This year we held our third ‘Engine Room Live’ conference for the Product & Technology teams at the FT. It being the third time we have held this we had some previous learnings to bear in mind. The ‘original’ Engine Room committee decided it was time for ‘Gen 2’ to have a go at organising the event, for a fresh take on some hardy matters. So, with minimal hand holding and a solid process in mind, 12 people raised their hands..
Step 1. Make a plan
Our new planning committee held its first meeting all the way back in June. The first thing we did was pick a date. We scanned our diaries and set our sights on a time post summer holidays and the mad rush month that is September at the FT. We stumbled upon Friday 13th October. Were we asking for bad luck? Could this be a complete disaster? Never ones to be swayed by superstition we settled on it. Having four months to plan ahead we kicked back on our metaphorical laurels safe in the knowledge we had more than enough time to plan every minor detail. Then Summer happened. Our team of around 12 helpers steadily diminished as people went on holiday, were pulled in to pressing projects and one volunteer even went to the extreme length of pregnancy to avoid further involvement (just kidding, that would be terrible grounds for creating a new life). We sent out a google form with a few suggested topics and asked people in Product & Technology teams to pick the subjects that appealed the most to them.
Step 2. Easy pickin’s
Post-summer break the ‘survivors’, now a measly 4-5 people, reconvened to discuss next steps and pick our panel topics. The favourite topics, by a landslide, were product goals, Agile project management, what we choose to measure and tech culture at the FT. One topic which was a close runner up was ‘How can we learn from failure?’ which is good food for thought. Maybe this is a topic we can pick up at next year’s Engine Room Live..
It was settled. We had our panels and now looked to the task at hand; finding willing panelists and panel moderators. We sent out a call to arms and were lucky enough to receive some replies. With a bit of prodding several more volunteers appeared from the wood work. Good stuff. We had everything in place panel-wise.
Step 3. Don’t forget the snacks
The most vital part of planning any event is providing a delicious incentive for guests to attend. Conferences have t shirts. The oscars have lavish goodie bags. We had PIZZA and BEER. Two traditional tech staples. This year’s Engine Room Live also included highly requested soft drinks and some lighter snacks so as to be inclusive for those who do not drink alcohol or would prefer a healthier option.
Step 4. Audience participation on the sly + the best quotes of the day
We wanted our audience to feel included in our panels without the interruption and hassle of microphones or catch boxes. Nobody likes microphones, the poor mic runners have to dash to make sure questions are heard without having to be repeated, then the microphone will inevitably squeak and crackle for the first 5 seconds of use leaving the speaker overly self aware of their own voice so they start using a warped tone and begin to audibly question their whole existence. Not fun for anyone. To avoid this shy introvert’s nightmare we used slido which allows audience members to ask questions anonymously, or by name, from their phones or laptops.
Our panellists and moderators were all excellent. Here are some of the top quotes of the day:
- “I read a blog post on how to be a moderator so that’s why I’m so great at this”
- “Instagram’s that photo app.. Right?”
- “We’re a news company.. In case you didn’t know”
- “It was the hoodies in the garage, not the suits in a meeting room!”
- “You could say that a group of 12 men could have figured that out but actually, they didn’t”
- “It’s not offensive because penguins aren’t a marginalised group”
Step 5. Humble brag
We had a great turnout with over 200 members of staff attending in person or via livestream throughout the day. This was an excellent example of grassroots engagement, staff were actively participating either on stage, as audience members or by asking questions to panels.
Step 6. What did everyone else think?
The week after the conference the committee sent out a form requesting feedback from attendees. 83% rated the event as 8/10 or higher on satisfaction level. Aim to please!
Lots of people complimented the frank, impassioned discussions that happened and how panels felt ‘honest’. A new joiner commented that they found the conference ‘refreshing’ for its openness. Another person noted the panel on tech culture was ‘one of the most interesting explorations of the subject I’ve experienced’ and they were happy to see debates not dominated by the ‘usual suspects’. Several people commented that they were pleased by the ‘inclusiveness’ and diverse perspectives showcased.
On the flip side one person thought the panels were too long and would’ve preferred more, shorter panels. One person felt there were too few senior faces in the crowd, although they applauded the senior team members who moderated or participated as panellists. Finally, one person’s only negative suggestion was to ‘be less nice to each other’, which I personally wouldn’t call a sign of defeat.
We also asked people if anything ‘unexpected’ happened. The responses were very interesting. Some people were pleasantly surprised at the discussions which took place. One other unexpected aspect which surfaced was the candidness of our panellists and their willingness to talk about deeply personal experiences within the workplace both at the FT and previous jobs.
Step 7. So, what did we learn?
Here are some takeaways from my perspective:
- We have a great culture of respect, openness and honesty in FT Product & Technology
- Some people here will go the extra mile to help others without expecting anything in return
- Apps like Slido are a great way to encourage and enable smooth audience participation
- People are motivated by a combination of product goals, their managers, teams, personal objectives and remuneration
- It is really interesting to hear diverse viewpoints and learn about others’ take on subjects such as goals, how we work and what we choose to focus on
- Inclusivity means including everyone in the conversation and the implementation of change
If you are a member of FT staff you can watch the panel recordings on Workplace by following the links below:
Until next time..