Modern Frontends Live

A lot of people have been sharing their experiences of the Modern Frontends Live conference that ran in London last week – an event that was advertised as having “25+ workshops” and “3000 developers”.

Well, here’s mine. I thought long and hard about posting this, for reasons which will become apparent, but here it is. I’m not going to comment on any of the things I’ve heard or read. This is my own personal experience of being part of this event.

June 2022: Gen Ashley contacted me via Twitter to ask if I would give a talk and/or run a workshop at a new conference she is working on, Modern Frontends Live, taking place at ExCeL in London in November. I’ve known Gen for over a decade; I wouldn’t say I knew her particularly well, but I’ve spoken at a few of her meetups over the years and seen her around at various tech events. I assume that the organisers have hired Gen to handle speaker liaison because of her connections in the London tech community. I submit a workshop and a talk – actually a placeholder “to be confirmed” talk, because Gen explains that they want to get speakers listed on the website as soon as possible. I include a note with my workshop submission asking to discuss revenue share arrangements before anything is published.

July, August… nothing happens. Total silence.

image-20221122184842088

September 7th: I notice that my talk and workshop are both listed on the event website. I contact them to ask what’s going on; I have a call with Gen. She suggests a ticket price – £899 early bird, £1099 full price. That’s broadly in line with what I would expect for a two-day in-person workshop at an event on the scale they’re talking about.

Then Gen asks me if I’ll “donate” my share of the workshop revenue to support another event she’s running, TECH(K)NOWDAY, which is a “non-profit”.

I decline, politely, because I do this for a living. A substantial part of my income comes from running workshops at conferences, and while I don’t believe that Modern Frontends Live is going to reach the 3000 attendees their website is advertising, I think they’ll probably get 1500, maybe 2000. That should translate into 15-20 tickets for my workshop; after deducting overheads – room hire, catering, marketing costs – that should leave a respectable chunk of revenue for both of us.

October 31st: Gen asks me to “touch base” regarding my workshop. It turns out they’d sold three tickets. For most events, sales that poor would be grounds for cancellation. But Modern Frontends Live was happening in London, where I live; I’d already blocked out the time, and I didn’t want to disappoint the people who had bought a ticket.

November 10th: With a week to go until the conference, the agenda still hadn’t been published – I knew I would be speaking some time on Thursday or Friday, but had no idea exactly when. I got an email confirming that my workshop was going ahead – four attendees, two days of in-person training on Tuesday and Wednesday, 9am–5pm, in the “London Suite” at ExCeL – but no sign of the conference agenda. On Thursday morning, all the speakers received an email saying the agenda would be published later that day. Thursday came… Thursday went… no agenda.

November 11th: I received another email:

Subject: SCHEDULE UPDATE

Hi Dylan.

We’re having some technical issues with the platform we’re using, so there’s a bit of delay.

We also have a team member had a death in the family, and that has affected us a bit.

So bear with us!

The schedule was finally announced on Sunday 13th November at 17:09; my talk was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The week of the event: I arrived on Tuesday morning for the first day of my workshop. I couldn’t find the London Suite. I asked the venue staff; they’d never heard of it. No signage. No mention anywhere of Modern Frontends Live. I eventually find it – it wasn’t quite on display in a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”, but it wasn’t far off.

Of the 25+ workshops advertised on the website, mine is one of only two that are actually running.

There’s no registration desk or attendee badges; Gen is there in person to meet people as they arrive. There’s no catering. No lounge, no break area, no coffee machine. We have the training room, and that’s it. After half an hour, Gen arrives with a tray of coffees that she’s quite clearly just bought from a place upstairs. Shortly after that she comes back with bottles of water.

It’s embarrassing. Considering how much the attendees have paid to attend the workshop, I’m absolutely mortified. The room we’re in has no windows or natural light. Two more attendees join unexpectedly at 10am – it turns out they couldn’t find the room either. But hey, no problem. We have plenty of space. We break for lunch – which turns out to be Gen paying for sandwiches at one of the concession stands because apparently London ExCeL is “too busy” to provide catering.

My workshop group is actually great: smart people with lots of really insightful questions. It’s a lot of fun working with them.

I discover later that most of the attendees in my workshop are only there because the workshops they’d booked and paid for had been cancelled. Chris Perry, one of the people who attended my workshop, has posted a detailed write-up of his own experience of the event.

After we call it a day, Gen takes me to one side. She wants to know why so many people are posting negative things about the conference on social media.

I explain, as politely as I can, that every single piece of communication and interaction I’ve had with the event has been shambolic – the emails, the schedule, the pricing, the sales, the lack of catering – and that if the other speakers’ experience is in any way comparable to mine, it’s no wonder they are angry. Gen is dismissive; she says that Twitter is not her problem and she needs to concentrate on running the event. I tell her she’s probably right but that if she ever wants any tech speaker to participate in one of her events again, she will need to follow that up with a full public explanation and an apology.

I think she thinks I’m joking. I’m not joking. I’m tired, I’m fed up, and I’m starting to suspect I will never get paid.

Wednesday goes much the same – except ExCeL is a lot busier: there are more events happening, with a lot more attendees; once Gen has paid for everybody’s sandwiches (again), there are no tables free anywhere to sit and eat lunch together. We go back to our windowless training room. If I’d been working with any other event, I would have taken the attendees out to lunch and charged it to the organisers… but, like I said, I’m already starting to doubt whether I’ll ever see any of the revenue share from this event.

On Thursday morning I head along to the actual conference. It’s underwhelming, to say the least. The sponsor “booths” are tables in a hallway. There are a few hundred attendees – nothing close to the 3000 developers advertised on the Modern Frontends Live website. Most of the rooms are laid out cabaret style – a trick that venues use when turnout is far below expectations: put all the chairs around big dining tables, so the room looks full even if there are only a few dozen people in it.

My talk goes pretty well. Maybe 50 people show up to learn about ray-tracing and 3D computer graphics. The projector works, the sound works. I don’t see a camera anywhere in the room. I cannot comment on the so-called “live stream” or the controversy about virtual tickets. I didn’t buy a virtual ticket, I didn’t try to access any streams of the event. All I know is that there was no camera in the Ada Lovelace room where I was presenting my talk.

I didn’t go back on Friday. After two days of training and a day of conference sessions, trying hard to create a positive experience for the paying attendees despite the logistical challenges, I was completely wiped out.

I’ve seen comments online about how polarised the discussion around the event has been, that everybody either loved it or hated it. Well, I think a lot of attendees actually had a great time – and a lot of that is down to the speakers, some of whom I now understand had paid their own travel costs in order to participate. But I’ve also chatted with the sponsors, and I have some idea how much they paid to be there.

By my reckoning, the total sponsorship revenue for this event was well in excess of £100,000. That’s over a hundred grand that is no longer available to support any other events. For some partners, Modern Frontends wiped out their entire event sponsorship budget for this year – for two folding tables in a hallway and a few hundred attendees. And wow, that pisses me off – especially when I consider that my participation, and that of speakers like me, was probably a factor in those partners’ decisions to sponsor the event.

And this brings us to the difficult part.

Modern Frontends Live owes me money. I don’t know how much, because I haven’t had any confirmation yet of the final ticket prices or the room hire cost. I’m guessing they owe me somewhere between £1000 and £2000 - and when somebody owes you that kind of money, it’s generally not good business sense to publish openly critical articles about them[citation needed].

Well, I’m not going to keep quiet and play nice about this. People who I know and respect have stuck their heads above the parapet to publicise what happened with this event. I care more about supporting them than I do about the money, and the more I find out about how this event was organised, the less comfortable I am with realising any kind of profit from it.

But I’m also not prepared to walk away and let Modern Frontends Live keep the proceeds, or claim that my speaking up about this justifies them not paying me what I’m owed.

So here’s the deal. I have asked Gen Ashley to work out the numbers and tell me how much my share of the revenue comes to. I expect to invoice Modern Frontends Live for the the full amount, I expect them to pay it – and in return, in the spirit of Gen’s request all those months ago, I will use that money to support the developer community. I’m one of the organisers of the London .NET User Group. Since 2002, our group has run free community meetups for developers working on .NET, web, and associated technologies.

If Modern Frontends Live pays me what I’m owed, I will use 100% of those funds to support London .NET User Group events during 2023, with a specific emphasis on improving diversity and inclusivity at our events. That would allow us to offer travel and accommodation costs to speakers from outside London; to invite more speakers from under-represented groups to participate in our events, and help us build connections with the wider developer community.

And if they don’t pay me? I think that’ll send a pretty clear message to any speakers, trainers, or sponsors who might be considering working with Gen Ashley or any of her conference brands ever again.

Your move, Gen.

Here’s what other people have been saying about Modern Frontends Live: