TL;DR: I share everything I’ve learned about what makes my favorite conference experiences so great and meaningful, and try to understand which elements are universal, applying to both physical and virtual events, and which ones can be changed. I share the experiences of having run an incredible three-day virtual event for 50 people, and share why I’m now incredibly confident that we’ll be able to replicate the magic of the best conferences at the upcoming Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit—our goal is to make it one of the best programs we’ve ever done and to leverage the virtual format to achieve things that cannot be done in a physical conference.
Table of Contents
- Why I’m Writing This
- Lessons Learned Running A Great Three-Day Virtual Event
- Why I Think Virtual Forum Worked So Well: It Supported A Vibrant Scenius
- Revisiting My Worst Conference Moments That I Don’t Want Anyone To Ever Experience—And How We Mitigate Them
- Constructing A Great Conference To Best Serve The DevOps Enterprise Scenius—Physical or Virtual
- Holy Cow, Looking At My Conference Photos Taken Over Ten Years Brings Back So Many Memories…
- Closing Thoughts and a Haiku on Virtual Conferences Written by a Friend
- Advice and Resources for Virtual Conference Organizers and Attendees (and Thanks)
Why I’m Writing This
Great physical conferences are magical. You learn from incredible talks, you’re exhilarated by being surrounded by the best in the game, you find fellow travelers who share similar goals and experience similar struggles that you hope to conquer together, and so much more. The connections you make at conferences often lead to lifelong friendships and can maybe even change your career.
This has been my experience with the best conferences I’ve attended. I attended my first conference as an undergraduate student at Purdue University in 1991 (thank you, Dr. Gene Spafford!), which was surely a mind-blowing experience, but I was too early in my career to fully appreciate it.
But after 2004, without a doubt, conferences radically and profoundly shaped my career. This was back when I was the CTO of Tripwire. There was so much I wanted and needed to learn, and I learned those things from conferences. I met so many of my lifelong collaborators and friends at conferences. In fact, it was at conferences where I met in-person nearly all my co-authors, such as Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Patrick Debois, Jez Humble, John Willis, and George Spafford.
This reinforces one of the most important lessons in my life: your outcomes are shaped by the people you surround yourself with. Great adventures need great collaborators. Or maybe it’s even the other way around: great collaborators lead to great adventures!
In the age of a global pandemic, so many conference organizers are trying to figure out how to run great virtual conferences. This is a wide open frontier, full of possibilities and risks, trying to replicate the “in-person” group meeting format that has existed for centuries (or even millennia).
As we prepare for our first virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit on June 23-25, I started writing down what I thought made the best conferences I’ve attended so great and meaningful. I wanted to study which conference elements are truly universal, in order to form some opinions on which elements only apply to physical conferences and which ones could potentially be made even better in a virtual format.
Why write it down? One of my favorite phrases in The Unicorn Project is; “In order to speak clearly, you need to be able to think clearly. And to think clearly, you usually need to be able to write clearly.”
In this post, I will share the story of running an amazingly rewarding three-day virtual event for 50 people last month, my own learnings from attending almost every online conference I could find, and how it’s informing how we’re constructing the Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit at 60x larger scale.
After writing all of this, one of my big aha moments is that the best and most magical conferences are those that support a community or movement—a conference is so much more than just a bunch of presentations and talks. And nothing brought this home more than having run an incredibly rewarding, three-day virtual event last month.
Lessons Learned Running A Great Three-Day Virtual Event
Since 2014, I’ve run the DevOps Enterprise Summit conference, which is aimed at helping technology leaders from large, complex organizations succeed, as well as studying what makes them successful. In 2019, our US conference had about 2,000 attendees, and London about half that.
After our first very successful conference in 2014, I pulled together a much smaller event, primarily speakers from the conference, which we called the DevOps Enterprise Forum—every year I bring together a rotating group of about 50 people who I think represent some of the best thinkers, doers, and leaders in the community.
As a group, we identify the toughest obstacles and problems that this community faces and, believe it or not, we spend three days writing guidance papers on how we think these challenges are best overcome. We then publish that guidance and make it available for free under Creative Commons, with the goal of elevating the state of the practice.
Over the past seven years, we’ve written and published over 75 papers, which have been downloaded over 70K times, on topics such as Transformational Leadership: A Quick Start Guide, Moving From Project to Product, Modernizing IT Operations in the Age of DevOps, and many, many more.
Without doubt, the DevOps Enterprise Forum is among my favorite things I get to do each year. Over the years, I’ve reflected on why it’s so valuable and fun for me. I’ve concluded that it’s because it’s an opportunity to work alongside and collaborate with some of the best people in the game and learn an incredible amount in doing so, while also getting the satisfaction of helping contribute to solving significant industry-wide problems.
But that’s not all—another magical thing happens there. Each year there are so many serendipitous, unexpected interactions that generate huge aha moments for me. Many of these profound interactions made their way into my books, such as The DevOps Handbook and The Unicorn Project. Many of them were from conversations I accidentally stumbled into, perhaps from hearing a conversation as I was going to get coffee, joining the right table at one of the dinners, wandering over to find out what everyone was laughing about at the bar…many of these learnings I feel could have only come from this group of people.
We were planning on having our Forum 2020 event as usual but by March, COVID-19 was shutting down huge swaths of society. Like many other event organizers, we announced that we were changing the Forum event to be virtual. We all had many, many concerns. Among them were:
- How do we engineer the three days to ensure that we have enough opportunities for all those amazing serendipitous interactions?
- How do we ensure that the three days don’t devolve into a “paper factory,” full of drudgery and toil trying to grind out a guidance paper when everyone already has so much important work to do in their day job?
- How do we ensure that teams can effectively form/norm/storm/perform in the limited time and all done virtually, where group dynamics might be very different?
One of the people who was most skeptical that the Forum magic could be replicated in a virtual format was Ross Clanton—many of you in the DevOps Enterprise community will recognize him from his work at Target and Verizon. He now works for the CIO at American Airlines. He feared that none of the things that made the Forum worthwhile would be present—the comment about the “paper factory” came from him.
So, of course, I asked him to help Jeff Gallimore and me plan the event, and I was very grateful when he agreed. Our primary mission: make sure the Forum didn’t feel like “the worst and most boring three-day Zoom call ever.”
Among other things, we shrank the working times and introduced 15-minute mini-lectures to modulate the attendee interaction model (e.g., switch from active working/collaborating to more passive learning/watching). We added more informal networking times, having experimented with “virtual happy hour” breakouts on many different platforms in the weeks prior.
Much to my amazement and existential relief, I found the three-day event to be utterly amazing and incredibly rewarding. In fact, I thought those three days were as worthwhile as any of the six “in-person” prior years.
But here was my biggest surprise: I found that the “shape” of the experience over the three days was astonishingly similar to previous years! I drew the following graphs, plotting my energy level over the entirety of the three days:
What I found so astonishing was if I were to have created a graph like this for the six previous years, the graph would have looked almost exactly the same! Feelings like the borderline terror trying to get my slides ready before the Day 1 kickoff, the excitement of hearing what everyone has been up to, the absolutely amazing intellectual stimulation from collaborating with the best in the game, the elation of sharing stories and hearing about their heroic achievements over drinks with long-time friends…
…and even the feelings of deep regret on the morning of Day 2 of having drunk too much the prior evening…haha.
Of course, this year’s actual experience was very different because it wasn’t in person, instead it was primarily over Zoom—we were all operating in Central Time Zone, which meant early mornings or late evenings for some, and many of us had family commitments that called us away at times.
But in the ways that actually mattered, the rewarding nature of the experience was very much the same.
However, I’d like to call your attention to the energy slump I felt mid-way through the afternoon of Day 1 (see graph below). That downward slide is when I started feeling over-stimulated from all the intense, small-group activity, and maybe frustrated by some of the peculiar dynamics of a group video call. By the end of Day 1, I was actually thinking, “Holy cow, how are we possibly going to make it through Day 2, let alone Day 1?”
This was a worrisome moment—but what saved the day was the “virtual happy hour”. We chose to use the MIT Unhangout platform, mostly because everyone could spontaneously create breakout rooms and switch between them. We quickly discovered that this enabled the spontaneous and serendipitous interactions that we love so much from previous Forums—of course, it can’t approximate the huge grins of running into old friends, having drinks together and talking late into the night at the bar, running into amazing conversations in the hallway…
But it was remarkably and surprisingly close. We could still pull in relevant experts into our working groups to ask for their advice. We could help each other on problems we were struggling with. We could find surprising areas of common interest.
And in these days where we are all “sheltering in place,” on seemingly endless video conference calls every day, week after week, these social interactions were a gift beyond words. For weeks after the event, I had a big smile on my face, reflecting on the shared experience.
Last week, Gallimore asked me, “How many people did you interact with this year?” I was surprised that I probably connected with about the same number of people during the Forum as in the physical events in years past. Or maybe even slightly more, just because everyone was “in the same place.” They weren’t on a different floor, at the other end of a big table at a restaurant, etc.
Below are pictures from last year’s event at the Hilton in downtown Portland, Oregon.
And here are some pictures from this year. The first picture is the general session which we all attended (not all of the 50 attendees are shown, and note the clock in the upper-left hand corner to enforce strict time discipline), and below are some of the team working rooms and informal networking times.
I was elated and relieved that I wasn’t the only person who found the three days rewarding—at the close of the three-day event, we had everyone share just a couple of words in closing. Here are some representative quotes.
“A fantastic learning community, thank you all for your insights. It was awesome.”
“Enlightened, exhilarated, and exhausted.”
“As a first timer, I’m amazed by the knowledge and the experience here. It’s amazing.“
“Smart people collaborating, elevating, sharing, enjoying. Inspired.”
“Rejuvenated and overloaded.”
“Grateful, humble, and energized.”
“Creative confidence, cognitive dissonance, cognitive overload.”
“Happy every time I get to chat with any of you, just inspired again to go back and try more and more good things. Thank you.”
“Incredibly galvanizing. I’ve learned a great deal in the last couple days and I am so impressed by the intellectual horsepower and the passion that this group has. So, I’ve had a great couple of days. Thank you.”
“This was a study group with no boundaries.“
“Thank you for including me in a community where the size of the pie is of a greater concern than the size of the slices.” —Dr. Steve Spear, Author; Senior Lecturer MIT Sloan School
I thought this comment from Peter Moore, President, Wild Oak Enterprises, did a great job in describing why the virtual event was so successful:
“This validates my belief that peer-to-peer learning is the greatest source of knowledge.”
But I thought the sentiment that captured my feelings best goes to Cornelia Davis, CTO, Weaveworks, who said:
“At the end of my morning run, I had a moment where I felt my soul felt more healed than it has in weeks, or maybe even months. I wondered why, and in the last 20 minutes I realized why. It’s because I spent my last three days here.”
Well, there you have it—this is the power of a great event. And it was done virtually!
Truly, a conference is so much more than watching talks.
Looking forward, these are the dynamics and the types of experiences that we want to create for everyone at the upcoming Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit, but at a 60x larger scale. (We’re limiting the event to 3,000 attendees.)
NOTE: At the end of this post, I include some of the lessons learned, including why we loved the MIT Unhangout platform so much for breakout rooms and unstructured networking time, as well as the agenda we used and the need for timekeeping.
Also, I should mention that we rehearsed using every platform in the weeks leading up to the event with a subset of group members by running Virtual Happy Hours to test whether the platform was generating the types of outcomes we wanted. We also changed the next day’s agenda based on what we learned each day—I’m really proud of the rapid learning dynamic that everyone on the team demonstrated.
Why I Think Virtual Forum Worked So Well: It Supported A Vibrant Scenius
After weeks of reflection, I think I know why our virtual Forum event went so well—which is also why I predict our upcoming Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit will also be great. It’s because they are both events that exist to support a “scenius.”
This term “scenius” comes from Brian Eno, a famous musician, record producer, and visual artist, best known for helping to define and reinvent the sound of some of the most popular bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s (e.g., U2, DEVO, Talking Heads, David Bowie, etc.).
He observed that despite heroic mythology, lone geniuses do not drive most scientific, cultural, business, or policy advances. Breakthroughs typically emerge from a scene: an exceptionally productive community of practice that develops novel epistemic norms. He wrote, “major innovation may indeed take a genius—but the genius is created in part by a scenius.”
Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of WIRED Magazine, brilliantly describes this concept further [https://kk.org/thetechnium/scenius-or-comm]:
“Scenius” stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius. Individuals immersed in a scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.
Kevin Kelly goes on to expand upon the amazing characteristics of a scenius. I quote:
- Mutual appreciation: Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
- Rapid exchange of tools and techniques: As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
- Network effects of success: When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
In the most productive sceniuses, like in Eno’s musical scenius, the magic that is created comes from assembling extremely talented people from a diverse set of perspectives, skills, and backgrounds who all share similar values. Even if their specific goals aren’t the same, they overlap enough so that incredible joint collaborations happen.
I have seen firsthand the incredible network effects and the up-leveling effects of scenius in the DevOps Enterprise community—this is a community that loves helping each other, to an extent that constantly amazes me.
The goal of the DevOps Enterprise Summit is to support this amazing scenius and to help technology leaders succeed, who often have to fight ancient, powerful orders who are quite happy with the way things are and TWWADI (“The Way We’ve Always Done It”).
And that mission goes on, regardless of whether the conference is physical or virtual.
Revisiting My Worst Conference Moments That I Don’t Want Anyone To Ever Experience—And How We Mitigate Them
Before I go into how we’re thinking about constructing the Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit, I want to talk about things that go wrong at conferences. After attending hundreds of conferences in my career, I’m aware that not all conference experiences are great, and some can be horrifyingly awful. Some are addressed by enforcing a code of conduct, but there are many other dynamics that are less visible, which I feel are very important.
When Newcomers Are Disoriented Or Feel Unwelcome
When there’s a scenius that has been meeting for years (or sometimes decades), it can be disorienting for newcomers to know what’s going on where, where to go when you need help, and it can feel awkward trying to join groups who are talking, etc. When this happens to me, I feel like an outsider or even unwelcome. There have been times when I was so bewildered or uncomfortable I was tempted to go back to my hotel room or take a work phone call, etc.
Trust me, I did that, even knowing that this was not why I registered for that conference and spent all that time flying there. And yet, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that.
(Slightly off topic but amusing: I remember going to an online marketing conference and was utterly bewildered when every session I went to felt like I was getting pitched to buy something that I either didn’t need or didn’t want. That evening, I was relieved to finally meet other people who were as frustrated as I was, and got to compare notes with people who had been to the conference before who could explain what was going on. I was relieved to know it wasn’t just me, and I never attended that particular conference again.)
Last year at the 2019 DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas, I held an Ask-Me-Anything session, where I learned that many newcomers came because they had specific work challenges. They were asking me which talks they should attend to find answers. As a result, one of the things that Jeff Gallimore and I wanted to do was hold a “Freshman Orientation” session, like they do for incoming students at universities, to explain how the conference works and how they can make the best use of their time.
I’m glad that they asked me during the AMA session, but clearly, this is something we can do a better job of—a user’s guide to the conference, if you will.
When You’re Trapped On The Wrong Side Of The Velvet Rope
Years ago, I remember going to a launch event that I was very excited to attend, but when I got there the only people I knew were whisked off to a private room. I remember looking around, seeing a hundred people I didn’t know, trying to figure out what I had in common with them…besides not being special enough to get into the private room.
That’s something that I never want anyone to feel at DevOps Enterprise Summit, and is one of the reasons why we talk about “be a croissant, not a donut” — meaning that whenever you are in a conversation, make sure that you leave room for another person, making it inviting for others to join. I think we’ve all been in situations where even this small act of kindness made a huge difference in how we felt, how we were made welcome, and enabled us to have the amazing interactions and learnings we wanted.
Incidentally, in a virtual format, I think many of these things are easier to address—interacting with people you don’t know on Slack is easier (for better or for worse), and so many of the physical cues (intentional or inadvertent) don’t exist when everyone is virtual. But the principle remains the same: be open to others, not closed.
When You Can’t Find The Right Person To Talk To
I remember being at an absolutely fabulous conference that had an amazing first morning, which I still can recount to others in full detail today. But when it was time for lunch, people organized by what kind of food they wanted to get. Now, this is “fine,” but there were so many things I wanted to learn, and I really wanted to find people who were working to solve problems that were similar to mine. To me, this was an amazing opportunity to connect people around interest groups.
Personally speaking, I was sort of hoping that (to use a Dungeons and Dragons metaphor), as a Level 2 fighter, I could meet some Level 30 death mages who I could be helpful to. After all, with the right new friends, doing things they don’t want to do, maybe I could tag along on some Level 30 quests with them and learn a ton.
Enabling these types of “mutually exothermic” interactions, where everyone gets something out of it, is why we try to match up people with common interests at every opportunity during breakfast and lunches, Lean Coffees, Birds of a Feather sessions, etc. For our first Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit, we are collecting people’s interest areas, and we will make as many possible opportunities for people with similar interests and goals to find each other.
(And by the way, vendors have a valuable role to play here—for enterprise leaders who are embarking on large projects with high stakes, here is an opportunity to connect with senior people across vendors they are considering, establishing the contacts you need in order to resolve issues quickly, make pilot programs successful, etc.)
Incidentally, this is another reason why we deliberately design formats to facilitate interactions between speakers and experts and all attendees, and why I ask every speaker to end their talk with a slide titled “Here’s the help I’m looking for,” or “Here are the obstacles that still remain.” By doing so, we hope that speakers can find fellow attendees who can help them.
All of these things help create the conditions for new and valuable interactions and collaborations, a hallmark of a vibrant scenius. As my friend Peter Moore said at the Forum, “peer-to-peer learning is the greatest source of knowledge.” Amen.
Constructing A Great Conference To Best Serve The DevOps Enterprise Scenius—Physical or Virtual
I’ve described the amazing dynamics at the best conferences I’ve attended, and how we want to replicate these dynamics in a virtual format. I know that it’s possible (given the success of our Forum event), but even after running it, it wasn’t clear to me how to structure the event to best achieve those amazing dynamics and outcomes we all want.
Part of this journey was to better understand why conferences tend to be structured in certain ways—you know, a general session that everyone attends, multiple parallel breakout tracks, etc.
(One of the most profound things I’m learning from my mentor, Dr. Steve Spear, is that dynamics are driven by structure. So the question becomes, what conference structures are creating the great dynamics I’ve described thus far?)
In this section, I’ll go through the major structural components of the DevOps Enterprise Summit and describe explicitly what their goals are—by doing this, we can evaluate whether they still were important in a virtual format or explore ways we could take advantage of going virtual (e.g., when the number of physical rooms is no longer a constraint).
The General Sessions
At most conferences, everyone is in the same room at the beginning and end of each day.
To support the DevOps Enterprise scenius, we use the general session for opening remarks, where we describe the goals of the community, what the specific goals of the conference are, help orient everyone (especially newcomers), as well as establish and model our desired norms.
We tend to put two types of talks in the general session:
- The most successful or inspiring experience reports from large, complex organizations.
- Experts from outside the community who we asked to teach us things that we believe are important to everyone in the community.
To use Brian Eno’s language, the general session is where we celebrate successes in the community through experience reports, rapidly disseminate winning tools and techniques and ways of thinking, share anonymized stories of what ideas or practices didn’t work or resulted in outright failures (“DevOps Confessions”), and bring in the best experts for the problems identified by the community.
By doing this, we can rapidly elevate the state of the practice.
I think of the General Sessions as the portion of the conference where the “Dungeon Master (DM)” controls the campaign, where the DM sets the stage and makes sure all the players hear and experience the same thing. (Or using video game parlance, the attendee is on “rails,” where what they experience has been planned for them in advance.)
I take enormous pride in the fact that in previous years we’ve brought to you these amazing talks in the general session, which I feel have helped move our industry forward:
- Big Four Auditor Panel, where representatives from the audit/assurance practice at PwC, EY, Deloitte, and KPMG methodically “myth busted” the top reasons they hear on why you must not, cannot, or should not do DevOps.
- Safety Panel: where Dr. Sydney Dekker, Dr. Richard Cook, and Dr. Steve Spear taught us about the intersection of Lean, Safety Culture, and Resilience Engineering.
- Workplace and Engagement Panel: where Dr. Andre Martin, Dr. Nicole Forsgren, and Dr. Christina Maslach taught us about how to interpret the broad literature in these domains.
My feeling is that the general session is as important in a virtual format. And in a virtual format, the general session carries even more responsibilities:
- Make sure that the attendee successfully transitions to the next stage (e.g., breakout talks, networking, etc.)
- To make sure the event doesn’t feel like “the worst Zoom call ever,” we’re sprinkling in more Lightning Talks for entertainment (before track sessions and at the end of each day).
Ideas and musings:
Maybe we publish the general session as a single video, so that people can listen to the talks in their intended order, with all the context between the talks preserved.
Maybe we can publish these talks ahead of the conference, so that attendees who are interested can watch them if they can’t attend certain sessions because of a meeting, child care, etc.
These points reinforce the notion that the conference we want Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit to be is not for someone who “squeezes in a talk here, a talk there”—instead, it is for people willing to invest three days to attend fully, just as if it were a physical conference. (More on this later.)
Watching many online events, I still haven’t formed an opinion on whether talks should be pre-recorded or live. I’ve asked many people whose opinions I respect what they think—what is amusing is that those with video or music production experience say, “some things can only be done live, but do it only if you really like danger.” (Haha)
- I used to think that live performances generate peak performances that bring out the best talks—but there are so many risks in a virtual format, and none of us want to watch someone try to get their audio working for five minutes. Do live performances really generate better performances? And if so, is it worth the risk of doing live?
- In the programming committee, we are conducting an experiment this week—two speakers (Cornelia Davis and me) will give the same talk twice: once pre-recorded, and once live, and we’ll all watch and see how it feels. I’ll let you know how it goes! (We’re hoping to isolate what makes for the best attendee experience by controlling the variables of the speaker and the talk they deliver.)
Again, watching other online events, I’ve noticed that some sessions seemed too polished and too obviously recorded weeks ago—for some reason, it made me feel like they were too detached from me and the reason why I was there. They lacked an immediacy or urgency of experience, and I felt like I just didn’t need to be there myself.
- I wish I understood better why these pre-recorded sessions just didn’t seem worth my time—some obviously took tens of thousands of dollars to produce those amazing videos, so why weren’t they compelling to me?
- (And if you can’t keep my interest, even having spent that much money, what went wrong in the production of that video? What assumptions did they have that were wrong? Or was it just me?)
- It’s obviously not the investment in production value—people who make movies spend more dollars per minute to create a desired experience and evoke emotions for the viewers. So why did those online talks fall so flat with me? (Was it because they weren’t actually trying to speak to me?)
The breakout sessions (i.e., track talks) are for more specific areas of concern or interest, which may not be of interest to everyone, which allows people to self-select to talks they are interested in. This is where you get more diverse perspectives.
In contrast to the General Sessions, where the DM controls everything, the Breakout Sessions are where the player controls everything—depending on their goals and interests, they seek out the talks that are most relevant to them.
- Unlike in a physical conference where space is at a premium (because venues charge money for more rooms), you can have potentially more tracks and simultaneous talks in a virtual format.
Ideas and musings:
- For attendees (and me!), it can be agonizing to have to choose between talks that are going on simultaneously. Space isn’t the only constraint—it’s also your time. Maybe it would be valuable to publish all the breakout sessions in advance, so attendees can quickly determine which talks are worth attending and which ones are so valuable that they warrant seeking the speaker out, etc.
Structured and Unstructured Networking
Over the years, one of the biggest changes we made to the conference was to create time in the middle of each day with no talks, so that attendees could connect with each other. I’ve written already at length about how important these serendipitous interactions are—this is often referred to as the “hallway track.”
For years, we had various networking formats, such as Lean Coffee and Birds of a Feather sessions, but we put them alongside the breakout talks. The result was, for a variety of reasons, they weren’t as well attended as we hoped they would be. Our hypothesis was that people had “FOMO” (fear of missing out) from good talks, and would attend talks rather than network.
But hopefully I’ve already proven to you that a conference is so much more than just watching talks. And that’s certainly not what creates a vibrant scenius. That comes from assembling like-minded people with similar goals and interests, and creating the conditions for mutually exothermic interactions to happen, so that lasting relationships are created.
The feedback from creating a dedicated time for networking from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive. This is likely even more important now, just as it was for Forum, where we all crave social interactions outside of our daily work grind of endless Zoom calls.
(And more than ever, I think we all need some novelty in our lives—so many people describe their lives these days like “Groundhog Dog,” the famous movie with Bill Murray, who lives the same day, over and over again, and who at times felt existential despair on the meaningless of life.)
We are experimenting with even more formats to make networking time effective, to create those valuable interactions—ideas include virtual happy hours like we did at Forum, and “chat roulette” formats matching people up around specific interest areas, with the goal of sparking the amazingness that can come from being surrounded by fellow scenius members.
(For these reasons, a case could be made for increasing the amount of time dedicated for networking. After all, attendees can watch the talks after the conference.)
My thoughts and musings:
Maybe we dramatically increase the networking time for the virtual conference. In the physical conferences, we have one hour of networking per day. Perhaps in the virtual conference, we increase it—e.g., one hour on Day 1, two hours on Day 2, and three hours on Day 3?
Holy Cow, My Conference Photos Taken Over Ten Years Bring Back So Many Memories…
In preparing this love letter to conferences, I looked back at a decade of photos I’ve taken at conferences. Holy cow, it brought back so many memories, and I was so surprised to see how many people showed up in these photos year after year, and how friends from so many domains all ended up joining the DevOps movements, from information security, audit, operations, ITIL, and so much more.
I admit to spending way too much time collecting photos, but I wanted to share them with you—I suspect you’ll laugh when you see so many of us in the DevOps Enterprise community when we were much, much younger. ???
But looking at these pictures of all these amazing people who I’ve met at conferences, I felt blessed to have made these friends in this amazing journey—at one point, I even found myself tearing up, thinking, “How long will it be until we can all see each other in person again?”
I showed them to some friends and asked what they thought of them. Some of the things they said:
- These are lifelong relationships.
- These are people learning together and having fun together.
- These are an ever-growing community of people sharing.
And this one from Margueritte Kim, my wife and CEO of IT Revolution: “It makes me miss conferences so much now.” So true.
Below, you can find a video of all of these photos, grouped together by year. And below that you’ll find a collage of photos, also grouped by year. Let me know on Twitter of any memories these photos evoke!
You can find the source photos here!
(PS: if you’re in this photo gallery, and you wish to be removed, I apologize. Just let me know, and I’ll remove your photo. DM me on Twitter: @realgenekim.)
Let me end this post with a haiku from Josh Atwell, Senior Technology Advocate, Splunk, that he shared at the end of the Forum event last month. I think it sums up my sentiment better than anything I can think of:
Surely, the global pandemic will change the world of conferences for years to come, some in great ways, some not so great. But I look forward to when we can all experience the magic of great in-person conferences again.
I promised some advice to virtual conference attendees and organizers, which I include below. I hope you find this post useful, and please let me know if you have any ideas, comments, or suggestions—the best way to reach me is on Twitter (@realgenekim).
I hope everyone remains safe out there, and if you want to learn more about and experience first-hand the Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit, you can find more information here.
Advice and Resources for Virtual Conference Organizers and Attendees (And Thanks)
I want to thank all the amazing people who have helped me better understand this brave, new world of virtual events:
- AllDayDevOps (Derek Weeks, Mark Miller)
- Gremlin and FailoverConf (Jason Yee, Karli Williamson, Kimbre Lancaster)
- Coveros and TechWell (Alison Wade, Jeff Payne)
- AllTheTalks.Online (Patrick Debois)
- GitHub (Martin Woodward, Adam Walden, Lyndsey Filantres)
Advice for Virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit attendees
- Unlike many other virtual conferences, we are running a three-day conference and doing it in the same timezone as the original London conference—British Summer Time. We are specifically not running it for twenty-four hours straight because we expect attendees to need to sleep in order to make it for multiple days.
- The people who had the best experiences at our Forum event were those who attended the whole time—those who weren’t able to spend the entire day got much less out of it.
So my advice to you is this: if you plan on attending, reserve the time on your calendar just as you would if you were attending a physical conference. To paraphrase the famous philosopher Clint Eastwood: “You only get out what you put into it.”
We are putting on a conference that is more than just a bunch of talks, and our goal is to keep you excited and engaged, just like we would at our physical events. I’ve often registered for these types of online events that didn’t keep my attention, so I just let it play in the background while working and eventually turned it off.
(Obviously, that is not the kind of event we will be running!)
- On the other hand, the reality of working at home during a global pandemic is that we’re also taking care of kids throughout the day. We are cognizant of this and we’re adding some more planned breaks to accommodate the responsibilities.
One of our requirements for the delivery platform is that you can watch the talks while interacting on Slack on your phone. I found that when I had to make lunch for my kids during online events, I could do it while listening with my AirPods.
- Watch and listen for help that people are looking for—in my opinion, there is no better way to create mutually beneficial relationships than by helping other people (i.e., the principle of “give before you ask”).
Advice for conference organizers
- Some of the most interesting commentary and advice is coming from — https://twitter.com/acroll/status/1257826507898130432. His webinars have been fantastic.
Here are some lessons learned from our Forum event — I’ll provide more lessons learned and advice at the end of this post, both for virtual conference organizers and for attendees:
- Unstructured networking time is critical for multi-day events, especially if you want to enable serendipitous interactions. I’ve grown to love the MIT Unhangout platform, because it gives so much power to the attendees. People can jump from one room to another, see who is in each breakout room, and you configure it so that anyone can create their own breakout rooms (alternatively, you can require host approval).
The extent to which control is given to attendees is sometime startling — Unhangout allows anyone to mute anyone else, and to even kick anyone else out of the room!
In our experiments prior to the event, we tried using Zoom Breakouts, but we found the moderator workload to be too high (e.g., assigning people to breakout rooms could be randomly assigned, but only once), and attendees couldn’t switch between breakout rooms.
- To enable great interactions between attendees, we had everyone give a two-minute personal readout, where they stated:
Here’s who I am
Here’s what I’ve been working on
Here’s what I’ve learned (and what they can teach anyone)
Here’s the help I’m looking for
We’ve used this format in years past, and it worked equally splendidly this year, too. This exercise helps update everyone on what everyone has been up to, find areas of mutual interest, and enables people to make important connections and find potential collaborators.
We dedicated two hours across three days just for these personal report outs. And like in previous years, it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the event.
Warning: MASSIVE time discipline needed to keep people within their two-minute block, and to not lose valuable time between report outs. (Thank you, Gallimore!)
- The operational workload to “keep the trains running on time” was enormous, and at times, seemed at the limit of what one person can do alone. However, this a critical role, especially when you have a bunch of senior people involved with so many other demands on their time. As in previous years, Jeff Gallimore volunteered to own this responsibility, which he did splendidly. The agenda we used is here:
At the end of the event, he shared the cognitive load required to manage it all — part of it was the number of tools and places he needed to pay attention to, and following all the checklists he created for every part of the event.
When Jeff shared this photo with everyone of what it took to keep everything rolling smoothly, you could hear everyone groan in sympathy, but also applaud with appreciation.