How to Run a Tech Conference Part 1: Getting Started

Over the past few years at 10gen, I’ve organized dozens of MongoDB conferences. Our first MongoDB Day was MongoSF in April 2010, and since then we’ve iterated on the format and organization of our events many times. In addition to conferences, we’ve organized MongoDB User Groups, hackathons, and an unconference for key contributors to the project.

I wanted to share some of the expertise and insight that I’ve gained from this experience, so I decided that I would write a series of posts on organizing tech conferences. I’d like to cover the following topics:

  1. Getting Started: Goals and Vision
  2. Choosing a Venue
  3. Budget and Sponsors
  4. Finding Speakers
  5. Event Logistics & Timeline
  6. Promotion of your Event
  7. The Day Of!
  8. Post Event

This first post, on Getting Started, is about the big picture. Maybe a lot of these questions seem obvious, but it’s important to get this stuff outlined, as your initial vision for the conference will greatly inform the logistics for the event.

What’s the goal of your event?

Before you do anything else, it helps to have a clear vision for your event. What’s the theme of the event — a specific technology or language or way of doing things? Is the event primarily educational, with the goal of teaching people new things? Is it to bring people together to learn from one another’s experiences? Is it to sell your product and services?

It might be a combination of the above, but your goal will inform the format of your event. For example, MongoDB Days are primarily educational, but we also want to foster community in the city that we are visiting. That’s why, in addition to lots of formal presentations on schema design and sharding and indexing, we try to always include some free-form white board sessions, plan a rocking after-party, and get a conversation going about starting a local MongoDB User Group.

Who is your target audience?

Developers, devops, DBAs, technical management, CTOs, startuppers, enterprise employees — each of these audiences is different and has a different set of expectations. In my experience, it’s important to be clear from the get-go on your target audience, as that will inform your agenda, how you promote the event, and event logistics. For example, we typically promote our developer events on user group mailing lists, while for a C-level event we would work with our partners to extend individual invites.

Unless you are organizing a huge event like OSCON, it will be hard to cram enough content into the schedule to serve many different audiences. If you try to do so in a smaller event, you may end up attracting no one! So define your audience early.

What is the best format for acheiving your goal and serving your audience?

Depending on your audience and the goals of your event, you will need to decide whether you want a single track or multi-track event; whether you’ll have individual presenters or panels or some combination; or if it will be unconference / barcamp style. In some ways, you will be limited by the venues that are available, but if you have a clear idea of your format it makes it easier to narrow down the possible venues.

What is your budget?

Conferences can be as cheap or as elaborate as you would like to make them. I attended Community Leadership Summit West in January — the organizers got the space donated by ebay and food from another sponsor. Other than that, there were minimal expenses due to the unconference format (maybe some post it notes, markers, and sticky name tags).

In contrast, I’ve been to plenty of shows with expensive A/V rigs, live streaming, high-end catering, and a full expo hall. Dreamforce, the Salesforce user conference, even hired Metallica last year while Oracle Open World organized a Sting concert!

I imagine that most people reading this series will have a modest budget. In my next post I will outline some of the basic items that you will need to consider when budgeting for your event.

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7 thoughts on “How to Run a Tech Conference Part 1: Getting Started

  1. xjamundx says:

    Great stuff! Thanks!

  2. Meghan says:

    Thanks! More to come :)

  3. Very useful! Thanks to share.

  4. […] multi-part blog series has helped me tackle big topics, such as the details of running a technology conference. Whenever I’m not sure what to write about, I can focus on one of the series that I have in […]

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