Engine Room 2020: going virtual

Sarah Wells
Dec 3, 2020 · 7 min read

The challenges and benefits of running our internal tech conference virtually

This was the 6th year we’ve run an internal tech conference, Engine Room, and the first time that we’ve done it virtually.

Every year the first thing we do when planning for Engine Room is work out what the key thing is we want to achieve. This helps us focus our efforts and keeps the experience fresh for people who have been at the FT for a while.

For the very first Engine Room, we wanted to show people that we didn’t need to go to external conferences to learn: we had a lot of interesting and relevant experiences to share with each other. In 2019, we wanted to focus on being one team, running the conference across two locations — our software development offices in London and Sofia — with full and equal involvement from both.

This year, our focus was on providing ways for our teams to connect. At the time of writing we’ve been working from home for 250 days, and while teams are finding ways to work virtually, we are missing the more casual interactions we had with people: bumping into people outside the lifts, or in the coffee queue.

We’re tired of virtual quizzes but we crave connection.

So, how did we approach a virtual conference differently? And did it work out?

Setting the agenda

Use the tools people are familiar with

One thing we’ve learnt over the years is that it’s best to keep things simple.

We use Google Meet all the time at the FT, we all know how it works. So that’s what we used! We have the enterprise version so we can have up to 250 people in a Meet.

Kicking off the lockdown bingo on Google Meet
Using Google Meet for lockdown bingo

We have Slack at the FT too, so we had channels set up there as well, to answer questions etc.

Shorter, sharper, more interactive

We already knew that technical conferences had changed the way they did things when they switched to online, running shorter talks with longer Q&A, and running for a shorter time overall — maybe 4 hours rather than a full 9 to 5.

It made sense to learn from that — so no 45 minute long talks this year. We ran multiple talk sessions, including some in parallel tracks, since we were no longer restricted by getting space in a conference suite.

And we encouraged people to chat in the sidebar and to ask questions via the new Q&A function of Google Meet — although I’m pretty sure no one actually did that. But the chat was fun and made it all feel very interactive.

Space to hang out with people you don’t know yet

We know there’s no easy way to hangout together and eat pizza when we’re all WFH. We definitely still wanted a space where people could meet and talk to people outside their own team, and that needed to be in a smaller group, so we set up open spaces — with several sessions running in parallel, each with a particular topic as the focus for discussion. We did a little bit more up front for the open spaces than normally happens, asking people to suggest topics they would like to cover a few days in advance. We left space for more sessions to be added on the day, and some did get added.

We did something similarly parallel late in the day: multiple small groups learning from others in masterclasses that were largely not that closely connected to our day jobs. A nice decompression from the day, and I now know how to sign my name in British Sign Language, and many others are much more informed about recycling and/or are about to take up whittling.

And we finished off with Lobster lockdown bingo — how many of these lockdown cliches can you mark on your card — which also proved that making someone wear a lobster costume never gets old.

Mark Barnes running lockdown bingo in a lobster costume

Strive to be inclusive

We set up the agenda to run from 10 till 3:30 UK time, which is 12 till 5:30 Bulgaria time, so that as many people as possible in our teams could attend during normal work hours.

Having things in the middle of the day meant the best chance for people in our Manila and US offices to be able to join in too. However, we also recorded all the talk sessions, for those groups and also because lots of people are working flexibly at the moment and we wanted those people to be able to watch later.

We wanted to have a lineup that reflected the diversity of our organisation, and that meant doing more than sending out a call for papers. We did do that, and got a fantastic response, mostly from people who have spoken before. To get new people, and more junior people, you need to approach them directly, and you need to make it clear that they will get all the support they need.

We strongly encouraged every speaker to come to practice sessions arranged for the few days before the conference, to get feedback on their talks. We have done this for a few years and people really appreciate the difference it can make (and it also provides a ‘soft’ deadline for people, which I can tell you is a great thing for a speaker!). My colleague Euan Finlay ran all of these, putting in a huge amount of effort. I got involved in a few and it was fascinating to see the way talks developed and improved — I highly recommend running through any presentation you are going to give with someone else ahead of time, you will get a much better outcome!

We also offered people the chance to pre-record their talks — in the end, no one did, but it’s definitely well-supported by Meet and if people are a little nervous or have dodgy internet, it’s a good option.

Finally, we made sure we had budget set aside to support our Deaf colleagues, and sorted this out as soon as we had the first outline of our agenda — the best captioners and interpreters get booked up months in advance. We asked our colleagues what would work best for them, and they said live captioning and recommended White Coat Captioning. We had live captioning for our talk sessions with transcription sent real time to a specific url.

Lots of people find it helpful to have live captioning, including those who speak English as a second language: this is a benefit for everyone.

What we got right

We always send out a feedback form after we run an Engine Room, and this time the feedback was generally very positive.

From the feedback to the question “what did you enjoy?”, we can tell we largely succeeded with making people feel more connected:

“Being able to see people that aren’t in my team”

“I liked the feeling of togetherness, even though it was an online conference it had a great atmosphere”

“the open spaces were really great and a really nice chance to chat to people I’ve not engaged with since Feb or before”

“Community, seeing people I haven’t seen in a while and feeling part of a bigger team again.”

“It was great to have contact with colleagues from other teams which I don’t usually have contact with on a daily basis.”

We got so much good feedback about open spaces that we plan to run more of them early in 2021.

What we got wrong

But obviously, we made mistakes too.

We left space between each session for people to leave their screens and get a drink, maybe. But we didn’t get this right: many sessions ran over and left a very quick turnaround, and this was stressful for the speakers at the end of a session and left those attending multiple sessions a bit frazzled. What we learned is that talks generally only get longer as people refine them!

The open spaces were very popular, meaning most groups were too large for everyone to be able to take part. One open space had more than 50 people show up!

We also got a lot of feedback that they were too short at 20 minutes: when we run more of them, the sessions will be longer and we will try to make sure there aren’t too many people in any one session.

Finally, as someone very kindly told us via the feedback form, we were too UK-centric on the lockdown bingo — furlough didn’t happen in Bulgaria, and no one drove to Barnard Castle.

But overall

Generally, people thought it was excellent.

High scores on overall experience with 67% giving 5 out of 5

“It was brilliant, the best one I’ve been to so far.”

“The quality and energy of each presenter was amazing. Reminded me that I’m surrounded by wonderfully talented people and it was inspirational.”

“Thumbs up, I enjoyed it way more than I’d expected to.”

“It felt on par with some of the best tech conferences out there. Extremely well organised and run. I would pay for this”

We’re delighted it went so well and we’d encourage you to try something similar at your company.

If you want to find out more about how to run an internal tech conference and why you should do it, check out the Internal Tech Conferences book, co-authored by our own Victoria Morgan-Smith.

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