Engine Room Conference 2019

This year the FT technology internal conference went international.

By Mark Barnes

FT technology held its 5th annual internal technology conference last month. In what has become a firmly established tradition, the ‘Engine Room’ conference (as it is known), it gives the FT technology department an opportunity to come together for a day, learn a few things from each other and exchange ideas. It captures much of what is great about working in FT technology and every year we learn things that help us get better: including how to get better at running the conference itself!

This year we had a couple of new challenges to take on organising the event. It was the first one we have held in our New London headquarters and our CTO (John Kundert) also wanted the conference to be held simultaneously in London and in our new Sofia offices in Bulgaria. We have always tried to include our engineers working in offices around the world, (including Manila or New York) by live streaming and enabling questions and comments to come from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. But actually hosting it in two different time zones at the same time was entirely new.

Engine room conference location 1 — Sofia

Fortunately (and I am entirely comfortable boasting about it), we in FT Technology are pretty good at putting on and talking at conferences. We have a lot of experience and one of us has even written a book about it.

We ran full length and lightning talks in turn from both locations with links via google hangouts on large screens in conference rooms. We even managed a very successful panel with panelists and contributions from the audience in both locations.

Engine room conference location 2 — London

As in previous years, the range of topics and speakers was impressively diverse. The day began with a multimedia and hugely entertaining talk about what the FT can do to mine its content with machine learning tools. Chris Gathercole (director of FT labs), demonstrated some of the ways FT content could be used to predict not just economic trends but huge political upheaval.

It was not all futuristic visions of an FT content-based utopia for our subscribers, there were also in-depth technical talks designed to help share knowledge around FT technology.

  • We had a GitHub master class from Alice Bartlett.
  • Svetlana Velichkova and Gergana Dzhumerkova described the way they use code reviews to improve the quality of their work.
  • We heard the story of improving the reliability of the FT’s daily digest sent to subscribers from Tatiana Stantonian.
  • Tsvetan Dimitrov talked about using Go to build gRPC powered REST APIs.

Our panel on the day was a potentially contentious one. We discussed the balance between technical team autonomy and standardisation. This is a debate has been raging within technology departments for a while and the FT is no different. Chaired (carefully) by Nayana Shetty with panelists and contributions from both Sofia and London, the conversation was positive and surprising, with a desire for some more standard tooling being largely the consensus. This has spawned a working group set up to see what standardised tooling we can use without damaging the much-loved freedoms that our technical teams enjoy.

A busy day finished up with a diverse set of lightning talks (each lasting only 4 to 5 minutes) and a brilliant fun quiz using kahoot, helped down with drinks and food.

As always there are lessons to be learned from the day: the organising team came together the following week to pick over what we could improve on for next year. A few of the lessons this time around included;

  • Don’t scrimp on the scran — great food over lunch brought people together to network and talk.
  • Invest in your AV, there were audio visual related hitches running the conference from different countries — we need to spend a little more on our office conferencing infrastructure.
  • Next year we might front-load lightning talks to draw people in with fast-paced exciting presentations early.
  • Engagement and endorsement from senior managers and lots of publicity (using different channels/mediums) in the run-up helps people get more involved.

But the biggest lesson we always seem to take away from the annual engine room conference is — “that was great, let’s do it again”. Feedback from the day included activities that engineers were planning as a result (such as using GitHub differently or getting involved in a standardisation working group) and praise for the “welcoming, informative, friendly and inclusive” nature of the conference.

I will leave the last word to our CPIO Cait O’Riordan who tweeted about the conference.

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FT Product & Technology

FT Product & Technology

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FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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