Innovating @ Adobe Tech Summit 2017
(Co-authored with Laurie Byrum)
Why would Adobe ask a principal engineer and a director of engineering to take a year off from their regular jobs to organize an internal conference? Because it’s awesome? Because of who we are as a company? Because of who we are as people? [pick three!]
We just wrapped up our 2017 Adobe Tech Summit, bringing together 3000 engineers, dev/ops, researchers and designers to celebrate our culture and decide where we want to take the company technically.
Each Tech Summit is chaired by two members of the engineering community, who own all aspects of the conference. This year, Laurie Byrum and I filled this role. We are both long-time advocates for the conference, and joyfully took a year-long break from our day jobs to make the conference happen. Aside from us, the conference is entirely volunteer organized, with over 200 Adobe peeps helping out. Add in more than 400 presenters and you are talking about a lot of people!
- Invent Adobe’s technological future
- Explore technology, think long term
- Build communities that span geography, org structure, roles, seniority or other barriers that grow over time in a large global organization
Inventing the Future
In addition to a stellar group of industry leaders on our main stage, we offer 13 parallel breakout sessions covering every aspect of research and development. This technical program is extremely competitive. We received over 1250 submissions from all over the company. Of these we could only select 215, an acceptance rate of 17%, lower than many top-tier conferences. All of our speakers undergo intense, personalized speaker training, one of the development opportunities that Tech Summit offers. We record ALL of the presentations, including some in HD hand held video. These recordings form the proceedings of the summit, and an invaluable resource going forward.
The Tech Fair is a 100 booth trade show within the conference. Taking one full evening, developers compare notes on shared problems and solutions and find opportunities to collaborate.
We also featured over 90 posters spread over two separate sessions, allowing allowing Q&A style presentation of complex ideas. These turned out to be fantastic network opportunities for presenters and listeners alike.
This year, we also added unconferencing to the program, so that the attendees could vote on what content they wanted added.
Tech Summit is designed to be a giant incubator for innovation, and the incubator within the incubator was our brainstorm room. The room was an intentional space with walls entirely made of white boards. Every table and every post was also a white board. The room was in non-stop use during the Tech Summit, and we are already harvesting new features and products.
Tech Summit offers Adobe engineers and scientists a chance to leave their roadmaps behind and participate in large-scale technology explorations.
We got our geek on with our IoT badges. These beauties were designed by engineers from our own Adobe Marketing Cloud and were the only conference swag. The badges communicated with each other over infrared. They also communicated with beacons associated with art, exhibits and rooms all over the San Jose Convention Center.
Interaction data was sent to a server. We had an ad hoc Network Ops Center (NOC) where we monitored traffic, and even pushed software updates to the badges. And yes, we were careful to safeguard privacy, though engaging people on these issues was part of the point! But the badges were just the starting point. Visualization researchers and machine learning researchers are digging into the corpus, and a team of mobile app developers built a separate conference app that lets attendees view their interactions and gave them a handy set of ‘business cards’.
We also built a community pavilion. While this was initially envisioned as a place to have team building events, it grew to also provide great hands-on technology experiences. A group of researchers and engineers created a VR space that explored where we might push forward in the intersection of art and VR. Another team built out a large space showcasing how our marketing cloud technology could influence the shopping experience, providing value both to shoppers and store owners. The room also offered espresso bars, a Super Bowl viewing party, a robot challenge, a video booth and a selfie booth, and constant food and snacks.
Building our Community
This was our 15th Adobe Tech Summit. The first Tech Summit was in 1994, just after Adobe acquired Aldus, and it intended to build empathy and understanding among the engineers at the two companies. It was so successful, that we have never stopped doing it.
We have become very intentional about this aspect of the conference. When we are composing our technical program, we prefer to group talks that span roles or organizations. While we certainly offered advanced talks, for people deep in a topic, we also encourage talks that are intended to educate people who are new to the topic, but curious.
Shared knowledge is essential, but shared experience and fun are the way to strengthen new communities. For this reason, Tech Summit can get a bit unpredictable, in a great way! We had our first flash mob this year, which cranked up the lunch-time energy in a milli-second. We also had TWO Bollywood dance parties (gif below), a great way for our 800 Indian attendees to share their culture with all of us. We also created a global music video, featuring over 200 Adobe singers and musicians from around the world, all edited with Audition and Premiere.
Add to this a Women In Tech lunch, attended by over 400 engineers and executives, a Stop Hunger Now food packing event at which 10,000 meals were packed, and a Super Bowl party attended by our rowdy New England Patriot fans, and you have a recipe for real connections that span the company and make a stronger, better us.
Adobe Tech Summit is a passion for me and Laurie! It is especially inspiring to us because it is entirely run by an army of volunteers from the technical staff within the company. If you would like to learn more about Tech Summit, please reach out to either of us Laurie Byrum, or david parmenter.
We’d love to help you set up something similar at your company. It’s fun! It will change your life and your company.