releng relengcon

Lessons learned organizing a technical event

I was on the organizing committee for Releng 2013.  This was the first time I’ve been involved in organizing a technical event.  I thought my experiences might be useful to others in the same situation thus this blog entry:-)

Reaching out to potential speakers
Three of the people on our organizing committee were researchers.  I was the only release engineer.  My goal was to get as many release engineers as possible to submit talks and attend the workshop.  I asked for suggestions from my coworkers and LinkedIn contacts to try to reach people that might be interested in submitting a talk.  I also wrote to multiple release engineering oriented mailing lists and Google+ groups.  I had a query for #relengcon and @relengcon mentions on Twitter.  If people mentioned that the relengcon sounded interesting, I replied to them and suggested that they submit a talk.  I also posted information about the workshop on several release engineering LinkedIn and meetup.com groups.  It’s often a good idea to contact the organizer of a group and ask them to send text crafted by the organizers to their members.  Receiving a message from someone they already know lends some validity to the message, versus just another person adding to their inbox noise.

Carl and Gareth from Netflix talk about self-service build and delivery

Academic vs. Industry
Releng 2013 was a workshop under the larger ICSE academic conference.   The submission process was much more formal than the industry conferences I’ve attended in the past.   There were two types of submissions: a formal paper or an abstract for a talk.  There were strict submission guidelines with respect to the format of the talk abstract.  In contrast, the submission process for most industry conferences seems to be “submit a paragraph summarizing your talk into a form on web page”.  Very easy.  The different approach stems from the fact that proceedings from academic conferences are usually published.  Academics often need the promise of publication to secure funding to attend a conference.  

Funding
This workshop had effectively zero budget.  ICSE workshops don’t get any funding from the fees paid to the larger ISCE conference.   Attendees had to pay registration fees to attend the workshop whether they had a talk accepted or not.  Many industry conferences offer a reduced registration fee for speakers.  Since this was a first time event, I really concentrated on encouraging people to submit talks and register for the event.  Now that the event was a success, I would feel comfortable approaching a company and asking them to sponsor it so we could reduce speaker fees.  We had some funding from a research institution for one of our keynote speakers.  I reached out to Mozilla developer relations who provided some t-shirts,  mugs and stickers.  In the future, I’d also reach out to other companies for swag donations 🙂

Recording of sessions
The cost of hiring a company to record the talks was prohibitive given our lack of budget.  Again, now that the first workshop was a success, this could be another item that could be sponsored. 

Post-workshop dinner organization
The OpenTable website is a great resource to see the availability of seating at  of various restaurants in several US cities.  It also links to their respective ratings.  This was easy way to make reservations at restaurants for dinner, especially since none of the organizers live in the Bay area.

Image ©photographus, http://www.flickr.com/photos/misspixels/8480711076/in/photostream/ under Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0

 
Panel
I had never moderated a panel before.  I found this article was quite helpful on how to successfully moderate a panel.  I spent quite a bit of time before the event thinking of panel questions and we also sought input from our attendees in a survey.   As for participants on the panel, I reached out to release engineers who didn’t present a talk but looked like they had a wealth of release engineering experience on their LinkedIn profiles.  Sometimes diversity is just asking different people!

Speaker gifts
We wanted to give speaker gifts to our fine keynote speakers.  I was unsure what a typical speaker gift comprised so I asked on Twitter.   The answers ranged from fancy pens, laptop bags, local bottles of wine and local cookbook.  Another person suggested that the gift be something carried on the plane if the speaker wasn’t local.  In fact, they usually personalized the gift by presenter and shipped it to their home to avoid dealing with airline hassles regarding gifts.  Release engineering is about building things.  Bram suggested Lego as a speaker gift.  I liked this idea a lot and added it as one of the items in the speaker gift bag.

In the end the workshop went pretty well.  The most important thing was to get people who are passionate about release engineering in the same room.  And that’s where the interesting conversations begin and you make connections with people.  That’s what really matters in the end.  

If you’ve been involved in organizing a technical event what advice do you have?

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