The story behind Hullabaloo, an unconference for engineering leadership

Last month saw the second edition of our engineering and leadership un-conference, which we’ve now rebranded as hullabaloo.

The decision to create the event was a very intentional one and I’d like to share the story behind it.

I didn’t “get” conferences

I’ve always struggled with conferences, for many years I *tried* to get myself to enjoy them; I would force myself to go and always come back disappointed. Then for a few years in the middle, I just stopped going. I figured that conferences just aren’t for me, I prefer to learn through other means and I had no desire to burn through a training budget just for the sake of of it.

Recognising the two needs

In hindsight now, I think I was going to conferences with the wrong expectations, and so was setting myself up for inevitable disappointment. I now recognise that there are two different motivations for learning:

Building your toolbox

I believe this is where conferences live. They exist to expand your toolbox of knowledge (very similar to the High Breadth/Low Depth path I explained in this post). Conferences are great for opening your eyes to what’s out there and what other people are working on. It’s not about solving immediate problems or giving you things that you can go back and put into practice; they’re more about building up that toolbox of knowledge that you can then dip into and explore in the future when the need arises.

Solving an immediate challenge

This is what I was expecting from conferences, and is why I was always left disappointed. I would go looking for help with very specific problems I was facing. I had completely unrealistic expectations that the person on stage giving a talk would be able to provide advice that would be immediately useful and relevant to me and my context. What I really craved was conversation, advice and mentoring. I was in the wrong place, looking for the the wrong thing.

The second need

After this realisation, I found myself able to appreciate and value conferences more. My first attempt back into that world was when I attended the Lead Dev conference in 2018 along with Rory, who at the time was a relatively new engineering manager. I really enjoyed the conference, and even now still reference and go back to talks from the event. I recognised it as an opportunity to expand my toolbox, and now I can dip into it when I need to.

However while I was there, I also realised a second benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. Just having a chance to have a a couple of days out of the office with Rory chatting about work and how things are going was invaluable; it also provided me a chance to get some breathing space and use Rory and a sounding board for my own thoughts and get his advice and opinions.

When we got back to the office the following week, we started implementing more opportunities for the engineering management team to do just that. But over time we started to crave more. We were a scaling startup hitting a constant stream of challenges and what I really wanted was a chance to just meet people and talk about problems in a simple, relaxed setting.

An additional motivation

Around the same time, We’d also recently hired our first ever senior Engineering Manager, Vrashabh. In our 1–1s Vrash and I would talk about scaling carwow and building up a brand as a leadership team similar to the reputation we were establishing in the ruby community. We would also talk about places we could go to grow our skills and help the other engineering managers develop and we came to the realisation that many of the leadership conferences we found felt like carbon copies; the same people talking about the same problems and not as many opportunities to learning new things.

It was through these conversations that the first seeds were planted for us to look into developing an event.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

My first instinct was to look for an off-the-shelf solution; I wanted to find something that already existed that I could join. Alas, I had no such luck and it seemed like no such group existed in London (* although, having run this event twice now, I have a newfound appreciation for how difficult building a presence and getting publicity can be, so perhaps something does indeed exist, but I just failed to find it)

Our second idea was to reach out to our personal networks and to just “cold call” engineering leaders and see if they’d be willing to meet up for a coffee and a chat.

We did this with mixed results; people are busy and understandably don’t always have the time when a random email hits their inbox asking them for a coffee and a chat. It was also taking up a lot of our time to arrange, and after a few attempts we realised that we needed a different solution.

It was only after these first two attempts, that we realised that the best thing we could do was probably try and create the event that we had hoped to find when we first started looking. If we needed this support, we assumed perhaps there were others out there in similar positions.

Enter, the un-conference

For the past few years we’ve been proud to support codescrum and their great annual Ruby Un-conference. I love the philosophy behind un-conferences and Jairo’s thoughts and motivations behind the ruby un-conference share many similarities with our intentions.

I won’t repeat the information here, but I recommend having a read of Jairo’s post above, and also our very own explanation of un-conferences here: https://www.hullabaloo.tech/un-conference

Ultimately, we wanted to create a relaxed, inviting space where anyone could come along and share a problem. It was less about building that toolbox, and more about getting advice, mentoring and sometimes even just an empathetic ear for engineering leaders in roles that can often be lonely, and at times intimidating and directionless.

Where do we go from here?

How often?

Our original plan was to make this an annual event. However feedback from the first one and re-thinking the original intentions showed that this didn’t really make sense. This wasn’t about building a large annual event, it was about advice and learning; So for now we’ve settled on doing it every 6 months.

The beauty of the setup is that it takes very little time and money to arrange, so we can super flexible and respond to demand, if people want to do it more regularly, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to arrange!

Where?

the “bleachers” where we kick off the event

The first two were hosted at carwow, because that’s where I work. We have pretty nice offices, we get the space for free and they’re willing to sponsor food and drinks. However we’re very keen to make clear that this something that we’ve created for the community, not for selfish gains. We’ve renamed and rebranded to emphasise that point, and we looked for volunteers to host the next one too, so the next edition will almost certainly be at one of our attendee’s offices :)

When?

I’m also unsure whether to run these on a weekday like most conferences, or to stick to Saturdays. On one hand, doing it on a weekday may help people who have less disposable time and can come along using their training budget, or negotiate some time off to attend from work. On the other hand some people find this more difficult than a weekend. Thirdly, holding it during the week means that we’ll need to hire a venue, which means charging for tickets, and then a whole bunch of extra work and complications that I don’t want to get into. Nothing works for everyone, so we’ll stick to weekends as it works for me :D

How much?

We also toyed around with the idea of charging prices for tickets. As conventional wisdom goes, charging even a nominal fee helps. I still don’t think I have the experience or knowledge to know what the right answer is, but for now I’m happy keeping it free.

The 50% dropout rate has certainly held true for us, but I’m not sure I agree with the cynical view that a free event attracts the wrong people and puts off the people you actually want. It’s easy and inevitable to feel pangs of ambition hit when you’re at the event and a desire to create something that hundreds of people turn up to. But that fades quickly; the people that do turn up are all there with the same enthusiasm and hunger to learn as me, and the beauty of an un-conference is that it’s supremely flexible and works no matter how many people turn up. A conversation with just two people where I learn something is a win for me; anything more is just gravy.

Our philosophy: “Yes, and”

Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, we considered things like a slack group, or turning it into a conference but the entire motivation behind this was to fill a gap. We had no intention of creating an event when we started out, we had selfish needs that we were trying to meet, and in the absence of a solution we attempted to create one. However the same is not true for slack groups and conferences — they’re already there. We don’t want to divide the community, we want to augment it!

So we have no intention of creating our own slack group, or running a large conference; they already exist. I’m personally on both the rands slack, and engmanagers slack; both are highly recommended and there’s no need that we can see for another. If you’re looking for a conference, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than Lead Dev. I’ll be there again this year, come and say hi if you see me!

And, if you’re looking to find a place where you can meet your peers and talk about issues and get advice and a group of understanding people, then hullabaloo may be just the thing for you :)

hullabaloo — April 2019