Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Advice for conference submissions (Agile on the Beach feedback)

For Agile on the Beach 2016 we had over 240 submissions. Thank you to everyone who submitted, I’m sorry we could have so few of you - 41 sessions if I remember correctly.

I find sending the “Sorry you weren’t accepted” mails the hardest part of organising Agile on the Beach. That is especially true when I know the speaker personally, or I want the topic, or I’ve seen the talk before and think it would be great. But in the end I only have the same voting power as the other five committee members.

And in the end, knowing that the decision on who to accept, and who not to, was not mine alone helps me get through the “Sorries.”

Each year I tell potential speakers: “If you would like feedback on why your session was not accepted please email me, I can’t promise detail feedback, or promise to do it promptly but I’ll do my best.”

After all Agile is about Feedback so why wouldn’t we do this?

Well, its a lot of work - about five hours I think. Because its a lot of work this year it has taken me nearly three months to find the time to do it but I have just sent the last feedback. Sometimes there isn’t much I can tell potential speakers, reviewers can add comments with their score but they don’t have to.

(If you submitted something to Agile on the Beach 2016 and I’ve missed your request, or only know decided you would like feedback then please e-mail me.)

Many of the reasons why sessions didn’t score highly crop up again and again so I thought it would be worth capturing them here in a blog. For anyone thinking of submitting to Agile on the Beach 2017, or another conference, these reasons might be useful.

By the way, I have another blog post about the Agile on the Beach voting process which should be read together with this one - or better still, before this one!

So, the common themes in the feedback I’m giving submitters are:

  1. A lot of session were simply out competed: reviewers liked them but they liked other sessions more.
  2. Some synopsis were to short, light on detail, little to engage the audience - and certainly the reviewer.
  3. Some synopsis were too long, too much detail - indeed I remember some that went on and on. Clearly there is an art to getting something long enough to give detail but not so long the reader gets fed up reading it. (Remember reviewers may have 240 of these to read.)
  4. Multiple submissions by one person is a high-risk strategy. If you are Adrian Howard or Seb Rose this is a high reward strategy, both of these speakers have in the past submitted strong proposals and the committee is left agonising about which one, or perhaps two, of the submissions we will have. Seb and Adrian changed the debate. But for most submitters reviewers notice multiple submissions and actively score one higher than the other. Unfortunately if another reviewer makes the opposite choice multiple submissions effectively split the speakers vote. So it is better to limit your number of submissions and play to your strengths.
  5. Multiple submissions of the same synopsis with different travel expense expectations or co-speakers really annoyed the reviewers. For example, a couple of people submitted a talk with expenses set to “Worldwide” i.e. a long haul flight, and then submitted the same with “Local” or “Will pay my own long haul.” Reviewers felt these people were trying to game the system and marked them down.
  6. Indeed, Worldwide travel, long-haul flights, always presents us with a problem because such speakers are more expensive for us. We can usually find the money for one or two such speakers but thats the limit. This year we provided the option for speakers who were prepared to pay their own long-haul flights and we have a couple of speakers doing this. While I accept this might not be fare it is hard to see how we can be completely fare given our economics.
  7. Paid speakers: we don’t pay speaker for Agile on the Beach. We pay travel expenses but not speaking fees. If you are looking for a fee then please don’t submit.
  8. Keynotes: we don’t do an open call for keynotes. We select the keynotes and invite them before we even open the call for papers usually.
  9. Double sessions need to be twice as good: accepting a double displaces two single sessions which means we need to be convinced. Despite making extra space for doubles this feels like an inevitable problem because it is about timing. It isn’t really fair - some topics genuinely deserve more time, especially if they are interactive. Perhaps the best advice is: only submit a double if you have been the to conference before and committee members are likely to remember you as a good speaker. Giving a double to an unknown speaker is a big risk.
  10. This year we had what seemed like a lot of submissions along the lines of “What Hiking taught me about Agile” or “Why paragliding is like software development.” While these are interesting metaphors none of the scored highly. In general I think such metaphors only work if the field is well know. And this year I for one got a bit fed up of reading yet another “Lessons from arctic exploration for Agilistas.”
  11. ThoughtWorks: this is one of those “nice to have” problems but still a problem. We have a great relationship with ThoughtWorks - largely thanks to Jim Barritt and James Lewis who put us on the TW map and encourage a lot of TW people to attend. So we get a lot of strong proposals from Thought-Workers - after all TW only hire the best so we don’t get weak proposals from them. In 2015 we could have populated entire tracks with only TW consultants. They would be strong tracks but we don’t think that is good for conference variety. As a result submissions from TW consultants have to compete against each other in addition to competing with everyone else. Sorry guys.

By the way, we don’t do anonymous submissions, we, certainly myself, tend to believe the speaker, their background, name and experience is important. If we have been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see someone speak at a conference we take that into account. We also know there are many speakers we like to see return - and one or two who we don’t want to see again!

We have in the past been criticised for not including enough variety in our speakers, specifically: having too many men. Perhaps one reason for doing anonymous submissions would be to guard against this but actually, we don’t see this our problem. Or rather: yes we would like a better gender balance but when we’ve looked at the male/female ratio of other - comparable - conferences we’ve found we our balance is better than most. That is not a reason to rest on our laurels but it does imply its not a problem to us specifically.