Response to Dec. 22, 2020 open letter

Response to the open letter from Jonathan Aldrich, Alex Potanin, Steve Blackburn, and other signatories, dated Dec 22, 2020.

In the span of less than a year, PLDI 2020, ICFP 2020, SPLASH 2020, and now, POPL 2021 went virtual. This was not by design, but by reaction: the organizers had hoped and planned for physical conferences, but they organized virtual conferences because the situation demanded it. Their dedication and resourcefulness are glowing examples of the can-do spirit and problem-solving acumen of SIGPLAN’s incredible base of volunteers.

To ensure that this level of effort continues, it is important to empower the organizers to determine the best way to marshal their limited time and resources to facilitate a successful and inclusive event.

The organizers of PLDI, ICFP, and SPLASH have explored diverse approaches to running a virtual conference which, together, form an experiment in how to best achieve our shared goals moving forward. There is no doubt that the POPL organizers share SIGPLAN’s commitment to inclusion, just as all of this year’s organizers do, and this commitment is reflected in POPL 2021’s design. Your primary concern is based on a premise — “the core of POPL 2021 remains a synchronous event” — that the organizers would disagree with. Their view is that the statically scheduled 5 minute talk and Q&A sessions are a small part of the event. To accommodate people across all time zones, and with family or work constraints, the organizers have designed POPL 2021 around an asynchronous core running from January 11 to January 22. This core comprises pre-recorded videos and an always-on chat channel where participants can interact by text, or create or join video rooms, to dynamically mirror by synchronizing discussions at their convenience. The core is coupled with some synchronous social events that are scheduled across different time zones, including Asia and Oceania.

We do understand that people in Asia and Oceania will have great difficulty in attending the synchronous Q&A sessions, but we ask for understanding of the organizers’ choices, which we believe have been made in good faith. We hope everyone, wherever they live, will thoughtfully engage in this new conference format, and judge for themselves how well it works.

Virtual conferences are a young, dynamic work in progress, and POPL 2021’s move to a largely asynchronous conference experience is part of that experiment. Perhaps an asynchronous model will actually lead to greater and more meaningful technical interactions between participants from different time zones, more so than two synchronous time bands would. Of course, this remains to be seen. The SIGPLAN Executive Committee is keenly observing and reading the feedback on each conference to determine which practices work best. SIGPLAN is committed to inclusion of anyone from any background, nationality, and time zone. Among SIGPLAN’s goals is that its virtual conferences will offer people from all time zones approximately equal opportunity to engage. After POPL 2021 we will have completed a full annual cycle and will be ready to advise organizers of future virtual conferences on best practices.


Jens Palsberg (Chair) and Ranjit Jhala (Vice Chair) on behalf of the SIGPLAN Executive Committee, and Michael Hicks (Chair) on behalf of the POPL Steering Committee