The Opening Remarks of a conference are a particularly crucial moment. Whether your stage is physical or virtual doesn’t really matter. What matters is setting the right tone, sharing useful pieces of information to enhance everybody’s experience, getting your audience engaged and excited and feeling safe.
These feelings only half guarantee your conference’s success. The other half comes from great content and creativity, but that’s not what this blog is about.
This blog is about the responsibility that we event organisers hold every time we launch a conference, every time we invite people to attend our gatherings, every time we open our doors to new attendees and new communities and we encourage them to stay together, sometimes for several days in a row. To write it I’ve drawn on my own experience and also spoken to other people who have been involved in running tech conferences for a number of years.
Whilst the purpose of these events is nothing but noble, providing a unique occasion to both learn and meet new people, we are still putting a group of strangers in the same room... and we must not forget that we are responsible for their experience and safety.
That’s why it’s so important to share and enforce an event Code of Conduct, arguably the very first step to nurturing a positive and safe environment. If you don't yet have one and don’t really know where to start, feel free to grab ours. It’s open source and easily adaptable to your own event.
Going back to the opening remarks, it is absolutely vital to draw attention to the Code of Conduct, but because of time constraints, it’s often summarised with the sentence “Please be kind to each other”. Certainly there are more comprehensive ways to convey its content and importance, however even if you do this questions still remain.
What does being kind mean? Who’s kind to whom? And what happens if someone is not that kind after all or even, is unkind without realising it?
Let’s try to find out.
A good place to start is mentioning that no-one is above the event Code of Conduct: not even you, the organiser, even if you are the one who wrote it. The CoC applies to every single person at the event, every attendee, every team member, every volunteer, every speaker and every sponsor (yes, even if they paid $$$ to be there).
A lapse of judgement can happen to anybody, no matter the role they are covering or how much they are respected by the community. Moreover, all of us can benefit from a different point of view or an eye-opening experience, especially if we never realised we were hurting someone with our actions or words. In this case the CoC is not only a way to establish a safe environment, but also an opportunity to learn and understand each other better.
Once clarified that nobody is “above the law” we can look at more specific details, starting with safety. It’s fundamental to clearly state that no harassment (whether verbal or physical) and/or discrimination will be tolerated: that every participant will be provided with a harassment-free experience, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, neurotype, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion (or lack thereof).
Safety and kindness though are not dictated by the mere lack of harassment. They also mean the adoption of inclusive and gender neutral language, the correct use of someone’s pronouns or the respect of someone’s boundaries and space.
As organisers we can facilitate and encourage respectful behaviours with simple but effective measures. For instance, during physical events we can provide pronouns stickers and colour-coded badges to regulate the networking (red if you don’t want to talk with anybody, yellow if you only initiate conversations yourself, and green if you are fully open to networking). This practice can be also adjusted to use shapes instead of/as well as colours, to accommodate conditions such as colour blindness. In a virtual environment we can encourage our attendees to rename themselves to include their pronouns (e.g. Carla Gaggini, mostly She/Her), and choose platforms that allow attendees to opt out from the networking features or customise the way they interact with others.
At a physical event we can also do things such as providing coloured lanyards to indicate people who do not wish to be photographed, and provide facilities for specific groups. These might include a prayer room, crèche facilities, rooms for nursing mothers who wish to breastfeed in a private space, gender-neutral bathrooms, and quiet areas for people who may need them such as autistic attendees.
With the catering, ensure that vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc options are provided, as well as comprehensive ingredients information. If alcohol is to be offered at social events ensure non-alcoholic options, including alcohol-free beer and wine, are also included.
However, beside offering solutions and encouraging inclusive behaviours, as organisers we also need to be ready to enforce our CoC. Despite all the precautions, sooner or later we will find ourselves in front of a case of misconduct, or in front of someone reporting one.
What happens then?
I’ll be honest; I’ve been in events for over 10 years now and this part never gets easier. To make things more difficult, it’s rare to have universal rules that can offer a blanket solution for every situation. Most of the time it’s about judging unique situations, thinking fast and acting faster.
I’ve learned to listen carefully, observe, and be ready to take extreme actions, no matter how hard they feel at that moment.
At the end of the day we only need to ask ourselves one question: what current and future actions can we take to re-establish safety when this has been disrupted?
Sometimes it simply means having a conversation on site, other times it means having to escort someone outside your venue or ban them from your virtual platform. Depending on the level of danger they represent, as well as their attitude in acknowledging their mistake, this could become a permanent ban.
Unfortunately there’s a limit to what we organisers can actively change and sometimes forbidding access to our events is the only solution. In these cases it becomes extremely important to have the list of people who have been banned (hopefully short!) always available at registration and have all your staff properly briefed about it.
On specific occasions you can also decide to notify the employer of the person who has breached the CoC, whether or not their ban is permanent. A few years ago I was forced to report a member of the venue staff in the middle of a conference because they were inappropriately engaging with our attendees. In that particular situation it was important to raise awareness not only for the safety of my audience but also to prevent similar behaviours during other organisers’ events.
It goes without saying that their manager was quite displeased and removed them from their role immediately. I later found out that they also decided to end their working relationship, partially because of this particular incident.
So yeah, you do have the power to make changes happen, but for the same reason we should be thoughtful and as objective as possible when reporting this kind of situation.
These examples, albeit more extreme, should also be the consequence for behaviours that are often easier to recognise, such as trolling or verbal or physical harassment. As unpleasant as it is, the choice in these cases is quite easy.
However, there are other circumstances, less extreme and less recognisable but nonetheless hurtful or as dangerous. Speaking to me in a personal capacity Wes Reisz, who is currently the chair for QCon San Francisco and has chaired a number of QCon events over the years, told me, “It’s easy when the incident is clear cut. It gets harder in a gray area where language barriers, cultural norms, and misunderstanding collide. Be empathic, be transparent, be honest. That’s the best I can offer. No Code of Conduct violation is easy, but protecting the experience of each and every attendee is one of the most important things any event must do.”
Reisz described an event that occurred at a QCon.ai during a keynote.
"The speaker was very much against the militarization of AI/ML and was doing a talk about privacy/ethics. The person made several comments about the ethics of artificial intelligence/machine learning in military applications that were arguably on the boundary of the keynote’s topic. She made general statements that--by design--challenged thinking.
An attendee complained that he found her comments offensive. In the Code of Conduct, it read:
Any form of written, social media, or verbal communication that can be offensive or harassing to any attendee, speaker or staff is not allowed at QCon.
He found her specific comments offensive. I found it free speech about something that is a relevant concern we should be discussing in software today.
So what was the outcome? While we disagreed about her comments being offensive, we agreed it was important to be very intentional when picking topics like this and to make sure that, during an introduction, we would mention sensitive points being discussed. In addition, this was a talk mostly about privacy. While militarization of AI/ML is an ethical concern and a valid discussion, it wasn’t really the topic he was expecting. So we agreed to make sure that we stayed on target for keynotes that hit on sensitive topics and, again, to be transparent upfront.
While we didn’t shy away from controversial topics that are important to software today, we did try to be very intentional and clear about why a specific topic was included at a conference. In addition, regardless of our intentional belief, any attendee, speaker, or staff member had to feel the safety to speak about any concern they might have with the organisers."
I can also share an example.
During a large event in London as the main organiser I was approached by an attendee who wanted to report a breach of our CoC: one of the speakers had used language they deemed inappropriate and offensive. The attendee was very calm and willing to talk with the speaker themselves.
Having the contact details of the speakers, I helped them arrange a meeting right away, right there at the conference.
The result was a public apology by the speaker, who was grateful to have had the opportunity to learn a lesson and a very grateful attendee, who thanked me and the speaker for the opportunity to make their point and help rectify an offensive behaviour.
This is where we organisers can make a difference. This is where we can steer conversations and facilitate improvements.
This is also why it’s so important to remind everybody about the CoC and provide them with the easiest way possible to report a breach.
Ultimately, making an event inclusive can be a positive experience for everyone. Reisz gave a particularly powerful example of an experience he had at QCon New York.
"A young, openly gay, developer stopped me in the hallway just after the last session of the conference. Speaking extremely quickly and stumbling over his words, he said he just wanted to thank me. He said it was the first time in a long time where he felt like he belonged at a professional conference. He was so excited you could just feel how hard it was for him to speak about, but also how important it was to him.
That moment has always stuck with me. I’m a white male in the US. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where I just felt out of place, or I didn’t belong--at least based on my appearance, identity, or beliefs. It’s hard enough to learn and overcome the technology and practices involved in software without any of those things becoming an additional impediment.
Anytime someone asks me about the importance of a Code of Conduct, that developer is one of the very people that come to mind.”
For me, I’d always thought that I understood the importance of a CoC, and I’d always thought that I’d done my best to ensure its enforcement.
But some years ago I had an experience where I truly understood the impact that my contribution, and the safety I was aiming to build, had on someone’s experience.
I was once again approached by an attendee who wanted to speak to the organiser of the conference. They were visibly nervous and I decided to move us to a more private area. They asked me if it was okay if they read from their phone, because they really wanted to report a misconduct event but they were too nervous to speak, so had written down a summary on the phone.
Of course I agreed.
They read the piece, perfectly described and articulated, their voice still shaky and timid.
I was speechless. Not because of what they were reporting, but because of their courage, and the fact that they decided to come to me, battling their fears, because they believed I could help them make something right.
That moment changed me deeply. Suddenly the responsibility to enforce my CoC felt ten times heavier.
But I also felt incredibly privileged and grateful, because I was the one able to facilitate a change and make someone feel a bit safer. I was the one that could reassure that nervous attendee that the misconduct was going to be addressed.
It’s with a big thank you to this person that I'd like to close this blog. And with the encouragement to everyone to always report any breach of the CoC that you witness. And lastly, with a reminder to all event organisers to always do our best to honour the trust we are given.