DOCCON1 – organising a conference

Betfair’s Tech team is pretty big and spread over 3 countries.  My role has involved setting up the DevOps community to bring guys together from this wider team.  Part of this effort led to Betfair’s first ever internal DevOps conference – DOCCON1.  This post will walk you through what it took to make this event work.

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Conception:

So – why an internal conference?  In my first few months at Betfair it was obvious that we had some very talented engineers – it was also obvious that we were solving some of the same problems separately in more than one team.  I needed something to bring these guys together to share their ideas and issues.  I had seen great collaboration coming from chance meetings at external events – so why not run our own event?  I could make it more focused on Betfair’s issues than any external event – and I could invite everyone.  It seemed an ideal solution.  What’s more (with DevOps culture in my mind) I could also invite several of our IT colleagues to widen the audience even further.

Planning:

So – how do you plan an event for 50+ people, from 3 countries and at least 8 different teams?  My view was that I needed to get a few things lined up first…

1 – The business case: you want to take a group of 50 people away from the business for a day?  You want to fly people in from other countries?  What is the benefit?  Hmm, it’s a good question and if you don’t have a clear answer then you may fail at this first step.  Each business will be different but for us the value was aligning the teams to some common goals and allowing them to spend some time socially in the same place.  There is definite value in getting people to meet like this – not something you could repeat every month, but certainly annually.  I also sweetened the deal by using the excuse of having everyone in one place to put on 3 externally lead training courses the day before.  Now your trip to DOCCON1 would include formal training as well as the conference.  What’s not to like?

2 – The content: no one will want to attend if there’s nothing to talk about.  Luckily there were dozens of hot topics buzzing around Betfair to pick from.  I knew that a request for content would be met with plenty of offers so this was not an issue.  The afternoon would be block booked for Betfair internal presentations.  I decided to pre-fix this with vendor-led presentations for the morning sessions to give some external input to the day.  Thankfully Chef, Elasticsearch and Thoughtworks agreed to pitch in and present – thanks guys!

3 – The lure: something to make the event stand out from other company meetings.  Something people will look forward to and remember the event by.  For this I went looking to a good keynote speaker.  Luckily I found one in the shape of Dave Farley (of Continuous Delivery fame).  He agreed to be part of the event and take the keynote spot.  For those that don’t know Dave – he is the author of what is often called the ‘DevOps Bible’ – I could not really ask for a better opening act.

4 – The venue: it needed to be something away from the office, and not a drab hotel conference suite.  One of my managers suggested the Magic Circle.  After some investigation it appeared perfect – good sized space, a stage and a spare room we could reserve as a war room just in case we had production issues during the day.  It came with the added benefit of in-house AV guys so we could record each session.

Organisation:

Idea in place, plan at hand – now we moved to the act of organising the event.  For this I turned to my favourite organising tool of choice – Trello.  I set up a board to help me share the plans with others – Trello is great for this – you can assign owners to tasks, track dates and check-lists and access just as easily on mobile as PC.

So, what’s to organise?  Well, here’s a brief list in case you want to build a check list for yourself: Invites (try Eventbrite), Flights, Hotels, Catering, After-conference drinks venue (we were too big for several pubs), Dinner (we booked an entire restaurant), Budget, Logo design, Signs, Posters, T-Shirts, Laptop stickers, Wifi, War-Rooms and agreement with the business to try and reduce the call to the teams on the day, Speakers, Video recording, pre-visit to the venue, Registration point, Pre-event reminder comms, Logistics of getting everything to the venue… phew!

Want some more detail?  OK! Here it is…

Invites: think of your conference like a wedding – get the date our there asap.  I sent save-the-date invites first whilst we confirmed venue etc.  I also polled our management to make sure I wasn’t colliding with something important.

Hotels: my advice is to get the guys something near the venue (not the office, or train station, etc).  Reason being that the closer to the event, the better their time keeping!

Catering: always a tricky one.  To save the nightmare of working out who eats what simply order a wide selection.  Hungry tekkies will eat almost anything!  It is worth starting the day with something full of sugar to give everyone an energy boost.  Oh, and make sure there is LOTS of coffee.

After-conference-venues: You need somewhere big enough for everyone and preferably the right size that you can book it all out.  If you are competing with other customers then you will need to be even tighter on time controls and may find delays in service due to the size of your group.  I found it helpful to agree a food/drinks budget beforehand and make sure the venue staff knew to stop at this point.

Logo/T-Shirts/Posters/Stickers: if you have a graphic designer – use them!  You’ll need a couple of pop up stands to both set the scene but also so that they are noticeable on the video you will be taking – to remind people of the event.  Also worth getting a few large (A0) posters to put around the office in the preceding week – stir up some excitement.  Don’t forget stickers – these are like currency to certain tekkies – they will be expecting them!

Speakers: book them early and be honest about what you want from their time.  The guys from Chef, Elasticsearch and Throughworks were great.  They treated DOCCON1 like any other conference and bought banners, t-shirts and stickers.  They also turned up early with 3 or 4 people each and mingled during the whole day including drinks and dinner after.  I think having these guys around to chat is as important as your own teams – it all goes towards seeding new ideas and helping solve current problems.

War-Room and Wifi: you’ll need to assure the business that should the worst happen to your production estate you will be able to respond in the usual fashion.  I’ve seen teams leave people behind before as a guarantee but I prefer to make arrangements at the venue to allow people to work if needed.  This way no one is left out and no one feels nervous that the World might be about to end.  You’ll need a quiet space with room for several people to work together and you will need good Wifi.  DO NOT share your emergency Wifi with your regular audience – no matter how you plead with them they will use all the bandwidth leaving your support team in distress.

Video:  I am a big fan of videoing every presentation.  It allows those that miss it to catch up and those that attended to revisit popular pieces.  It all adds up to a nice library of information that can prove massively useful in the future.  You may need to ask politely before publishing anything publicly though.

Pre-visit to venue and rehearsals: this is just good planning.  Make sure you are comfortable with the venue and you are clear where things need to be.  No one wants indecision during the rush that is last minute preparations.  It might help to draw a map so you can point to it and reference it with others on the day.

Execution:

First lesson: turn up earlier than you think is necessary as you can safely bet that trains will be delayed, traffic will jam the city, the caterers will be late, people may not find the venue etc etc.  The last thing you want is to ask 50 people to wait patiently while you sort yourself out.  We did indeed hit some of these problems but managed to start events only 5 mins later than advertised.  In the future we may ship stuff the night before to avoid the excitement.

At this point, the day is basically a function of your planning.  We had a concise agenda and every presentation was controlled with boards showing the time left.  Where we overran with one we would try to claw back with another – it worked well.  Having a coffee-break room that was easy to access also made presentation-to-coffee transitions fast, wasting less time.

Those that were needed for production issues were able to use a separate room away from the noise and distraction.  The Wifi restrictions worked well for those working but we had complaints from everyone else.  Second lesson: provide more wifi than you think you want.  By stopping the masses using wifi ad-hoc we killed any chance of the usual conference twitter-storm.

And so the day drew to an end – the crowds wondered off to the pub and then restaurant.  I was very much in support of splitting these venues (drinks then dinner) as it gave yet another change to socialise with a different group of people – for me the biggest value of the day.

Retrospective:

I always think it is good to seek feedback following an event, preferably as soon as you can.  I used SurveyMonkey to fire off some quick questions about each of the presentations, the venue and the facilities.  I always think it is important to allow this to be totally anonymous if you want honest feedback.  The most I asked was the office each person was from in case this correlated to opinions.  Generating feedback like this also allowed me to report back to my management to show that business benefit was achieved.  It also generated some nice ideas for next time:

  • Combine the workshops and conference; run workshops in the morning and conference in the afternoons.
  • Have a twitter wall.
  • Provide more wifi.
  • Have better name badges.
  • Leave room for some more interactive sessions – maybe open space style.
  • Invite more people from Dev and IT to balance the DevOps crowd out.
  • Include presentations on culture as well as technology (or maybe run two tracks in parallel).

All in all, it was a great day.  I really like the idea of running internal conferences with the same feel as a public event.  It allows you to be more focused on your issues and allows you to speak freely about specific problems or issues.  You do need a user-base big enough to support it though and you do need the support of the business to take the time from the teams.  You also need to treat it as a proper project and put real time aside to plan it.

I hope to run DOCCON2 next year – if you have feedback or suggestions on how I could make this better please feel free to comment below.  I will post some of the videos from the day on this blog once I have them back from the AV guys.

About /me: My name is Richard Haigh and I am the Global Head of Reliability and Operations at Betfair.  I’ve been working at Betfair for 6 months and have been focusing on creating a DevOps community across the business.  DOCCON1 was part of this effort.  You can contact me on Linked-In or @rakh1 on twitter.

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