Building a community with developers' conferences


Organising conferences is fun. It is also horrible. I’ve only done it twice, and after both times, I’ve said, “never again.” Regardless, I’m constantly thinking about how to make the next event happen. Fortunately, I’m not alone. I was dragged into organising developers’ events by Matias Korhonen a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been the co-organiser for two events: the European Ruby Conference Euruko Helsinki in 2022 and Oh the Humanity! – a human-centered software developers’ conference (aka OH!2023) in 2023.

One of these events was more successful than the other. Euruko is a long-running traveling conference, having been organised since 2003 with an established audience. OH!2023, however, was a completely new event. Euruko had around 700 attendees, while OH!2023 garnered just a bit over 50.

While OH!2023 didn’t reach the numbers we were hoping for, it wasn’t any sort of disaster. The way I see it, we did pretty much everything right, but ehh, the economy is in a bit of flux – especially in the software space. Lots of people have lost their jobs, and companies aren’t hiring, so in hindsight, the timing was wrong. Perhaps a conference that focused on sustainability over efficiency was not what companies were looking for at the time (despite publicly touting their horn about sustainability).

Anyway, after taking part in organising two conferences and following the community-driven developer event space, I decided to write down some of the things one might not realise when organising an event. I’m leaving out some practical aspects like “which CFP review tool should you use” or “how do I report my taxes,” because some of these topics you can just google, some are up to your local legislation, and some are just topics I don’t have any perceived knowledge or opinion on.

What do you mean by “community-driven”?

When a conference is “community-driven,” its aim is to build, nurture, and educate the community by the community. In the case of Euruko, by community we meant “the Ruby community,” and with OH!2023, we went a bit broader with “the developer community.” It’s kinda up to each and every one to determine whether they feel as a part of the community, and it’s up to the organisers to facilitate an open and welcoming environment for networking and knowledge sharing, and to find speakers who educate and communicate the community’s values through their topics.

To me, one of the key aspects of the community-driven approach is keeping the cost of entry low to enable as many people as possible to attend regardless of their income level or whether their employer is willing to sponsor them. A big part of making low ticket costs possible are the speakers from within the community who only expect to get some of their travel and accommodation expenses covered. Of all the costs, covering as much of the speaker expenses as possible is the most important one. Show that you appreciate them. If your conference tickets are 700€/ticket, I expect the speakers to be paid fair compensation on top of their travel expenses, but then you’re limiting who your conference is for.

Scale up, not down

The way to keep the event affordable for the attendees is by maintaining the scope. When we were planning the OH!2023 conference, the organiser of Brighton Ruby, Andy Croll, asked us an important question: Can you run this conference with 20 attendees? While a conference of that size wouldn’t have been financially viable, it’s a great thought exercise. What is the minimum you need for a conference? How many tickets do you need to sell to cover the bare minimum? How many sponsors do you need to improve the experience for the attendees? In addition to managing the budget, I think scaling up instead of down is the best way to manage attendee expectations as well.

I prefer starting from the bare minimum:

If your ticket sales are doing well and you get some sponsors, then you can start improving your conference offering:

What to look for in an event space?

Location, location, location. You probably want to attract attendees that come from outside the event city, so you should make sure that the event space is close to a sufficient selection of accommodations and is easily accessible by public transit.

Also, try your best to book a space that is wheelchair accessible and make sure to communicate to the attendees whether the space is accessible or not.

Single-track or multi-track?

Multi-track conferences are often great. That means there are more options for the attendees, and there’s more likely something for everyone throughout the event.

However, there are some big caveats, which is why we’ve opted to run only single-track events with Helsinki Ruby.

  1. Speaker costs go up. If you’re planning on covering any of the speakers’ expenses (and you should), having multiple tracks will also multiply those expenses. There are some pros, like more themes attracting a wider audience and more sponsors, but you should consider whether the increase in the risk factor is worth taking.
  2. Event space costs go up. Your selection of spaces will also be more limited as you have to find a location that can accommodate multiple stages.
  3. The community lacks a shared experience. This may seem minor, but when all the attendees have heard the same talks, it lowers the barrier to strike up a conversation with other attendees about the talk.

How many days should my conference last?

This comes down to the opportunity cost. The tickets for the developers’ conferences are usually bought by the employers of the attendees, and having the developers attend a conference means that they’re not working on their usual daily responsibilities. The same applies to the sponsors who have a booth at the event. If you think your event can provide enough value to the attendees to cover multiple days of absence, that’s great!

Another thing you should take into account: on which weekdays is your event held? If you are running a two-day conference that is held on Friday and Saturday, part of the opportunity cost might be mitigated if the attendees are attending on their day off.

Keep the program diverse

By diversity, I’m not necessarily talking about favoring under-represented groups when picking your speakers but rather about having different types of talks that touch on the theme of your event. Having a developers’ conference that focuses solely on the technical aspects can get exhausting. And if your goal is to nurture the community, having talks about the community and human interaction is also important.

Having a diverse selection of talks will likely lead to a diverse line-up of speakers as well. If your speaker line-up looks homogenous, maybe check if the topics being talked about are also quite similar.

Also, it’s good to expose the attendees to new ideas and to think about their work from another angle. Designer events should have technical talks, developer events should have design talks, and so on to bridge the gulf between the different disciplines. The best way to provide value to the attendees is to challenge them to think differently.

Keep the sponsor levels simple

Having lots of options in a mile-long matrix may seem attractive and make it look like you’re ready for anything, but it’s best to keep the list of sponsor benefits short and easy to process. Depending on the size of the conference, 2–4 different sponsor levels are enough, and the differences can be somewhat minor – just make it easy for the sponsors to compare the benefits between levels. They’ll let you know if they want the package customised.


While organising a conference is a massive undertaking, it’s also incredibly gratifying. That’s why we’re constantly planning the next one, but for now, we’re just focusing on organising Ruby Brigade -meetups. Meeting people face to face, especially after the COVID pandemic, can’t be taken for granted, and it’s important that there are venues where you can build support networks and meet like-minded people without the constant need to sell like at tradeshows – just being able to focus on learning and being a part of a community.