I loved PagerDuty Summit. I’ve attended a lot of conferences in my time with RedMonk, and this was one of the better executed vendor events I’ve seen. I think much of their success was attributable to their relentless focus and pervasive authenticity.
Vendor keynotes are often a balancing act. Various internal teams are vying for time on stage to announce their updated product features. Partners like to be highlighted. Customer stories should be showcased. Investors appreciate reassurances about strategic direction. Analysts want to understand your competitive positioning. The community needs to be celebrated. The audience is comprised of both developers and business partners, all of whom have differing expectations for content.
Individually these are all laudable goals, but trying to meet all these needs simultaneously is an easy way for a keynote to go awry. Sometimes a company tries to fit too much in and the keynote becomes an unending slog of product announcements. Presentations can quickly become disjointed, especially for companies with a litany of product lines. It’s hard to meet all audience needs at once. Partner panels are almost always boring (No disrespect, partners! We love you; we just want more exciting panels.)
I guess the quick summary is “no one can serve two masters,” and the reality is that most keynotes try to serve about a dozen. (When I reviewed an outline of this post with James, he tried to convince me that I had an opportunity to incorporate Daft Punk lyrics into my post theme; I just referenced a Bible verse. Almost.)
What made PagerDuty such a breath of fresh air is that they unapologetically ignored many of these common conference constituencies in favor of crafting a very fine tuned and authentic narrative for operators and end users. It was perhaps the most focused event that I’ve attended, and the result was a resounding success.
What they chose not to do was almost as impressive as the things they did. The company raised a $90M series D round of funding that resulted in a $1.3B valuation just days before the conference; as far as I caught, this valuation wasn’t mentioned once. Their customer stories they selected were clearly carefully chosen to enhance the overall event narrative (more on that later.) In an industry that frequently values “the big reveal,” they didn’t mention their product announcements explicitly until the very end of the day 1 keynote, and then only at a high level.
Instead, they delivered a vision-first keynote with a message that was explicitly designed for operators. The theme was “from ops to opportunity” and they spent their time on stage telling the story about how PagerDuty could improve not just the efficiency of enterprise, but also the lives of operators. They didn’t merely focus on the tools that would help people make the requisite changes, but also the culture and process shifts that are necessary for organizational transformation. This doesn’t mean that they completely ignored enterprise-driven messaging; rather, their devotion to their end users was the driving force of their messaging.
Authenticity in Leadership
Jennifer Tejada gave one of the most authentic deliveries from stage that I’ve seen from an executive. It was a joy to watch her speak. She’s demonstrably bright, clearly knows her business well, has a delightfully witty sense of humor, and brought her whole self to the stage in a way that seamlessly complemented the brand. James already wrote my fangirl post for me, so suffice it to say that I’m “in the Tejhive.”
This authenticity and humor was pervasive on stage.
- The primary customer presentation was given by Rathi Murthy, Gap SVP/CTO. Murthy spent the first ~3 minutes of her presentation not discussing Gap’s technology stack, but instead began by imparting the teamwork lessons she learned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. She then tied this into their cultural approach to technology at Gap, their stack, and finally how PagerDuty helps. It was one of the most holistic customer keynotes I’ve viewed, and I loved that the message was less about cramming Gap KPIs onto slides and more about enhancing the narrative for the audience. Rathi Murthy is awesome.
Instead of relying on a bunch of slides or demos, Rachel Obstler (VP of Product) and Tim Armandpour (SVP of Engineering) gave part of their product announcements as a short form verse. The team’s on-stage demo was not about live coding, but instead was a reenactment of an incident and postmortem, with demonstrations of how various personas involved might use various PagerDuty features along the way.
The product demo was done as a reenactment of an incident that highlighted how various personas could use the tool during and after an incident. I’m still not sure how they pulled it off, but somehow they walked the line between producing a summer camp skit and and professional presentation without skipping a beat, and the end result was just delightful.
They invited guests on stage like John Allspaw, Aaron Levie, and Patrick Lencioni that were highly entertaining while also being highly informative. The messaging delivered from stage, even when delivered by third parties, drove towards being lighthearted and fun, but also results-driven and helpful.
All said, it was impressive fun for a brand devoted to waking you up at night.
When “Team” Means “Diversity”
I also loved that PagerDuty’s devotion to diversity was evident, not because of lip service from stage but because it was just … there; it was BY FAR the highest proportion of time spent by women on stage that I’ve experienced at a conference thus far in my career, and I freaking loved it.
Our industry is good at making hard things look like magic, but we are also quite good at lip service. Often we apply the “magic” category to our technical feats and the “lip service” category to diversity. What I loved is that PagerDuty made diversity feel like magic, and then went out of their way to dispel that myth. Tejada spent the end of her keynote talking about PagerDuty’s values: community, trust, passion, growth, and team. In the team section, she shared their commitment to diversity and the results of these commitments: namely a gender-balanced technical leadership team. What I particularly loved was that she then explicitly said from stage, “it was freaking hard.”
Diversity isn’t magic; it’s work. PagerDuty made it look easy, but acknowledged it was actually the relentless pursuit of a goal. Just like the rest of their presentation, they provided a vision and then a path to get there.
We’re Up All Night For Good Fun
(Daft Punk! Got it!)
Our industry often talks about wanting our brands to be “authentic,” when often this means “we’d like to show just enough personality to get past legal without scaring the enterprises.” PagerDuty was authentically authentic (tautology much?) in a way I don’t often get to see publicly. They had humor, heart, and fun on stage, and that in turn made it very fun to be in the audience.
It’s hard to build a brand on sucking less than the alternative. Probably someone who has an MBA is supposed to frame that as a brand that “removes friction from existing processes” or “provides an improved user experience.” Maybe those are the things I’m supposed to say, but I think I’m sticking with “PagerDuty tries to make your life not suck.”
PagerDuty is very cognizant that no one wants to be woken up in the middle of the night to fix a production issue, and as such has built their brand on making on-call as least miserable an experience as possible. This conference was a step beyond that, and was full of life.
Disclosure: PagerDuty is a RedMonk client and covered my T&E for the conference.