I was reached out to by Modern Frontends conference back in June this year. November is the most busy month of my DevRel calendar, I always expect to be travelling and speaking a lot around this time. As far as I was concerned, this was another interested conference who wanted me to speak. I submitted via Sessionize, after being reached out to by the conference on twitter, with a TBC talk title and description and was accepted to speak. This by itself isn’t completely unusual, but it was a little odd as I didn’t at that point know who was behind the conference. They had reached out to me on twitter via a ‘modern frontends’ twitter handle and didn’t sign off their messages from anyone, doing some sleuthing on the website didn’t bring any clarification. I assumed that it must be someone who knows me and had accepted my blank CFP on faith.
I later discovered that the organiser of Modern Frontends is Gen Ashley, she mentions that she has a team working with her, but has not named them, nor given them credit for their work.
Modern frontends then reached out to the company I work at for sponsorship, we eventually declined to sponsor due to clashes.
Deciding to speak at Modern Frontends was easy for me, I live in the area of the conference and I already have prepared talks. My job is in developer advocacy, so my time writing and giving the talk is covered by my salary.
However this is not the case for everyone, I have heard that speakers who had to travel not only didn’t have their travel covered, but no hotel either.
Making speakers, especially new speakers, pay to attend and speak at your conference is unacceptable. Paying for travel and paying for a hotel counts as paying to attend. The speakers are the content, without them there is no conference. Compensate speakers for their time. It feels absolutely bizarre to me that this even needs to be said. ‘Networking opportunities at the event’ or ‘exposure’ do not count as compensation, as they say, people die of exposure. The least a conference should do is cover travel and accommodation, offering a speaker stipend is what conferences should do.
Because I work in DevRel, I am often contractually obliged not to take a speaker fee, usually, I will ask that it be donated to diversity tickets and scholarships, but I do appreciate when a conference compensates me for my time and effort in other ways. I have spoken at many conferences and usually they will do something nice for their speakers, like a gift in the hotel room, or a tour of the local area, or a speaker dinner or combination of the above. NDC gives a donation to a charity in the speakers’ name, for example.
I have seen multiple people online making statements to the above effect and being virtually silenced, shut down, shamed and bullied by Gen Ashley into retracting and deleting their posts. She has been rude to speakers, sponsors and anyone who has called her out. Speakers who have stood down from speaking at the event still have their faces plastered all over the conference website and associated advertising.
When I arrived at the event itself it was pretty grim, the venue was hard to find, unbranded, starkly lit. It was giving corporate-strip-light-carpet-tiled-hell vibes. The sponsors had tables around the hallway and were clearly unimpressed with the setup and the event itself. Sponsors were sold on 3000 attendees, there were certainly not 3000 people at the event, perhaps a few hundred.
I have spoken openly about my discomfort around the excess and entitlement that is shown at developer events, with free food, clothing and other swag being given out to the already fortunate and well situated. However this event took things to the other extreme. For the price of a £600 ticket, attendees were treated to a single coffee service, with urns of pre-made coffee and tea and a lunch of ‘packet sandwiches’. It was swept away within an hour too, so late attendees or those working over their lunch-break did not get a lunch. I don’t want to sound entitled, but for the price of the sponsorship and the quantity of sponsors, along with the price of the tickets, and the fact that they weren’t paying their speakers (I assume they might have paid some of the bigger names) it feels like the funds have been spent elsewhere…
Where the funds weren’t spent was on recording and livestreaming the talks. There was no recording equipment in any of the rooms. When I asked Gen about what had happened to the livestream she just told me that she was going to refund the people who had paid for livestream tickets and offer them a free ticket to next year’s event (ha!). At the time I asked, tickets for the livestream were still available for purchase on the event website at £43. This feels very close to fraud to me. I know people have been asking online for refunds, I hope they get them soon. I hope that if the event runs next year it is better managed.
I gave my talk and it went well, there was no one in the room to set me up, just an AV setup leaning against the podium. I set myself, up, gave the talk and left the room. As I walked through the hallway Gen came up to me and told me that she thought it was ‘funny’ that people were complaining about the event on twitter, and that she didn’t care. I really didn’t know what to respond to this, so I said that it wasn’t really funny and seemed quite serious and left it at that.
My final point to make about this conference is that it was booked to run on the same day that HalfStack London is on every year. Dylan has been running an absolutely excellent, inclusive and creative front end focused conference for almost 10 years on the same day every year. Modern Frontends booked to run on exactly the same day, which shows either rudeness or a lack of market research. Dylan ended up moving the conference to run on the Wednesday before Modern Frontends ran and it was a roaring success.
I know others have shared their experiences, and I do not want to center myself in this debacle, but it also does not sit well with me to watch this unfold and say nothing. I always advocate for fairness and diversity in tech and I will keep doing so. I apologise if my involvement in this conference and silence up until now has hurt anyone.