Our GDG Columbia chapter just put on its very first DevFest! I was kinda skeptical on whether or not we could pull it off, considering we didn’t start planning until 2 months prior. Thankfully, our organizers came through, and we made it work. Post-event, I decided I was going to make a list of things I would do differently next time around. This is in hopes that next year’s meetup will go more smoothly, while at the same time imparting to other new DevFest organizers a few helpful lessons learned after going through this whole process.
Once everything was over, I sat down at a coffee shop with my cappuccino in-hand, created a google doc, and started writing down my thoughts. After, I shared it to my team members so that they could jot down any additional recommendations. Later, we met up and did a group discussion about the list created. I would encourage you to do the same thing as well. That way it’s all still fresh in your head, and when you need to go back to reference something, it’s easily accessible to you and your team.
Here is the breakdown.
How to get speakers
Getting speakers can be a challenge, but if you know which avenues to pursue, then the process is a lot easier than you think. One method that we employed was using a website called PaperCall to create our CFP. After creating an account, there will be a section that you can fill out listing the types of talks you are looking for.
Once you have your CFP established in PaperCall, you can use the following methods below to gain more reach:
- Relevant slack channels you have joined to get the word out about needing speakers is great resource to make use of.
- Reach out to your local University to see if anyone there would be interested or ask if they have recommendations.
- Reach out to other GDG organizers who are close to you. More likely than not, they will be willing to help spread the word.
- Make sure to advertise on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform.
- Email your CFP to people within your company. We actually had several team members interested, which worked out really well.
Prepare your speakers
The better informed your speakers are, the easier it will be for them to prepare before presenting and be at the location on time.
Here are a few things to help them get ready:
- Have them show up to the event 15–20 mins before they speak. That way you can check them in, have them get situated, and allow any additional time for questions they might have.
- If they are not familiar with the area, inform them about the different parking options. Are there garages, metered parking, free parking? Do they need a parking pass? Also, will you reimburse them for that cost if parking is not free?
- Depending on the place they will be presenting at, let them know about the different presenting options. Will there be adapters, HDMI hookups, etc.?
- If you are bringing any extra equipment as back up like batteries, cables, extension cords, clickers, and such, then send them a list of these things.
- If talks will be recorded, make sure to ask permission.
- Whether or not they need to bring their laptops to present or if you will be creating a slide deck for all the speakers.
- Ask if they have a time slot preference. We used a doodle poll and sent it out to our speakers for them to select.
- Once time slots are selected and topics finalized, email them that updated document ASAP.
Have a backup speaker
Another lesson learned was to account for at least one speaker not being able to make it. Things happen, people get sick, cars break down, flights get canceled, and the list goes on. If you take into account this possibility and already have a backup speaker established, then having a no-show will not be that big of a deal, and you can carry on with your schedule just as planned.
Limit talk times
Most of our talks were 30–40 mins. with a few being about an hour. What I noticed was that people’s attention spans were short when it came to certain topics. Overall, it’s best to keep them to half an hour and then allow 5–10 minutes for follow-up questions. To vary things a bit, you might try lightning talks mixed in with the longer ones. But this only applies if you have multiple speakers and content that is greater than 4 hours. If you had just one or two hours worth of talking time, then by all means let each talk be roughly an hour or so. This was just what my observation was from hosting.
Longer transition times
We planned to have five minute transitions between speakers and from my experience that definitely was not enough time. In an ideal world, going to the next speaker would probably take no time at all, however, there is usually something that pops up, which requires more time. With having to swap the microphone out to the next speaker, introducing the next speaker, getting the next set of slides ready to go, definitely ended up taking more prep work.
However, sometimes five minutes is enough. One event I recently just went to had their speakers send all of their slides and they put them together in one deck. That way, the next person could quickly shift into their presentation when the time came. Sometimes speakers are more comfortable presenting from their laptops, especially if they need to show an example, like running some code in the background.
It really just depends on what your speakers prefer and the type of presentations they have.
Have an early deadline for marketing designs
If you are lucky, you will have a design team in-charge of getting pamphlets, programs, posters, stickers, flyers, badges, cover photos, etc. ready for both digital and print. A lot of the design assets were already provided by the GDG, and only slight modifications needed to be made to fit our GDG chapter. Your program that lists talk times, speakers, and topics will need the most modification. Your design team can usually get most of this done in a few days, though this really does depend upon how busy they are with their other required work.
When you send off those designs to get printed, you might be surprised how long it’s going to take, as we experienced. To make sure you get your printed materials done on time, let the printing agency know your deadline. Adding an extra week before the deadline is highly suggested. I would even recommend calling them before you send things off to see what the average turn around time is.
Once your team has finished with both digital and material designs, create a shared file where they are easily available to the marketing team to use when ready.
Start advertising your event in advance
To be fair, we did get a later start than initially intended. Ideally, we should have started advertising about 2 months out. Then, as you get closer to the meetup, do occasional reminder posts to keep people informed. Try to make sure you have your list of speakers, topics, and location finalized on your Meetup page roughly 2–3 weeks prior. That way your potential audience knows ahead of time if any of the topics listed are of interest.
Book your location early
Also, you should seriously consider having a room booked about 2 months beforehand. The reason being is that hotels, conference rooms, and libraries tend to fill up fast with other happenings going on. Booking a room early will ensure that you get the type of setup you want that best fits your speaker’s and attendee’s needs.
For instance, if you want to have two talks going on at once, then make sure you have an area that accommodates this. If your talks are lined up one after the other, don’t worry about booking an area with multiple rooms.
Another thing to note is to make sure you write a follow-up email with the person who helped reserve the room. It can be easy for things to get accidentally double-booked. By following up, you can ensure that if there is an issue, it can easily be remedied.
Start your event in the morning and host it on a weekend
Our DevFest was scheduled in the later afternoon on a Friday and went into the evening hours. To us, this seemed like the ideal time. Being that we were located on a college campus, we figured we would be catching students once they had finished up with class, as well as working professionals. However, we noticed a big drop off in attendance once 6:30 p.m. hit.
For our next gathering, the plan will be to begin it in the morning hours and have it held on a weekend. After talking to a few other organizers, they had suggested trying this next time around to see if there are more attendees since this worked for them.
We are still in the experimental phase of things. Each year you should try different hosting times, and be taking notes on attendance rates throughout the day. It’s a good idea to monitor this cycle.
Delegating your tasks will make sure that everything gets done in a timely manner, ensure that things run more smoothly, and keep the overall stress level manageable for both you and your organizers. From here you can then focus more of your time overseeing, making sure things are falling properly into place, and following up with people.
Make sure your staff members know exactly what they should be in charge of. Create a checklist for each person to follow, so once they get there they know what they will be doing. Remember, you enlisted help for a reason, so take advantage of that. You can’t do everything on your own, and it’s an important lesson to learn.
Depending upon how big your event is you will need to account for how long it will take to set everything up. Looking back and given the size of our meetup, we should have allotted for more time. Things were definitely rushed leading up to when we had the first speaker talk.
Also, it would have been a good idea to allow for about 15 minutes of check-in time with staff members to make sure the list of things to-do were accomplished. If anything was missed, then that can easily be taken care of.
One thing that we found helpful was to make sure there was someone at all times at the front checking people in, and directing them to where food/beverages were located along with seating options.
My hope in writing this is to let other GDG organizers know about some of the things that were learned throughout this experience and avoid some of the mistakes that we went through. However, realize that no matter how much you prepare, there will still be things that pop up that are out of your control. Don’t worry too much, the best thing you can do is take note, learn, and better prepare next time around.
Usually the best course of action to take is to jump in and figure it out as you go, but still have some sort of plan going in. If you don’t ever take that leap, you will never be able to continue to grow from that experience.
Now take some deep breaths and start planning! I promise the feeling that you get after accomplishing it will be well worth the effort.
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