How to stay connected at a remote conference

Leighann Gant
Dec 16, 2020 · 7 min read

Written by Charlotte Birmingham and Leigh-Ann Gant

Back in the golden days before the pandemic when we were allowed outside, we received the annual question from our tech director — “what conferences do you want to go to this year?”

“Women in Tech (Scotland)”, we answered. Having done some research it seemed that Women in Tech (Scotland) was going to be a really interesting conference which combined technical, career development, and diversity and inclusion topics with networking opportunities in a city one of us had never visited. So we booked tickets.

The Idea

We were planning to spend a couple of nights in Edinburgh, attend some interesting talks and workshops, take full advantage of the complimentary buffet, and attend the socials and networking events.

The Reality

When the pandemic hit, we really hoped that by September things would be normal enough for the plan to still go ahead, but eventually we found out that the conference had been replaced by the Women in Tech Online Festival, which was going to combine the whole series of Women in Tech events into a week of talks over three time zones (meaning there were talks from 9am — 12am GMT).

Our couple of days in Edinburgh had become a week of online conference talks to watch alone in our living room/bedroom/hallway.

Like most of 2020 the idea, rather than the reality, was much more appealing. Pandemics and conferences have two things in common — they can be overwhelming and take up a lot of your brain space.

Conferences are great for learning but they are also good to encourage making connections — not only with people external to the company but also the people who you work with.

Usually we find out who else is going to be attending a conference via Slack or word of mouth, create a whatsapp group, meet people in talks, discuss talks after, and do some serious networking.

We were worried that these things would be missing with an online only conference.

The conference had provided great online networking facilities (DJ sessions, quizzes, and a dedicated area for chatting with different groups of attendees) but using that method to keep connected to someone we work with directly would feel weird to us.

How could this replicate the conference experience online? Would we be able to get any value from it? Sitting in our homes watching 9 hours of back to back talks seemed draining.

How would we stay engaged? How would we keep our energy levels up? At a real life conference we walk between tracks, get regular snacks, have regular chats which gives us natural breaks. It’s hard enough to stay awake during a binge watch of Tiger King right now, how could we do that for a full week of conference talks?

The Plan

We needed a plan we could stick to. Since we have been working from home, the team have fallen into a pattern of booking coffee breaks we never make, and lunches that we don’t take. What could we use that we would stick to, that could keep each other on track?

We decided a group activity, something more than a chat, would be what worked for us. An activity which bonded us, united us, excited us. And then we had an idea.

Toastie Time (TT).

A toasted sandwich containing beans, cheese and hash browns.

The basic plan was to come up with innovative ideas for toastie fillings and have them at regular points in the day.

The plan allowed us to practice agile methodologies: our morning stand-up which consisted of a quick plan of the menu and conference schedule. This encouraged face to face interactions such as catching up at lunch over hangout which resulted in a short feedback loop on each toastie/talk. This led to a naturally iterative approach on toastie technique, and also helped us catch up on highly recommended talks.

So how did it go?

By the end of the week each toastie was scoring solid 7s and above, and the talk recommendations we gave each other became highly relevant to each of our interests. The anticipation around TT meant we took the regular breaks we needed to re-energise.

It also meant we ALWAYS took the time to talk, which we needed to stay sane.

Two images side by side. Each image shows a cat smelling a toasted sandwich with a filling of marshmallow and chocolate.
Even the cats wanted a slice of the action

Pairings

Here are some pairing suggestions based on what we felt regarding the content of the talks in combination with the content of the toasties

Demystification of 5G (Emma Davies) was a great talk that taught us there’s more to 5G than spreading covid-19. The talk gave us a greater understanding of 5G, and how we can embrace it and went well with a banana and peanut butter toastie. It’s not too heavy and contains vitamins and healthy fats to encourage brain function.

We discussed The fear of not being technical enough and what we can do about it (Clare Sudbery & Karen Lee Rigg) over a chicken bake toastie. This was designed to taste like a chicken bake from Greggs (shout out to tinned chicken in white sauce) and was one of our more successful toasties. It was comforting which was nice during a talk which encouraged us to consider our insecurities.

A toastie sandwich machine with two sandwiches leaking the filling all over the machine, leaving a mess.
Comforting but messy

Internet of Threats — the current state of IoT Device Security (Lynda Grindstaff) went well with a spam and cheese toastie. It was a frankly terrifying talk highlighting the lack of security on some of the most common IoT devices and made us feel the need for a traditional and non-threatening toastie, which spam and cheese provided.

The nacho and chilli toastie worked well whilst watching Holding the Door Open is Not Enough: New Normals in Engineering Equality (Serena Hathi & Aimee Nortje). The talk covers issues surrounding the negative effects of the junior/senior binary, and how to get marginalised voices in tech heard. This is a good pairing, the talk with bold topics and stark facts, the toastie with spicy flavours to match. Both pack a punch.

It turns out that there are only so many toasties that one can eat in a week, which meant that there were more interesting talks available than toasties with which to pair them. There were some other great talks that we attended which didn’t fit with the toastie cycle.

Did you really just say that? Managing microaggressions in the workplace (Maya Prentis) was a really important talk that made me think hard about how our behaviour in the workplace impacts those that we work with.

Making your product accessible without breaking the bank (Niki Forecast) was an eye-opening talk emphasizing the importance of focusing on accessibility over styling and visual design.

Throwing out the rule book to the terms and conditions imposed upon women (Tertia Labuschagne). This talk highlighted that people can be born into certain expected roles and gave us tips on how to set your own expectations based on your capabilities.

What we learnt

  • Keeping connected is very important to the conference experience. After a few hours of watching videos alone in a room it’s nice to have someone to chat to about what you’ve seen and learnt and discussing topics also helps to cement the knowledge gained.
  • It’s helpful to have an activity that’s not just a chat about talks. All conference and no toastie makes a week a dull time. It was refreshing to have a light hearted task that got us away from our computers and was frankly just ridiculous. Toasties were good because they were quick and didn’t require much commitment — and everyone has to eat!
  • Remote conferences are worth it — despite the elements that were lacking in terms of networking, paying for an online conference ticket was definitely worthwhile. One useful benefit is that once a talk had happened, the video was available to watch later so if any lockdown interruptions meant that we could not see a talk at a specific time, we didn’t miss out. It also meant we didn’t have to stick to a strict regimented agenda and choose between tracks like at an in-person conference.
  • Attending an online conference gave us a bit of a reset week. We had one focus for the week which was to learn from other people, and not put any pressures on ourselves to deliver. This was a welcome break after the mental pressures of remote working since March.
  • Toastie machines are not necessary for a good toastie. Just stick with a pan, you’ll be fine and will spare £30 which I no longer have.
A spam and cheese toastie being cooked in a pan on a hob.
Pan Toastie

A postscript for Toastie fans

Some toastie highlights for those still reading, followed by a full breakdown of scores. The highest scoring toastie of the week was Nutella, Marshmallow and Peanut butter which achieved 17.5 out of a possible 20 for its flavour, structural integrity and cross species appeal (most popular amongst the cats). Individually, the scores were more disparate, with CB giving the highest marks to the chicken bake (9/10) and LAG rating the chilli, cheese and avocado best at 9.5/10. Interestingly, the chilli was the most controversial toastie of the week with CB scoring it a 0/10 and the only DNF (Did Not Finish) of the week. Despite this, the overall worst scored toastie was the macaroni cheese, scoring only 6.5 out of 20 due to its bland flavourlessness.

A table of results for each toastie tried over the week. The table contains ratings from two reviewers out of ten.
Toastie Ratings

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