Be Flexible & Willing to Iterate
Lessons Learned while Running a First-Year Conference: Part 3
In Part 2 of Lessons Learned while Running a First-Year Conference, I talked about the importance of setting boundaries when it comes to what you’re willing to commit to the conference (time, money, energy, etc.) as well as how to pull off the MVP event that you’ve been dreaming of. But there’s wisdom in taking time to reevaluate things on occasion. As I mentioned in Part 2, “If your MVP list exceeds the amount of capital (time as well as money) that you and your co-producers are willing to invest, go back to the drawing board.”
This flexibility will come in handy once you get to the actual conference. No matter how well you’ve planned, there will always be unexpected circumstances. From speakers who get sick to misunderstandings about the schedule to technology that doesn’t work as expected, you’ll need to be able to think on your feet and make adjustments with a clear and level head.
Mitigate Whenever Possible
Some of these unexpected circumstances can be planned for in advance fairly easily. Bringing extra extension cords and power strips with you, for instance, staves off any possible sponsor issues when someone forgot a power supply. Having one of every possible adapter available for the A/V team and speakers means that you’ve got backups of backups. Printing blank badges and bringing along a handful of markers means if someone’s name was misspelled or if you have last-minute registrants, you can write up a new badge onsite.
Other items take a little bit more prep, but go a long way toward making you as an organizer feel less stressed on the day of. One of the ways we went about mitigating this stress was to have a pinch hitter speaker. Arthur Doler was kind enough to accept this role for REdeploy 2018. Some conferences have called this a “speaker waitlist” or “bonus speaker,” but I love the term “pinch hitter” because the definition so perfectly fits the situation:
A player who bats in place of a teammate, typically at a critical point in the game.
In this case, if a speaker got sick right before the conference, if their flight got canceled, or any number of other hypotheticals happened, we now had a pinch hitter speaker who was lined up and ready to go with a brilliant talk.
But this is a delicate conversation to navigate! How do you communicate to someone that their talk didn’t quite make the cut but that you’d like them to still come fully prepared? We opted to treat Arthur as we did any other REdeploy speaker, including offering him travel assistance, including him in the speaker dinner, giving him an honorarium, etc.
Having Arthur on board meant that if a speaker was running late because of traffic, or we couldn’t find someone at the conference venue, we didn’t need to panic. (Sidenote: always, always make sure you have multiple ways to contact your speakers, including phone numbers, to make speaker wrangling on the day of the event easier!). We had a safety net, which was a big help in reducing stress in a potentially stressful situation.
Be Willing to Adjust
Sometimes flexibility means being willing to adjust expectations and figure out a new plan on the fly. During the first morning break, the A/V team informed us that they needed a few minutes to change out presenter’s laptops in between presentations without the added pressure of 150 pairs of eyes awkwardly staring. Putting on music and bringing up the lights wasn’t an option as we didn’t want attendees to think of it as a break, so Paul and I quickly decided to hop on stage between each talk to riff about Resilience Engineering topics.
As someone who cares deeply about resilient teams and people but has little experience in Resilience Engineering itself, this terrified me, but luckily, our speakers made it simple. While we had anticipated that the various topics of resilient technology, organizations, and people would flow together in a holistic manner, I was blown away on the day of the conference when we could easily pick up threads from one talk to the next without missing a beat. From highly technical talks that involved a lot of equations, to emotional cycles of despair, to cascading failure, Paul and I were able to easily draw parallels between the talks. This not only gave the A/V team breathing room but became a unique part of the conference that attendees appreciated.
Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Help
While Paul and I both brought unique perspectives and some conference planning experience to the table, it became clear as the event drew closer that we needed more help on the logistical side of things. We brought on a professional event organizer, Zane Event Company, in the last six weeks before the conference, which was a tremendous help. Cindy Zane took care of all of the complex paperwork with the venue, kept us on our toes with swag orders, and generally kept me sane for those last few weeks.
Anolani Christensen was our onsite event coordinator and just like Cindy, Anolani kept me sane during the event. I lost track of the number of times when I turned around to ask her a favor and she had already handled the situation. Having Cindy and Anolani on board helped everything flow both in the weeks prior to the event as well as onsite, and I don’t know how we would have done it without them.
We also pulled in a few volunteers from the community. They handled the registration desk and speaker wrangling so that we could focus on other details on the morning of the conference. They were also trained on our Code of Conduct incident response process in case there were any issues throughout the conference and assisted with our Q&A panels at the end of both days. These volunteers brought their own ideas to the table as well, helping arrange the speaker check-in desk and providing an iPad to use as a visible stopwatch for speakers.
In short, bringing on an event team as well as volunteers made it possible for us to focus on being the conference organizers and hosts: attending to our guests, engaging in conversations about resilience, and generally creating a great experience for all of our participants.
Flexibility with Future Plans
Lastly, we recognized early on in the planning process that we needed to be flexible with future plans. We didn’t make any promises onstage about “next year” because, frankly, we didn’t know what it would look like! We knew that the first year had been a huge success. We had accomplished our goal of bringing together individuals from across the industry and around the world (from as far away as New Zealand!) to discuss difficult topics of resilience in technology, organizations, and people. As easy as it would have been to ride the high of the event and simply announce that we were having a 2019 event, we also knew it had been a lot of work and that any decisions about future conferences needed a lot of thought behind them.
As I dove back into client work after the conference, I turned back to my company mission:
The mission of Persea Consulting
is to provide resources about
Developer Relations & Community Management
for those who are practicing in those areas
as well as business decision makers
who are trying to understand the business value of these initiatives.
In doing so, we move the entire industry forward.
and I was forced to have a difficult conversation with myself. As much as I loved REdeploy and was passionate about the topics as well as the audience from my past experience as a DevOps Community Manager, I had to recognize that the conference didn’t move my primary goal forward. As a new business owner, I don’t have the luxury of pursuing projects (especially ones as big as a conference!) that don’t have an impact on that singular mission.
It goes back to what I’ve said in the past around prioritizing items. At the risk of making a generalization, we as Developer Relations professionals have a tendency to be people-pleasers. For me, this shows up in the number of projects that I’m involved in at any one time. I’m always happy to help wherever I can, which has a tendency to backfire when I can’t give each project the attention that it deserves. As I said in a recent guest post on CMX Hub, it’s up to me to figure out where my greatest value lies -- what is it that only I can do?
Regarding the future of REdeploy, stay tuned for more information on upcoming events from J. Paul Reed and the REdeploy twitter account. I’ll continue to support from an advisory standpoint, pitching in with the program committee and offering advice along the way. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to do what I do best -- providing resources for Developer Relations professionals around the world, pushing the DevRel industry forward as I do so.