Published Thoughts

Making Your Event Age-Inclusive

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked what advice I would have for mixed-age tech events. I thought it would be a nice follow-up to my previous Pastry Box article if I wrote up my thoughts here.

My guidance is mostly aimed at including young people, purely because that's what I have experience with. Tech seems to disproportionately value people in their 20s and 30s, so I'm sure there's a lot to be said about making people older than that feel welcome too, but I don't think I'm the right person to talk about it.

By and large, doing these things will be of benefit to all of your attendees, but the effect they have on young people in particular can be huge.

Helping people get to and from your event

Publish start and end times well in advance of your event

Young people often can't drive, so we tend to rely on getting lifts and public transport. For both of these things, it's really important to know start and end times well in advance. It can be hard to predict an end time, because there might not be a clear schedule and things often last longer than you expect, but anything's better than nothing here. You're the organiser — you'll be able to estimate the end time much better than somebody who's just found your event on Eventbrite.

When you are providing start and end times, its important to publish them well in advance. Public transport and accommodation is often cheaper the earlier it's booked, so if people can book as soon as they find out about your event, they'll be able to get the best value for money.

Make it clear young people are welcome at your event.

Somewhere in your event information, state explicitly that under-18s can come to your event. If you have an FAQs section, that can be a good place for it to go. Young people don't always have the luxury of being able to assume they can turn up to any event they want. There are building rules, laws, and event activities or content that might prevent us taking part, so unless the organiser says somewhere that under-18s can come to the event, there's no way to be sure until we arrive.

Assuming that a potential attendee will email you to enquire about this is a barrier to entry in itself, because they might feel like they aren't being accommodated and be put off before jumping the hurdle.

Choosing a venue

As mentioned previously, sometimes building restrictions can force you not to allow young people into your event, so it's important to check these beforehand. This is especially common if your venue is a bar/nightclub/etc. In the UK, you can theoretically go into a bar on your own from the age of 14 (or maybe 16 — different sources give conflicting advice), but lots of bars choose to restrict entry to those aged 18 or over, or require you to be accompanied by an adult. This makes it difficult for a young person to tell whether they'll be allowed into an event or get turned away at the door.

You should also make your event is easy to get to, and find. Hold your event as close to public transport as possible. Provide walking directions, or at least a Google Map, from nearby bus/train stations to your venue. If a young person is to be walking from a public transport station to your event, it'll reassure their parents if they have clear directions to follow.

Choosing a day

A lot of young people will be at school. This means that time off, while frequent and plentiful, is highly inflexible. The easiest way to make sure young people will be able to come to your event is to have it at the weekend. This is good for people who work through the week too.

Make sure everybody feels safe

Try to avoid alcohol

As a person who doesn't drink (or isn't legally allowed to drink), being around alcohol can be uncomfortable. It's much easier for everybody involved if you don't have it. If you must have alcohol, do not make it the only option; do not make it the default option; and do not make it the preferred option. Model View Culture has some excellent advice for how to handle alcohol if you are having it at your event.

Have a Code of Conduct

This is a big one. Having a Code of Conduct is hugely important to making sure people feel safe at your event, because it provides attendees with a guarantee that they're going to be treated with respect, and treated as an equal, regardless of who they are. Remember, though, that the Code of Conduct is a guarantee from you, the organiser, to your attendees. You have to be prepared to stand by it and enforce it. Make sure attendees know who they can contact report a Code of Conduct violation to, and provide an environment where doing so isn't stigmatised. Help people understand why the Code of Conduct is there — it's to keep people safe, and to help the community better itself.

You can (and should) read more about Codes of Conduct, and find resources in this compilation by Ashe Dryden..

Encourage socialising

As the only young person at an event, talking to other attendees can be intimidating — especially if they all seem to know each other from a previous event. If there are several young people, they will often stick together and just talk among themselves. By encouraging attendees to mix and talk to new people, you'll help them get the most out of the event. If somebody does just want to sit at the back and listen, that's okay too, though!

Be prepared to talk to parents

If a young person still lives with their parents, their parents will want to make sure that they are safe, especially if this is the first time the young person has attended an event on their own. Try to reassure anxious parents — encourage them to contact you if they have any questions. A phone call can be very effective at putting parents' minds at ease.

Stay within the law

Laws surrounding young people at events can be complicated and surprising. If you don't look into them before holding your event you might unexpectedly find yourself liable if something goes wrong.

In the UK, you might need to make sure you have DBS-checked people on-hand, and if you're running an overnight event, you need a separate room for under-18s to sleep in.

Financial support

If you're organising a conference or another event which charges a lot of money for tickets, you should consider looking into offering some form of financial support for attendees who would otherwise not be able to come.

If your event has sponsors, they might be willing to provide some money to set some tickets aside for people who cannot afford them. Alternatively, you could sell "hero tickets" — an attendee purchasing a ticket chooses to pay extra so a ticket can be provided to someone who needs it free of charge.

My aim with this article was to provide a broad overview of how tech events can be made more accessible to young people (as well as everybody else), and I hope I've achieved that. It might seem like a lot of effort, but a lot of these things are very easy to do and even doing just one can make a difference in allowing somebody to come to your event. I've been discussing this a lot on Twitter recently, so if you want to follow up on anything in this article, please contact me there.

Web people have a habit of starting young.

According to the 2011 A List Apart Survey, 1.1% of web designers and developers are under 18. The podcasts I listen to frequently feature people who started using HTML in their teens. Last year, the Net Awards introduced the Emerging Talent of the Year category to recognise web developers and designers under twenty years old. I have friends who started earning money for web development when they were thirteen or fourteen. I, myself, am sixteen, and I’ve been making websites for four years.

I learned web development entirely through the web itself. Through W3Schools (I know, I know) and CSS-Tricks I became a competent though inexperienced web developer. All of the resources I used to learn are available to anybody with an Internet connection, and it was this unique aspect of the web that attracted me to it. I didn’t need to wait through five or six more dull and largely irrelevant years of school so that I could get to university and finally start learning what I wanted. The web let me skip all of that. I could start learning as soon as I wanted to. I could move at whatever pace I wanted. I could choose what to make, and then just learn how to make it. Or I could learn that I wasn’t quite able to understand how to do something yet, and I’d be driven to learn even more. The web didn’t care how old I was, or that I couldn’t pay large amounts of money to learn, or that I had homework due the next day.

But there was only so far I could go, sitting on my own, in my room, with podcasts my only link to the rest of the community surrounding the web. Going to events, meeting other people who cared about the same things that I did, were hugely important to me from this point on. I went to Young Rewired State, a sort of hackathon for teenagers. Through this I found a local programmers’ meetup, and started going to that every month again. I went to TwilioCon Europe, which felt extra exciting because it was an actual conference that real web developers went to for learning and I was there too! At all of these events, the organisers went out of their way to make sure young people like me were accommodated, and were treated like first-class citizens. It was wonderful.

Ben Nunney helped to organise TwilioCon Europe. There, young people weren’t just accommodated, we were celebrated. He made sure there was information for parents anxious about their children going to an “adult” conference. We got to sit down privately with Twilio’s CEO and learn first-hand how he started his company. I asked Ben why he felt the need to go to so much effort, and he said:

Because it was the right thing to do. I remember being the young coder and being excluded—not for my knowledge—but for my age. The media throws headlines about “young geniuses” and “teen app heroes” around, but 99% of young coders still hear the words “too young” on a daily basis. It’s our responsibility, as a leader in the industry, to help tackle that. To show the world that young coders aren’t an exception—they’re just coders, like everyone else.

Looking back now, however, it seems to me that my experience was really just pot luck. I’ve heard about experiences of others, and had a few myself, where young people like me are an afterthought, or just not considered at all.

Imagine turning up alone to a meetup and realising that you aren’t legally allowed to enter the venue. What do you do? Go all the way home? Go in and hope nobody notices you or enforces the rules? This happens.

Being rushed into another room because its time for everybody else to get drunk? This happens.

Being told the night before an event that the organisers have realised they don’t have the right insurance? Cancel all your travel arrangements, and hope somebody will reimburse you, because this happens too.

Imagine yourself as a young person attending your first event. To you, this is a huge contrast to everything you’ve seen of the web community so far. The learning you’ve experienced so far, online, has been completely non-discriminatory, available to everybody, and suddenly, interacting with other people in the real world is impossible because you’re not allowed to be here.

I don’t think any event organiser wants to exclude people from their events, but it just so happens that our society is structured in a way that does not include young people by default. We’re risks, liabilities and exceptions that take so much effort to include organisers have to wonder if it’s really worth it for one or two people who want to come, if they even consider it at all. There are venue requirements, insurance requirements and accountability requirements that are so daunting it’s a wonder I’ve ever been able to go to an event at all.

But some people care. They find the time and go the extra mile to make sure that we aren’t excluded because of when we were born. These people are the reason I’m able to be writing here, now, instead of drudging through school waiting until I’m considered by law to be equal to everybody else. These people let me feel like an equal, even if that’s not how the law sees me. Because of these people, I can do what I love now, instead of in a few years when I’m “ready”.