Organizing, managing, and surviving the CFP Process


David G Simmons

Job title

Head of Developer Advocacy




DevRelCon Prague 2022

Conference speaking is a core part of the work of many Developer Advocates. As such, finding new opportunities to speak is an ongoing background task for DevRel teams. 

But how do you manage the flood of available CFPs? How do you keep track of them all, evaluate them, find the right person in the company to speak, and the myriad other decisions that have to be made around conferences?

In this talk, David walks through how the StarTree DevRel team is managing that flow to better target their resources, surface the right conferences and speakers, and make the most of their conference budget. He explains the automations they’ve built, and how they’re involving more than just Developer Advocacy in the CFP-to-presentation process. 

If you’re still using a spreadsheet to manage your CFP process, this talk is for you!

Key Takeaways

  • Managing the vast number of conferences and CFPs is a difficult task
  • Spreadsheets are not always the the best way to manage events and CFPs
  • Having a well-documented process for how conferences are vetted and agreed upon is important
  • A process for deciding which conferences to attend and submit to is crucial

David’s talk

See David’s talk on YouTube




David: So I’m obviously not a caricature. Well, depends on who you ask, I guess. I also have to say that my anxiety is very high because I’m using somebody else’s laptop and somebody else’s pointer, but that’s a whole other thing. So, I’m going to cover a couple of things. So I’m going to go over a little bit about my team because it impacts why I did this and why I’m doing this talk. And then a little bit of the overall problem of what I’m attempting to solve, and what our process at StarTree is now, and sort of what it’s hoping to be. And then a little bit about how I built it.

And since I recently learned that it’s rude to tap on the forehead and say ‘skip intro’ to people, I put this little row of dots so you can see how far along we are, and you can see how long you have to actually put up with this. Okay? So, my Twitter handle is down there in the corner as well. So, that was a great point. I did that just between talks. So, currently, there’s three advocates. I am hiring. I have two open positions. See me if you’re interested, especially if you live in India. So, I have two open positions for developer advocates on my team, but what we do, of course, is content creation, blog posts. We also do these recipes. So we don’t typically just answer a user question. They ask: ‘How do I do this?’

And we try to say: ‘Well, what problem are you solving? Okay. And now we can go help you solve that problem by writing what we call a ‘recipe’, which is a way to solve that problem. Not just answer your question, because if we answer your question, you’re going to come back with another question. And often the question’s wrong anyway, because I’m trying to do something, and it’s like, well, you know, what are you trying to achieve? Oh, well we can do it this way instead of just answering your question, right?’ And then we’re conference speakers and we do cross-functional collaboration within the company. So we have stakeholder meetings that go across the company and all sorts of other stuff. So that’s kind of the background of why I wrote this talk and why I am doing this. For conferences and CFPs, again, this talk is not really about if you’re running a conference, how you manage CFPs.

And it’s not about, ‘if I want to submit talks, how do I submit talks?’, you know, ‘how do I do that?’ It’s really about how I manage my team, what CFPs we’re responding to, what conferences we’re going to go speak at, who’s going to go speak at them. And so we try to have now this curated list of conferences that people are submitting. ‘Hey, there’s this conference here. Well, does that make sense for our company? Does that make sense for our team? Is this something that we can support?’ So first of all, we curate the list of incoming conferences, so it’s not just conference palooza, right? We give notifications to people that are interested in those topics that, ‘hey, we’ve got an open CFP now, right? There’s this conference coming up if you wanna submit.’ So it’s not up to individuals to go find conferences that excite them, there’s actually a notification service that can tell them: ‘Hey, we’ve got this conference coming up, and it’s in an area that you’re interested in. So maybe, you know, think about it’.

Also building a curated list of internal speakers, because not just DevRel needs to speak, right? In fact, it’s really handy to have people other than just the developer advocates out speaking. Sometimes it’s really helpful to have the engineers out speaking, if they can do public speaking well, right? Sometimes you want marketing going to speak because it’s that kind of conference. It just matters what kind of conference you have. And what we’re building is, of course, a library of talk abstracts and a library of talks and slides. And I will add to that, that those are currently under development. And the last thing we do is booth duty, but we try to avoid that, so I put this on a limited basis contingent on availability, and hopefully we don’t have any, because we don’t like doing that.

So for speaker services, we try to provide speaker training because again, we may be sending an engineer. An engineer may say: ‘Hey, there’s this great conference, I want to go speak at it. I have an idea’. Great, we’ll go out and we’ll help you fill out the CFP, we’ll help you write a successful CFP, we’ll help you develop a talk, we’ll give you help with your slides, and then we’ll be an internal sort of audience for you to practise your talk. And so we can help you be a better speaker. This is how we get DevRel out of being the only people that can talk, right?

Creating a system to manage conferences and CFPs

Alright, so let’s get to this part, which is kind of what the talk was all about. All that was sort of to give you the background of why I did this, right? Could have avoided the whole talk. I asked ChatGPT to tell me how to manage CFPs in 50 words or less, right? And it wrote this blindingly obvious sentence, right? ‘Create a system for organising and tracking information, set priorities, delegate tasks, and regularly communicate with team members and stakeholders’. It’s like the mission statement generator that was out on the web for years, where you could go and it would put a bunch of random buzzwords together. So I think that’s actually what ChatGBT is actually just doing, putting random buzzwords together.

So to set the level set a bit, we need to handle conferences and CFPs for the whole company. It’s not just for DevRel, it’s not just conferences that we want to go to just because ‘we’ve never been to Prague’, right? It’s not just conferences that we think we can speak to, it’s what’s appropriate for the company. What are the company’s goals? What’s our technology, and where do we want to be seen? And there’s an almost infinite number of conferences. And if you’ve ever tried to find a comprehensive list of conferences on this topic, you’ll never find it, because it’s not there. And everybody finds different lists of conferences, right? And for each conference, there’s all sorts of data that we want to collect, so that people can submit to it. We need to know the conference website, we need to know the dates, we need to know the CFP website because it’s often different than the conference website.:

Thank you organisers. We need to know when the CFP closes. We need to know all this other stuff. What market is it in? What country is it in? All these sorts of things, we need to keep track of them, and all of that is a nightmare if you’re just trying to sort of do it ad hoc. So, I want to introduce you to the spreadsheet that you’re all familiar with, right? Go spreadsheet. No way to manage this for everybody outside your group. It’s almost possible. And no offense, Kareen, this is your spreadsheet, but you’ll notice that there’s all sorts of columns where there’s just nothing, and sometimes there’s stuff, because you can’t really control what people put in a spreadsheet, right? They’ll just put something in there. And yes, you can put a Google form on the front of it, but then, you know, that’s just one, right?

So, I apologise for making you look at that, but I made it worse. So I moved from a Google spreadsheet to an Airtable base and it’s horrifying. This is not even the whole thing. It goes onto another page off the side here. It’s a nightmare. But the really nice thing is that nobody has to see it, right? That’s why I did it, I didn’t want anybody to have to look at it. 

How the system works

I wanted to get all the data that I could get about everything and then not force people to see it. So, that’s why. So, Google Sheets versus Airtable, why I chose this route. So yes, forms front end, right? Okay, so Google sheets, you can put a forms front end on, right? And there’s all sorts of sorting options. It’s a spreadsheet, you can do almost anything with it, and you can link between different sheets to link the data in different ways, and that’s all great.

What it lacks is this ability to present varying views of what the data is to make it simple, and integrations for notifications and things like that. And that’s why I took this spreadsheet and moved it all over into this much worse spreadsheet. So what I can present to the company is this on our internal web. I can present this calendar of December and it shows some colour coded conferences that are coming up, right? This is much simpler, it’s much easier to see. I will also say that when our CEO started seeing this, he said: ‘Yeah, but I wanna see it this way’. And ten minutes later, I was able to put a webpage up that showed just the view that he wanted to see. He wanted to see who’s speaking where this quarter. Done. It was that easy.

You can still see all the details of each of those conferences. So I clicked on this one down here, React Miami, and here’s all the details about it. There’s a link to the website, there’s a link to the CFP, it’s an in-person conference, right? And there’s the CFP closing date. Nobody submitted a CFP for it yet. So, anybody in the company can go and look at all this detail and say: ‘Oh that one really interests me and nobody has submitted it to it yet’. And they can go and submit, or ask us to help them submit.

It’s really easy to understand and read because I colour coded stuff. So if it’s black, you already missed the CFP closing date. Sorry, right? Can’t submit to that one. If it’s pink, the closing date is within seven days, so you need to get your act together pretty quickly if you want to submit. Green is still open, and it’s not closing within the next week, and you can click on it to see when it is closing, but it’s not closing in the next week. And you can sign up for notifications to tell you when CFPs are closing in seven days. So you’ll get a notification when a conference that is in an area you’re interested in is closing within seven days, right? ‘Oh, I need to submit to that, right?’ I wish I’d had that for this conference, because I ended up writing my abstract for this talk sitting in the airport lounge as I was flying back from Portugal, totally jet lagged. It’s a miracle I’m on stage here.

If you hear of a conference, and you want to tell us about it, simple form to fill out all the detail, and almost all of it’s required, so that we don’t have gaps in the spreadsheet, right? You don’t have to tell us additional notes, but anything else is actually required, so that all the fields are there. So we can sort by them, and we can do various things with them, and we don’t end up with, ‘yeah, there’s a conference coming up, but we have no idea when the CfP closes’, right? Holes in the spreadsheet are really bad. Submitted conferences we are now starting to vet, so that when somebody submits a conference, we on the DevRel team sit down and go over that conference to ask ‘does this make sense for us? Does this make sense for the company? Is this a market that we’re in? Is this an area that we’re in?’ ‘Yeah, I know you want to go to Australia, but we’re not even selling there yet. So maybe next year you get to go, but this one doesn’t make sense for us’. So, we vet the conferences before we put them on that calendar, so that the whole company doesn’t see this thing in Australia and go: ‘Yeah, I wanna go to Australia’. And then we say: ‘No, no, no, you can’t go, after you submitted the CFP and got your talk. Accept it’. Right? That’s much more awkward.

If you want to be a speaker, anybody in the company can sign up to be a speaker. You’ve just got to tell us what you’re interested in talking about and who you are, and how to get hold of you, and whether or not you want to be notified via Slack or email when new conferences in your area of expertise come in. And so you check one of the boxes, and then when we get a conference in your area of expertise, you’ll get a notice. ‘Oh, a new conference with a CFP closing date is coming up. Go submit’. If you do that, you’ll get another notice when the CFP is closing within seven days. So you don’t forget, right? I get a notice of a conference, and it’s like: ‘Yeah, I really wanna submit to that’ and I have ADD, and so, like, five minutes later I’ve forgotten that the conference ever existed. And then I get a seven day closing notice and it’s like: ‘Oh yeah, I need to sit down and write that’, and I can sit down and write that, right?

If you want to submit to a CFP, but you don’t need our help, you have everything you need, again, fill out a simple form. Tell us what you’re submitting, tell us your name probably – unless you’re submitting this form for somebody else, tell us what conference, tell us what your abstract is. This is how we’re building a library of talk abstracts that other people can use. We have not rolled that out yet, so you can’t go choose somebody else’s abstract. But in theory you can go and say: ‘Hey, there’s a really good abstract that’s been accepted a hundred times, maybe I’ll submit that one’, right? ‘And I can also go and find the presentation slides for that one, and I can adapt them to my style, and then I can give that talk’. And the conference name, when you click on that, it shows all the conferences that we currently have in our system. And one of my advocates said: ‘But the conference I’m submitting to isn’t in there’. That means you didn’t fill out the first form telling us about the conference in the first place. You can’t submit an abstract to a conference we don’t know about.

Kind of makes sense, right? Look, see there’s only three dots left. We’re almost done.

Identifying areas for improvement

So, remember that library of abstracts? This is where we’re building that because when you submit that form, you give us your abstract. And so we can look at that, and then we can go back and look at the abstracts that were successful, right, because your talk was submitted. You can also come back and tell us when your abstract is accepted or rejected, so we can start looking at which abstracts are successful and which are not. ‘Don’t submit that one. Don’t do a similar talk to that one because nobody wants to hear it’, right? ‘Do this talk because everybody wants to hear that,’ or ‘Tailor the abstract in this way because people want to hear that talk’.

We are not there yet. I’m still building this as I go. I am building the aeroplane while I fly it. I don’t recommend that, but it’s what we do, right? We’re still working on a better system for vetting talks. Currently you submit a talk and once a week we have a meeting with the Dev advocates and the VP of developer relations, and we go through all the conferences that are coming up and say: ‘Is this a good one? Yes, no. Is this a good one? Yes, no. Here’s why. Anybody wants to make a case for it? Okay, we’ll, we’ll approve it and it’ll go on the calendar.’ We need a better system for that. We need an easier mechanism to update data currently. So Airtable turned on this feature for a week, and then they turned it back off, and I was really angry because you can’t update data via a form.

The only way to update data is to go into that nightmare-ish spreadsheet, which thankfully I have not made anybody else have to do but me. And so, we’re looking for a way to get that. They say they’re going to turn it back on. That will make my life a lot easier. Right now, ‘I need to make this change. You tell me and I’ll go make it for you, so that your life doesn’t suck as bad as mine’. Making this library accessible to all, that’s not something that we’ve done yet. And building out the statistics of which talks get accepted, which talks don’t, you know, which is working, what’s not, and just the overall streamlining of the process. You know, some folks have said there’s too many forms. Well, there’s two, but okay… But streamlining that to make it less onerous to do this, so that it’s easier. You know, the easier it is, the more people will do it. And so if they really don’t, if there’s not a whole lot of friction in doing this, then we can get more people signed up to do it, right?

Why manage the CFP process?

So finally I asked ChatGPT to explain the CF process to me. Like I’m a five-year-old. So you can read that and, if it makes sense to you, great. It didn’t make any sense to me. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t make sense to a five-year-old either. I no longer have any five-year-olds to ask, but ‘what the f**k?!’ was my entire reaction to that, and it still is. So, in case you think AI is going to take your job, don’t worry because it’s not, it really isn’t. It works well in 20 words or less, but when you just ask it an open-ended question like this, it’s like, you got a bunch of buzzwords there, and they’re simple, but it still doesn’t make any sense. So, I hope that I was sort of able to explain not only what we’re doing in terms of managing the CFP process, but why we’re doing it.

I know that a lot of companies, a lot of DevRel organisations have this need of managing CFPs and managing conferences. You all laughed when you saw the spreadsheet, so you all probably have that spreadsheet. Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. That’s how we do it because there isn’t another way. And I’m happy to talk to you about the specific things that I built on top of Airtable to do that afterwards if you’re interested. It wasn’t that hard. It was actually fairly straightforward. 


So that’s it. Feel free to contact me. I’m also David Gs. I am not the only one in the world, which is why I go by David G. Simmons. I actually worked at a company where there was another David Simmons and then we both reported to the same manager, and things got really ugly… But I’m DavidGS@StarTree. I’m [email protected]. I’m pretty much that everywhere, so thank you.


Audience speaker 1: I go first.

David: I saw hands going up for questions.

Presenter: We definitely have some questions.

David: Okay. Yep.

Audience speaker 1: I’ll go first because I’ve got a mic, so your Airtable is public, right?

David: No, it is not.

Audience speaker 1: Well that’s actually a serious question. Can you make your Airtable public to avoid hours, and hours, and hours of duplicate work that we all do every day?

David: What I can probably do is sanitise it and make sort of the template of it public.

Audience speaker 1: That’ll be awesome. Thank you.

David: I’m collecting information about internal speakers and their email addresses, and their internal slack, not just slack names, but their actual Slack ID, which is different, I really can’t just turn that on to the world.

Audience speaker 1: So, we don’t want to steal your work, like we’ll contribute and give full credit. It’s amazing work you’re doing, but obviously we all know the pain.

David: Yeah, yeah. I’m happy to do that.

Audience speaker 2: Yeah, pretty much the same question. I really like your presentation. There were a lot of very useful points. Can you share the slides? Can you share any of the tools that you’ve presented here today to help us kickstart on our side?

David: Yes. So, this talk will be posted on my Noticed site. The easiest way is just It’s the easiest thing. And there’s a link there to my Noticed site and everything else. I’ll probably write up this whole talk as a blog post and I will put it there rather than the StarTree blog because they like to have technical StarTree related blogs, not sort of, you know, meta CFP. That’s alright. It’s easy to find, David Blog post will be there as soon as I write it, which maybe I can get to soon. Especially if I can hire any of you to fill these job positions, then I can have more time.

Presenter: One more question.

Audience speaker 3: I have some good news, which is that there’s a tool that’s been around a very long time. We used it at GitHub to run exactly this sort of program called EV Man. It’s an app that does all of this and more. There’s a docker image, you can download it, install it. It’s great.

David: What’s it called again?

Audience speaker 3: EV Man, short for Event Manager? It was written by a developer advocate at Red Hat, five or six years ago.

David: That’s actually the one that Matty wrote, right? I think Matty wrote, yeah.

Audience speaker 3: No, I don’t think so. It’s on GitHub under EVManHQ/evman. We loved it.

David: Okay, well that might even make my life easier. I’ll still write this up, but I’ll point to that as well, if that will make people’s life easier. I’m all about that. Do we have time for one? No, we’re kind of over, but we do have a break now, don’t we?

Presenter: We do have a break now.

Audience speaker 4: Did you try the calendar view? Can you superimpose different air tables into one calendar view?

David: Yes, you can. I only showed you one calendar view, but there are multiple views that I’ve put out. For instance, I put out the calendar view and our CEO said: ‘I love this, but I want to know who’s speaking this quarter and where they’re speaking’. And it literally took me five minutes to put a view that was just the quarter, the current quarter and who’s speaking. What talks were accepted, and who was speaking, and all that information in a view on a calendar so that they could see.

Audience speaker 5: Is that possible? Like I’d like to see, say, questions, two answers in one colour.

David: I’m not quite sure how that would work. We keep everything in pretty much the one horribly terrible spreadsheet. So I mean, pretty much everything is there in terms of what conferences we know about – whether they’re open, whether they’ve been submitted to, whether the CFP is closed. I mean all that information is all contained in that one calendar view, right? The only thing I haven’t coded for so far in the colours is if a CFP has been submitted and or accepted. So that’s the only thing that’s missing from that right now. And that’s because Airtable turned off the ability to update data from a form. So if anybody works at Airtable, please turn that back on. Five days with it was not enough! Anything else?

Audience speaker 6: So, you mentioned that you are looking for DevRel in India? So I have over 2000 friends there and I’ve just started. So if I mention it on Twitter now, will it make your life better or worse?

David: Yes. In the short term, it will make my life much worse. In the long term, it will make my life much better. So yes, please.

Audience speaker 6: Okay, done.

David: I mean, actually most of the senior management of my company is from India, and has lots of contacts there, and we still can’t find a suitable advocate in India. I don’t know why, but please, mention, yes.

Presenter: Thank you David. We have a million questions more David, but I think we can proceed with those on our coffee break.

See more from DevRelCon Prague 2022 here

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