Engine Room Live internal conference 2016

We did it again – and this time it was even better!

Pretty much immediately after our inaugural Engine Room Live event last year, it was decided that we needed to run another one this year. People loved it! And who were we to deny the people?

So, plans for our second one began. What was it that had made people love it so much? We needed to make sure we knew what that was, so that we could make it even better.

Throwable mics for the audience

Sharing things we’re doing well

We have a handful of people who go to conferences regularly – and some even talk at them.

As with any company, we have plenty of room for improvement – but actually when our techs go out to conferences the main benefit they get is from just validating their own ideas – discovering they’re actually not that daft after all!

They use the confidence they get from this to improve their teams – but what about the rest of the department? And what about the less visible buckets of knowledge and awesomeness we have here? People are having great ideas all the time, but we don’t always catch them.

Turns out we also have people who do really cool stuff with 3D printers in their spare time, or who are social psychologists who love to figure out how people tick. We want to recognise this exists, to share it, to celebrate it!

Getting to know each other

Getting to know Dan MurphyA big part of the gains can be summed up by the term Social Capital. In essence social capital is the currency which fuels collaboration – we build up credit by mixing with each other in a relaxed environment where relationships are formed, so that we can spend it later when we need help from each other.

Of course, it helps if our networks are heterogeneous – the value of our social capital is greater if there are differences of opinion and perspective. This is something we could do better next time – some of our panels were a little too much in agreement much of the time!

By the people, for the people

It’s also about letting our teams know that their voice matters. Asking people to stand on a stage – whether to give a talk or to be part of a panel – is a great compliment. It says “we think you’re really interesting, and we want to hear more”.

So, it wasn’t a day of senior managers talking at the room, it was a series of diverse panels, with questions asked by absolutely anyone in the department, where nothing is taboo and anyone can take part. That’s powerful stuff!

What did people say they got out of it?

When we asked people what they got from the day, their answers spoke directly to the 3 points above:

  • Sense of community
  • Speaking to & hearing from people they don’t normally interact with
  • Relaxed and open atmosphere
  • Highlighting what we’re good at – be proud!
  • Recognising that we all care about what we’re doing here. Spirit of rowing in the same direction
  • Highlighting challenges – so we can work together on addressing them
  • Enjoyed the feeling that everyone can raise and discuss pretty much any contentious topic without fear of politics

So what did we actually do?


We were keen to not just attract the normal conference-goers and speakers. We needed to attract lots of people to get involved, and then to attend. This meant we had to be loud and clear – and repeat it over and over! We visited lots of teams, had colourful posters, a website, newsletter shoutouts / announcements, emails, endless Slack channel posts, announcements at Showcases and we even took over the big screens in the office foyer! Basically, we just made it impossible to ignore us 😉

The format

Hilarity with Just A MinuteLargely speaking, we copied the same format as last year. Question Time-style discussion panels (with some tweaks on the layout since last year), with crowd-sourced topics and questions, and a couple of Open Spaces at lunchtime.

This time we added in some Lightning Talks at the start of the day. A huge hit!! We had 150 people in for 9:15am – that never happens!

We closed the day with a tailored version of Just A Minute, with topics that are local to our organisation. Our host was Nicholas Parsons incarnate who, along with our fantastic panel, helped the day finish off on a hilarious high!

And then it was off to the pub – where all the real conversations happen…

Who talked?

We were very keen to make sure everyone was represented. So this means diversity across gender, roles, seniority and teams. We had to do some sweet-talking to make it happen, but it was important to us that this felt inclusive for the whole department, not just those extra vocal few.

The Logistics

With team members in Manila and Romania, it was important to provide access to the day to our remote teams too. So for those offices we printed posters with local schedules, ordered in beer and pizza and streamed the sessions on YouTube.

About a week before the conference a deaf developer joined the FT and gave us a new challenge – a last minute rush and we had two BSL interpreters to help him follow the entire day too – phew!.

What ripples have we seen?

It’s only been a couple of weeks but already we’re seeing…

Total Cost of Ownership Calculator

Greg CopeOne of our panels was discussing the challenges of Buy vs Build when making technology decisions. We think it’s great that teams have the autonomy to make these decisions, but a lack of visibility into the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) was limiting the teams’ authority. Bruce Forsyth (aka Greg Cope) paid us a visit to play a game of “Higher or Lower” on the TCO of our existing systems – we all performed very badly!

A key take-away from this event was the provision of a checklist to help teams make those calculations to better inform their decisions.

Conversations around diversity

We felt really proud of the diversity we achieved in our panels – we made a conscious effort with each one to ensure that we included a wide range of people and didn’t just have a load of middle-aged white men.

What caught us by surprise though was the effect that the stage had in amplifying the language that we presumably use every day! Presentations were made up with images of male sports heroes and references were made throughout the day to developers as dudes and guys and so on.

We had no idea until we saw it up there that this was a part of our culture. The fantastic thing is that now we do know, and we’re doing something about it.  Guilty parties and members of some of the “under-represented” groups in our department are taking positive steps to help the rest of us improve, and hopefully help our culture to become even more inclusive.

Energy and appetite for more conversations

Sarah and Bijal conversingOur Lightning Talks at the start of the day were a huge hit, enabling not only a kick-start to an internal programme of Tech Talks, but also a review of our showcase / sprint review process to adopt this engaging format.

And the Open Spaces at lunchtime created a safe space too for people to experiment with facilitating discussions – to great effect! This has boosted people’s confidence and generated some great ripple effects.

Mutual respect between Dev and Ops

One of our hot topics was about DevOps, which created an opportunity to highlight some of the challenges and expertise held by different members of our department. Last year’s event was attended mostly by Developers, and this year the increased attendance by people in the Ops space has increased a desire to get to know each other. Saying stuff out loud in a constructive manner makes it a lot easier to carry on conversations afterwards.

Moves have been made to spend a “day in the life”, or a week in the life etc to improve collaboration rather than competition, which is awesome.

Next time…

One of our ways of recognising the success of this is that most of the negative feedback on the event revolved around there not being enough pizza. We figured that if this was what people took issue with, after a highly attended event, then we can’t have done too badly!

However, we recognise that having decent food, nicely designed posters and all those “little extras” can help create the right buzz and make the day feel really special. We’ve already got a boosted budget lined up for our next one, so we can work on improving those.