kelly (Kelly Fitzpatrick): As companies and communities have adapted to wide-scale changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many tech events have moved to virtual formats. In the past 3 months alone, RedMonk analysts have attended (or spoken at) virtual events including:
- Red Hat Summit
- Deserted Island DevOps
- IBM Think
- GitHub Satellite
- MS Build
- GitOps Days
- Software Circus
- Jamstack Conf
- DockerCon LIVE
- ChefConf Online
With a slate of additional virtual events scheduled throughout the summer (including the now virtual KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe 2020), the purpose of this chat is to discuss the trends and practices we’ve seen so far (and point out the ones we hope to see going forward).
Before we begin, it is worth noting the acute disconnect that we often feel in trying to focus on tech amidst vastly more important events: world-wide protests against injustice and systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the myriad of ways that these events have impacted people on so many levels. Everyone’s lives have been disrupted, yet many of us in the tech industry are extremely privileged in that our work lives continue.
sogrady (Stephen O’Grady): That context informs this exercise, in fact. The global protests aim to reshape our world in positive ways, while the global pandemic is currently doing so in an awful way.
The technology industry has a potential role to play in both, but to do that it requires new ways of functioning, of collaborating and of coming together – in virtual spaces as long as it’s not safe to do so in person. This chat is intended to explore the best ways to do that.
kelly: And with that, let’s start from a broad perspective. What are your general impressions of the virtual events you have attended (regarding the format, platforms, attendee reactions, etc.)?
sogrady: Couple of thoughts:
- As expected, none of them replicate the in person serendipity which is the biggest value I get from events.
- Lots of experimentation is going on, which is appropriate, but also leads to wildly different approaches.
- Attendance, somewhat predictably, is way up for most events, but the actual level of engagement is unclear.
rachel (Rachel Stephens): Benedict Evan’s take on conferences being a bundle resonated with me. Conferences are not just talks: they’re running into people for impromptu chats, the meetings you schedule because everyone is in the same place, the collectively shared attention span, the mind space to focus on one topic that is probably different than your day-to-day job. So far it feels like most virtual events have struggled to solve for anything other than the talks.
sogrady: Same. I thought the bundling analogy was spot on, and articulated the variety of Jobs to be Done that conferences solve for.
monkchips (James Governor): It’s all felt quite new and very much a learning experience, learning on the job. While most major events had a virtual component, to see that virtual component become the thing itself has been very interesting indeed. The cadences have changed, and there are two aspects for me – one, my experience as an attendee, and the other my experience as a presenter. Life without jet lag, or just the impacts on the limbic system all the time have been kind of wonderful. Giving a virtual conference talk is much much harder. I sort of agree with Benedict, but we have also been creating virtual events that are our water coolers. Virtual happy hours, just hanging out with friends, pub quizzes. The unbundling has felt quite natural.
kelly: I definitely find my own level of engagement varies; part of that is that with in-person events you are mostly dedicated to the event whereas now you have to juggle events with other online meetings AND also the necessities of attending from home. And folks have a widely varying ability to devote time while working from home.
monkchips: A group of us were going to do a day long conference called flylessdev, about developer relations without leaving your room, but we decided to deprecate that in favour of a weekly meetup.
It turned out the weekly meetup was the thing. Being with a reasonably well bounded group, sometimes getting in our feelings. So we have a slightly different format. Thanks Katie Reese from Hashicorp for pushing that change.
rachel: I’d like to hear more about the experience of presenting, @monkchips
What were the biggest challenges?
monkchips: Ok – so about presenting online. For me at least presenting is an act of theatre, an act of will, it is a high wire act that thrives on trying to bring the audience on a journey with me. It is a very very physical act.
I want to make people laugh, I want them to be affected, and I want them to think
It’s very very physical. So learning a new quieter way of communicating, without feedback, with no feedback line of laughter, has been quite a challenge. I thrive on getting at least a couple of laughs in a talk. So now I don’t get that feedback.
sogrady: I have to imagine it’s also hard for @monkchips to present without moving
kelly: I feel like @monkchips clocks a half mile of walking in a typical in-person keynote.
monkchips: On that note, I complimented Werner Vogels CTO of AWS Cloud today, and he said:
Yeah, I miss the walk-like-a-caged-tiger feeling 😀
— Werner Vogels (@Werner) June 17, 2020
sogrady: But I agree. It’s a lot different giving a talk into a webcam than it is in front of a live audience which is why people who can do it well – shout out to Emily Freeman’s talk from Build which was excellent – are very impressive.
kelly: Her talk was excellent AND she had to give it like 3 times at all hours of the day.
rachel: Do you think that having an audience while you recorded would help with that a little, or is that not the main problem? I know some events tried to have speakers watch each other while they record to simulate an audience, and I’m curious if that helps address the problem.
sogrady: Maybe over time, and with major UI changes or improvements, but for now, no. The “audiences” I’ve had for the things I’ve presented have been no different than the feel of, say, a webinar.
kelly: And that might be a good transition to a larger question: What are folks doing right and wrong with their virtual events? How might more recent events be benefiting from lessons learned from those organized closer to the beginning of the turn to virtual events?
sogrady: One interesting answer to that is the difference in approaches. Companies are taking radically different tacks on the event concept. Some like MongoDB decoupling them and spreading the event over a longer period of time, while others like Build remain intense, day or multiple day long events.
Obviously some of that is expectations and need on the organizer side, but speaking just for myself as someone who’s trying to parent while working, the decoupled approach works much better for me.
kelly: I have also noted differing strategies around making content available on demand. Build, for instance, did not make talks immediately available, which meant more impetus for tuning in to things live. That is good if you want to up your real-time viewing numbers, but frustrating for attendees that have other things happening.
rachel: I’ve attended events that run as a non-stop stream, which is good for having it run in the background without effort but makes it almost impossible to drop in for a specific talk because the schedule is fluid.
I’ve also attended events where you had to opt in to every single segment of the keynote, which for me almost virtually guarantees that I drop after the first part of the presentation because I start doing other things and am not motivated to go navigate the UI to find the next talk.
Neither was optimal, but I’m convinced there’s a sweet spot in the middle somewhere.
sogrady: Navigating – or in some cases even finding – schedules and agendas has definitely been a challenge.
rachel: And the registration walls. Ugh.
sogrady: So many registration walls.
kelly: Although registration metrics have become increasingly important for attendance reporting.
monkchips: I have some thoughts on this, and they kind of get to the unbundling theme. It’s all about time and engagement. That is really the new challenge: sustaining and encouraging engagement. Because if you do lose people that want to dip in and out, they may well not come back at all.
kelly: Speaking of which, we have seen some impressive attendance/registration numbers from recent virtual events, but it is difficult to gauge actual involvement and engagement. Any thoughts on how different virtual formats may (or may not) be more engaging and/or accessible than in-person conferences?
sogrady: One interesting aspect to the performance has been the platforms used. Having to use Teams, for example – which we don’t use otherwise – was definitely higher friction than pure webcasts or even something on a more common platform like Zoom.
As for engagement, I generally think of it like college courses. The smaller the class, the more engagement. The larger the class, the less engagement.
monkchips: The trick now is not signing up attendees, but driving and sustaining engagement throughout the event. That’s one reason platform reliability is so important. You snooze, may you lose (your attendees). Today the AWS Summit Europe stream went over, just after a talk about reliability, and they must have lost quite a few people
rachel: I think my favorite platform combination was Twitch + Discord. That was the lowest friction combination I experienced to watch and engage in the event.
monkchips: @rachel absolutely. I was very surprised AWS Summit Europe didn’t use Twitch, which would have had the virtue of not falling over.
And to your point I know School of Code folks had a Discord channel to chat about the event as it went on. Folks love Discord. I am actually surprised it’s not getting more play given the rona.
rachel: I think Discord probably came closest to replicating natural community interaction and serendipitous conversations I miss from in-person events, though I am not sure how much to credit the platform vs. the event. This was for a community event, and those types of communities more naturally facilitate that style of discussions than a vendor event.
monkchips: I called it today, AWS needs to rethink re:Invent as a 100% virtual event.
December is just too soon. I imagined a combination of Twitch and Amazon Prime for talks that didn’t involve coding. Can you imagine how cool it would be to drop a load of amazing talks on a special Prime channel one day? Now that would be a heck of a binge watch. But really Twitch is the charm. Such a good platform.
kelly: I would devote a whole day to that.
rachel: I think that touches on another problem that I’ve had with virtual events.
I think lots of event hosts are following their normal full day schedules, whereas it is so hard (especially for people with kids at home) to give that level of attention to any single thing right now.
Steve mentioned MongoDB’s lengthier timeframe, and to that end I’m excited to see how Google’s attempt to spread out Next over several weeks goes. In theory it could be really helpful, but I’m curious to see if they can sustain engagement.
monkchips: Ooh Ooh can I talk about GitHub Satellite now?
kelly: Yes, please!
monkchips: So to Rachel’s point on parenting, one of the best moments of the conference season so far was Allison McMillan‘s demo of CodeSpaces at Satellite. She gave this great talk about developer productivity tools – GitHub repos integrated with the CodeSpaces online editor, and then said simply, “because when I put the kids down for a nap I want to be able to start coding straight away”. That felt revolutionary. I had not heard of something like that in a tech talk before. In fact overall GitHub did a good job, but that moment was great. Productivity as Inclusion, parenting is something so many can relate to. It’s a team sport, and we need tools to help, and ways to engage that help.
rachel: That was great. I appreciate anyone who helps respect the sanctity of naptime productivity.
kelly: Side note: I love CodeSpaces already, but extra love it in that context.
Also, this relates to a Twitter conversation that @sogrady pointed out in our internal Slack that discusses the effects that the move to virtual events has had on representation:
I have the same Q and the same observation.
When all conferences feel the same anyway, we should take this opportunity to broaden the number of voices and presentations, not concentrate on just a few speakers and messages. https://t.co/B3IE2y80o0
— Hilary Mason (@hmason) June 12, 2020
kelly: Any thoughts on changes in representation since events have gone virtual?
sogrady: I don’t have a good sense of that, personally, but it’s a real concern. My hope is that in their haste to get pivot and get everything online as quickly as possible organizers are not forgetting that diversity and inclusion matters.
And I always trust Hilary’s observations, obviously, because she’s Hilary.
monkchips: Time to talk about Wesley Faulkner. Right after this SlackChat is our weekly flyless meetup. Wesley is talking about this exact thing. You have to be intentional about inclusion. In theory events can be so much bigger, with speakers from everywhere involved. But that won’t happen without effort.
People have been scrambling, and it’s shown at times.
kelly: @monkchips will there be a recording of Wesley’s talk?
monkchips: Yes. signup at flyless.dev for that.
sogrady: Yeah, Wesley’s great, would love to see it.
monkchips: Wesley is currently looking for a developer advocate role. Everyone loves him. Please let us know if you’re hiring and we’ll make an introduction. He loves giving talks, engaging with people, and building his technical skills.
sogrady: That does bring up one thing we maybe should have acknowledged at the top: a lot of these are going to be messy. I make no excuses for a lack of attention to diversity, obviously, but the logistics, structure and platform issues were inevitable as people have to operate in real time and refactor absolutely massive events in a totally different way – and do it overnight.
monkchips: I think Hilary is right, as is Wesley, but I am still very optimistic about doing this right.
sogrady: It’s a lot like online learning in that respect: classes were initially a mess, because with literally zero days to prep, teachers struggled with suddenly being online educators.
monkchips: I have seen a lot of “this is the first time I have attended this conference” tweets from people.
rachel: I think going into the shutdown I had high hopes that virtual events could pull from a broader group, and could offer worldwide attendance opportunities for people who would otherwise not be able to travel. I think realities like “timezones” have made that less of a reality than I hoped; things still have such a tendency to be US- and Euro-centric.
The logistics are a challenge in addition to the lack of intentionality mentioned above.
kelly: So thinking about best practices more broadly, what virtual event practices and formats do you expect (or hope) to see event organizers stick with even after in-person events become practical again?
rachel: I’m enjoying the generally fast access to video replays. I hope that becomes an industry standard.
monkchips: Working mothers and fathers can jump in out of virtual events. And I think we can lean into a more intentionally global approach. Most people couldn’t go to events before. Now they can. Think of accessibility issues, people that could never normally go to an event. Events don’t need visas and don’t cost 2000 dollars. That’s a huge win. If we’re intentional about inclusion.
kelly: Everything above, and I also love that folks are able to include their families in tech events. For instance, I love this tweet from Leah McGowen-Hare at Salesforce:
When my boys heard that I would be chatting w/ @Trevornoah they got up, dressed, & washed their faces b4 9am, which is big for them. So I had to give them a little hello. They were grinning all day! Thank you @SalesforceOrg & @Trevornoah for bringing joy to their day ❤️and mine https://t.co/tjoBKr49mF
— Leah McGowen-Hare (@LeahBMH) June 17, 2020
sogrady: I thought the most interesting thing I’d seen on that was the link that @rachel posted: http://interconnected.org/home/2020/06/15/hallway_track
rachel: ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT THE SPREADSHEET PARTY?!
kelly: ummm, yes.
rachel: Are we going to host a spreadsheet party?!
kelly: We are now.
sogrady: Some of it’s bonkers, but that kind of experimentation is going to be important moving forward.
Yes, the spreadsheet party was completely Looney Tunes.
monkchips: Wait? Wut? Spreadsheet Party?
Spreadsheet party! This is such a gem. https://t.co/N75gS7m6vv
— Rachel Stephens (@rstephensme) June 16, 2020
rachel: But yes, that should definitely become an industry standard.
I haven’t ever attended one, but I know it’s magical.
kelly: We have at least 50% monk support for that, so it will probably happen.
Any other best practices we want to mention?
monkchips: I would like to talk about which events were good and why.
rachel: One event that stood out for me in particular was Deserted Island DevOps, the conference hosted inside Animal Crossing. I think that was such a fun experimentation of how to build a community and bring people together.
I also thought Jamstack Conf’s attempt to facilitate those serendipitous in-person conversations was interesting. They had a “network” feature on their conference platform: if you wanted to connect to someone from the event you could opt-in to a three-minute conversation with another person looking to network. If you had a good conversation going you could continue it elsewhere, but otherwise you had an easy out. There are obvious risks to opening private chat between participants, but again I appreciated the experimentation. (though I must admit, as someone who remembers ChatRoulette, I did not participate in said experimentation…)
sogrady: Of the two approaches described above, as mentioned, as a working parent, I appreciated MongoDB’s decision to spread their event out.
kelly: Final question: Do you miss anything from in-person events?
sogrady: The only thing I miss about in-person events is the person part. The travel, venues and all that I can do without, but the people are everything.
We will get better at replicating portions of the in person experience, certainly, but there’s a last mile there that I believe will be impossible to address.
Much as even though we’ve had video chat for ages there are still certain things people will say “I’ll tell you about that over a beer, coffee, whatever,” there is an aspect to in person events that will remain outside the virtual experience IMO.
monkchips: You just like beer.
sogrady: Everything about that is correct except for the “just.”
monkchips: Yes I miss the people, but no I don’t miss being away from my family. At all. Every night I get to read to the kids. Every night. That is a huge win that I really don’t want to be taken away.
rachel: I miss the headspace of in-person events. I think being in a space devoted to talking about one thing makes it so much easier to focus on that thing. It’s easier to absorb news and contextualize announcements when I am able to focus on them exclusively.
I love being home with family, but family (especially toddler family) does inherently make it harder to focus.
I miss focusing.
sogrady: What is that? Can you describe it to me?
sogrady: I’m here for Up Gifs.
kelly: For me, I definitely miss the people. So I am even more grateful when we can carve out time to meet up, even via a SlackChat. And I am calling this a wrap! Thank you for your time today.
Disclosure: AWS, Docker, GitHub, Google, Hashicorp, IBM, Microsoft, MongoDB, Red Hat, and Salesforce are all RedMonk clients.