WarbyCon 2016

My experience organizing an internal conference

Last week, we hosted a conference at Warby Parker HQ, where all of the organizers, speakers and attendees were Warby Parker employees. The talks were interesting and inspirational. I heard personal stories from coworkers that I had never met before. I heard about industry trends from coworkers on teams that I never interact with. I got to coach several speakers through their first conference presentation. I got so much out of this experience and want to encourage you to do something similar with your team.

The opening keynote at WarbyCon 2016. (photo by @warbyparker)

The idea for WarbyCon first came to me during an all-hands tech meeting almost a year ago. We were talking about the benefits of attending and presenting at conferences. There was a small number of team members who routinely attended conferences and an even smaller number of people who had ever given a talk at conferences. I started thinking about ways that we could improve on this skill set as a team, and that’s when I came up with WarbyCon.

The concept was simple. Speaking at a conference is a skill that needs to be practiced to be improved upon. By hosting an internal conference, we could provide a safe space to practice these skills, while providing feedback and coaching through the whole process.

In January, we organized the first iteration of WarbyCon, which included just the tech team. We sent out a call for proposals and within a couple of weeks we received about a dozen submissions. We reviewed the proposals and gave the submitters feedback on their proposals before the deadline to allow them to make updates. Fortunately, we were able to accommodate all of the submitted proposals as selected talks, so we didn’t have to turn anyone away. We notified all of the selected speakers so they could start working on their presentations. Just like with the proposals, we were able to work with the speakers to practice and give feedback on their talks while they were still in progress.

The conference went off without a hitch. We had a really fun morning keynote, ten 30-minute talks, and an hour of lightning talks over lunch. Attendees saw talks on topics including accessible web forms, non-violent communications and Python codecs. We had a great time, learned a lot, and the speakers got real experience.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, I was asked to be involved in organizing a company-wide WarbyCon. It was time to roll out this idea to a larger audience.

The organizers.

The all-company WarbyCon was much like the tech-only conference, with just a couple of key differences. Most significantly, we made it very clear that preference would be given to first-time speakers and diverse topics. We wanted to make sure that the entire office felt included, and that the talks represented all of our diverse teams. We ended up with an incredibly diverse schedule of talks. A few of my favorite talks covered topics as wide-ranging as retail real estate trends, getting back to work again after a five-year hiatus, the ins and outs of U.S. asylum law, an intro to Bayesian statistics, and what it’s like to be transgender in a professional setting.

We also had more resources available to us for a company-wide event, which meant we could do some additional fun things this time around. We had a “green room” stocked with snacks and drinks for the speakers to hang out before their talks, a catered afternoon coffee break, and more space for our talks.

Needless to say, this WarbyCon was even more successful than the first.

Hopefully by now, you’re thinking about how you can do this with your team. Here’s a few tips I’ve gathered after doing this twice now.

  1. Use whatever resources you have available to you. We used Google Docs for our proposal submissions. We booked conference rooms for the presentations. We held the conference on a Thursday because Thursday is one of the days when the company provides lunch. All of these things were already available to us, and made the planning that much easier.
  2. Encourage people to submit talks any way you can. Everyone has an interesting story to tell, something from their background that sets them apart from the rest of the team. Assure people that they don’t need to be an expert to give a talk. Personal experiences often make a much more intriguing talk than expertise.
  3. Give feedback at every opportunity: on proposals, when previewing presentations and after attending presentations. Provide a way for attendees to submit constructive feedback to the presenters. We used a Google Form with a couple of simple questions, but it could even be as simple as an email.

And finally, when you host your own conference, let me know. I’d love to hear about your experiences.