Elisabeth Irgens

What I learnt from organizing a conference

CSSconf Nordic emerged from Web Rebels, and for the 2016 edition people gathered in Oslo to attend three conferences on web technologies. I was one of two organizers for CSSconf Nordic, which was officially part of the CSSconf series of events.

Internet friends are the best

September 2015 I sent an email to Ida: Hey, do you want to organize a conference with me? At the time, we had met in person only once before. She said yes. And so we did. In the beginning we invested a lot of time discussing thoughts, ideas, what was important to us, email drafts, how we wanted to approach everything. As the event got closer, we were making more and more decisions on each others’ behalf, happy and confident we were on the same page.

You can pull off a lot in 8 months

Organizing a conference is more work than you expect, even when you take that into account. I had been involved in the fringes of Web Rebels the previous year, but CSSconf Nordic was an event that had never taken place before. We pulled it off! And I consider it a huge success. We got 104 submissions from 85 people and was floored by the quality of the proposals. (The worst part of being organizers with a Call for Speakers, is that we had to reject most of them.) We sold 151 tickets — and together with speakers, crew and guests from Web Rebels and NodeConf, the total head count was ~200 who came to this event we put together.

Distributed can be easy

Slack is awesome. I can’t remember how anyone ever got anything done before. If you are a limited number of people involved and have good communication going, you can quite easily plan an entire conference on Slack with a distributed team. Ida and me met up one weekend in Stockholm in December, and one weekend in Oslo in February. Everything else was planned on Slack, mostly async but sometimes with scheduled chat sessions. Steph was in charge of design and building the website from Copenhagen.

Collaborating can be hard

Our industry is not very good at recognizing the difference between events organized profesionally, and those happening thanks to unpaid volunteers. We were 10+ people organizing 3 conferences that needed coordinating and this was tricky. When all the work happens in everyone’s spare time, on left-over energy and between everything else going on in their lives… there will be wires crossed and limited opportunities to untangle them. Collaborating can always be difficult, but I have learnt now that there is an extra level of challenges when it is volunteer work and not something you are paid to do.

Don’t accept the status quo

Ida and me originally thought it must be super difficult to get women on the stage. We were wrong. Turns out you just need to put proper effort into an awesome Call for Speakers. You need to be informative and encouraging, clear about your expectations and transparent about the process. And you must pay for travel and accommodation. We didn’t have the biggest budget, but flights and hotel rooms was our priority over alcohol or T-shirts. Over 30% of the talk submissions we got were from women, the percentage even higher in the anonymous selection rounds where names were hidden.

When I now see conferences with almost only men on the stage, I will assume that nobody cared enough to put in the effort to create a more diverse lineup. Where we failed, was doing more work to increase the number of proposals from outside Northern America and Europe. Our community has plenty potential for our so-called international events to become truly international.

Share what you learn

Ida and me learnt a lot from CSSconf EU organizer Kristina and the whole Web Rebels crew. Talking to people who had mastered this kind of rodeo before, but also reading their documentation. Now it was our turn. Our post-conf report covered everything about the money, details about the talk selection process, lots of information for speakers and attendees. We wanted to be transparent to the community — but also help out other organizers by explaining how things were done for this event.

Ida, Kristina and Elisabeth