JAMming online with 180 product people

What I learned at my first virtual conference

I’ve been working remotely for nearly 15 years. First as a software developer and later building large remote teams at a hyper-growth startup. I’m very comfortable working with people from the other side of a camera. And yet, my finger hesitated for more than a moment before I clicked the big “Get started” button in the middle of the page.

The Remote PM, the first virtual conference from JAM, had just started for real and I was about to start the first of several speed networking sessions. If you’ve ever heard of speed dating, then you get the concept. You’re paired at random with another attendee for a 5-minute chat; no agenda, no bias towards selecting familiar faces. I took a deep breath and mashed down on the trackpad.

Let’s take this online

As the COVID crisis deepened in early March, Mathilde and Seb, the creators of JAM, had an excruciating call to make. They’d planned a full year’s worth of events, both large and small, all across Europe. Now it looked like most, if not all, of those events would have to be postponed or cancelled. As experienced product builders themselves however, they and their team started looking for workarounds and weighing the tradeoffs. Clearly, they’d have to postpone the in-person events. But that didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t be able to do anything. For the first time, they started to seriously consider what a virtual event would look like.

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The Remote PM is the first virtual conference that JAM has organized but they are no strangers to organizing in-person conferences. JAM London has been running for 6 years now, drawing upwards of 700 PMs, designers, and engineers. JAM Barcelona is in its second year and last year the JAM team ran their first Product Leaders Weekend–an intimate gathering of seasoned product leaders at a secret rural location in Wales. But, as so many of us have realized over the last two months, remote is different. While some of that experience would be applicable, much of it would be useless.

The decision to host a virtual event might have been a tough one but settling on the premise of the conference was an easy call. With so much of the world being thrown into working from home, many people and companies have struggled to translate their processes and rituals into remote-friendly alternatives. The Remote PM would be focused entirely on giving product folks tactical tips and tools they could use immediately to hopefully ease the pain of the transition and help their teams find a new rhythm working remotely. In addition to more traditional speaking slots, practical workshops (one of which was run live in Miro with 50+ attendees!) helped to give small groups space to explore their own specific challenges and several speed networking breaks reminded everyone that we’re all in this together.

With the exception of my first speed networking pairing (my partner didn’t realize he was actually in a call) the pairings were surprisingly fun. A five minute time limit means that you are forced to dive immediately into asking questions and telling your own story. The limit also means that you’re never afraid of getting trapped in any single conversation for too long. After four great conversations with four completely different people the session was finished and it was time to switch to the main stage content.

While we sat there waiting for the speakers to come up on the screen, I thought to myself that this is what early broadcast television must have been like; before 24 hour programming and endless ads. The screen came alive and Matt LeMay, a lanky, endearingly earnest man with a wild shock of dark curly hair, sat facing us from his basement office that doubles as a recording studio. Guitars lined one entire wall, a drum kit was barely visible behind him. I’d met Matt last autumn speaking at JAM London but in an instant I learned something new and more personal about him. This theme would be repeated with speaker after speaker. The Hopin platform made it feel as though you were on a direct video call with each speaker. The fact that you could clearly see their facial expressions and body language made the content more engaging. You could also see their houses in the background, which made the entire experience feel more personal. Given the attendees and speakers were scattered all over the planet, this intimacy and immediacy was surprising and delightful.

So, did The Remote PM deliver?

To be quite honest, even after 15 years of working remotely, I was skeptical that a virtual conference could be useful, much less enjoyable. I love the in-person experience and personality of conferences and live events. The idea that a virtual event could recreate even a small portion of that magic felt too far fetched to me. But I’ll go on record as converted after The Remote PM. The speakers and other attendees were top notch, the content was inspiring and helpful, the energy was palpable, and the technology–while not without it’s hiccups–mostly took a backseat and let all of us humans interact in a natural, personal, and authentic way.

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American living in Italy. Head of Customer Success @GraphyHQ. Musing on tech, the outdoors, and lifelong learning.