Why UnCons are Important
My good friend, Keith Casey, is once again chairing Zendcon's UnCon. For those who have never attended, it's basically one or more tracks running parallel to the main conference, but with content pitched by attendees — sometimes presented by them, other times presented by others who are knowledgeable in the field.
Why should you care? There are great sessions already selected for the conference featuring some well-known speakers from the PHP world; why would you want to either attend or present at the uncon?
Continue the Discussion
Last year, I did a tutorial session with Mike Naberezny covering PHP development best practices. Following the session, several attendees approached Keith and said they could really use a session just on Subversion; the material covered in the tutorial, while good, did not go into enough depth for them.
Keith then approached me about doing an uncon session, and I in turn tagged Lorna Jane Mitchell about doing the session. We ended up doing it together, after sitting down for about 10 minutes of planning. We had the flexibility to both go over what we thought were core basics everyone should know, as well as to answer very specific questions. The session was very well attended, and those people who gave us feedback indicated that it was exactly the amount of detail they were looking for.
So, in summary, the uncon allowed attendees to get more information on a topic that was covered only briefly in another, regular session.
Springboard to Speaking
Was your talk rejected for the conference? Are you having trouble getting accepted to any conferences at all?
Conference organizers have a catch-22 they face every time they put together a schedule. On the one hand, there may be some really interesting talks submitted by unknown speakers; on the other, scheduling known speakers helps put money on the table (attendees want to hear from established experts). As a result, you see a lot of the same speakers at each and every conference.
So, how do you break in? You speak.
Speaking at area user groups is one way to break into the system; good sessions often generate buzz that extends beyond your user group. But an even better way is to speak at an uncon session at an established conference. Oftentimes you'll have conference organizers attending these, or friends of conference organizers, and this can have a huge impact on your chances at speaking. Additionally, I've seen a ton of buzz generated on twitter and blogs by uncon sessions — and this buzz gets noticed.
Don't believe me? Let's revisit that talk Lorna Jane and I gave. We pitched it as a tutorial session for php|tek this spring… and it was accepted, largely on the basis of our uncon session. It was the only talk I pitched for that conference that was accepted. (Believe it or not, I have to submit talks just like everyone else, and get a fair share of rejections just like everyone else.)
At php|tek, I also pitched two uncon tracks, one on using Git with SVN, and another on how to write domain models for your MVC layers. This latter session, on models, generated a lot of buzz, and was later picked up by MTA for a CodeWorks 2009 webinar, which was very well received. I also pitched it for ZendCon this year… and will be presenting it there in two weeks.
In short, if you want to speak at conferences, start by pitching ideas to the uncon tracks at conferences you attend. Prepare well for it, make a good impression, and you may be delivering it as a regular session at another conference.
Explore new ideas
Conference organizers, besides having to choose well-known speakers, often also need to stick to known topics. Part of the reason you see topics on the buzz words du jour is because people want to see sessions on them. But what about things like PHP-GTK? or using PHP to write CLI tools? or using PHP to connect to a specific web service? These may all be interesting, but may not attract crowds. But what if you, as an attendee, want to hear about these topics?
One aspect of the uncon is that you can vote on topics and/or suggest topics you want to hear about. This gives you a chance to help shape the direction of the conference to cater to your own interests. It also allows you to explore some areas of the language you may not have known about, but, when you see the presentation abstract, could benefit the work you do.
So, use the uncon to explore the language!
If you're going to ZendCon, plan on speaking at or attending the uncon! And help shape it, by heading over to Joind.in and voting for sessions now! See you there!