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What I Learned From My First Content Conference


I went to Confab Central last week and had a blast. After years of going to tech and news tech conferences, it was my first ever content conference, so I thought I’d make a list of what I learned.

All the Content Ladies

I don’t know what the official numbers are, but women were definitely the majority at the conference. The lines for the women’s bathrooms were literally out the door, and my small group dinner on Wednesday was 1 guy and 7 women.

This was kind of a nice change from code conferences.

Plentiful Food Helps

This was the first conference that served enough coffee. And we were served two square meals a day, plus really generous snacks. And cake. And cinnamon rolls. No one was every going to be hangry at this conference, and I can’t help but think this helps with networking.

And I loved the small group dinner arrangements.  Confab arranged these using Eventbrite: they’d made group reservations at some local great restaurants, and you could buy a ticket for a place at the table with one of the groups.  The idea being that to get to know people in such a large group was hard and this was a nice way to get a little deeper than small talk between panels. I got to go to a stellar restaurant and meet 7 new, interesting people in a really non-awkward way.

CS Means Two Things

At this conference, “CS” meant content strategy. I was used to it meaning Computer Science. It was pretty easy to keep things straight, though sometimes it messed me up a little.

IGNITE Lightning Talks Are Tough!

On Thursday, I gave a lightning talk about how technical debt was caused by the same root problems as content bloat. (Expanded slides here.) I’m a confident speaker and I’d given lightening talks before, but the IGNITE format — 20 slides that autoadvance every 15 minutes — was unlike anything I’d ever done before. You need to rely less on the effect of that perfectly timed GIF, and more on a general sense of the flow of your points. And you had better get those points down to their bare essentials!

I did make friends with the other people waiting nervously in the lineup, though, so that was cool.

You Can Refactor Content as Well as Code

This wasn’t exactly surprising, but it made me happy to hear presenters talk about content in terms of Agile methods and refactoring, both terms that draw from engineering. And my own presentation was basically trying to outline how content strategy happens in code as well as in other formats. These moments of cross-discipline translation are were exactly what I wanted to see and talk about, and I got to experience so many of them!

I Wish There Were More Communication Talks At Developer Conferences

To be clear: there are talks on communication at code conferences. But at ConFab, it was much more a sense of actionable, step-wise instructions for getting stakeholder buy-in, dealing with difficult situations, and making sure that your suggestions for change got listened to. I was particularly impressed by Ahava Leibtag’s talk on challenging conversations; I definitely learned a few things I can use, particularly when it comes to choosing how and when to give feedback on website quality.

The reason I think tech conferences could use this type of talk is because a CS-degree-having Linux wizard told me, regretfully, that this type of stuff was never covered in CS (or STEM) curricula. But yet, as we all know, it’s almost never the code that’s standing in the way of achieving something. And the more we move towards integrated tech and cross-functional teams, the more developers will need to be present in discussions, not merely as experts on high, but as full collaborators in a project. And I think some specific instructions on the non-coding side of things would really help.

OMG, Keynotes

One of the things that made me take the plunge was seeing that Anil Dash and Cheryl Strayed were giving keynotes. I’ve been following Anil Dash’s series on humane tech for a long time, and I’d read Wild, so I thought it was really cool to have speakers talking about general life stuff, in addition to speakers talking about specific skill sets.

Netflix Has a Neat Tagging System

Another talk I really enjoyed was the one on how Netflix generates those genre category titles you see above your recommendations. I don’t want to get into all of the specifics, but it was a terrific window into how human taggers are an integral part of the system.