FT’s Engine Room: now we are 8!

This post was co-written by Paula Tibre, Mark Barnes and Dewi Rees

: In my first week as Interim Chief Technology Officer, I was introduced to Engine Room, FT’s internal technology conference. An already established event, this year marks its 8th Edition and brings together product and technology enthusiasts from London, Sofia and Manila offices.

While joining the FT, it is the first time when I experience an induction process which is only partially on-site. And so, the spark I felt when I came across Engine Room was because of the connection it creates for the people in the community, something I wanted to have with the global team.

The Engine Room brought together on 18th November over 200 people in a hybrid format. For the first time, we had Nikkei colleagues join us, as well as other external FT partners: Money Media, GIS Planning, Wavteq and TNW, who were present in Bracken House, London.

This event is special to me because it brings together some core values critical to any business’s success: technology, people and collaboration. They are the essence and the foundation of proving the power of technology in media organisations. So I could not be more excited that the FT is the home of the Engine Room.

And because significant events don’t just happen, Mark Barnes and Dewi Rees, Technical Directors at the FT, will talk about their experience of the Engine Room as event organisers.

A brief history of the Engine Room at the FT

:The Engine Room internal technology conference at the FT has become an annual tradition. This was our 8th. It started in 2015 as an idea at a Christmas party and has taken on a life of its own ever since. The conference’s format, scope and ambition have grown year after year. The first was a mainly in-person event held in London, consisting primarily of panel sessions. We expanded to include different formats: lightning talks, longer in-depth talks, open spaces, and games and different office locations: London, Sofia and Manila. We survived the lockdown by moving the whole thing online only. You can read about the 2020 Engine room conference here. Going global and virtual helped us embrace and benefit from the ‘new normal’ of hybrid working.

Basing the conference in three offices and using modern video conference technology (including live captions, streaming and recording) meant that this year was arguably our most inclusive and accessible conference yet. The staff of FT product and Technology could be part of the conference physically in three different countries or from anywhere in the world with reasonable wifi.

You can find previous blog posts about previous Engine Room conferences here.

Preparing for the day

: When I was initially asked to help organise the Engine Room, I must admit to being a little daunted. As we have presented in the last part of this blog post, there are big shoes to fill in terms of what has come before, with this being the 8th iteration. However, I was fortunate to have prior organisers’ documentation and, in some cases (Mark) their presence to discuss the potential timings and plan and how to bring it together. Mark ended up co-organising this with me, which was hugely helpful, and I would recommend you seek a collaborator rather than looking to take something on yourself!

The first thing Mark and I discussed was that with the FT’s technology teams being across three locations (Manila — Philippines, Sofia — Bulgaria, London — United Kingdom) and us both being based in the UK, we would, at the very least, need to source a committee to support us in organising the day. To make the conference a success, we wanted to ensure that we had a presence in every office and that the Engine Room felt like it was in each of those offices (rather than being live-streamed from London). We also wanted to make sure that we had a diverse organising committee, not only from a role perspective but other aspects too (such as gender and ethnicity), to make sure we had views not just from Mark and me on how to run things. So we ended up with a mixed committee of five people (not including myself and Mark), with two people in Sofia, two in London and one in Manila. This committee was vital to making the conference a success so we could diversify tasks for the organisation.

As discussed previously, the highlight for the 8th iteration of the Engine Room conference was the inclusivity we wanted to bring to not only have a remotely accessible meeting but also have a presence in each office to make the dialogue feel present in each area. For example, Manila is (currently) eight hours in front of London, and Sofia is two hours in front. In Manila’s case, this meant we needed to ensure the conference was happening when everyone in the UK would be asleep! With thanks to local organisers, including committee member Mea Oropesa, we were able to make this happen. One way we did this was by asking speakers if they could pre-record their talks — then they could be shown in the morning in Manila and the afternoon in London (where most viewers in Manila would be offline). Sofia was a consideration for later-in-the-day events; our colleagues and committee members, Teodor Shaterov and Svetlana Tobova, helped ensure a cross-office panel worked effectively.

When Mark and I started, the first challenge was to come up with a theme for the conference. With the focus on inclusivity across the three offices, we decided not to have a piece and effectively welcomed all talks, not just technical ones! We also knew we wanted to include some talks from our colleagues at Nikkei. So, together with the committee and our dedicated speaker liaison Mark Lightfoot, we put together a call for papers and put the call out for talks. The initial take-up was slow, but the conference had sponsorship from senior leaders, and with their support, we ended up with more talks than we expected! So, we decided to organise the schedule into two different tracks in the morning and afternoon. As we’ll talk about later on in the learnings this did end up presenting some challenges.

As the weeks progressed towards the conference, Fabio Sikansi created an awesome internal website on which we continued to iterate that hosted the schedule, speakers and talks.

The day itself

The agenda was tricky. As mentioned previously, we hadn’t set a theme, and we had much content to cover, across three locations, with multiple locations in each office. To achieve this, we had to have an occasion where we ran dual tracks. We also had a mix of longer form and lightning talks, making things complex. We’d made sure in the same week that we’d done some rehearsals to work out any AV crinkles, so we were pretty much ready to go on the day. Each portion of the day had a committee organiser present so that we could ensure speakers stayed on time and help them set up as needed. Some presenters used the main slide deck, and others had laptops. This worked pretty well!

All the speakers ran on time; we didn’t have any late cancellations, and, most importantly, all the AV worked. We had an issue initially with making sure that a live stream was available. There was an assumption that everyone would join on Google Meet, and we had to add live streaming after the fact. This then broke permissions on the meeting, which had to be reset. Luckily we had an awesome AV person on the day who could help us get things sorted very quickly (thanks, Indrit!). We also had some minor issues with attendees getting from place to place (one track was on our 5th floor and another on the 3rd floor). Finally, as the talk schedule was so packed, we didn’t really have any time for Q&A, which wasn’t handled either. We’ll talk more about this in the learnings later.

Finally, we were so happy to see the level of engagement we got for the conference. At one point, we had over 200 people attending one of the talks across all three locations and the remote viewers on live stream and beyond. This was way beyond what we could have predicted. Because of the packed schedule, things could have also been a disaster, but with support from speakers and organisers, everything ran on time. Thanks to the availability of the internally created site, attendees could also easily check the agenda too.

Reflecting on the day

What follows are a few of our thoughts on what we all felt was a pretty successful 8th iteration of Engine Room.

  • Once again, it’s all about the deadline. Everything started coming together in the last couple of weeks as the folks on the organising committee started realising that we left ourselves too much to do. I feel like I learn this every other year!
  • We managed to find room on the schedule for almost everyone that wanted to speak/present. But that meant we had a very packed schedule.
  • I was delighted by how many people got involved as attendees or speakers. The Engine room conference helps set and cement the best bits of our culture at the FT.
  • It’s exhausting to organise such an event. I have been closely involved with about 6 of the 8 engine room conferences, and I promise myself I won’t do it again each time. But it is also highly satisfying, so I am pretty sure I will beg to be involved next year.

  • Don’t volunteer to do too many things — make sure you have a good committee around you!
  • Having external speakers at the internal conference, such as colleagues from associated businesses or peers in the community, can be highly valuable. It can help get different perspectives from speakers and attendees and share knowledge.
  • Figure out how you are going to share videos (or not) publicly in the run-up to the conference, not as an afterthought.
  • If you have multiple tracks and locations in one place, ensure enough space between sessions to allow people to move between them.

Wrap up

: As we established here, an internal technology conference is by no means easy to organise. It requires months of big and small decisions and a committed team behind it. So, as we wrap up, the question is: is it worth it?

Global technology conferences bring together annually millions of people across the globe. They are interested in their professional and organisational evolution and how technology can open new paths in this evolution. In technology, there is no future without learning.

External conferences facilitate individual learning. After hearing about the possibilities, people return to their organisation with new ideas and a sense of renewal. But the actual value of these possibilities is how these ideas can be implemented. And sometimes, because organisational evolution is highly dependent on individual learning and collective learning, it takes a long time for ideas to spread and grow.

This is where internal technology conferences make a significant difference: collective learning is organic and highly satisfying. It glues together a renewed culture of the organisation with a high focus on achievements to date and future possibilities based on a shared understanding of what works and matters.

The Engine Room, the 8th Edition, has achieved something that a programme or initiative will hardly deliver on: the sense that through people, technology and collaboration, we can make the FT a technology-powered organisation.

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