So they’ve pulled the plug on your local developer conference. The official announcement has been made, your tickets have been refunded, and the ultimate clincher – you’ve deleted the email auto-respond that said, “Sorry, I’m out of office meeting interesting people and breathing in new, exciting ideas. May not respond to emails.”
This is what happened to us at Crema, but we decided to take it as an opportunity — we threw our own internal dev conference remotely: Crema DevConf 2020! Our culture values continuous learning and keeping up with the industry, so once the idea was brought to the table, it was a no-brainer. Plus, we had already earmarked the time for conference attendance. A few weeks of planning went into the event, but it wasn’t hard to pull off at all.
In this article, we'll share some details about the event as well as an outline of our process for planning and execution. Our steps can be easily modeled by other dev teams that are looking for ways to further their craft skills and knowledge. We hope it works out for you as well as it did for us!
Setting the intent of the conference
For DevConf 2020, we wanted to expose ourselves to new ideas to re-invigorate the team and create shared points of reference. While the core purpose of any conference is professional development and learning, we also wanted to create an opportunity for team bonding and socialization. Since we’re split up on different projects and not in person anymore due to COVID, there’s been a lack of organic opportunities for us to continue to get to know each other.
When planning for your conference, think about what you want the purpose of the event to be. Do you want to get everyone excited about a particular language or tool? Does your team need something to help them feel more connected? Asking the right questions can drive the rest of the planning and help shape it into a reality.
Preparing for the conference beforehand
Once we committed to the idea of hosting our own dev conference, we needed to determine what kinds of topics or content our team was interested in. We used a Google Form for everyone to submit their favorite dev-related talks and videos. The only requirements were that they needed to be relevant, interesting, and, if possible, fairly recent.
After a handful of talks and videos were identified, we sampled them to see which would work best for our needs. When you’re looking at options, make sure to take into account the content duration & relevance to your day-to-day work as well as a good balance between topics. Most of our videos fell into the following categories: front end, back end, general development, soft skills, and what I’d refer to as “miscellaneous cool stuff.”
Next, we created a detailed conference-style schedule for the event. We split up the videos into two “rooms”(which would correspond to Zoom Rooms if you’re doing the event remotely) so that participants could choose from a list of various talk options throughout the day. We found that this worked well because it simulated the “popping-in-and-out” nature of an in-person conference with a different group of people to interact with before and after every talk.
If you can, recreate some of the other trappings of a real conference. We sent out food-delivery gift cards (GrubHub is a great option) since we had already budgeted for some team meals. Our Office Hospitality Coordinator also volunteered to design, order, and mail out official lanyard badges for everyone to wear! This step isn’t strictly necessary, but we thought it helped generate excitement around the event and make it feel more like a “real” conference. Plus, receiving a conference badge in the mail is a fun way to announce the event.
Successful execution of the conference
When the big day arrives, make sure you have your details in order: conferencing software, video links, Slack channels for chatting, etcetera. We used Watch2Gether to sync the playing & pausing of videos, but it would be just as easy to screen share a video. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to double-check the video links to make sure they haven’t been taken down or moved.
Also, make sure to have a “host” prepared to emcee each room. They’ll be in charge of resolving technical difficulties, kicking off the videos, and, of course, asking, “did someone forget to mute themselves?” when those dreaded-but-ubiquitous feedback loops occur!
When the day begins, make some opening announcements, greet everyone, and let everyone know how the event will function. This doesn’t have to involve any pomp and circumstance, depending on the level of formality you’re going for.
Then, all you have to do is participate. Chatting about each video afterward can help to bring the subject matter more into context for your team. For us, these conversations flowed pretty organically, but you could prepare discussion prompts if you wanted to. Be sure to leave time for idle water-cooler talk, so that people can relax a bit before jumping into another talk.
At the end of the day, have a small tie-up conversation. Ask everyone what their favorite talks were, what they learned, etcetera. And make sure to thank everyone for attending!
What we learned from the experience
After all was said and done, we walked away from the conference feeling that it was a real success! We certainly got out of it what we put into it - the small, fun details (i.e. the lunch cards and lanyards) and important prep work really brought the event to life. But, there are always lessons to be learned in hindsight.
We asked the team what they would have changed about the experience if we were to do it again. Here are a few key takeaways you can take into consideration when you’re planning your own conference:
- Schedule more / longer breaks. Ten minutes between talks isn’t enough, even though participants don’t have to physically walk anywhere. I think the sweet spot might be around 20 minutes, with some extra-long breaks built in for coffee and lunch.
- Use software custom-made for this type of thing. Our manual coordination of Watch2Gether and Zoom worked okay, but in retrospect, we could have invested in a more integrated platform like Remo.co or OmniPress.
- Put more information about each talk in the schedule so people can choose what’s appropriate for them. This could include: more detailed summaries of the talks, specification of difficulty levels (beginner/intermediate/advanced), and a more granular breakdown of topics.
- Play music in the background between talks. Someone had the idea for this to kick up the event hype! Taking the opportunity to build excitement around the event will make it more fun for everyone.
Overall, this was a great way for us to take a break from the usual work schedule, come together to grow as a team, and learn a few new things. Participants said they were energized by it and enjoyed sharing opinions and experiences related to the talks. Ultimately, this was a low-cost, low-risk way of providing many of the same benefits that a team field-trip to a development conference.
… and this doesn’t mean we don’t miss you dearly, Kansas City Developer Conference! Hopefully we can be reunited in 2021.
Crema DevConf 2020 watch list