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A Retrospective on REdeploy (or Lessons Learned while Running a First-Year Conference)

It’s been just over 5 months since I finished one of the most time-intensive and complex projects I’ve ever been involved in. Most retrospectives are held immediately after an incident finishes or a sprint is completed, so I have to acknowledge that the timing on this is a bit unusual, particularly given that the conference topic, Resilience Engineering, includes the concept of retrospectives as held by resilient teams.

REdeployConf-2018-speakers

That irony aside, my co-producer, J. Paul Reed, and I have had a handful of folks approach us after the event, asking us for advice, suggestions, and tips and tricks of how to run a conference “well.” This concept of how to produce a “good conference” is one that’s been rattling around in my brain for the last few months as I finished my book, produced a newsletter, ran the gauntlet that is speaking at multiple conferences in a span of a few weeks, and continued to build up my fledgling consulting business. Perhaps now you understand why it’s taken me so long to write this blogpost. 😅

But in addition to this laundry list of to-do items, I’ve struggled with writing this post because I have a hard time with blogposts that are “holier than thou” or say that something is easy or simple, when in fact, it’s a crap-ton of work. So let me say this upfront: Planning, producing, and co-chairing this conference was not easy. There were some items (meeting our goal of 50/50 speaker gender split, for instance) that wound up being far easier than anticipated, and others (balancing my schedule and allocating enough time to keep up with the fast pace of planning an event) that felt nigh unto impossible. My hope is that this short series will show both sides of that experience while also providing helpful tips to help anyone who’s planning a conference.

Let’s jump in...

Figure out Your Conference MVP

The first and most important thing to do is figure out your minimum viable product for the event. What are your non-negotiables? It’s important to note that this isn’t your laundry list of things you wish other conferences included, but rather the few things that you aren’t willing to run a conference without. Another way to think about this is what’s the bare minimum that you have to have in order to be happy putting your name on the event?

Look at everything… and I do mean everything! How fancy does the venue need to be? Do you actually need to host an evening event? Do attendees really need more cheaply branded swag or are stickers enough? If there are reasonably-priced restaurants in the area, is a catered lunch truly a necessary expense? You’d be surprised at how many of these items can be eliminated and how many costs can be removed as a result.

For my co-producer Paul and me, things on the MVP list included compensating our speakers for their time, providing a travel stipend for speakers who requested it, finding a nice venue near a good amount of restaurants (so that we didn’t need to provide lunch), finding a diverse group of amazing speakers, and catering healthy and fun snacks for the morning & afternoon breaks. And coffee. Because… coffee.

Keeping this list short and simple allowed us to narrow our goals and focus on what truly mattered rather than getting distracted by all of the shiny objects that appeared along the way. Putting on these blinders meant that we said no to swag bags and expensive signage, but we were able to put more time and energy into the things that we felt truly mattered and would get us closer to our end goal: a good experience for our speakers and attendees that would foster a conversation around the importance of Resilience Engineering in technology.

It should be noted that what you consider to be a part of your conference MVP might be different than what your counterparts think. That’s ok! No one expects you to be a clone of your co-producers. The key is figuring out which things truly fall into the “I won’t put my name on an event that doesn’t have `x`” category. Which things are you absolutely unwilling to compromise on, and most importantly, why?

Why is the Why important?

Figuring out this “why” is integral to making your list, as everything on your list should line up with the overarching goal of your conference, just like a team mission statement or company goal should be the north star for your work priorities.

Note: If you haven’t already figured out the goals and mission (aka why you’re running the conference in the first place), stop everything and do that first. Trust me when I say that there are more than enough tech conferences out there already. If you don’t have a good reason why your event is unique, different, and most importantly, necessary, you’ll have a hard time selling people on why they should buy a ticket to your event instead of one of the many others.

Finalizing your MVP solidifies your goal and mission for your conference, as each decision should bring you back to your mission. Do swag bags foster conversations about Resilience Engineering? No. Also, they’re freaking expensive! Does having a diverse group of speakers who bring a unique perspective to the table help to further the ideas of resilient organizations, teams, and people? Yes, absolutely! Compensating our speakers for the time they put into their talks was just a small token of our appreciation. We went with branded notebooks & pens as our main swag item, given that we were asking people to take notes and bring information about Resilience Engineering back to their companies. And we provided pronoun and “no photos” stickers, made sure the venue's restroom signage was inclusive, and created a quiet space for introverts because we wanted attendees to feel included and safe as they participated in conversations.

These small, relatively inexpensive items impacted the overall vibe of the conference in a significant way, and people noticed:

By championing these small items (protein for breakfast - YES!) as well as holding out for larger things that mattered deeply to us (recording all talks so that people could share content with their teams), we created an event that we were proud to put our names on.


Next up: Part 2, which covers how to stick to your MVP list and how to work in your “would really like to have” items as well.