Community post by Josh Berkus

Whether you are organizing a Kubernetes Community Day or any other community event, one of your goals is to have both diverse speakers and audience. For any CNCF-hosted event, it’s not just preferable, it’s a requirement. And one of the most important steps in ensuring diverse participation in your event is to have a diverse program committee. Diversity for event organization is a benevolent cascade: a more diverse program committee leads to more diverse speakers, which leads to a more diverse audience.

So, how do you get those diverse program committee members in the first place? How do you even get started? This guide is here to help.

What does “Diverse” mean?

In this article, I’m going to use the word “diverse” a lot. You’re three paragraphs in and I’ve already used it ten times. What does it mean?

At tech events and in tech companies, there is a subset of the population that is “mainstream.” In the USA, that’s white cisgendered straight men without disability. In other parts of the world, who makes up the “mainstream” is different. Anyone not part of this predominant group is what I’m calling “diverse.” CNCF has chosen to focus on non-male representation because it’s the one area of diversity that’s applicable around the world. However, depending on where you are, diversity could include other factors of ethnicity, age, ability, and way of life.

To the event organizer, diversity is critically important for the simple reason that the majority of people are not part of the “mainstream” group. So if your event excludes diverse participants, it’s also smaller, less successful, and less interesting than it could be. For example, if all your speakers are men, then there’s no way you’re getting the very best speakers, since you’re missing more than half the population.

Defining Your Program Committee

The glib answer to “how do I find diverse program committee members” is that you find them in the same place you find other committee members. That’s not a big help, though, since most readers probably never specifically recruited a program committee; what you have is just the group of people who were involved when you launched the event. That will have to change, because you need to expand your committee.

One of the first things that needs to change is a little restructuring. If your event is like most small-to-medium open source events, you have a small group of event organizers, who are also the program committee of the event and often its founders as well. One of the first things you need to do in order to build out your committee is to separate the roles. You’ll need to have an organizer team that manages all the event logistics, and a separate program committee that only handles speaker recruitment and proposal review. While you will have some people who are part of both teams (such as yourself), it can’t be a requirement. The required time commitment for being both an organizer and a program committee member is too high and will deter most candidates.

Ideally, you’ll also write some role documentation for the program committee so that members know what they are and aren’t responsible for, the expectations, and the timeline. This doesn’t have to be extensive; for most events, this document is less than a page. But knowing what they’re getting into helps people say “yes.”

Finding New Members

Once you’ve done that, it’s time for outreach. One obvious step is to have a public application to join the committee and solicit your regional community, including prior event attendees, if any. You’ll need to ask some questions about diversity on this application, and you’ll need to publish it well before the Call for Presentations (CfP) opens. Don’t be shy about it, explain why you’re asking:

In order to ensure that the program committee represents all of the parts of our community, we need to ask you some questions about your identity and background. This information will not be shared.

If you get a good list of applicants, you can then evaluate them for suitability. Here, and throughout the recruitment process, you want to be clear in your goals. You’re looking for people who would make good committee members who happen to boost committee diversity, not just people who can help your diversity numbers regardless of qualifications. If you recruit someone who doesn’t know your technology area or doesn’t care about the event, both you and they will be frustrated and you’ll have gained nothing.

In my experience, though, a public call is insufficient to bring you all the diverse members you need. You’re also going to need to do some one-on-one recruitment of potential committee members. This means reaching out to them directly. This starts by taking your existing organizer group and putting together a list of candidates. Here’s some places to look for candidates:

That last group is going to be the least fruitful, though, and you shouldn’t count on it unless you have a personal relationship already. Kelsey Hightower and Ian Coldwater get many requests every year, and as such ignore most of them.

For example, if you’re organizing a Kubernetes Community Day in France, and trying to recruit non-male committee members, this list might include:

After brainstorming your list, narrow it down to a few candidates that you all agree on. As with the general committee application, you are looking for candidates who are well-qualified and just happen to meet your diversity criteria as well. Adding an unqualified member to satisfy appearances is tokenism, and that benefits nobody. If your list is too short, then you may need to privately ask friends in the industry to help you brainstorm.

Should you happen to already have a single diverse member of your team, assembling this list is not their exclusive job. Recruiting committee members is everyone’s job.

If you’re really having difficulty thinking of, or qualifying, any candidates, the problem may be your criteria. Have a really critical look at the qualifications you’re asking for and see if you can gain candidates by loosening them up.

Then start approaching candidates one by one. It is critically important that you do not approach anyone and then withdraw the offer, so make sure that all your organizers are coordinated. Your approach to each candidate must be private, so that they can ask questions and potentially turn you down without risk to themselves.

When soliciting their participation, you want to explain why your team believed they would be a good committee member; give them their own qualifications, and your diversity criteria should not be emphasized, and generally not even included. For example:

Our team felt that you would be an excellent addition to our program committee based on seeing your talks at Kubecon, and the fact that you work at an end-user company.

We thought that you would be able to help us grow the event because of your broad knowledge of cloud native, not just the technology, but the people as well.

Your solicitation should then include as much information as you can give them about time commitments, schedule, and responsibilities. If you’ve written full role docs, send those.

It may be necessary to be clear that the committee offer is not necessarily transferable, but is made specifically to them. Otherwise they may refer to their boss or another person in their company who may not meet your diversity criteria, or otherwise be unqualified. If they say no, they say no, and if they recommend someone else subject them to the same scrutiny you used in assembling the original list.

Don’t stop with just one diverse recruit, either. Whatever your mainstream is, most of the world is outside of it. While in tech you’re unlikely to achieve a fully diverse program committee, you can try.

Working With Your New Program Committee

Once folks have joined the Program Committee, everyone is a member; there are no “diversity members”, or “founder members”, or any special status. It’s critically important that everyone on the committee feel equal or they will not contribute equally. If anything, you should go out of your way to specifically solicit feedback in each discussion from the new committee members. You can do this unobtrusively by just setting the standard of asking for each person’s opinion. Discussions should always happen in the group to include everyone.

Treating members equally also means not expecting the diverse members of the committee to do 100% of the diverse speaker recruitment. While they are likely to recommend more diverse speakers just because of personal connections, recruiting a broad speaker pool is the collective responsibility of everyone on the committee.

As an organizer, it is now your responsibility to make sure that the committee knows what they are doing and when, and are reminded of all of their deadlines. For example, you need to brief them about the CfP before it goes out. You need to remind them about doing direct speaker recruitment well before the CfP deadline. This lets them do their jobs. If this is your first year working with committee members who are not founders, then you’ll find yourself writing a lot of documentation.

I will write more about recruiting diverse speakers in a future article.

Expressing Gratitude

Your program committee members are doing a lot of work for the event for free. As such, you should take every opportunity to thank them for their help. This starts with making sure that they are publicly listed on the conference website, and thanked in the introductory slide show. If you have a budget, you should try to also get the committee members a special gift, or take them out for a sponsored meal, or both.

Recruited well, your program committee becomes the heart of your event, determining its content, themes, and general spirit. Good committees stay together for years. With some work, yours can too.

Speaking of which: I would like to thank Guinevere Saenger, Jason Brooks, and Audra Montenegro for reviewing this article, and the whole SCALE and KCD-LA teams for being such a great example.