Getting Funding to Attend and Speak at IT Conferences
Creative Ways to Fund Your Participation at Tech Conferences… Even When Your Employer Won’t Pay
When I was a junior sysadmin working in academia, conferences were a once-a-year training treat, via my supervisor’s policy of “one travel event per person per year.”
I reveled in the opportunity to learn from dynamic speakers, and afterwards read through the conference proceedings and seek out the websites, blogs and presentation materials of instructors who inspired me. The conferences I attended included a broad selection of tutorials, workshops, invited talks, poster sessions, Birds-of-a-Feather sessions… and many of the speakers were quite distinguished, published authors and well-known names in the IT industry.
After attending a few conferences, I began to feel comfortable speaking up in the informal “hallway track” – the part of the event that happens in hallways, hotel lobbies, nearby bars and restaurants at technical conferences. I got to know a few people in those evening informal discussions during those years, hosting a few Birds-of-a-Feather sessions myself. At many conferences, hosting one is as easy as signing up at the registration desk for a timeslot in an available room, so even being a relative newbie, I felt comfortable starting them.
For five years, I hosted informal BoF sessions without submitting any formal talks or presentations to the conferences I was attending. Sometimes only two or three people attended, sometimes we filled a small hotel ballroom — commiserating and brainstorming and laughing about common experiences and hard-won lessons across our various experience levels and backgrounds. Often people brought their laptops and briefly showcased their projects; other times we simply talked, charted things on flipcharts, or designed architectures using crayons on butcher-paper tablecloths.
Conferences and the Economic Downturn
But in 2005 as the economy declined, my employer cut budgets for travel, and then downsized. We weren’t alone in this; the entire economy seemed to be in a freefall. To make the best of local (and cheaper) training opportunities, I and many of my peers sought out nearby, topic-specific certification courses. Having specific certifications seemed, to many in IT, a reasonable safety net to protect from joblessness.
Because work was no longer funding travel for conferences, I had the impression that if I wanted to attend a professional conference I would have had to burn my limited vacation time to do so, in addition to paying my own travel/lodging/conference registration. In this way, years slipped by without my attending any professional conferences.
I was missing out on not only attending the tutorials and technical sessions, but also connecting informally with peers, mentors and junior IT professionals in the hallway track. And as my professional skills in my workplaces grew, there was another kind of opportunity I was missing out on by not finding a way to attend conferences: I was not sharing my experiences and knowledge with the broader IT community, and growing both myself and my professional field in that way. As it turns out, I held a number of misconceptions about speaking at conferences, and getting funding to get there, that were holding me back.
Shakal is second from the right, speaking on the 2012 Women in Advanced Computing panel at USENIX’s LISA. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Rowland.
Misconceptions About Speaking at Conferences
I’ve been working in IT for about two decades, and it’s only been recently that I figured out that I do not need to convince my current employer to pay, or to pay entirely myself, for the whole of my own travel cost to attend or speak at IT conferences.
I’d long mentally associated financial stipends and honoraria with published authors, luminaries in our field. To be honest, the terms “invited speaker” and “invited talk” gave me the impression that conference organizers reached out individually to speakers, inviting only very distinguished, accomplished people to give talks at their conferences. I didn’t see myself as a “name” in my industry, nor had I published a book, so I didn’t envision myself giving conference presentations or teaching tutorials. The terms “call for papers” and “CFP” made it seem like the papers were scholarly works requiring an academic advisor, library or laboratory research, and quantifiable, technical peer-reviewed work. I didn’t see myself as an academic, and I’m not enrolled in a research-related graduate program nor post-doctoral study, so I didn’t envision myself writing papers for conference presentation and publication.
I also hadn’t realized that if your speaking submission is accepted, conference organizers may be able to help you get to their conference. I didn’t want to bother already-busy organizers with a special request inquiry. It’s difficult for me to ask for special or exceptional help when other people might be in just as dire financial straits as I am… if the help isn’t available for all, I don’t really feel comfortable taking advantage of it. However… by not asking, my need as a potential speaker for financial help to get to conferences was invisible to the organizers. And I’ve found that even if there’s no help available, the worst that happens in response is a regretful ‘no, sorry.’ Conference organizers are really busy people, and many of them have good intentions, but may not even realize how to better enable more speakers to participate.
Getting Funding to Speak
Previously, I didn’t look closely enough in the fine print of the CFPs and conference websites, nor follow all the social media for conferences I was curious about, simply feeling daunted and assuming that I’d somehow need to fund all of my own participation if my employer wouldn’t cover it.
The truth is that some conferences offer stipends, grants, honoraria and/or reimbursement for travel and/or hotel expenses up to some maximum, for tutorial instructors or speakers giving longer presentations, or sometimes, for all speakers.
Other conferences do not publish that information on their website, because it is highly dependent on their registration totals and sponsorship totals in any given year, and they won’t know until shortly before the conference the exact amount that they can afford to offer. But if you follow the conference’s social media, or if you contact the organizers they may be able to tell you if any reimbursement is likely, even if they don’t know the exact numbers yet.
To give you an idea of what that looks like, some recent examples include:
- Anita Borg GHC: Scholarships for students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty to attend Grace Hopper Celebration
- The Women in Application Security Program aims to run the program at every OWASP Global AppSec in 2014
- Travel and lodging funding for SurgeCon speakers
- jQuery Conference funding for speaker travel and three hotel nights
- Travel and/or lodging assistance for RubyMotion speakers
- Øredev will pay for flight and hotel wherever a speaker is located
- Frozen Rails offers three nights accomodation funding for speakers
Furthermore, some professional organizations offer conference-specific grants. One example is the League of Professional System Administrators (LOPSA) stipend for attendance of the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing Summit. Some companies offer conference-specific grants, for example Google’s Women in Tech Conference and Travel grants, which may be used for a specific list of conferences. And there may be extra possibilities of non-conference-specific grants for underrepresented groups and first-time speakers, for example the Systers-Pass-It-On Awards.
Conferences can be expensive! How do you get or take the time away from work? How do you convince your employer to fund even one conference per year for you? How do you fund your own conference attendance and travel? Here are a few options and possibilities; creative ways to participate in conferences while avoiding a significant financial burden.
Shakal practicing a presentation.
You may want to expand what you think of as a professional conference… local meetups, and local and regional hackathons are great ways to engage the hallway track in IT, outside of larger events. Examples include Hack For Change, Trans*H4CK, the One Web For All Hackathon and other technology-related local gatherings organized via Meetup.com, Eventbrite.com or discussion boards.
Are there conferences related to your profession in your geographic area? That reduces travel costs, obviously, but even if you are not attending the conference itself because of high registration costs, there may be opportunities for you to have lunch or dinner at venues near the conference to dabble in the hallway track, without needing to pay for conference registration. Also check for vendor meetups, topic-specific meetups, and watch on discussion forums and mailing lists for mention of gatherings happening nearby but outside the official conference. Many times, there are events happening around the conference that don’t cost money to attend and don’t require a conference badge.
See if your local conferences need volunteers – sometimes, you can get free or discounted registration to the conference in exchange for helping with registration, set-up, greeting and other conference work. Often the first day of registration is the busiest, and after that volunteers may have access to the vendor show floor and the informal hallway track inside the conference venue even if they’re not enrolled in more expensive training or tutorials.
If you are acquainted with any of the speakers or attendees who have tweeted or posted ahead of time about their upcoming conference attendance, consider looking carefully at the conference schedule and then reaching out to them in advance of the conference to see if they have lunch or dinner plans during whatever times are not officially filled already with conference activities… if they are available, perhaps offer to organize an informal gathering for them, since you’re local.
Getting even one short talk accepted at a conference often gives you access to the rest of the conference programming, reducing your overall cost to attend the conference and enjoy whatever programming and hallway track are scheduled around your own talk. Consider asking if your employer would be willing to cover part of your travel costs, if by speaking at the conference, your conference registration fee would already be discounted or waived.
Offering to teach longer tutorials or facilitate half-day workshops may make you eligible for more travel assistance from the conference itself than giving a short talk or poster presentation. Giving multiple short talks may make you eligible for more financial assistance to attend a conference than a single talk, so proposing more topics may increase your chances at accessing whatever financial help is available, if multiple of your submissions are accepted.
It’s important to read the fine print on the conference website (well before the submission deadline, not at the last minute!) for local conferences and for distant ones. If you don’t see anything there about travel assistance possibilities, consider sending a polite inquiry to the organizers. Though the organizers themselves may not have the resources to fund all of your travel, they may be able to connect you with a sponsor who can help you indirectly, or a grant or stipend to apply for, to cover some portion of your costs.
You can also consider asking your employer for partial assistance to cover conference participation. I now routinely politely ask if attendance at a three-day conference over a weekend might be considered as a professional-development workday rather than using up a vacation day for the one workday I’d be away from the office to make it happen.
If honoraria, stipends, grants, sponsorships and help from your employer aren’t enough to get you to the conferences you want to attend, you may also want to think outside of those boxes and consider trying crowdfunding. Kronda Adair crowdfunded her trip to Lesbians Who Tech and both she, and the conference as a whole, benefited.
As a community we are stronger together, and our diversity and inclusion has a better chance to shine when it’s positively showcased at professional conferences. It’s time to get constructive, creative, and collaborative about funding technical conference attendance.
There are many resources out there to help. This isn’t a complete list, but here are some highlights to give you an idea of what’s out there, and get you started on your own search.
Funding Your Conference Travel
- Travel Funding links at Geek Feminism Wiki
- Anita Borg Systers Pass-It-On (PIO) Awards
- Ada Initiative posts about Scholarships & Grants
- @CallBackWomen — Finding You Hundreds Of Speaking Opportunities
Resources for Helping Fund Others’ Conference Travel
- Contribute to the LOPSA WiAC 2014 Sponsorship
- Contribute to the Anita Borg Systers-Pass-It-On Awards
- Donate to local meetups and hackathons, like Trans*H4CK and One Web For All
- Contact the conference organizers of your favorite conference and ask if they are accepting donation for attendee registration grants and/or travel reimbursement stipends for members of underrepresented groups.
- Kapor Center for Social Impact offers tech scholarships for mission-aligned conference organizers to diversify conference attendance.
- Consider offering a personal sponsorship for someone’s conference registration fee, perhaps like this.
Additional References and Resources
- A Line At the Ladies’ Room: Tired of the echo in the ladies’ rooms at tech conferences
- We Are All Awesome, a site to motivate new tech speakers, and to provide resources to be great at it.
- Speakerinnen-List is a resource site for conference organizers to find female speakers & moderators for your conference
- Speak Up! is a community dedicated to empowering and educating speakers of all genders, races or experience levels, connecting them with mentors and other resources needed to help them through what can be a difficult, daunting and discouraging experience.
- Tech Sistas highlights Latina, Black and Native American women in technology.
- Articulate aims to raise the profile of women speakers in the technology and the creative industries by offering public speaking training, developing partnerships with event programmers, and giving better access to talented female speakers.