The Challenges of Making a Conference Schedule

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Over the past 10 years, I have been involved in scheduling speakers at several conferences, most notably the PASS Data Community Summit. Since starting at Red-Gate last September, I have been much less involved in planning the Summit. Still, I have been able to help with the schedule by looking it over and looking for any inconsistencies, holes, or missing topics. Doing that reminded me of just how much of a pain it is, but also just how much joy there is when the schedule is released.

The first phase of making a schedule is choosing speakers. There is a delicate balance of skills, experience, topics, and even demographics that needs to be taken into account as you choose which speakers to call, and what topics you want presented. Good speakers get turned away every year from every conference because there are far more speakers than slots for them to speak.

The really challenging part comes once you have the set of speakers and sessions chosen: Making the schedule. The more days, the more slots, the more difficult. One of my previous colleagues I worked with on PASS Selection Committees, Jay Robinson, always referred to it as “Scheduling Sudoku”, which is an apt, if a bit basic description of the process. You have N number of rooms M number of slots, and you build out the schedule.

The difference between scheduling speakers and sudoku is in the latter you only need to consider the magnitude of each slot. Building a schedule requires you to consider a lot of complicated factors. For example:

  • Speaker requests: Speakers make requests all the time. This is something I never considered doing when I submit to speak. (With a few exceptions for expensive conferences), if I submit to speak, I generally plan to attend the entire conference even if I am not chosen.
  • Topic: Trying to spread out every topic over a conference gets more complicated than it sounds. You might have major topics (Databases versus UI coding), but then subtopics (Indexing, Query Tuning) that you also want to separate because they share a common underlying bond.
  • Speaker utilization: The big rule that can’t be broken sounds easy: “Don’t schedule a speaker against themselves.” Yet it happens. Sometimes they are a member of a panel that is not as obvious when you are doing the schedule. Sometimes they are expected to be in a non-speaking location. Sometimes it just is a mistake.
  • Session/Speaker Popularity: Unless all your rooms are the same size, you need to match the size of the room (and distance from the main conference areas) to how many people you think will attend.
  • Demographics: You want to spread everyone out based on many characteristics, not the least of which is their employer. Also, don’t give anyone preferential treatment (which has many more meanings than you would expect).
  • Preferential treatment: Yep, even though I just said not to do this, there are regularly reasons that you have to put one speaker in a particular slot.
  • Overall mix of speakers to start and finish the conference: This was always hard. No one wants to be stuck in the final speaker slot (or day for that matter!). Everyone wants to be in the first slot so you can be done and go learn something. But organizers want people to have a reason to show up on that last day. Hence, you schedule a few great people on the final day and hope they forgive you. And that you don’t have to give them preferential treatment.

These are just the primary, even obvious, difficulties of making a schedule. What is exceptionally exciting is that all of these could change at any time. You can be 100% complete, reviewed, run up the flag pole, tested against all of your measuring sticks, and … you get the word that Speaker X has dropped out.

If you have ever actually played sudoku, you no doubt have reached that delightful stage of the game where you think you have solved it. Just a few more numbers to go. And then, there is one number that just won’t fit. Then you have to unravel your solution to get back to where everything does fit. Frustrating right? It is, but once you get all those darned numbers lined up, boy, is that a great feeling.

Today, the people who worked so diligently on the PASS Data Community Summit schedule get to see their fully filled out Schedule Sudoku entry and take a breath. Celebrate the victory. The schedule is done and ready for people to start planning their schedules. So hop over to passdatacommunitysummit.com/sessions/ and check out the schedule.

Edit: Added Session/Speaker Popularity based on comment.