What Value a Conference?

Tuesday of this week was a good day for conference announcements.

First, Ben Hall announced the next Alt.Net.UK conference, to be held in London over the course of a full summer weekend. This includes an Alt.Net beers session on the Friday night, one of Alan Dean’s much talked-about Open Space Coding days on the Saturday, and finally an AltNetConf Open Space discussion on the Sunday. The value to any prospective attendee would appear to be sizable, yet the cost? As with all Alt.Net.UK events, it’s free.

Later that day, when our American cousins awoke, Jeff and Joel announced a series of five Stack Overflow DevDays, to be held in four US cities and London, UK. Deliberately priced reasonably at just $99/£85, the places have filled up fast – the cost seems to be low enough to pose no barrier for most of those interested in attending, even in these harsh economic times.

This caused one of the Alt.NET UK organisers, Alan Dean, to tweet the following hypothetical question:

“We intend to keep www.altnetuk.com free (we like it that way) but I’m curious: if it were a paid event, how much do people think that tickets would cost?

It’s a tricky question, especially in the current economic climate, and there’s definitely a difference between “tickets would cost” and “people would be willing to pay”. But having given it some thought, I tweeted this reply:

@adean alt.net pricing – for the recent In The North event, perhaps £195? For full weekend, incl. codeday, more like £495. But free is good!

And here’s my thinking: looking at pricing for the big name conferences such as Tech-Ed, DevWeek, DevTeach, Mix, or Software Architect, you can expect to pay thousands of euros, dollars or pounds. Plus, they’re always held on weekdays, which further increases the effective cost for freelancers such as myself.

From a technical learning perspective, one of the most useful paid conferences I ever attended was Software Architect 2007 (see this blog post). The speakers were generally excellent, and really helped me get to grips with concepts including Contract First Development, Loose Coupling and Inversion of Control, which have all since been staples of the solutions I’ve developed. But as I mentioned at the time, the attitudes of some of the other attendees surprised me:

“It amazed me that a number of my fellow delegates kept raising their hands and asking questions which invariably began "Yeah, but why can't I just...", followed by suggestions which effectively seemed to boil down to creating hardcoded, inflexible solutions! To say that this was supposedly a conference of architects, even relatively simple concepts such as Reflection, Polymorphism and Generics seemed to be lost on some people, who apparently would be more comfortable maintaining massive switch statements for the rest of eternity!”

Although there is some overlap in delegates, there’s a notable difference in the attendee demographic between the big paid conferences and the shoestring community affairs. Generally speaking, many of the attendees at the former tend to have their costs covered by their employers, and perhaps see such events as being a cunning way to get an easy day out of the office. By contrast, those people who give up their weekends and pay their own way to participate in community events are invariably passionate about technology and best practices. As a result, these tend to be the better way to network, socialise, learn, share experiences, and generally meet like-minded individuals (as opposed to suffering death by PowerPoint), and how do you put a price on that?

I consider that, for the right attendees, the OpenConf Alt.NET events offer the same value as these big-budget conferences, but without the associated glamour, high-profile speakers, swag, and other overheads.

So, with a finger waving wildly in the air, I thought that a figure of £495, being approximately half the cost of a typical three-day conference, sounded reasonable. But then an afterthought struck me, and I followed up on my original tweet with:

@adean ...although having said that, any charge would change the attending demographic, probably negatively so, and hence reduce the value!

Gah, it’s a paradox! The intrinsic value of the OpenConf format is that it attracts the passionate folk who turn up, unfunded by their employers, out of their love for tech. Start charging an appropriate sum, and the demographic will change, reducing the value of the conference accordingly.

Fortunately, the Alt.Net.UK organisers have no plans to start charging, so this can remain merely a curious hypothetical discussion!

What do you think? Which events, paid or community-driven, do you consider to be most useful to your career and personal development?