Curious to know how we picked speakers for the 2013 SeConf? Read on…

This is a guest post by Marcus Merrell, one of the organizers of the 2013 Selenium Conference.

This is a guest post by Marcus Merrell, one of the organizers of the 2013 Selenium Conference.

Selenium/Webdriver has kept my family fed since 2007. Since I’ve never committed a line of code to this magical project, I thought the least I could do was spend a few hours helping put SeConf 2013 together. When they asked for a volunteer to put the speaker program together, I was thrilled to step forward!

Ultimately, I decided on a more conventional approach than straight-up dictatorship–and I can only credit the 5 awesome people on the committee and their ruthless adherence to the principle that “data wins”. I wanted a mix of hard-core browser techs, language-binding mavens, and people who ultimately made their living keeping a large variety of clients happy. And Simon–always Simon. I left myself out of the voting, because these are the experts’ experts: I figured the best thing I could do was ensure a smooth process and remove the burdens of book-keeping.

Here they are, the People You Can Blame:

– Dave Hunt, Mozilla
– Jim Evans,
– Santiago Suarez-Ordoñez, Sauce Labs
– Jari Bakken, The Matrix
– Simon Stewart, Mt Olympus

I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck, but there was zero drama. These folks are all pros, and we’ve put together a hell of a great conference for Boston.

We had 24 slots to fill, but only ~45 submissions, and without the variety of topics we wanted. Specifically, we were dismayed by the low number of submissions from female presenters. Given a high proportion of female testers in the industry, we believed their voice was under-represented. The call was extended in part to attempt to correct this, and ended up netting us ~20 more submissions in total.

With the proposals all gathered in one place (thanks, Ashley!), I then set about trying to find “themes” in the submissions. Several leapt out immediately–lots of case studies showed up from large household-name companies that I knew people would find interesting. Some deep-dives appeared, describing the inner workings of browser implementations or talking about a new tool-set people might find interesting.

Another theme I saw, a blend of the previous two, were the Best Practices–people who wanted to talk about processes for applying disparate tool sets to the problems we face every day. I believe these talks have the broadest appeal, and are a primary driver of attendance. We also had enough mobile offerings to put together a “bloc”, which will consume a whole afternoon.

Simon suggested “blind auditions” for the selection process, and everyone loved the idea. Voting would take place not knowing anything about the speaker outside of hints left in their abstract. Since we had extended the call to invite submissions from female presenters, we therefore believed this would “correct” for that bias. It should at least remove all doubt that any speaker was chosen specifically for their gender.

I created a Google spreadsheet with a separate tab for each of these themes. Each tab contained only a few columns–the title, abstract, “notes to organizers” (if it was relevant), and one column for each person on the committee to vote. I did not include author bios, and if someone’s name showed up in anywhere else, I redacted it. I *did*, however, leave in speaker’s company. I figured if I saw two talks, “Success and Failure at Google” and, “Continuous Integration with Selenium at Bob’s House of HTML and Gumbo”, it would be completely reasonable to make the decision based on the company.

My thinking was, rather than have each person go through each talk individually, all these folks would have to do is read a paragraph and assign a number 1-5 (1=want, 5=don’t want). That way they would rank the talks in terms of the best subjects for that particular theme, thereby making sure just about anyone would have a good “path” through the conference. The committee was given a short deadline (1 week!) to fill out the voting columns, after which we’d sync up on the phone.

Somehow we managed to get people from California, Texas, Florida, the UK, and Norway into the same Google Hangout at the same time. We averaged the scores into a column in the spreadsheet, and Simon expertly sorted, manipulated, and color-coded the rows. As I said, we had 24 slots to fill, so Simon just drew a line: every talk in every theme that scored below a 2 was “in”. This left us with around 10 talks–we all agreed on two points: a) those talks were awesome, and b) we needed more.

So we cut in the talks with a score between 2 and 3. This put us up to 23 talks, so we had to begin some horse-trading. We started to have some difficult conversations when I realized that I had somehow not scored one talk at the bottom of one tab. I applied the formula to that cell, and it had one of the best scores of all–so we had 24! Huzzah!

Where does this leave us? With 2 days of Track A and one day of Track B. Given 8 presentations per track per day, that leaves us with an entire day of “open” talks for Track B. Be sure to sign up right when you get there–these slots went really fast last year, and will probably go fast again. We also will have a day of workshops on four different topics, with two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

We’d like people’s feedback on how the conference “flows” this year. As I said, we wanted someone with just about any background and interest to be able to find a path through this conference, so I’d like to hear whether or not we achieved it.

…and I hope to see you all in Boston! (PS: Tickets are going fast!).