Three Tips for Running a FOSDEM DevRoom (Or any Single-Track Event)

(With Leslie Hawthorn)

For the past three years, we’ve run the FOSDEM Community DevRoom, welcoming speakers from the ranks of open source maintainers, community builders, FOSS non-profit organizations, and agile coaching. We’ve also been fortunate enough to get great reviews on our program curation and DevRoom facilitation, so we’re sharing a few tips to help people who’d like to run a DevRoom at FOSDEM.

This list isn’t just for FOSDEMers, though; it’s good for anyone who needs some getting-started advice on running a single-track program at any event!

Publish a Comprehensive Call For Papers (CFP)

Are you welcoming first-time speakers? Are lightning talk submissions acceptable? Are you looking for particular topics?

Be very clear with would-be presenters what you’d like to see at your event, and what talks are not appropriate for your program theme. If you haven’t decided on a program theme, think of one before you create your CFP, so the event resonates well with your attendees. It’s okay to be eclectic in the proposals you’ll accept–for example, “community” is quite a broad topic–but give folks as much guidance as possible so they feel like there’s a good reason to submit a proposal.

Similarly, make sure that your CFP lets people know that they’re free to come up with a topic that isn’t on your list of suggestions, assuming that’s the case. A great CFP has a list of topics to spark people’s creativity and to clarify what sort of presentations are sought, but if you’re open to something completely different than your proposed subjects, make that explicit.

Finally, a great CFP saves you and your talk submitters time and energy by covering all the bases in one place: time and location of the event, instructions on how to submit, submission deadlines, and when speakers will be notified about proposal acceptances. It may seem like you’re giving too much information, but better a longer read for your submitters than leaving them in ambiguity land about what’s expected. The more clear your CFP is from the start, the more confident folks will feel about submitting.

If you’re interested, you can check out the FOSDEM 2019 Community DevRoom CFP for inspiration.

Choose Your Program Committee Well

As the organizer of the event, you’ll need help to execute it successfully. Consider asking colleagues for assistance on the program committee, and do so with a direct and personal request. (Asking for program committee members on Twitter is likely not going to get you the best lineup of volunteers. 🙂 ) When recruiting volunteers for the program committee, make sure to make it very clear what is expected of them, such as being available to review sessions on particular dates, approximately how many submissions you think they will have to review, and any other requests such as promoting the event. It’s also perfectly fine to let these folks know you are looking for volunteers to help with items beyond reviewing talks, as someone who doesn’t have time to read all your proposals might love to help with on-site set up, write blog posts about the event, or just amplify your promotion work to their friends.

When selecting program committee members, you want to look for three things.

Does the Program Committee Have Diverse but Complementary Skills?

For example, we’ve welcomed folks from large software enterprises to fledgling start ups, former journalists, professional community managers, software engineers, non-profit program managers to our program committee over the years, ensuring we get a wide array of perspectives on the submissions. Thanks to the diversity of backgrounds amongst our committee members, the Community DevRoom has featured talks that weren’t our first choice as co-chairs, but ended up being audience favorites.

Have You selected enough people to serve on the program committee?

It’s inevitable that someone who volunteers to review proposals will not be able to do so–life happens. If you think you need a minimum of five reviewers, try to make sure you have seven lined up to help. Better too many reviewers than too few!

Does the program committee membership have past experience on a program committee?

It’s totally fine to welcome a complete newbie to your program committee, but if you’re less experienced in curating events yourself, you should look for at least a few seasoned folks to help with the talk-review process. It’s also worth understanding what other skills new program committee members will bring to the process, such as deep domain expertise on a particular topic or a broad knowledge of a specific industry trend. Regardless of whether you have a group of old hands or a few folks new to program committee work, make sure that you’re very clear on how the process of review will work: deadlines, how to review and rate submissions, whom will break ties if you’re selecting talks based on votes, etc.

DevRoom ratings

Our FOSDEM 2019 Community DevRoom How to Rate Information

Be Well-Prepared for the Day of the Event

Depending on what venue you will be in, there are any number of things you can do in advance to make sure that your attendees and speakers have a great experience. Many folks find signage to be very helpful, for example, to let folks know from which door to enter the room and from which door to exit. Even better, if you have a volunteer available to help with crowd control; a real live human letting would-be attendees know that the room is full and to please not disturb the presenter by entering and trying to find a seat ensures that all folks in the room can focus on the presentation. Anything you can do to orient your audience so you can move things quickly between talks helps save time, energy, and lessens cognitive load on everyone!

A few other tips:

  • Make arrangements with your speakers in advance to learn how they want their name pronounced and how they would like to be introduced, or if you would like them to introduce themselves. It’s fine to make these arrangements by email, but two minutes before the talk starts is not the best time to have this conversation.
  • If you can have snacks on hand for your attendees, serve them with explicit intent, e.g., “these snacks are vegan” or “please help yourself to snacks only during the breaks.” If you have snacks thanks to sponsors, make sure to thank them at the start and close of the event.
  • Water for speakers is a must, so make sure to have that on hand at the podium. If you have a choice, bottled water is easier on presenters than having to fill a glass while speaking, so choose accordingly. If speakers will be drinking from a glass, pour one for them while they are getting set up as yet another gesture of welcome and thanks to them for sharing their expertise.

We welcome feedback on our tips and tricks here in the comments.If we have community interest, we can share more about our organizing process, from our speaker preparation emails to sponsor recruitment. Happy event hacking!

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About Laura Czajkowski

Laura Czajkowski is an open source advocate and regular conference speaker who is passionate about getting everyone from students at primary school to professionals at tier 1 banks involved in open source communities, both on IRC and in face-to-face discussions. Laura has been active in open source communities since 2000; in that time, she has been involved in leading and organizing conferences on software testing, documentation, and advocacy. Laura served for four years on the Ubuntu Local council and currently sits as an elected Ubuntu member on the Community council.

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