Steve Workman's Blog

Lessons from running an internal technology conference

Posted on by Steve Workman About 5 min reading time

Inside Maersk Technology, we have lots of communities of practice - like-minded individuals who solve problems with technologies. I run the front-end community and have done for about two years.
Over time, we've run regular calls, demonstrations and tech talks to help educate the community and keep us up to date with the latest trends. This time, I wanted to go bigger - to run a half day event where we could get lots of people presenting on the same day.

The good news is that on March 19th we had a very successful conference, with nearly 100 people online at its peak, and consistently more than half that through the entire 4.5 hour run time!

I've learned a lot from doing this, and whilst I've organised conferences before (I helped to run London Web Standards for 6 years) this is the first time I've been the lead with no one else having done anything like this before.

So, here's what I've learnt.

1. Give yourself enough time to organise it all

This should be obvious, but time goes faster than you'd think when you're busy. In January, I said "let's do this" thinking that we'd get it done "some time before April". It was only just enough time and I wish I'd had another two weeks. Here's why:

I would have loved more time to do the conference logistics, and also to give our speakers more time to work on their presentations as well. Everyone involved has a day job, some of them more than one, and two and a half weeks probably isn't enough time for a great talk to come together. However, everyone did it and the event was great, so maybe we got lucky.

The last week felt rushed for me. Everyone stepped up to help but our surprise guest speaker (our CTO) recorded his bit with me the night before and the little details like the event coordinators running the links between the talks was OK, but could have been a lot better. Perhaps I'm being picky because I am fortunate enough to go to well-organised conferences and they all seem to get this right. They probably didn't start organising it 8 weeks before though...

2. You can't do it alone

With all of the amazing tools we have at our fingertips, with bloggers livestreaming events all the time, you'd have thought that one person could put on a conference. You'd be right, but that's all that person would do for 8 weeks.

Thankfully, I've got 5 other people who help to organise the sub-communities in front-end dev, and they all stepped up to help. My biggest problem (and a lesson I re-learn every few years) is effective delegation of tasks. Making sure that whole areas are handed to people to run, not just little tasks. It doesn't matter that they've not done it before, you were there once yourself and it's important to remember how you learnt to do it.

3. Prepare for good and bad things happening

In the planning stage I spend a lot of time thinking of all the things that can go wrong and how to put them right. What I don't think of much is what happens when things go too well? Like, when you get more proposals than you have time slots for.

This was an amazing problem to have. We had 28 submissions for 10 slots for the first time we're running this event. I was honestly blown away by it and if any of my colleagues are reading this, I hope I said that enough.

When it came to selection time, this was a problem, as we hadn't discussed selection criteria at the start. We also had a form submission that everyone in the coordinators could see which included everyone's names, so we couldn't do a truly blind selection process.

The end result was that people who had put minimal time into their proposal, or had picked something that we had a few different submissions for, didn't get selected. That sounds normal, but what we ended up with was a speaker list full of people who were strong voices in the community who had spoken before. They produced the best proposals and got selected. A meritocracy without enough diversity to make me satisfied.

We will do better at this next time.

4. Rehearse

We ran the event through a Teams Live Event, which is like Teams but everyone is on mute and there's a mini production stage and a Q&A box. None of the organisers had produced an event using this tech, so we found someone who had and got them to take us through it.

With that, we also had to make sure that the presenters knew what was going on, so we ran a rehearsal session for everyone and made sure their technology was working. This caused three people to find new laptops (Teams Live Events can only be presented from the desktop clients on Windows and Mac, not Linux or Web 🤦) and one to pre-record their talk and send us a video.

We also learnt that a live quiz wouldn't work here because there's a 20 second lag between live and the feed. The quiz was moved to a separate mini meeting during the event, which also served as a nice break from talking to what felt like an empty room as there's no presenter feedback in Teams whatsoever.

5. Don't introduce new technology on the day

It started out bad...

Then it got worse...

Then it all just went to hell...

So, let me say it loud and clear.

Don't mess with technology on the day of the conference

My specific lesson is:

Calm down, it'll all be fine. Don't rush around and spill your drink

Combined with...

To get that camera mount you moved the desk right a few inches, did you check that the monitor won't hit that shelf and fall over?

and finally, finished off with...

The monitor fell over once, are you sure it's balanced right now? Make sure if it does fall again it doesn't land on that microphone...

6. Enjoy it

At the State of the Browser conferences, I love being in the crowd and taking pictures for social media and the website. I listen to the talks and take them all in. I didn't get to do that this time, and not just because I was researching how to fix all-in-one monitors.

Remember to enjoy it. Once the event is off and running there's not much more you can do, so take it all in and learn something new yourself.

And that's it. If you want to know more about how we set things up - let me know on Twitter @steveworkman and I'll write some more.