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Personal essays

Call - Essay from Newsletter 120

On why I don’t answer calls for papers


Yesterday I have my first in-person talk in two and a half years.

Maggie and I drove down to Asheville.

Thank goodness she came with me - when I got road weary she did the bulk of the driving. Just like her mom had for years.

Yesterday morning I got up early and walked over to an App Camp and delivered a keynote to 17 young people, their teaching assistants, and Bob and Charles, the two guys who run the camp.

I met Bob and Charles years ago at Alt-Conf and they had told me about the camp. When I’d seen them since they’d mentioned that they’d like me to come down and see what they were doing.

They invited me last year but I didn’t feel safe enough to travel. They invited me again this year when the person they initially contacted said that he couldn’t and suggested me.

It worked out perfectly.


As fearful as I am about COVID and as careful as I’ve been and will try to continue to be, I loved being back at an in-person event.

It’s a bit strange because I’m also an introvert.

When I was flying to multiple conferences a month that also took its toll on me.

This was perfect.

I’m ready to start speaking, at least now and then, at conferences again.

Calls for papers

Most conferences seem to be insisting on CFPs these days.

On the one hand, this is a great way to find new people you’ve never seen before.

I remember the first time I saw Chris Eidhof, Ellen Shapiro, and Ish Shabazz speak. Each was a new speaker but you just knew they would be great every time.

There are certainly others but those three stick with me.

If they are on a program, I don’t even care what they’re speaking about, I’m going to go to their talk and I’m going to come out better for having seen them.

Maybe a call for papers is how you find people like Chris, Ellen, and Ish.

I’ve heard that this is how you get a more diverse set of speakers and not the same old group that you see at other conferences.


A CFP is a lot of work.

You have to figure out what you want to talk about months ahead of the conference - not in broad terms but with a fair amount of detail. You have to write up your proposal with a good title and a bio and whatever other questions the organizers might have for you.

It’s a lot of work.

If I wanted Chris, Ellen, or Ish at my conference I would reach out to ask them if they are available. If they are we could begin the back and forth about what they might want to speak about.

In a CFP I might end up dismissing a potentially good speaker because their topic overlaps with someone else that we want to accept or the depth of their proposal isn’t right or the focus isn’t quite right.

There’s nothing wrong with CFPs, but I worry that I miss a lot of gems for the wrong reasons.

Also, experienced speakers often write better CFPs. They’ve written many. They provide catchier titles and compelling descriptions. They sometimes submit multiple talks so that we can choose one of them. Often they are submitting the same talks to multiple conferences so not only will people who see them at multiple conferences see the same speaker, but they’ll see them giving the same talk.

It takes a long time to write a good talk so I understand the desire to deliver it more than once. I’ve done both in the past. Now, I often will grow and hone and tune a keynote talk but deliver fresh technical talks particularly if the sessions are recorded and posted.


So how do we avoid seeing the same old speakers potentially giving the same old talks?

I can see how people get sick of seeing me at so many conferences.

I think it takes a lot of work on the part of the organizers to balance new speakers and old.

NSSpain and other conferences have rules about not inviting speakers back again. They were kind enough to have a workshop loophole where I could be invited back as a workshop presenter.

Pragma may or may not have that rule but they work hard to get a wide variety of speakers and schedule them in a way that really flows well. I spoke one year and was invited back as the on-stage host.

NSScotland, Hacking with Swift Live, and other conferences make real efforts to ensure that women and people of color are represented on stage. This takes effort and even with a lot of effort the results are never as much as hoped for.

As a white, male I love these efforts even if it means there is a smaller chance that I’ll be asked to speak.

On the other hand, I’m twice as old as the mean age at most of these conferences. I speak at conferences where the majority of the attendees are in their twenties and young thirties.

I’m in my sixties.

Being older may not contribute to diversity in a classic sense, but I do think I bring a perspective different than that of many in the audience.

I’m not suggesting that there should be slots reserved for old white men - I’m just saying that often I look around these conferences and see no one like me.

CFP not for me

So I decided about five years ago that I wouldn’t submit CFPs and I haven’t.

Before the pandemic I used to reach out directly to conferences and ask if they might be interested in having me as I would be in the area.

This led me to speak in Spain and then fly on to Cologne or start in Amsterdam and take a train to London.

I’m now torn. I’d love to speak at these conferences and learn from other presenters and attendees. But I don’t want to pressure the organizers in any way.

Each year people ask me if I’m going to speak at 360. I would love to but they require a CFP and I don’t do them. Neither one of us is wrong - but if I’m not meeting a fundamental requirement of theirs then I can’t be invited.

You can’t win a lottery if you won’t buy a ticket. I get it.

I’m not a lottery ticket kind of guy.

I’m more of a guy who’s happy to spend a week writing a talk and driving ten hours to speak to a group of seventeen young people if you really want me to be there.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 120. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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