I love conferences. Now, that most conferences are either virtual or hybrid (both virtual and on-premises), people often say that it must be heaven for me. I can visit many more conferences and give many more talks. Well, it is not just this simple. Virtual conferences are a love-hate relationship for me. Of course, there are some advantages, but also disadvantages.
Giving virtual talks
Yes, I could give more talks. Even overlapping conferences are not a problem any more: I can give a talk at a European conference in the morning, and give another talk at a US conference in the evening. Most of the time I give talks about sudo and syslog-ng, and there are relevant conferences almost every other day.
Does it make sense to give a talk this often? No. Repeating the same talk all over again is boring both for me and for the audience, especially that talks are often recorded and published. Both sudo and syslog-ng are complex but small utilities, covering only a limited number of use cases. Creating a brand new talk for each event would be a lot of effort and not even possible due to the limited number of topics.
Also, from the speaker point of view, giving a talk virtually is not the same, as being there in person. I love teaching and spreading knowledge. However giving the actual talk, transferring knowledge, is just a third of the value. The hallway track, talking to (potential) users and collecting feedback is at least as important from a product management point of view. And learning the latest technology trends first hand from fellow speakers at dinners and other events is also a huge bonus. None of these are possible at virtual events, or so far not that effective.
See my opensource.com article about being an open source evangelist for a few ideas how to make virtual events better for speakers: https://opensource.com/article/21/1/open-source-evangelist
Giving virtual talks does not work really well for me. I am used to being able to see my audience and not just to a screen with a mic and sometimes a camera. All I need is occasional eye contact and being able to check how my audience reacts. Ten or a thousand people is no different. After giving a few talks where the technical content was fantastic according to feedback, but the presentation boring and monotonous, I found a workaround. My talks are given or pre-recorded in the office in a meeting room with one or two colleagues listening. From the talk quality point of view, this setting is almost as good as a real conference audience.
Of course, there are also cases where being virtual is the only way I can present at a conference. When I give a talk on sudo or syslog-ng, I travel on company budget. However I am happy talk about other topics as well. Last year I could give a talk at the OpenPOWER North America Summit about POWER and open source this way. I am a POWER enthusiast, but it is not part of my job. Traveling there on my own would have been a bit too expensive for me, but being virtual allowed me to participate and give a talk.
Participating at events
There is an open source and / or an IT security focused conference almost every day. I am happy to participate in Arm and POWER related events too. However participating each and every relevant event simply does not make sense. While I try not to repeat the exact same talk over and over again, many speakers do. And of course participation takes a lot of time too.
I often hear that I should just watch the recordings. That way I can watch them at my own convenience, when it does not clash with meetings or hiking plans. It does not work. One of the values of attending virtual conferences live is that you can ask questions. When you watch a recording, you cannot ask questions. And the Q&A part of sessions is often not part of the recordings. With overwhelming amount of recordings available and in my “to watch” list, my experience is that I either consider a talk important enough to watch live or it will be long irrelevant by the time I get to the recording.
Virtual conferences are great when I do not have the time or resources to be at the event in person. This is how I can participate OpenPOWER events, or All Things Open this year with the travel restrictions still in place. However in-person events are better in many ways. Physical presence helps in focusing, your whole mind is there. Not to mention conference t-shirts and stickers :-) You can talk to like minded people. Chat cannot fully replace that.
In-person conferences are a fantastic place to finally meet people you have worked with over the Internet for many years. I met various FreeBSD developers, ARM guys, syslog-ng users while at FOSDEM, All Things Open or SCALE. Talking to someone in person, even just for a few minutes, make these work collaborations even closer. Talking to engineers at the exhibition booths is also different. They are a lot more open and happy to talk about topics not available in official communication, like how syslog-ng is integrated in their product, what they consider our main strengths and weaknesses. At one conference an AMD engineer explained me how they are still working on ARM CPUs, even if nothing is seen from the outside. None of these are available in a chat window.
I know that it is more difficult from the organizers point of view, but I hope that most events will go hybrid. As a speaker I definitely want to present in person, whenever possible. It is a lot more value from the speaker’s point of view. But hybrid gives the possibility to talk or participate even if I cannot be there for financial or scheduling reasons. So, as much as I hate the word “hybrid” thanks to cloud-related marketing materials, I’d love to see hybrid conferences in the long term! :)