Sending 80 people to a conference… any company would be totally bonkers to do that; to take 80 engineers away from their projects for a day, not to mention the expense bill! But that’s just what Redgate did on the 6th March 2018, but with a slight difference.
The conference wasn’t a big international established event with world-renowned keynote speakers in the middle of London or Disneyworld Florida (although we missed a trick there I think!). No, it was our own conference, a Redgate conference, conceived by the people, for the people and put together with the people. By ‘the people’ I don’t mean our events and marketing staff, I mean our product division leaders, engineers, dev leads, tech leads and coaches.
A little bit of context…
Originally conceived as an evolution of an internal openspace event we held, the intention was to do this but on a bigger scale and involving everyone in the product division (just to clarify, our product division is where all of the development of our products happen… ).
Venues were sought, and Duxford Imperial War museum was not only a suitable venue, but surprisingly affordable!
I understand (as I re-joined Redgate after a lot of the initial decision making had happened) that whilst the intention was to use the openspace approach to this too, there were some concerns/fears/nervousness about taking 80 people and hoping they would ‘just get on with it’ and self-organise, so the decision was made to adopt a more traditional conference format. I think this was a good decision as it did de-risk the event to a certain extent, and certainly provided a good solid format on which to iterate in the future.
The day arrived, and I had volunteered as a ‘helper’ on the day as I’ve helped at various events in the past so enjoy the problem solving, facilitating, getting shit done aspects of the role! This involved arriving at the venue a while before the attendees to help set up and got to see the venue for the first time. Well, I love aeroplanes, so I was in heaven! The conference rooms were in the back of the Airspace hanger, with a walkway that overlooked the main exhibitions.
There wasn’t a huge number of things to sort out, mainly little things such as putting up posters, arranging rooms etc. Our first incremental improvement came from recognising that it would be good to not only put the days agenda on each track room door, but to highlight the track appropriate to that room (achieved using a whiteboard marker and an improvised straight edge!).
The next unexpected logistical task was a request from Duxford to get everyone to sign in for fire safety reasons. 3 sheets of paper, 3 pens and a table later and this was sorted, something to remember for next time.
The opening welcome and scene-setting talk was given in the main auditorium by Jeff Foster, Head of Engineering, and gloriously included several aviation themed examples of empowered teams and learning through doing. The day was themed around scale, impact, decisions and excellence, all themes chosen through proposed topics from the entire product division, and all themes that come up time and time again during the working day.
It was also stressed that this day should be a jumping off point from which ideas should grow and pervade into our working environments, and that space would be made, and teams/people would be empowered to make this happen. This for me is the key part of this whole process. For the organisation to buy into this and make this commitment is huge.
Due to organisational/facilitation/photography duties, I only went to one of the 4 sessions. This session was an experience report followed by discussion on becoming a Tech Lead, a fairly new role within our development organisation. The discussion largely focussed on how we can improve the process of becoming a tech lead, rather than the current approach of jumping in the deep end (which has very varied results!).
Lunchtime and the session breaks were where I felt a real sense of buzz around the event. People were talking, discussing, reflecting (and looking at aircraft!). One of the pieces of feedback I gave and was reflected by others was that there needed to be longer ‘breaks’ in-between sessions to give more time for these conversations. There could also have been an openspace track running in parallel to give people the opportunity to break out and discuss (which was, as I said earlier, the original intent of the event).
Above all, the event was a huge success, with 97% of respondents wanting the event to be run again! The day ran very smoothly, we learnt a lot, both about the topics, but also about running an event like this. Of course now the real proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the measure of success of the event will lie in how many initiatives, improvements, nudges actually come to fruition… time will tell on that one.