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PL Perspectives

Perspectives on computing and technology from and for those with an interest in programming languages.

In Spring 2021, I initiated a survey of the SIGPLAN community to find out what we want our conferences to look like after COVID.  The responses revealed strong optimism about the future and a diversity of concerns about how to get there.  I will summarize the responses and outline what SIGPLAN will do.  Specifically, I will give summary statistics about our voting, I will discuss the widespread desire to return to physical conferences, and I will get into how we can make conferences after COVID more inclusive.

Our voting on options found no clear winner

Our survey outlined four visions of conferences after COVID.  SIGPLAN has 1,939 members and our survey received 320 responses, for a response rate of 17%.  Thank you to all who responded!  We are a diverse community and perhaps I should have seen what was coming: our voting on the options found no clear winner.  Let me unpack the vote result.

The obvious option is to go back to business as usual, that is, having ICFP, PLDI, POPL, and SPLASH in-person every year (BBU).  A more innovative idea is to go big with a single annual physical conference (ONE).  Those two options are nearly tied as the top vote-getters.  In the following charts, the highest rank is 5 and the lowest rank is 1.  For both BBU and ONE, the median rank is 3.  For BBU, the average rank is 3.17, while for ONE it is 3.23.

The charts show that ONE has a lot of support but no clear edge over BBU.  Those options also represent two polar opposites for the conference organizers.  The BBU option builds on the current structure of steering committees that we have had for years, while the ONE option requires us to start something new.  The split vote result, together with the continuing uncertainty of COVID, have dampened my desire to drive towards ONE.  Indeed, SIGPLAN plans a return to business-as-usual: we are hiring a conference manager, we have high hopes that SPLASH 2021 can have a strong in-person component in Chicago in Oct 2021, and POPL 2022 will be in-person in Philadelphia in Jan 2022.

Let me touch on two options that found less support than BBU and ONE.  We could alternate physical and virtual conferences (ALT), and we could have back-to-back physical and virtual conferences (MIX).  For both ALT and MIX, the median rank is 3.  For ALT, the average rank is 2.73, while for MIX it is 2.79.

As much as ALT+MIX have some positives (like, smaller carbon footprint) and some support, the big picture is that we want physical conferences back.

We want to go to physical conferences again

Of the 320 survey responses, 185 included a rationale for their vote.  Those rationales contain a wealth of perspective and they range in length from a concise, single sentence to a detailed analysis across multiple paragraphs.  I learned a lot from reading those rationales and I will cite some memorable phrases that sum up the sentiments of many people.

We begin with the shortcomings of virtual conferences, which include the overlap of conference and daily life, difficulty meeting new people, and less learning.

“It is impossible to engage with a virtual conference because the human process of attending does not remove one from the day-to-day concerns of normal work and life.”
“Since I am in Europe, sometimes the time difference screws up the whole event. So, travelling and being jet-lagged is better than being brain-dead watching presentations at 7pm at home after a long working day.”
“The virtual conferences that I attended during COVID did not feel like conferences. No coffee breaks, no one to talk to, too many distractions from the usual activities at home.”
“This year I have published in top events and after the conference is done, I made 0 (zero) new contacts. The networking does not work.”
“There’s no talking with my neighbor about how to extend a paper we just saw presented.  Less learning about areas outside my expertise.”

This brings us to the advantages of physical conferences, which include meeting people, particularly meeting senior people, and traveling to interesting places.

“What I like about conferences is to actually meet people.”
“Conferences are THE unique possibility for students to meet people in faculty positions and leaders of the field.”
“Travel is one of the unsung benefits of academic life and culture!”

ONE had strong support and some responses envisioned ways to make a single annual conference exciting, particularly by focusing more on the hallway track and workshops.

“As a faculty member at a smaller, education-focused institution, a single annual conference dramatically increases my ability to attend and meaningfully engage with the research community.”
“I would make ONE have ZERO conference talks and just keep all of those online; instead, ONE should be designed around socializing, tutorials, panels, etc. Keep all the conference presentations to a recorded online discussion and then do all the hallway chats/workshops at ONE. It is the best of both worlds.”

ONE also had detractors who wrote that ONE may be too big to enjoy and too hard to schedule.

“I’m also not really a fan of giant conferences, where I can’t find anybody.”
“I suppose the ONE meeting will happen each year at about the same time (i.e. same month). If you also have other obligations at that time a year (say exam week of your university), you might miss out on the only physical conference every year in a row. I realize this is a problem now too, but at least there are multiple conferences to attend.”
“Definitely not ONE – what happens if you can’t attend that one, you are stuck purely virtual!”

We are going to have physical conferences again yet we should remember the people who attended our virtual conferences and would have been unable to attend otherwise.

We must take inclusion to the next level

Prior to the pandemic, the SIGPLAN conferences had some elements of a hybrid conference with both physical and virtual attendees, at once. These elements included live streaming of talks, and questions from the online audience via chat or  Streaming brings the conference to people everywhere and chat brings questions from a world-wide audience to the conference site.  We can do this again and more, e.g., by providing more interaction opportunities for remote attendees.

“Support remote attendance by video and audio with questions in a chat. Remote presenters can present to the live audience on site through Zoom or whatever.”
“Giving the opportunity to each individual to select the way of participation, provides the best of all options in my opinion.”

Going hybrid is good for the climate, for low travel budgets, and for busy schedules.

“Some virtual is a must, I think. We have to respond to climate change, and now is a good time to start.”
“We need to reduce our carbon footprint, make conferences more accessible to people that cannot travel”
“I am Brazilian. For the first time ever, attending conferences became affordable to me!”
“I have difficulties attending conferences outside my country, making virtual access optimal.”
“This is a great opportunity to reduce the barriers to entry to publish in top PL venues from researchers in Asia, Africa, and Australia, for example.”
“Virtual attendance would give me a way to attend remotely when I cannot be physically there.”
“Travelling has become just harder for established faculty with kids, not just because of covid.”

A SIGPLAN goal that emerged during the pandemic is that, at its virtual conferences, people from all time zones be afforded approximately equal opportunity to engage.  Once we go back to physical conferences, each meeting is anchored in a single time zone, which makes this goal of inclusion across time zones harder to achieve.  SIGPLAN organizers are discussing ways to expand the reach of hybrid experiences, and SPLASH 2021 will be the first to try additional ways of bringing the physical and virtual attendees together, particularly across time zones.

Closing thoughts and thanks

Our conferences will be better than ever.  The pandemic has forced us to rethink many aspects of our conferences and once we have physical conferences back, we will preserve the best innovations and evolve our conference formats.

I have had the honor and privilege to serve as SIGPLAN chair in 2018-2021.  A particularly memorable year for me was 2019 during which I attended all of POPL, PLDI, ICFP, and SPLASH and saw how wonderful all our conferences truly are.

I am grateful to Benjamin Pierce, who was vice chair for most of the term, and to Ranjit Jhala who took over as vice chair when Benjamin stepped down to focus on work with CLOWDR, to further develop support for virtual conferences.  I had a blast working with all of the SIGPLAN Executive Committee, which also included Emery Berger, Albert Cohen, Azadeh Farzan, Jeff Foster, Mira Mezini, and Cindy Rubio-Gonzalez, as well as past chair Michael Hicks and past vice chair Peter Thiemann.  SIGPLAN information director Harry Xu kept up to date, sent newsletters, etc, and all with high efficiency and good cheer.  My special thanks goes to Michael Hicks who was always there for me when problems got difficult and felt nearly unsolvable.

On July 1, 2021, Jeff Foster will take over as SIGPLAN chair, and Anders Møller as vice chair; I am delighted that they are willing to do this, and I wish both them and the rest of the incoming SIGPLAN Executive Committee, Isil Dillig, Antony Hosking, Atsushi Igarashi, Andreas Podelski, Cindy Rubio-Gonzalez, Sukyoung Ryu, and Alexandra Silva, the best of luck!

Bio: Jens Palsberg is the outgoing Chair of SIGPLAN (2018-2021), a member of the ACM Executive Committee, and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the SIGPLAN blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGPLAN or its parent organization, ACM.