Let’s talk about conferences. When you are new as a graduate student or software engineer in training, you get the idea that conferences are the bees knees. To be able to attend one, and afford the costs of registration, and travel, is a privilege. To be invited to one to give a talk is an earth shattering accomplishment of your own tiny worth. But are conferences really the only method for learning, networking, and career growth? This is what I want to explore today.
I want to make a clear distinction between academic and (what I perceive to be) industry oriented conferences. For academic conferences, the goals are strongly focused around collaboration, networking, and sharing of research. The schedules are filled with talks, poster presentations, panels, and social events. The fees are also fairly reasonable, with registration typically being a few hundred dollars (with discounts for early registration and students) and the travel costs of course depend of where you are, and where you need to go. The conferences themselves can have entirely different atmospheres, from intimate to grant and exciting.
Industry driven conferences, or those that are derived by a company or large foundation, are typically more costly. I’m not exactly sure why (demand?), but the price of a ticket to a large, famous open source software conference can be over $1,000. The environment is also different - it is likely to feel a little bit like you’ve gone to Disney World. It’s exciting. There is a high level of volume, constantly, and lots of big graphical signs and swag. When you sit down for the keynote speaker, there might be dramatic lighting or an opening video. Due to the sheer size of the conference, it’s likely not as easy to ask questions, and participate in the large events. When you leave, although you are exhausted, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, even if you were only sitting in chairs and talking for a week straight.
For both of the above, the experience can go both ways. They can be fun, and existing! Or they can be overwhelming and dull. The worst case, I suppose, is just to find yourself bored and wanting to go home. For both, there are challenges with diversity  and equal representation, which has led to creation of the term “manel” : an all male panel , along with unequal participation that has just started to be noticed .
This is the state of the conference: it’s a typically expensive outing that can be exciting or dull, and will cost you (or your institution) a hefty amount. There must be benefits for attending then, right? Of course! Let’s quickly discuss why in person conferences are great.
There are obviously numerous, and given the right circumstances, they might offset the costs. Actually, if people continue to attend conferences, they must offset the costs, right? Or could it be that for a subset of folks, they attend because it’s what they are supposed to do, and because that’s the way they believe the world must be?
As an introverted person who sums up enormous courage to attend conferences, and then feels uncomfortable being swarmed at a poster, or just entirely bored if the talks are uninspired, I have a different point of view around this whole conferences thing. I went to several as a graduate student to present work, and typically would endure the noise and large rooms until I couldn’t handle it, and then escape outside or back to my room to recharge. I went to a handful after graduate school to give talks, and didn’t really see the point of many hours of work on slides, and an expensive trip just to be a talking head. In fact, I feel more engaged in virtual calls and meetings because everyone is on equal footing to ask questions and participate from anywhere. If I were magically able to teleport to the conference location I wouldn’t mind this routine so much, because as I pointed out above, there are many fun components that well outweigh the costs. What always sucked me dry was the need to travel, and then the uncomfortable awareness of the costs that someone else was supporting to pay my way. For many small groups, it usually comes down to taking turns to attend, because not only could you not afford for everyone to go, you couldn’t just abandon your user base or other job role that you serve. This thought process led to an uncomfortable question and realization:
Who don’t we see at conferences? Who doesn’t get to go?
The answer is simple - if you can’t pay your way or have a group supporting you, you just can’t go. You get to watch the excitement on Twitter, and maybe watch talks online after the fact. People are posting screen shots of massive rooms with cool lighting, awesome socks with cute logos, stickers, and endlessly smiley selfies. It’s easy to feel left out. This is less true for academic conferences, which tend to be more affordable and come with less bells and whistles, and hugely more true for industry conferences. Now that we’re inching toward it, let’s discuss the cons of having conferences as they are now:
It will cost you or your group an arm and a leg. I don’t have historical data, but when I check an academic conference site, the cost for registration alone is usually a couple hundred dollars. There are special rates for early registration and students. Travel is what can get you - it’s usually between $300-$600 for a plane ticket depending on where you live, and always bordering around high hundreds for a few nights in a hotel. You might get a discounted rate, but let’s be frank, spending $120 a night for 3 nights is still a lot. For tech conferences the registration fees go over $1,000. I can’t even fathom spending this amount - this is a substantial chunk that could go towards rent, or a new computer when yours craps out! This means that even the cheapest conferences will set a group back maybe $300, more realistically it’s around $1,000. It’s an investment. People talk about the costs of a daily coffee, or going out to eat, but conferences get a free pass because someone else might be paying for it.
You know how when you watch TV, 30 minutes to an hour can pass and you feel engaged, but nothing is really happening? I think that conferences can be like that sometimes too. You show up, and move from talk to talk, sitting there absorbing sound like a baked potato. Is it lunch time yet? Did you get the free Tshirt? You might learn something, or maybe you are skeptical of everything, but all in all, time has passed (a few days?) and you’ve largely been spending time in your head and making small talk about the weather. It’s not so bad to sit and enjoy yourself, but there is opportunity cost of the time. Tickets aren’t being answered, users helped, etc. This is largely under your control. If you do get the opportunity to attend a conference, it’s your responsibility to be engaged.
To play devil’s advocate, let’s say that being passive is ok every once in a while. Everyone could deserve to take some time to marinate in a Hilton Hotel meeting room chair where thousands of butts have marinated before you. What’s that stain on the corner of the chair? Seriously, don’t ask. The thing that is troubling is that there is a stark contrast between extra funds that a traditional research computing group has and the costs of attending, period. Attending a conference is a privilege, because it means someone else can do the work for you, and (typically) your group can pay your way. If the cost of an individual is on the order of $1,000, it adds up quickly to send a small portion of your group. Now we can answer our original question:
The people and groups that we don’t see at conferences, and who don’t get the benefit of learning and networking, are perhaps those that need it the most.
This is very troubling to me.
I don’t think it’s fair to be critical without making suggestions for change, so now I’ll share those thoughts. I also want to point out my bias - I’m a remote worker for over 2 years and I’ve run the gamut from attending conferences in person, to not being able to attend, to having quasi participation remotely. The change that I want to see is more initiative taken to make conferences remote first. Here is how that would look:
An agenda is made, just as it was before, for remote participation. For multiple events happening at once, you just have multiple call ins. A call in is akin to a room. For the conference organizers, while I don’t know the costs of renting out a hotel, and paying for the air conditioning and food, I’d imagine you save tens of thousands of dollars for a weekly conference at a major hotel.
For smaller group sessions, you have “break out” sessions on the phone. Something like Zoom can do this for you. There is audio, video, and chat. I would go as far to say that it’s a more comfortable environment (for some) to speak than raising a hand in a big conference hall.
Many of the major drawbacks of attending conferences in person just go away.
The conference changes from an event of privilege to one of all inclusion. (Most) HPC and research computing folks have an internet connection and computer. If a more “in person” or social aspect is desired, it would be fairly easy to have local meetups with a shared big screen. If the conference is saving enormous amounts on the venue, they might even fund these smaller hosted gatherings and provide food, send swag, etc.
In terms of time, it’s much easier to attend select sections without leaving the home base. The participants (if needed) can still provide support to their users without taking a week vacation. You save all the time that would incur from travel, taking cabs, etc. If the conference is virtual, anybody can attend easily, with the only constraint being the time zone. This means attending as a participant or a speaker. It also means that participants can be comfortable. You don’t need to spend two days traveling, and you don’t need to panic about the right time to stand up and go to the bathroom (maybe that’s just me).
The final benefit is obvious, but I’ll state it anyway. You or your group save time and money for not needing to physically go somewhere else. Everyone in your group might be able to attend. You don’t need to choose so starkly between performing your job and attending - you might attend talks for the morning, and get back to work in the afternoon. Let’s not forget the negative effects of our combined travel on the environment and global warming.
The above is what I hope for the future. It won’t come via policy from the top, but by way of individuals like you and I pushing for it. What will likely happen first is conferences will be made remote friendly. What does this mean? It means that you can call in and passively watch the talks. The audio and video may not be great, and you will likely feel left out of not being there in person. But you’ll feel grateful that you are somehow still a part of it, because someone is trying their best to include you. But remote friendly is not remote first. Virtual participants shouldn’t be made to feel like second class citizens, and the hope is that we will some day have conferences that are entirely virtual.
I think it’s probably easy to get access to a lot of conferences, and not think twice about the people that cannot go. And it’s easy to not consider the marginal negative effects on the environment. Others are noticing, and the HPC world should too. Here are some examples of other initiatives that have taken notice:
A lot of prominent scientists are also putting down their foot and saying “I won’t be traveling, but I’ll give a talk remotely” and (imho) that’s a good catalyst for change:
There is another tweet I can’t find again where, instead of traveling, a scientist gave a remote talk, and when he finished, a bottle of expensive wine showed up at his door, which was much cheaper than having to fund his travel there. I’m down for that, but I’d request a nice box of avocados! :)
With any big change, there would be challenges that need work. Yes, having face to face contact with someone is more highly valued. How could a virtual conference emulate the social events, and the networking? The components that we lose are the big social ones - grabbing lunch with colleagues, or hanging out. But maybe we don’t have to - why not have sessions over zoom that are entirely social? This idea is far from perfect, but the world doesn’t have to be black and white to have all conferences of one type, or nothing.
How do we start? With you and I, of course! If your group is having a meeting, or you host a small gathering, discuss how it might be more virtually inclusive. What could you try? If you are an academic, you can ask to participate virtually. I want to point out an awesome idea by my graduate school advisor, to host regular virtual salons where anyone can just show up and ask questions. How awesome is that! This more inclusive, more sustainable world, is what we should aspire for. It doesn’t start somewhere else, it starts with us. How are you going to contribute? There will be opportunities for learning and growth outside of in person conferences if we step up to the plate and start trying.