community is that every event which has an open CFP (e.g. not a local community day, hackathon, etc.) will reimburse at least some travel and lodging costs.

Larger community and for profit events will typically cover all flight costs and at least (number of talks)+1 nights hotel. Some will limit the number of international speakers to keep costs manageable, while others will have a fixed amount of costs they can cover, and the rest is up to the speaker.

In fact, the reason I started speaking at conferences was because of this, I would never have been able to afford to attend otherwise.

These may be paid up front with the conference booking the flights on your behalf, or they may be a refund after the fact.

In the last few years the smaller community events have (probably because it’s a default in OpenCFP) added checkboxes to their CFP which allow you request help for travel and/or accommodation. I think this change has come about as the number of speakers whose jobs are willing to pay their way has increased.

Additionally, you would get a full ticket to the event. Speakers do not get paid anything additional such as an honorarium.

Due to these costs incurred by events, ticket prices are usually somewhere from $150-350 with tutorial days at additional cost. A few events are much more expensive (~$1000+), but are typically not aimed at the community crowd.

Another thing I’ve noted is that it’s common for speakers to submit multiple talks to conferences and this is highly encouraged to people who wish to get a talk accepted: never submit just one!

As for the talks themselves, they are usually minimum 40 minutes (which is rare) and maximum 60 minutes. 50 minutes is the most common format.

Ruby

The community which I spend the most time comparing (mostly with PJ) is Ruby. The first major difference I noticed was that there were no speaker packages. I was outraged by this, it felt like the equivalent of “it’ll be good for your portfolio”.

Then I found out why this was: the ruby community values accessible ticket prices, and wants to have a low price point to make the event feasible for as many people as possible, including students, single parents, etc.

This would be impossible if speakers travel/hotel were paid for by the event.

Speakers are given a ticket to the event, and I’m sure for some its reason enough to speak, while others do it for the exposure and networking opportunities. But additionally they seem to do it to contribute back to the community as well.

Also, when it comes to CFPs, numerous people I spoke to early on were aghast to learn that in the PHP community we submit multiple talks. However it seems that this is changing, and it is becoming more common to do so.

Talks are usually 25 minutes, with the max being 35 minutes. Some are as little as 20 minutes.

Python

The Python community seems to be somewhere in the middle. While Python events do not cover a speakers flight and hotel, the PSF has a formal grant program which allows for those unable to afford to attend to request financial support to do so.

And while ticket prices are not as cheap as ruby events, they do have multiple levels of ticket prices, for example students, regular, and business tickets. For PyCon US, those were $125, $300, and $600 respectively. And everyone buys a ticket, including the event chairs, volunteers, and speakers. Again the PSF grant program can help here.

Submitting multiple talks seems to be the norm. And talks are 35-40 minutes long.

Perl

I have only recently started discussing this topic with members of the Perl community, but they seem to also value low cost tickets, speaker costs not covered, and 35-40 minute talk slots. I may be wrong on this but that’s what I understand to be the case. I am unsure if tickets to the event are given to speakers, or how CFPs are typically done.

There’s No Right Answer

It is obvious to me that community is hugely important to everyone I’ve spoken to about this, and I find it interesting how different communities have different priorities resulting in different conference experiences.

I will say that the Python way seems like a much more democratic and inclusive way to handle things, but that it depends on the PSF which is a core part of its community and requires monumental effort, oversight, and tons of volunteers. As an aside, the PSF also seems instrumental in the inclusiveness and diversity exhibited by the Python community.

At the end of the day, I think we all have valid motivations. The PHP way ensures that regardless of your financial situation, if you have something valuable to share then you can do so, while the Ruby way ensures that the most possible people can attend to hear what is being shared, and the Python way tries to strike a middle ground.

I do find it interesting how consistent things seem to be within communities, perhaps simply through early leaders setting the expectations, but it does show some of the differences of opinion on how to build a thriving community — and yet even with these differences, they are all large, thriving communities.


Image courtesy of Benjamin Horn, used under a CC-BY 2.0 License.

Thanks to PJ and Rae for reviewing this post.