On Miniconfs and Specialist Tracks

Posted by Katie McLaughlin on November 20, 2017

Up until a few months ago the only conference organising I did was little behind the scenes work: stacking chairs, helping hand out swag, general information, occasionally introducing a talk, that sort of thing.

But if you’re interested in the world of conference organising, a good way to get started is to host a MiniConf or Specialist Track

The scope of this post is limited to PyCon AU (who call them Specialist Tracks) and linux.conf.au (LCA) (who call them Miniconfs), but it’s all my own experience.

Miniconfs are great, because you get to run a conf without having to worry about things like venue, sponsors, catering, etc; that’s all been sorted out for you. You get a room, two mics, a stage, and it’s your job to fill it with talks. The people have already come to the conference, so if your content seems interesting, you have an audience!

Depending on the conference, the Call For Specialist Tracks happens either at the same time as the Call For Proposals (as with LCA), or before (as with PyCon AU). Which means you either get to make your own Call For Talks, or you get to integrate with the general conference process (Hey! Even less work for you!)

The main thing you need to think about before you submit to run one of these is what your topic is. What are you interested in? What do you think you could get ~8 speakers to talk on during the course of a day? What will attendees be interested in?

I’ve run miniconfs for Functional Programming, Women of Open Source, and Django. For each of these full day tracks, we had two invited speakers to open and close the event. For a normal stand-alone conference these would be “keynotes”, but given the conference proper had keynotes, we don’t call them keynotes, they’re Invited Speakers. The rest of the talks came from our own Call For Proposals, or from the conference proper pool. For PyCon AU, this meant we got all the cream of the crop that were related to Django.

Depending on your topic, every talk doesn’t have to be just about your subject matter, but there is the expectation that a majority will be specialised talks on the subject.

What the the benefits? Depending on the conference, you get a free ticket to the event, and you get to help shape the content of the event, even if it’s just for your track. You’ll also be helping organiser a conference, which is great experience in community management.

There are some things to consider when proposing to run such events:

  • Will the conference audience be interested in my topic?
  • Can I find enough speakers on this topic?
  • Can I make sure my speakers present a range of content about my topic?

While the latest JavaScript framework or AI toolkit may be the new hotness, an entire day on that specific topic may not be the best use of the day. However, an entire day on Emerging Frameworks, or Machine Learning At Large may draw more people.

Remember that these events are attended by people who are self-selecting based on the specific talks. You will be competing against other talks in other tracks, but given you’re part of the conference, you’ll have AV in your room recording your speakers. There’s an entire dynamic to this setup that I’ll cover in a later article.

It doesn’t have to be a day of just talks, however. At LCA, there’s normally always a hardware miniconf, where the soldering irons come out; or CLSx event, a day of un-conference where community organisers can come together and discuss topics of interest to them in a semi-structured way (no talks, just chats), coming together at the end of the day to tell the group as a whole what they learnt.

The call for miniconfs for LCA2018 has closed, with miniconfs now looking for speakers, but the Call For Specialist Tracks for PyCon AU 2018 is open now!