TheoryFest 2017: Organizers’ take (guest post)

(Guest post by Sanjeev Arora on behalf of the TheoryFest 2017 organizing committee)

Having entered into the organization of TheoryFest 2017 with some trepidation, we organizers were very relieved to see feedback such as  “Best. STOC. Ever”. This post shares with you the feedback we got from attendees, and our plans for the next couple of years.

Important: Next year’s Theory Fest will be June 25-29, 2018 in downtown LA. See you there!


Some Impressions from the event

Location, location, location. Smack in the middle of lovely Montreal, in the midst of an ongoing street festival/party, and within walking distance to the waterfront and good restaurants. I wouldn’t complain if the conference were held here every year!

No catered lunches. This greatly reduced registration fees, and (together with the weak Canadian dollar) allowed us to be more generous with food and drink during breaks (including an open bar on three nights!).  It also encouraged attendees to explore Montreal a bit more.

Every STOC paper also presented at poster session: a hit. Billed as the most controversial aspect of the TheoryFest, this ended up (based upon in-person and online feedback) as the most positive change. Respondents said they expected to hate poster sessions and ended up loving them. Having experienced the energy of poster sessions at non-theory conferences, I am not surprised. (We head the complaint that the poster room was a bit noisy, and will address it.)

Energy level. A day filled with different kinds of events seems to help keep up people’s energy levels. Attendance at the talks was high; I saw hardly any people loitering about in the public areas during talks. Possibly, it helped that  STOC talks were in three parallel sessions; 50% more choice of topics at any given moment.

Highest attendance among STOC/FOCS held abroad. 377 attendees, which is quite high for the past decade.

Junior-senior lunches. Via a google doc page, 3 junior researchers (grads/postdocs) got to sign up to go to lunch with a senior researcher.  These lunches got rave reviews, though not enough people participated due to the short notice. Next time we’ll be better organized.


Statistics from online survey

117 attendees have responded thus far to our online survey. Their average satisfaction with TheoryFest was 4.5/5 .

Large majorities (>75%) found the amount of time devoted to various sub-components “about right.”

In terms of quality, the poster session was the biggest hit, followed by the plenary long talks. STOC paper talks had somewhat weaker ratings. Here’s a more detailed feedback.


Our responses to the most important feedback.

 Given the general support for the changes introduced this year, next year’s event will see no more drastic changes; merely tweaks to improve the overall experience.

Some feedback we received include:

“Stoc talks need to be longer.” “Short stoc talks worked well; could shorten even more.”

The alternatives we see are:

  • Longer 22 min talks in 4 parallel sessions instead of 3.
  • Shorter 12 min talks in 2 parallel sessions (with poster sessions being the place to hear more details).

Both options have significant minority support but appear to lack majority support, which was the reason behind our split-the-baby decision of 17 min talks in 3 parallel sessions. We welcome further discussion. (The PC Chair Valerie King commented to me that she’d expected to dislike 17 min talks but ended up preferring this format.)
“The middle three days were a bit tiring; stretching from 9am to 10:30pm.”

We realize this and don’t see a good alternative. We hew to the philosophy that a big-tent theory conference should offer a large buffet of content, and attendees are free to decide how much to partake. One major problem with the old setup of STOC was an artificial cap on content —and arguably the day was nevertheless long and monotonous. Nobody complained about monotony this time.


“Some short plenary talks weren’t geared to a STOC audience.”

We’ll address  this by assigning each outside speaker a “theory envoy” who will give them feedback on their slides and talk plan. But clearly,  the problem will never go away 100%.


Overall, we welcome your feedback! If you didn’t fill out your Theory Fest survey thus far, please do so asap before we close it out, and feel free to also post your feedback as comments to this post.

6 thoughts on “TheoryFest 2017: Organizers’ take (guest post)

    1. I would like to second Amit that I did not receive a link to this online survey. But perhaps the blame can go to my institution’s unreliable email system.

    1. I read your feedback on the other website. Theory Fest is probably nobody’s ideal event. We took into account many different viewpoints, and tried to create an event whose different subcomponents speak to different people. People who don’t care for individual subcomponents are encouraged to use that period for a break —the day is long at 14-15 hours!

      If you had attended this year’s event, you would have found —at least going by pretty overwhelming feedback—that you would indeed have met a lot more people. Poster sessions had a lot of energy. There was an open bar, so many people took in the posters for a while and then had long chats over drinks with friends (new or old).

      Please attend next year!

      1. ps Also, another important design element is that this new format gives more people things to do. For example, one author can present the talk, and another author (or several) can do the poster presentation. Many people are involved in workshops.

        Realistically, this is a better way to give people a stake in coming to this common event.

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