Organising the Engine Room Conference

The FT Technology department just held an internal conference, with a panel-based format similar to/entirely copied from EdgeConf.

The whole thing was arranged in less than a month and, apart from some VC hiccups, ran remarkably smoothly with some good feedback from the 100+ attendees.

So what made this work, both in getting it organised and in the event itself? The organising group sat down and tried to work it out.

In the spirit of the event, we’re going to do this via a question and answer format!

How did you get involved in organising Engine Room 2015?

Sarah: for me it started at the FT Technology Christmas party. Rob and I were discussing how we go to some conferences and get more value from talking to FT colleagues from other programmes and roles than from the conference itself. We also felt that we don’t show off about things we’re doing at the FT: and different teams end up working on the same problem without even realising. We thought it would be great to run something at the FT to encourage discussions and share expertise. We suggested this to John O’Donovan (the CTO) and that was that, but John never forgets and a few days later asked us to organise a full day event.

Rob: Not only that, but John wanted it to happen in about 2 weeks, just before Christmas. After somehow saying yes, reality dawned and we quickly realised it wasn’t going to happen before Christmas.

Sarah: Yes, that was… interesting. After we persuaded John to give us a bit more time, we went looking for other people who could give us different perspectives and were involved deeply in particular communities at the FT. For example, Victoria runs the agile community, Matt works on Next and for FT Labs, who are doing lots of different things, and Mark runs the integration team and knows everyone.

Mark: I don’t know how I got involved… one minute I was at my desk chatting to Sarah and Rob…. the next I was helping create google forms.  Genuinely don’t know how that happened.

Victoria: Sarah asked me, simple as that. Had no clue what it was about, but anything that’s about people sharing stuff tends to get my attention!

Bryony: I volunteered to be on a panel but was asked to moderate one of the sessions, not sure if that’s because I can be fairly direct!

Why do you think the format was successful?

Mark: Firstly it was not too scary for anyone other than the moderators/chairs.   Any presenters only need to prep for up to 10 minutes of presenting.  Panellists just had to bring opinions and expertise they already had.  This meant we could set something up very quickly.  In the sessions themselves the moderators/chairs kept the conversation moving along.  We had a small army of helpers handling timekeeping and being mic runners etc that made things look a lot smoother than they felt.  However for me the main reasons it worked was because we completely ripped off the format from EdgeConf and had some very good advice from Andrew Betts.

Victoria: Yes, the “safe environment” was a key factor here, I think. Many of our speakers were inexperienced at doing so and would be wary of trying it out for the first time in front of strangers – but we’re all just FT, we’re a friendly crowd. Also key was the ask for a very simple presentation that was only to open up the topic, not commit the presenter to being an “expert”, and that in turn made everyone else brave enough to pipe up with questions and opinions.

The group seemed to work very successfully together, why do you think that was?

Victoria: A single shared goal with a short enough time frame to focus on it; a flat structure in the group so everyone felt responsible; the sense we were free to be creative and get on with things, then ask for feedback later rather than ask for permission first…

Sarah: I realised I needed to start bringing my laptop to meetings when I saw Mark and Matt getting on to doing things as soon as they were mentioned – creating documents, editing the google site, setting up google moderator…

Mark: Several things worked very well;  we did not seek permission for much, just got on with it and made quick decisions – as Sarah said we acted on them almost immediately, using meeting time to do actual work.  I really enjoyed working in a ‘JFDI team’.

Matt: for me it was the feeling that every time I came back to my computer someone had done something and that I needed to do something else so I didn’t feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight!  Everyone on the team respected each other, listened to each other and built on each others’ ideas.

Rob: For me it boiled down to a few things – having a simple objective, the self imposed deadline (4 weeks), the just do it attitude of the team, support from John and the freedom to shape the day however we wanted.

[Editor: Actually, was this entirely down to a deadline? It’s taken longer for the blog post to be created than the conference…]

What would you do differently next time?

Mark: We actively sought feedback about what to improve and have a lot of suggestions which we will address.  That said even on the morning of the conference there were a couple of things we talked about doing differently next time.   In the run up, perhaps try and get different teams represented on the organising committee, it was heavily engineering biased.  We would also arrange the seating on the stage for the panel and the chair into a nice curve and make sure that people could see the screen easily too.

Matt: Better VC and someone dedicated to looking after remote people via some sort of chat room all day.  I think the organising committee also needs to get better at remembering to bring their laptop powerpacks with them to meetings.  Google Docs & Hangouts drain battery!

Sarah: Agree about being better at supporting remote people next time. It’s very frustrating that VC and hangouts are still flaky but we need to be swifter to react.

Victoria: We put a lot of focus on what we thought were good questions for the panels, but next time we need to try and choose ones that will challenge them some more – we need more debate!

Rob: The deadline was a little tight, another week would have helped I think.

Any moments you thought ‘this is really not going to work?’

Mark:  I got very nervous about Chairing a panel/being Dimbleby.  So I kind of expected to dry up at some stage.  I imagine I overcompensated for that so I am not really looking forward to seeing the video of my session.

Matt: When the clock was ticking down to kick off there weren’t as many people in the audience as I had expected for the first panel so I was worried about the less popular panels…  But that seemed to resolve itself fairly quickly once the panels began!

Victoria: I think I had two “oh crap” moments… First one was when I suddenly realised there were less than 2 weeks to go and we didn’t have our panelists yet. The second was when someone in the group said “obviously, we’re going to do the moderating”…!

Mark: Sorry Victoria, I think that was me .. and then we gave you the most difficult one with the director of engineering and the CTO on it.

Rob: On the day before things kicked off, I was quite nervous whether it would work. But after Bryony did a great job moderating the first panel, I then only had to worry about tidying up my presentation for a session later in the day.

I understand you got some champagne as a thank you from senior management – was that the only reason you did all this?

Mark: Well the annual pay review meetings are held in mid Feb .. soooo…..

Victoria: We got champagne? …. No, it’s not the only reason. The reason I set up the agile community was to provide a forum for people to share stories, lessons and theories – to ensure that great ideas don’t just hide away in single teams. This event was unrelated to the agile community, but was another way to try and achieve the same thing for the wider group. I really wanted to see this happen and so was more than happy to play a part in making it come to life.

Sarah: We said it would be a success if we had people leave thinking that they’d learned something useful and/or been entertained. Judging by the feedback, we managed that for many people and that’s been really rewarding to be part of.

Rob: Champagne didn’t factor into it at all. It was simply an idea that grew into something that had momentum all on its own.