Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?

Back in 2015 I had a public argument with Jared Spool about the purpose and use of a Code of Conduct [1]Rachel Nabors also had a similar argument with Jared Spool, which can be found at “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a code of conduct“, and which covers the basics better than … Continue reading.  The crux of that conversation was: a code of conduct doesn’t guarantee an event will be safe, but gives an illusion of safety. This may cause legal or liability issues for the con. And if a con has had limited “events”, then it must be safe, so you can trust us to run a good con.

Or to put it differently, “You don’t need to watch us, because we’re watching out for you.”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who watches the watchmen?

Anyone who’s been abused or harassed (and frankly, that’s most women, LGBT and minority members of IT) said, and continue to say, that organizations cannot be trusted to be transparent and forthright of their own accord.

Frankly, I hoped we’d never have to put the argument to the test. But here we are: Lynn Boyden was harassed by an individual at the IA Summit, and has been working with the IA Summit (and now the IA Conference) committee to resolve the complaint.  It has been a nightmare so painful she released an open letter to the IA Institute about it.

This resulted in a lot of badly handled communication by the IA Institute. It has resulted in hot debate in most places that IAs congregate, and a petition to have the president removed[2]It may have also ironically resulted in a bump in IA membership as people have re-registered or registered for the first time specifically so they could have a voice in the next set of elections.

The IA Institute’s president has published a letter to the membership  outlining her take on what’s going on. [3]The IA Institute’s letter noted that there is a legal risk to a code of conduct, but not the way that Jared predicted. The complainant is not the one threatening a lawsuit, but the harasser is.

The failure, to be clear, is in both a lack of clear procedures and governance behind the code(s) of conduct. It’s not enough to have a Code of Conduct; the steps to render a complaint have to be usable [4]The 2018 IA Summit CoC required someone who was harassed to find a URL on their badge, type that URL in, go down to the second paragraph for contact with the co-chairs, then email them directly., the organization has to train their staff on how to follow up [5]Discussions I’ve had with volunteers from the 2018 event indicate that volunteer safety training was rejected due to the cost., and the Code of Conduct has to be clear on what the consequences are [6]The current IAC 2019 Code of Conduct states “If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the co-chairs and staff may take any action they deem appropriate, including but not limited to … Continue reading. And then the conference has to make good on their stated Code of Conduct [7]The IA Conference committee, of all the groups involved, appears to have had the most positive influence on the results. As stated in the IA Institute’s letter, they did institute a ban against … Continue reading. If the organization can’t follow up, or worse, can’t agree on how to follow up, then (to Jared’s point) the Code of Conduct is rendered worthless.

The situation is clearly not resolved, and frankly, I don’t expect it will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction until the smoke clears, if at all.

And it doesn’t solve the fact that there are still assholes in our community who think it’s OK to not just act unprofessionally in professional settings, but to grope, harass, and assault women at our conferences. And we’re not just talking about one, or two, because harassers are like rats… if you’ve seen one run across your kitchen floor, there’s at least ten more that you just don’t know about.

The problem with missing stairs is that it’s impossible to know who all the missing stairs are, no matter how deep your back channel.  The problem with harassers and assaulters is that there’s always new ones spawning.

So who watches the watchmen?

If nothing else comes to pass from the IA Summit/Conference/Foundation/Institute (mis)handling of this harassment report, one thing is clear: the industry now knows the answer to this question.

We do. We, the customers, speakers, volunteers, and members of the IA community, watch the conference organizers and harassers. As this incident illustrates, we have no choice. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

We no longer consider a Code of Conduct to be a “feature”. As the UIE points out in their article on Kano models, things that began as delighters quickly shift to basic expectations, then to hard requirements. If you don’t have a Code of Conduct, many of us will not attend. If you can’t enforce your Code of Conduct, we won’t just avoid your conference, we’ll let each other know your conference is unsafe.

So let’s talk attendee requirements:

  • We require codes of conduct with clear transparent guidelines and workflows because we are not so stupid that we believe all your attendees share the same definition of “professional”. The phrases “Be professional” and “Be good to each other” don’t work on harassers.
  • We then measure — individually, or as a group in this case — your organization against how well you adhere to your own code. Conferences need to enforce their codes of conduct.
  • When your actions as conference runners suggest that you are protecting the harassers, whether it’s because “he only gets that way when he’s drunk” or because “he’s a big name” or because “he’ll sue us”, we will publicly and loudly make it known that you value a harasser more than the entire population of women (or minorities or LGBT members) at your con. We require you to prioritize safety.
  • Where our personal circumstances will allow, we will step up locally, running for office or helping organizations shape their Codes of Conduct. We will not, however, sign up to voluntarily reorganize your own personal shitshow. Con runners should be taking on the bulk of this work.

Our goal is simple: we want to be safe. We want events, meetings, and employers to prioritize our safety. We want you to spend money on our safety. We want harassers to experience consequences, so that they do not harass again. We want them to lose the opportunity to harass again. We want them in-your-face aware of what will happen if they harass a first time.

We want the assholes out.

We don’t want conferences to fail, and we don’t want to be harassed or assaulted.

Con runners, event runners, we know you can do this.

We’re not just asking you to write better codes of conduct that go beyond “be professional” or “be good to each other”. We’re asking you to put your money where your mouth is: train your staff, prioritize safety, switch to lawyers who prioritize safety if you have to.

The buyer has no choice but to beware; we will vote with our feet and give money to conferences that weed out the predators.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who watches the watchmen? Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.


1 Rachel Nabors also had a similar argument with Jared Spool, which can be found at “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a code of conduct“, and which covers the basics better than I do
2 It may have also ironically resulted in a bump in IA membership as people have re-registered or registered for the first time specifically so they could have a voice in the next set of elections.
3 The IA Institute’s letter noted that there is a legal risk to a code of conduct, but not the way that Jared predicted. The complainant is not the one threatening a lawsuit, but the harasser is.
4 The 2018 IA Summit CoC required someone who was harassed to find a URL on their badge, type that URL in, go down to the second paragraph for contact with the co-chairs, then email them directly.
5 Discussions I’ve had with volunteers from the 2018 event indicate that volunteer safety training was rejected due to the cost.
6 The current IAC 2019 Code of Conduct states “If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the co-chairs and staff may take any action they deem appropriate, including but not limited to warning the offender or requesting the offender to remove themselves from the conference with no refund.” Which is some small comfort if you get an opportunity to report before the con ends, but maybe not so much after. Contrast with Wiscon’s Code of Conduct which outlines procedures for before, during, and after events, including harassers known to the community that may have not even registered yet.
7 The IA Conference committee, of all the groups involved, appears to have had the most positive influence on the results. As stated in the IA Institute’s letter, they did institute a ban against the individual referenced and told the IA Institute “if [the IA Institute] did not take over the conference with the ban in place, then we would lose support from these influential community members and the 2019 IAC chairs would walk out.” Things unraveled during the Conference’s transfer of ownership from the IA Foundation to the IA Institute.

A “Yog’s Law” for the UX world

As a Speculative Fiction professional writer, I am treated more professionally by science fiction and fantasy publication markets than I am by UX Design conferences.

I’m certainly not the only one to talk about the subject of UX Design speaking fees in the past few months. Jenny Sheng wrote a thorough post on her experiences speaking in 2018. Vitaly Friedman wrote “Don’t Pay to Speak at Commercial Events” for Smashing Magazine not long after. And Dylan Wilbanks wrote a pretty thorough outline of the actual expenses of speaking as part of his post “The End of Speaking” right here on The Interconnected.

We know we have a problem.

As we are an industry heavily shaped by Mike Montiero’s seminal talk, Fuck You Pay Me, we also know that it’s our responsibility as UX Professionals to ensure we’re treated like professionals. Nobody’s going to do it for us.

So we’re going to look at how a similar industry — speculative fiction — provides both an ethical framework and a template for submission and expectation of professional conferences through the lens of Yog’s Law.

It’s all about the sandwiches

I’m a speculative fiction writer because I enjoy getting paid to write speculative fiction. Similarly, I’m a UX Designer because I enjoy getting paid to design user experiences. If I’m not doing UX Design for my boss, I prefer to be paid for whatever UX-related work I am doing, because it’s probably not as enjoyable as being paid for UX Design.

Or to put it more bluntly, my day job pays me in money, which I exchange for tasty tasty sandwiches. Without the money, regardless of how fun UX is, there are no sandwiches. If given the choice between doing fun things that don’t provide sandwich money and fun things that do also provide sandwich money, I’m picking the fun sandwich-providing things.

An Event Apart and Confab, as conferences, both recognize these facts. They both not only pay their speakers but pay their speakers’ travel expenses, and have done so since their conferences began. They recognize that the professionalism of presenting a conference is a two-way street: speakers deserve to be treated as professionals being taken away from sandwich-providing jobs and compensated for the time and effort they’re putting into their presentations.

Most UX conferences are set up as if we were academics, required by our sandwich-providing jobs to publish or perish. These conferences lack transparency around speaker payment and speaker agreements, often because if we could see up-front what we’re getting, we wouldn’t bother submitting at all.

For example, The Information Architecture Conference (formerly known as the IA Summit) lists extensive information about what they are looking for in a good proposal, topics that are particularly interesting, session lengths, and resources for writing a good proposal. I’m using the IAC here as an example because their speaker requirements are available online even when they’re not open for submissions, but my experience submitting for conferences indicates that this is the norm—in fact, when it comes to providing “what we want” detail, the IAC goes above and beyond (in a good way).

If I contrast this with a good Speculative Fiction market like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I see a lot of the same kinds of information: what they’re looking for in stories, content lengths, and resources for how to present a good submission.

also see a section that details editing policies, payment rates and types, who holds what rights to the content after publication and for how long, and response times. (We don’t even talk about the publication rights to our content in the UX world. We treat it as if everything is open-source. Our employers don’t treat their content as if everything is open-source.)

I can tell as soon as I read a fiction market’s site whether they align to SFWA and industry standards for payment and rights, what I’ll be giving, and what I’ll be getting.

That level of transparency is critical. It’s the difference between knowing that I’ll make $240 on a piece of work and I’ll be removing it from the market for a year and knowing that I’ll be making $15 for the same piece and I’ve accidentally given away rights in perpetuity.

And that’s not to say that conferences don’t tell me what I’ll get paid. My experience is that they do, when they send my acceptance notice. As a speaker I get a nice long email that outlines everything they expect from me and when and what I’ll be compensated and sometimes a contract to sign and maybe some other details and oh can I have everything returned by the end of the week so that if I’ve declined they can move to the next person in line?

As UX Designers, we know it’s harder to make important decisions when someone’s put us on the clock. Yet we allow our conference organizers to do it to us all the time. How many people have felt pressured to financially overextend themselves to speak at a conference because they didn’t know the expenses up front? How many people have decided not to submit at all because they couldn’t estimate the expenses and didn’t want the pressure? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that the people most affected have voices and stories that aren’t represented in many of today’s conferences.

For my efforts as a writer I earn about $240 per short story I sell, and about $30 per poem. I’m about as successful at submitting fiction as I am at submitting talks, which is to say I get rejected a whole lot, and I expect to be rejected a whole lot. (Some time in the future I’ll write about how rejection isn’t your fault.)

For my efforts as a speaker I’ve been paid “thanks for coming” to “here’s a free ticket to an event that you have to attend for 3 days because we’ve got you slotted into multiple time slots”. I’ve had local events that, when time and expenses were figured in, actually paid me better than professional conferences. And only a local-ish event has ever offered me travel compensation.

So why is the Speculative Fiction industry so much better at telling me how many sandwiches I’m getting out of a professional relationship than Non-Academic UX Conference Industry?

Yog’s Law

James D. Macdonald is a science fiction author. He’s written 35 novels (most with Debra Doyle) and he’s obviously successful. I didn’t learn about Mr. Macdonald through his writing, though. I learned about him through his vigilant work to educate novice authors (like me) about literary scams.

Mr. Macdonald coined Yog’s Law:

Yog’s Law: Money should flow toward the author.

Yog’s Law is a heuristic for gauging whether you want to have a professional relationship with another organization (or person) in speculative fiction publishing, and it’s been quoted by many professional authors, editors, and others in the field.

The longer version of Yog’s Law would be something like:

Be wary of deals where the publisher charges a reading fee, or a submission fee, or an entry fee, or a publishing fee. (Self-publishing has made that one a bit more complicated, but vanity publishers who charge you to publish your book are still the biggest problem.) Be wary of editing fees, research fees, or anything else where you’re putting money out up front in return for the potential opportunity to make money in the future.

Taken at a more strategic level, Yog’s Law is an ethical framework. An ethical speculative fiction publisher is one whose goals are aligned with the author: write and publish the best work available so that people are willing to read, buy, and talk about it. An unethical publisher is one who a) doesn’t pay professional rates for professional work, b) doesn’t disclose their rates, fees, and other expenses and/or c) takes money from the author for their product instead of paying the author for their product.

Which way is the money flowing now?

It’s 2019. Seven-year-olds are getting paid on Youtube to review toys, for pete’s sake. There is no conceivable reason why any of us, no matter how skilled or unskilled a speaker we are, should be paid nothing—or worse, should pay out money in travel or lodging—for creating and presenting content at a conference. Even if all you spend is an hour of your time to create the presentation, that hour has value.

For local small-scale events, it’s fair and equitable to speak for free if you choose to do so. A local event can be a great place to test a talk  or workshop for a larger audience, it can help grow your local network, and it often is a labor of love where local companies and organizations are donating time so that our industry can grow organically.

There’s a big difference between the local monthly chat in someone’s donated conference room and a professional conference. Some of our conferences charge $2000 for a 3-day event ticket  with hundreds of attendees and then turn around and claim they can’t pay their speakers. (One event I went to asked me to speak “as part of a panel”, and then after I accepted clarified that to attend the panel I’d have to pay the $250 workshop fee “to rent the space and cover food”.)

When your entertainment is sponsored, your conference has sponsors, your food is middle of the road, your staff are volunteers, and your speakers are receiving a conference ticket or less in compensation, one tends to wonder what you are doing with the money.

Recently a self-described conference organizer attempted to justify this behavior in a conversation on Twitter by explaining:

The conference organizers are either 1) not very good at turning a profit and probably aren’t charging enough, or 2) are focused on making a profit, and going to pay speakers that attract an audience (and sell tickets).

If you aren’t getting an offer to get paid, they’ve made a judgement call that your name isn’t big enough to sell tickets. Simple as that.

In other words, there’s no intention to pay content creators and presenters. Our current ethical framework is based on unprofessionalism:

  • Some conference organizers are too unprofessional to make money and can’t pay you.
  • The rest are too unprofessional to pay you, unless you’ve spent so many years “building your brand” at your own expense that they can exploit that brand to make themselves more money.

Well that’s a ringing endorsement from the industry.

The exposure argument

There are the folks that argue that by providing free labor to a possibly-competent possibly-exploitative conference organization we’re gaining back what we give in “exposure”.

I could give you a dozen reasons why that’s obviously false, from the fact that conferences aren’t built around landing gigs to the fact that we don’t accept the exposure argument for spec work, but really it sums up to this:

Stand-up comic TW Harry on stage, captioned: When someone offers to pay me in exposure, I respond by showing them that I'm capable of exposing myself

No matter what part of any creative industry we’re talking about, whether it’s fiction, UX, speaking, juggling, whatever, “exposure” never results in the cash necessary to buy tasty, tasty sandwiches.

A Yog’s Law for UX

The practice of not paying speakers is exclusionary; it means only people who can afford to pay their way through the process have the opportunity to speak. It sets a horrible example to our employers and clients when we devalue our own work inside the industry. It’s also at minimum exploitative and in worst cases predatory; speakers are expected to produce content and perform for conference organizers who are often using an opaque call for papers to describe the payment for services.

And it has to stop. We can’t have the bulk of our continuing education system in this industry be driven by only the subset of “people who can afford to teach” when there are so many other, arguably more diverse, arguably more interesting ideas available.

Yog’s Law shows us a clear path to resolve many of these issues:

Money flows toward the content creator.

We expect payment for our wireframes, our deliverables, our research, our design sprints, our thought leadership. We turn down spec work. We fight against huge “design exercises” during hiring practices. We expect to be paid in every corner of the industry except speaking.

So it’s time for the industry to realign to Yog’s Law.

  • Speakers should be paid.
  • That pay should include a ticket for the conference.
  • It should include travel and expenses.
  • It should include a stipend for the day.
  • It should at minimum outline the content rights for whatever you present if it’s being recorded, and consider paying you if that material will be used in some kind of ongoing fashion.

Because we have value, because we’re good at what we do, because we respect our own work, because we want others to respect our work, and because italian hoagies are still not free, our ideas and our presentation of those ideas cost money.

Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware. When we’re buying our own work, the money is flowing the wrong way.

The End of Speaking

Once upon a time, going to web conferences meant a lot to me.

The early Event Aparts changed my career direction. I watched Jeff Veen speak in his story-telling narrative style and thought, “I can do that. I should do that.”

Khoi Vinh’s SXSW presentation on the grid was the seminal moment that put me on the path towards UX and away from the web as I knew it. Learning I could bring visual order to context and content… it changed things. To a lesser extent, Richard Rutter’s talk at the same SXSW walking through typographical vertical rhythm put me on that course, too.
I started doing talks. I bombed. I got better. People came to my talks because I was the speaker. I felt like a D-grade celebrity, like I wasn’t a big star, but people knew who I was.

The last few years, though, I’ve been pulling away from the stage. In 2019, I’m not submitting for any conferences. I don’t have the energy anymore to spend hours on talks that I have to pay to give, and I don’t think they generate the value for me I used to think they did. I’m also unsure of the value conference generate for attendees anymore, either.

The design conference as we know it is dying. Tickets are expensive, travel costs high. The speaker selection process is painful. Meanwhile, conference speakers are rightly asking for something for their troubles besides a pat on the head. And the pervasiveness of social media has undercut the need for meeting face-to-face.

A conference pass can cost anywhere from free (BarCamps and unconferences) to thousands of dollars (UX Week). Travel can range from nearly free (for local) to thousands (for international flights). Hotels, even at conference rates, can run over $100 a night. Throw in incidentals, meals, taxis, and it adds up. You can economize, of course, but are the talks and the networking you get valuable enough to justify the thousands of dollars you may spend just to attend? Is it valuable in a time when there’s a free Slack community for just about every facet of what we call UX?

Then there’s the expense of paying to speak, which is essentially what we’re asked to do by most conferences.

In my experience, it takes 40-100 hours of work to write, build, and practice a presentation. (Want to know why some big design celebrities tend to trot out the same three talks all the time, or write one new talk a year? That’s why.)

My standard rate when I was running my own firm was $150/hr. So if I take the minimum 40 hours out to do this work, that’s $6000 in lost income. Add in travel, hotel, meals (so many dinners), taxis and transit, AND the lost time of getting to and from the conference site… I’m dropping another $1000-2000. And I haven’t even mentioned the conference fees that I’m paying if I didn’t get my pass comped.

One of the major conferences in the UX world doesn’t even comp a pass, much less pay for travel and hotel. When I asked them why they weren’t paying speakers, I got “we try to keep costs down.”

Other conferences do comp passes, of course, and a rare few offer expenses, hotels, and honorariums. All of them are after the same thing — they want to at least break even. Some want to turn an outright profit… while not offering a dime in compensation for the labor of creating, practicing, and delivering a talk.

This would all be fine if I could turn that $8000 I spent on the presentation and conference into bookable work. Except, well, that rarely happens. I talked to eight people about how they generated business when I started my consultancy. Only one said a conference talk generated business. Everyone else said they got far more from word of mouth — or even from books they wrote. (By comparison, my writing has generated two speaking opportunities for me — and arguably a business opportunity or two. And I don’t have to travel to write.)

“Exposure” doesn’t work as a business model when you’re a freelancer or being paid on a government or academic salary. The ones who can afford to speak, overwhelmingly, are those employed by corporations willing to pay for travel and expenses or highly successful independent designers who can afford to pay the expenses and then write them off.

Because I was self-employed in America, I could write off the expenses. It’s a really nice write off — except you can only really do it if you are making enough to be able to write expenses off. As a result, you see a lot of speaking slots filled by those running their own consultancies, usually older, whiter folk, mostly men.

The selection process for being chosen as a speaker doesn’t make the experience any easier. Every call-for-proposal generates a slush pile of talk proposals the reviewers have to whittle down into a schedule. (And it’s a real slush pile; to quote one reviewer I know, “Why is it only men who submit thought pieces?”) Once they have a tentative lineup they start reaching out to possible speakers… only to get turned back because the speakers can’t afford to attend (thanks to conferences not paying speakers). The speaking slots get filled with people who can afford to attend — again, mostly white, mostly men. It makes me wonder which voices we’re not hearing because conferences aren’t paying. (I will also add that the curation and selection process can be its own barrier to entry for speakers, demanding hours of work on crafting a proposal only to receive little feedback other than a curt “no thank you.” It turns people off from submitting when they feel they put a lot of effort into a form letter reply.)

Speakers aren’t the reason the conference happens, though. Conferences happen because the conference organizers and the attendees value the “networking.” I will not deny the power of the network — some of my most lasting relationships in the design industry came from meeting people at conferences. And yet… there’s the nagging problem I have — that my real network exists outside of conferences.

I was a semi-early Twitter adopter. (My user number is sub-1 million, which gives me as much social cred as a middle-aged white guy on a social network has, namely, the exact credibility I currently have, whatever that is.) Twitter got me a job in tech. It helped me build a network of designers I could listen to and seek advice from (and conversely designers that listened to and sought advice from me). Lately, Slack has been doing the same for me.

When I go to conferences I run into people I’ve only known from Twitter or Slack. It’s great to meet them and hang out with them. The conference is just an excuse to hang out, though. It didn’t build the network; it just helped foster more connections with them.

Are conferences great places to network? Absolutely. Do attendees still need conferences for the network? Maybe not. The rising generation of developers and designers grew up online; they built their networks without the strong requirement that their friends must be in meatspace all the time.

How can conference creators “save” conferences (assuming they’re something we think it’s valuable to save?)

  • Pay speakers. Pay them for their time. Pay for their travel and hotel.
  • If you have to raise ticket prices, so be it. I’m sure with a little thinking you can come up with a better pricing model that still gets the right people in the door. (Besides, I remind you that many conferences, including ones that don’t pay speakers, are already charging well north of $1000 already just to get in the door of a 500 person conference. Where is that $500K going anyway?)
  • Treat every proposal the way you would want your proposal treated. Curate relentlessly, but fairly. Provide actionable feedback. Make people want to try again.
  • Yes, conferences will still need your tent-pole speakers. (But if tent-pole speakers are all that a conference is about, why even have forty breakout sessions over three days? Do the keynotes and let’s go straight to karaoke.) Clearly, there’s value in a multi-track conference. That value, though, only manifests when you value the speakers’ time and effort into producing the best possible talks. By doing that, you value the time and effort attendees are putting into attending. A conference can be more than tent-poles if you place a value on assembling the best possible tracks.
  • De-emphasize speaking at big conferences as the be-all end-all of career growth and success. Yes, I’ll still burnish my “spoke at SXSW and Webvisions and MinneWebCon” achievements, but in all honesty, my speaking work has been fairly insignificant compared to my regular design work. There are a lot of kids out there who want to be Jared Spool giving talks at all the conferences and little venues, but based on his airline rage tweets I’m not even sure Jared Spool wants to be Jared Spool some days.

For years some naysayers in UX have been emphatic that “those who speak about UX do not do UX,” that those who are on these stages all the time you can’t point to any good work they’ve done. I don’t believe that to be true at all. However, I do know there are a lot of designers out there doing good work that won’t ever grace a stage because they can’t afford to be there. That concerns me more than anything else. Conferences should represent who we want to be as a design profession, and I’m not seeing that aspiration on the daïs right now when we keep running out those with the money and privilege to be up there.

As for me, I’m tired of the speaking circuit. I get much more out of writing that I ever did from speaking. So I’m taking myself out of the game. The industry deserves to hear new voices that have never been heard before. Would that conferences make the moves to allow those voices to come through.

In the meantime, I’ll be at a conference or two here and there, wearing my attendee badge, looking for the new voices, and waiting either for the renaissance of the design conference as a platform for new voices pushing for social and cultural change — or for the death of the conference.