Break Orbit, Not Systems – LaunchDarkly’s First Conference

We’re so excited that we have announced our first conference and are actively collecting talk submissions and selling tickets for it!

We thought you might be interested in hearing why we’ve decided it was the right time for a conference about feature management, feature flagging, testing in production, and trunk-based development.

We want to learn from you!

As the developer advocate, I spend a bunch of my time in the field, going to conference talks and listening to what’s happening in the world. And I know that there are people who are stone-cold experts in flagging systems out there. We want to give you a reason to get together and talk to us, and each other, about what you’ve found out about scale, technical debt, and best practices. We saw that Gremlin’s ChaosConf and Honeycomb’s o11ycon gave practitioners a chance to exchange information and cross-polinate ideas, and we’d like to carry that on. I firmly believe that getting people with a common interest together leads to leaps for the entire category they talk about. Look at DevOpsDays!

People are hungry for best practices

Sure, I can tell you about what kinds of flag naming schemes work best, but wouldn’t you rather hear it from someone who is doing it at massive scale, and has been for years? Getting people together, from beginners, to people who built their own systems, to our customers who are using us at scale, gives us all a chance to learn and codify best practices. At LaunchDarkly, we feel like this year is an inflection point for feature management adoption, and as a part of that industry, we want to help the best practices apply as broadly as possible. We hope that Trajectory will let us talk about how testing, design, development, release, and sales can all be accelerated and made more powerful. How are you reaching escape velocity? We’d like to hear.

We think you’re awesome and have great ideas!

We have plans for what direction we’re going to take LaunchDarkly, and what’s next on our wishlist, but we want to make sure it’s going to serve you, our customers and potential customers. It’s no fun building a great technological achievement that doesn’t actually help people.

When people ask me how Edith and John got the idea for Feature Flags as a Service, I always tell them what Edith told me, that she was on so many late-night, weekend deploy bridges that she grew to hate them, and eventually, to build a product that means people can launch and test their software without late-night drama or stress.

We always want to be doing that, making your life easier – so tell us how! We made a wishlist of talks that we hoped would get proposed, but I bet you have ideas on things that you learned that you can talk about or write about. Here are some of the things we thought of:

  • Transformation or disaster stories – learning that we need new software to safely operate in this new world
  • How we deconstructed a monolith
  • How to knock down the cultural barriers and get DevOps/feature flag adoption at massive scale
  • GDPR – 1 year after
  • The new tech stack for brownfield development
  • How to test in production
  • The path to continuous delivery

Other awesomeness

  • The venue is at the Oakland Museum of California
  • Oakland-based catering is gonna be amazing!
  • You! And people like you! And I’m helping pick the swag!

I hope to see you there! Tickets are limited, so don’t overthink it!

A Parable of the Polar Vortex

The best time to shovel your driveway is immediately after it snows, but failing that, any time before you have driven on it. Driving on fresh-fallen snow compacts it into something between “ice” and “pure evil”, depending on the temperature, humidity of the air, humidity of the snow, etc.

I just went out and shoveled and chipped our driveway down to bare concrete because we’re about to get another 6 inches of snow, and the very last thing you want is to add fresh snow to existing ice. That’s how you get glaciers. I was thinking about technical debt, because physical labor induces contemplation.

Of course, the best time to clear up technical debt is right after you create it, when everything is crisp and fluffy and even the heaviest snow isn’t stuck to anything.

About a foot of snow covering a porch with an outdoor table and chairs
Unsquished snow

If we could all fix technical debt as soon as we incur it, that would be amazing. But more likely, someone had to go get milk, or go to the airport, or deploy for testing or a major client, and the snow has been driven on and something has been changed in the code.

A snowy driveway with tire tracks and footprints on it.
Driveway in the process of glaciation

Now that compressed snow/ice technical debt is something that’s going to take real effort to deal with, and the longer you leave it, the more likely it is to get driven on again and coded against again, and get even worse. In snow-shovelling, we have a tool for that:

Wooden-handled tool with a hoe-shaped metal cutting edge, scraping compacted snow off a driveway

I call this an ice-chopper. If it has a proper name, I don’t know it. At the end of a long wooden handle is a metal head that would look like a hoe, if a hoe didn’t have any bend in it. The way you use it is you either get under the ice and scrape it off, or, if it’s gotten very bad, you drive the edge down into the ice to break it up, bit by bit. It’s quite a lot of work, and that amount of work relates directly to how often you do it and how often the snow gets away from you, like a codebase.

Some things are beyond our control, like plow berms, which are the compacted ridges at the end of the driveway caused by the street plows pushing the excess snow to the edges of the road, which are, by definition, the end of our driveways. That’s where the worst of the ice is.

Ice chopper lifting up 3 cm slabs of broken ice.

There are more and less favorable conditions for removing technical debt. Like it’s hard and risky to do it right before a big launch, because you don’t know what all the load pressures will be. For shoveling, cold days are actually best, because the ice and snow are so dry that they are more brittle. I try to maximize for that, and for driving, and for one other factor….

I was shoveling this afternoon because it’s going to snow 6-9 inches tonight. It is better for the rest of my winter to clear the driveway down to bare concrete today, because then, when I go to take the next snowfall off, I won’t have any glaciers, or slippery spots, or high areas that can catch my shovel. Shoveling off a fresh fall will be work, but it won’t have hidden, dangerous, and complicated parts, because I just removed them all, while I could still see them.

Much like software projects, winter in Minnesota is long, and we can’t count on favorable conditions. It’s entirely possible we won’t have a day above freezing for the next month. So even though it was 5 degrees Farenheit, addressing my technical debt will pay off for me.

Mostly looks like flat snow.
An almost-pristine driveway
One shoveled path through 6+ inches of snow
Start where you are
A shoveled driveway, by the light of the garage door
Do what you can

Thank you for indulging my extended metaphor, and do think about when you want to clear your technical debt. You can’t help incurring it – it’s the cost of making things, much like student debt is the cost of higher education for most Americans. But you can think about when it’s useful to remove it, and be mindful of your tools and needs.

Speaking of tools, a side note.

Orange/deerskin colored suite mittens with knitted black and white mittens that fit in them
Utility is my favorite beauty

These are choppers that came from the local farm-supply store. They are a very old form-factor, and very efficient. The knitted mittens go next to your skin. The suede-y deerskin mittens go over them. They are both, ideally, a little oversized so there is lots of trapped air insulating your hands. The deerskin (or moosehide or caribou, depending on where you are) protects your hands from the wind and traps the air inside. The woolen knitted mittens trap more air and provide warmth and insulation. When you’ve been working hard, and have broken the Arctic prohibition (DO NOT SWEAT), you can come inside and take the pieces apart and they will dry/air out much better than any combined/technical/nylon wondermitten would.

A space explorer in a dark blue spacesuit giving a thumbs-up.

Choose Your Own Deployment

I love the aha moment people get when they grasp a concept. It’s a lot of what gives me energy about this job. Being there to help people see how an abstract concept can make their concrete life better is amazingly rewarding.

Because of this, I try to change up all the parts of my talks, to make sure people feel like they’re going on a journey with me, ala Nancy Duarte in Resonate. I want you to feel like you’re on a trip with me, like we’re learning together, and exploring what interests you.

This game was born as a conference talk. It’s a longshot bet for a conference to accept a talk that has no set length, or pattern, that is entirely driven by audience participation, but several did, and I’m so grateful. The Toggle Game is an interactive exploration of how feature flagging can be used to make deployment safer and less of a big change.

Now I’ve taken the conference sketch and expanded it out into a playable game about an adorable space explorer, Toggle:

A space explorer in a dark blue spacesuit giving a thumbs-up.

The Toggle Game

I built it in Twine. I’m saving the deep details of that for an OpenSource.com article, but the experience was pretty straightforward and quite enjoyable. You can find the source at https://github.com/wiredferret/Toggle. I’ve left in all my flaily and cranky commit messages for your enjoyment, because I like it when I can see an arc in other people’s commit messages.

In case you don’t want to play the game yourself, I have a video of how the people at DevOpsDays Toronto played it.

Choose Your Own Deployment Adventure, DevOpsDays Toronto

The Art of Booth

I originally wrote this up as an internal blog post, but I think it may be useful for other people, too, so I’ve cleaned it up a bit and taken out most of the proprietary stuff, and added some explanations. I had never in my life done boothwork before this job, so I was surprised to find I had so many opinions, but if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it well.


I wanted to start a place where we could keep resources about how to be the best booth person you can be for Your Company, and what that means. 

Rules

  1. Be there for your shift. You have a calendar page that shows you when we expect you to be on-duty, and we need you there. If you have a conflicting meeting, let the booth manager know so we can get coverage.
  2. Be present. There are slow times when we all check our email, but if your laptop is open, you are more likely to seem unavailable to answer questions or chat with someone who comes up.

Guidelines

Saying hello

I like to wait until people slow down and make eye contact with either me or the booth. Then I say, “Hi, can I answer any questions for you?”. Usually you’ll get one of the following:

  • What is <your product>? A: You need a one-sentence answer here. A catchphrase. Way shorter than an elevator pitch. The great thing about a conference is that you have lots of chances for experimentation and iterative improvement.
  • How does that work? A: Again, super short. People are filtering at this point to see if you have any relevance to them.
  • Can you tell me more? A: Sure! What’s your job role? Tailoring the answer to the job role saves you a lot of time answering the wrong question, and also lets you practice understanding the personas that someone hopefully briefed you on.
  • Can I get a t-shirt? A: Sure! What size would you like? Saying that way avoids asking people what size they ARE. Also, t-shirts are the bane of my existence. Have some lovely socks.

Two men face away from the camera and toward a banner for LaunchDarkly. One is pointing to something on a demo screen

If you’re bored, and it’s slow, you can leave one person on the booth and the other person can go take a tour of other people’s booths and listen to their pitches. It’s remarkably educational. Just keep an eye on your partner and be sure to be back by the next scheduled rush. When you introduce yourself to another sponsor, make it clear that you’re not anyone worth pitching to, and if they want to scan you, you can ask that they mark you no-contact. Odds are, if you’re working a booth, you’re probably not buying software for your company – different roles.

Remember to make eye contact and talk to women. They are often overlooked or elbowed out in conference crowds, and they can be very influential in purchasing decisions. If someone shows up with several co-workers to show off the booth, remember to speak to all of them, not just the champion.

When someone comes up to say they’re a customer, or were a customer, thank them! They’re making the effort to say we make their lives enough better that they’ll stop and talk to us. You don’t have to scan them, but you can, or you can keep a tally sheet of who does this, just because it’s such a great feeling, and we should share it with other people at the company. I think a tally sheet might have a row for Company name, and columns for “Love the product” “Love the design” “Miss using you” “Changed my life”. Or maybe that’s too much.

HOWEVER, if they’re a current customer and they have a question – tell them they can write support, but also either scan them or make a note. There’s some reason they haven’t contacted support already – they didn’t know it was there, or they don’t know how to frame their question, or they think it’s their fault for not understanding something. If it’s something you can answer right away, like a UI question, answer it! Otherwise, make sure support knows how to find them.

Scanning

I try not to scan someone until they’ve made it past the first question and asked me a follow-up question. Number of leads is important, but it’s more important that they be leads with actual value. If it’s just someone who has no interest, why put them in the funnel?

Ask before you scan. It’s a bad experience to have your personal data taken without permission.

Scan everyone in a group, if they come together. You can never tell who the champion is going to be.

If you have any time at all, rate the lead on warmth or add any pertinent info. That can include where they’ve heard of us before (Edith’s podcast, Heidi’s talks, blogpost, etc) if they happen to offer it.

Make sure the scanner is charged overnight and at slow times.

If we have to use our phones as scanners, try not to leave it lying on the table. No one wants their phone stolen, especially since it probably has a bunch of proprietary information on it.

Clothes

I covered clothes for conferences in this post.

Setup

Your booth manager will take care of most of the initial setup, including making sure there’s a monitor. Double-check that the monitor and the computer don’t look grungy. A clean monitor makes us look better.

Until we have a computer that exists just to go to shows, the demo is usually run off the computer of someone working the booth. I suggest you open the following tabs:

  • LaunchDarkly-specific tabs, but it’s good to have an idea of what you want to pull up. Don’t have anything else in that window.

You’ll also have a bunch of stickers and material, which is covered in Stuff.

Nitpicky

  • Try not to set your food or Starbucks cups on the table. We are sometimes paying $10k for this dinky table, and putting other stuff on it diminishes our brand value. It’s fine to drink at the booth, but keep it to an unbranded bottle or keep it off the main table. Hopefully we provide enough breaks that you don’t need to eat at the table. It looks super untidy.
  • Try to keep the table and area around the booth tidy. It’s almost never enough space, and if we leave our backpacks on the floor, someone will trip on them.
  • If you are using your own adapter to connect to the booth video, please just order a new one. Eventually we will get enough, but I’ve already lost 3.
  • Dress for standing all day. There are usually chairs, but it’s not always engaging to be sitting down. Also, there’s a lot of walking and standing in line.

Stuff

NOTE: This is very LaunchDarkly-specific, but I’m leaving it in as an example of how to write about the things that you want to happen at your table.

We have sent you a bunch of stuff in the Pelikan cases that hold the booth supplies. Depending on how big the conference is, and how many we have going on, you’re going to have:

  • Main brochures. These go in the clear acrylic holder and a few of them can go in a stack on the table. It’s nice to have at least one upside down so you can point out the supported SDKs and marquee customers.
  • Accordion brochures. Set one of each color out, standing up and telescoped out. When people pick that one up, replace it from under the table. Do not attempt to stack these, it will just end up all over creation. If you have one of the little blocks with a gripper on it, you can put one in that, or you can use it for stickers.
  • T-shirts: None! T-shirts cost $12 each to print, and then they have to get shipped and size sorted, and they take up table room. I love our t-shirts, and I think they should go to everyone who makes an affirmative effort to get one, by visiting our trial or conference website.

  • Stickers! There are three types of stickers: 
    • Die-cut – these are the ones that are irregular shapes, like Toggle and the rocketship logo. Put out 10 or so at a time of each type, and either stack them neatly or fan them out.
    • Hexes – Put out one of each type abutting each other to show that they work together, and then have stacks of ~20 or so spaced out behind that display. Don’t try to stack stickers more than 20 high, they’ll just get knocked over all the time, but people need to be able to get their fingers around each one, so you can’t stack them up touching.
    • Minis – these are tiny 1-inch circles. It is impossible to get them stacked neatly, so I usually just have them in individual piles. NOTE: Each of the flags means something different and it is helpful for all of us, and for re-ordering if you keep the types separate as much as possible – don’t just sweep them all off the table at the end, put them back into individual baggies. The minis come in the following types:
      • Dark blue – regular LaunchDarkly. You will go through the most of these.
      • Rainbow – Gay/queer pride. If anyone asks, you can point out that the brown and black stripes represent queer people of color who are often left out of the story of queer politics.
      • Pink/white/blue – Trans pride. Leave them out, but never comment on anyone taking them. Some people think they look like they’re for little kids, some people have little kids who are trans. Who are we to say?
      • Pink/purple/blue – Bi pride. Bisexuals also have a pride flag. So do lesbians, but it’s not well-standardized yet.

The thing with all of this stuff that we send along to the conference is that it costs money. The stickers cost up to 50 cents apiece. So if we don’t give it out, we want to make sure that it survives to the next show. If we toss everything back into the case, and the case gets treated in the way of all luggage, we’re going to waste a lot of money on stickers and brochures that end up damaged and unusable. So I know you are so ready to get out of there once the show is over, but please make an effort to stow things safely.

tl;dr

This may seem like overthinking, but the money, time, and opportunity cost that a booth represents is pretty immense, so it’s worth it to think through what you want to have happen before you get there. Talk to your peers about what has worked for them. Walk the show floor and see what seems like a good idea. I have a whole album of pictures that I share with my design and marketing team so we keep up with what’s current and trending. If you don’t do that, you end up with a booth design that makes people strangely nostalgic for grunge music and clove cigarettes and AOL CDs, and that’s not the goal.

Mostly, though, you’re here at a booth because you have an awesome product that can actually improve people’s day, and if they want to hear about it, you want to tell them, and honestly, that feels pretty great. Go, do good work, and hide your coffee cups!

White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

“Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” —Rachel Zoe

I look like this:

White woman with pink hair and teal-framed glasses looking at the camera.

Unless I’m about to give a talk or just gave one, in which case I look more like this:

White woman with pink hair and bright lipstick.

As you can see from the tweet above, a lot of people agree with me that dress codes are frequently to remind people they don’t have power, or they have less power. The pushback against sexist school dress codes is an aspect of that — maybe we shouldn’t police girls because of what they wear, maybe we should teach boys that they should keep their assumptions about what they’re entitled to to themselves. Similarly, a great thing about working in tech, especially in startups, is that they seldom have very rigid codes. That is part of why there’s a statistical lump of genderqueer-presenting people in tech, because there’s not really a reason to haul someone in front of HR for dress code violations… if there is a dress code. Or HR.

Some dress codes are practical. Cover your hair and beard with a net if you work with food. Don’t wear loose clothing around rotating machinery.

Some are arbitrary. I don’t think leggings are pants, but I am An Old, and will own that. The color of your hair does not impede your ability to execute emergency deplaning procedures*. Your facial piercings don’t actually make you a worse childcare provider.

But the hard ones, the intractable dress codes, are the ones about professionalism. You know women who dye their hair so they don’t look “unprofessionally old”. You know people who are discriminated against in some way because they’re fat. You know people who struggle to pay for the clothes that are part of their work uniform, but because they’re sales professionals, their “work uniform” is Brooks Brothers.

I’m having a discussion at work right now about clothes, because they matter. I don’t think it’s ok to impose arbitrary rules on people who don’t see customers, but I do think that professionalism in any office means that you don’t smell bad, I can’t see any of your swimsuit parts, and none of your clothing constitutes a threat to other humans. I do think it’s ok, and even important, to dress in a way that makes other people take you seriously if you’re talking to customers.

For example, my company is based in Oakland. This is like being based in San Francisco, but with fewer microclimates. Rolling up to work in a company hoodie, jeans, a t-shirt from your last company, and a pair of Tevas is A-OK. But the further east you go, the more formal everyone’s business wear gets. Jeans turn into chinos somewhere around the Mississippi, and then into actualfacts slacks. T-shirts become button-down plaid, and then long-sleeve with ties. Hoodies to sweaters to blazers. And I’m using dude-presenting clothes as an example, because they are so much less complex than women’s clothes. And then, and then, you jump the pond. I showed up for an onsite in France, and pretty much every single male developer – the developers, was wearing an ironed shirt and a fine-gauge wool or cashmere long-sleeve sweater.

Because I travel so much, I see this over and over again, and I’m uniquely sensitized to it. Also, it’s a class thing. Never let anyone tell you America doesn’t have class issues. We do, we just managed to get really bad at talking about them or naming them. So, for instance, someone raised upper-middle class on the east coast will never think about the fact that they pack button-down shirts for a trip to New York, because that’s their native language. They learned to tie a necktie in junior high.

Someone who wasn’t raised that way is likely to pack the same thing they wear to a conference on the west coast, and that will end up being the wrong formality register. And the thing is, people won’t say anything about the fact that to them, you look like a scruffy nerfherder who couldn’t Enterprise your way out of a paper bag. They may not even realize they’re thinking that. But they will feel, subtly, that your company may not be Ready For The Big Leagues.

So what can we do about this? Well, I’m pushing for all employees who do customer-facing work to have a couple different branded options, like a sweater. That will make me feel happier when I go back to Europe and can leave my hoodie in my travel bag.

Dressing for Conferences

For you? If you’re going to a conference, find a crowd shot of the people at that conference last year, and dress to fit that. There’s a wrinkle to that, because every conference/programming language has its own particular flavor, but you’ll get pretty close. For example, here are crowd shots from O’Reilly Software Architecture and O’Reilly Velocity. Both were in New York City. If you look closely, you’ll see that the people at Velocity are dressed down a bit more, because it’s more for the DevOps people, and Software Architecture is more for their bosses. It’s a subtle difference, but it exists.

Buttondowns, more formal T-shirts, some button-downs

For comparison, here are pictures from the London version and the San Jose version

And for even more complexity, femme women will usually, but not always, dress one degree more formally than the male and butch-identifying people at a conference. So you end up with speaker pictures like this:

Two women in black dresses, one man wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans

They all look appropriate for the stage, but the women have their phones offstage somewhere (Unless Ines’ dress is more magical than I think), and he has his in his front pocket. I have a whole thing about gendered dressing, which I won’t go into, because this post is long enough, but you should be aware of it when you’re deciding what to wear.

I’m not picking on O’Reilly, they just keep all their pictures in an easy-to-find place.

In conclusion

If someone tells you that your hair, your body, or your style is a problem for them, that’s on them. If they say it’s a problem for the company you work for, try to figure out if it’s a health and safety issue, a customer-facing issue, or a power play.

Personally, I decided a while ago that if someone didn’t want to hire me because of my pink hair, they also would not like my swearing, my public queerness, or my twitter feed, and we would all be happier if I didn’t work there. But that’s a position of enormous privilege, and I know it.

If you feel like you need to say something to a co-worker about their clothes, style, or god forbid, hair, before you open your mouth, ask yourself if this is about your discomfort or an actual business problem. **

*  At this point in culture, airline cabin crew are caught in a terrible intersection of class-policing and trying to have authority in the moment they need it over panicking people, and it’s complicated, but a huge number of cabin crew have admired my hair and sighed wistfully over being able to choose a “non-natural color”.

**  If you are mentoring someone entering the industry, you get a little more leeway to point out the norms of the particular office you’re in, IF you’re their mentor. Someone has to tell the interns that Teva sandals may be ok, but not if they’re stinky.

A grey cat on a red blanket stares into space

The naming of cats… or feature flag patterns

Eeee! I’m super excited to start this year because something I’ve been working on for a while is ready for all of you to look at!

Feature Flag Glossary

It’s hard to use a pattern, or even imagine it, if you don’t have a name for it, so we put together all the names for feature flag patterns we could come up with in one place. I’m sure we’ll keep adding to it, and you’re welcome to, as well.

Here’s a snippet:

A listing of terms and definitions.

Bonus poetry content:

The Naming Of Cats 
by T. S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
A grey cat on a red blanket stares into space

On the Origin of the Speciated Conference

I go to so many conferences! It’s an awesome and amazing part of my job. I speak at them, but I also attend them. I sit in the front row and live-tweet. I attend talks. I participate in unconference sessions. I talk to people in lines, and at lunch, and at the afterparty. I give out stickers and I say hi to the vendors. Conferences are something I’m an expert at. And when I’m not doing technology stuff, I am support crew for science-fiction conference runners.

Given that, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a taxonomy of technical conferences, something that would help you understand which flavor of conference you’re about to go to. As near as I can tell, about 10 years ago, there was a great flowering of conference types.

Originally, we had The Technology Conference. People paid a lot of money, they sat in large conference rooms (over 100 people, say), and they listened to industry experts. Some/many of the industry experts were also vendors giving pitches.

Then, a decade ago, many people decided that this method was not meeting their needs, and they wanted more interaction, more peer contact, more connections. We ended up with some new species of conference:

  • The regional variant of a language conference. No longer just PyCon, but PyConAU, and EU, and the same for JSConf and Ruby. It was cheaper to get people to someplace close to them, the conferences were smaller, the odds of meetings speakers and experts was higher.
  • Single-track conferences with registration caps. Write the Docs, The Lead Developer, and (I think) Monitorama use this method. Everyone attends the same talks, but the registration cap means that it’s still possible to identify and talk to a speaker. A well-run single-track conference allows a lot of time between talks so people can mingle and talk.
  • DevOpsDays. The DoD format is flexible, but tends toward the single-track morning, unconference afternoon. They also work really hard to fit into budgets that allow people to attend on their own, with lowish registration fees and locations all over.
  • No Fluff, Just Stuff. The first unsponsored conference I’ve spoken at. No vendors, and a high rate of repetition for speakers and a lot of tracks, so odds are good that you will be in a small group.
  • Birds of a Feather. Not unique to any one conference organizing system, but a way for people interested in a similar problem to find each other and do collaborative learning. Mostly these happen during non-programming time.

All of these conference styles prize collaborative learning over authoritarian instruction. If you’re a speaker coming from a more authoritarian background, I have to imagine the change is a bit of a shock. I know I have felt weird when presented with a large audience that I can’t see. I don’t want you to think that one way or the other is better – depends on what you need. 50k people wouldn’t go to AWS Reinvent if there wasn’t a value to be found in it. And Reinvent has small, unrecorded sessions as well as the massive keynote sessions.

Hotel ballroom filled with a few hundred people, all facing toward a podium and the camera.

DevOpsDays Toronto

So who are the stakeholders for running a conference?

  • Attendees
  • Sponsors
  • Speakers
  • Organizers

When you maximize the happiness or utility for one group, the utility for other groups goes down, or may go down. There are some overlaps. Attendees want content that answers their questions. Speakers want to provide content that is new and promotes their personal brand. Organizers want to select speakers who bring good value and are reliable. Sponsors want their speakers selected because talking about a product drives sales. Attendees, on the whole, don’t want sales-pitch talks. You see the problem!

As a speaker, I prefer single-track conferences. That way, I never miss other people’s talks! The talks are also usually very highly curated, since a day-long conference might only have 7 speakers, so it’s pretty darn flattering to get picked. As an attendee, I like conferences that are sized so each speaker ends up talking to about 50 people. It’s small enough that I feel engaged, and big enough that the speaker doesn’t feel like they have to stop to take questions. As a sponsor, I want multiple tracks with large spaces where people have to walk past my booth to get caffeine. As an organizer, well, I’m still working on that.

I’m thinking about this because LaunchDarkly is assembling our first conference this year (2019), in the spirit of Gremlin’s Chaos Conference and Honeycomb’s o11ycon. What do we want to give people, how many people do we think we’ll have, and how do we make the experience useful?

In the spirit of testing in production, we’re going to try a combination of things – keynotes will be one-track, so everyone has a common thing to talk about, and then we’ll split into other configurations in the afternoon.

We’re looking for people who want to join us on April 9 at Trajectory to talk about feature flagging, trunk-based development, devops tools, testing in production, blue-green deployments, and other ways to speed up your development and delivery…safely.

https://www.papercall.io/trajectory

If you want help with your pitch, or want to noodle around an idea, let me know. I’ll be back at work on the 7th and ready to think it through with you! (Yes, we’ll do bigger announcements later!)

Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.