One of the hot discussion topics atm is around the question: who pays a speaker’s costs? And who should pay?

I think there’s a couple of different ways to look at this: from an economic point of view, and then separately from a moral point of view.

The Economic Arguments

Writing and presenting a talk – whether it’s at a user group or a conference – takes both a significant amount of time, and a significant amount of cash.

A new tech talk can take anywhere between 20-40 hours to write, rehearse and polish. That’s 1/2 to a full working week. It takes significantly longer if the talk needs to be accompanied with example code or even a usable code library.

Unless the event is local, you can add in up to two days of travel time on top, plus the time spent at the event itself. And you can add in more days on top to cover both international travel and dealing with jetlag.

It’s impossible to travel without spending money. Whether it’s fuel for the car and car parking charges, or train tickets, or flights, none of that happens without money. And let’s not forget accommodation!

Someone, somewhere, is paying for that time. And someone, somewhere, has to hand over the cash to pay for the travel.

So every speaker – and every employer who lets staff do speaking gigs on company time – has to treat any speaking opportunity as an economic transaction. You may not have ever thought of it in those terms before, but that’s what is happening.

It’s down to individual speakers (and/or their employer) to decide whether or not doing a talk is “worth it” to them. We’ve all got our own motives, and there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to it.

I run my own company, and I have over three years now of financial data on whether or not it is worth it or not for me. If you’re curious, the series of talks I’ve been doing to date has cost my firm over £13K in cash paid out, and over £5K in time spent on talks instead of on billable work. So let’s call that about £20K. That’s just for giving talks here in the UK. There’s no international travel at all in that. And it doesn’t account for the many many evenings and weekends I’ve given up of my free time too.

These are just my costs. For several reasons, I am an outlier:

  1. I write a brand new talk for every speaking opportunity, which is very unusual.
  2. I have non-coeliac gluten-intolerance (NCGI). It’s an incurable auto-immune disease. Eating out is very difficult, so I often end up renting an apartment so that I have a kitchen to cook in. That does cost a lot more per-night than a hotel room does.
  3. I’m not tied to an office desk, and can work from pretty much anywhere. I can do billable work on trains and from rented apartments, to reduce the amount of billable hours lost. Many people aren’t that fortunate.
  4. Those costs include the A/V equipment I use to video my talks.

There’s another side to the economic argument, to do with the event itself, and it’s where the moral arguments overlap.

The Moral Point Of View

Generally speaking, events fall into these groups:

  • Community meetups, such as monthly user group nights. Tickets are free (as a rule). Sponsors cover venue costs, free food, and any swag handed out.
  • Community conferences. The tickets aren’t free, but (normally) the tickets are subsidised by the conference’s sponsors. The organisers may (or may not) generate a surplus.
  • Commercial conferences. They’re run to make a profit for the organisers, and it may even be their sole or primary business.
  • Marketing events. They exist to promote the company in one form or another (normally as the third leg in tripod economics), or to provide a platform for attending companies to promote themselves. The economics for these range greatly. Some are run for profit, some are not. Many of them are put on by professional event organisers.

There’s overlap between these groups, and sometimes an event can appear to be one kind (e.g. a community conference) to the attendees when, behind the scenes, it’s actually a commercial conference or a marketing event of some kind.

I think there’s a couple of moral issues here, spread across the different event groups.

The first problem is accessibility. How do we create speaking opportunities for new speakers? Generally speaking, they’re the least likely to have the economic means to pay their own way.

For me, this is important. We need new voices all the time. We need new experiences to be shared, and new perspectives to be shared. It isn’t healthy for the same people to be trotting out the same stuff year after year. It isn’t healthy for our professions, and it isn’t healthy for our communities.

Yes, user groups offer a way to get started. But how do new speakers get from there to other opportunities? Some of them become developer advocates, and (amongst other duties) it becomes their job to speak at events on behalf of their employer. Others find a way to swallow the costs themselves. Most simply drop out, unable to find a way forward.

Then the other problem is around unpaid services. If I’m speaking at your for-profit event, I am (in effect, and often in law too) a supplier. I am supplying a service (a presentation) to your business. Your business is using that service (along with the services of your other suppliers) to make money.

And when your business insists that it cannot afford to pay the suppliers, and trots out an endless stream of creative excuses why, this is in effect a zero-sum game. For them, it’s not about the economics. It’s all about the for-profit event holders believing that they can only have a successful event if they get services supplied for free.

When you come across these people, you’ve got to take a long, hard look at the economic transaction. Are there clear benefits, and are they worth the cost? And is it worth setting aside the moral objections?

Fortunately, as with most things in the software industry, we can look to other (arguably more mature!) walks of life, where this kind of thing has already happened, and learn from them. The music industry is full of stories about pay-to-play gigs, for example.

And there’s always the gold standard. Would a plumber do it, either at all, or on those terms?

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