Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Running an Event on the Cheap

I’ve been a part of teams organizing a pretty good number of developer community events here in the Heartland over the last few years. I’ve helped with medium-sized Code Camps / Days of .NET hosting 150 - 200 people across four tracks and I’ve helped with much larger events like CodeMash, where 550 people attend seven tracks plus open spaces.

While those events are really rewarding, they take a significant amount of time and effort to put on. You generally need several people working as a tight team to pull these off. You need a big venue, you need audio visual support, you need food, and you need significant sponsor support to pay for all that. Many times you’re hostage to your venue’s catering services, which means you’ll be paying high costs for mediocre (at best!) food. (Thank God for the Kalahari, where the venue’s food is actually really good.)

Twice in the last year I’ve been part of great events which were a snap to put on: the .NET University last November and the Software Engineering 101 last week. Both these events filled the room (90+ people) and were a great success. Where CodeMash generally has well over $100,000 go through the cash register, metaphorically speaking, both .NET U and SWE101 were put on for less than $500 each.

Here are a few concepts you can use if you’re interested in putting on an event without the tremendous work of a larger event.

  • Leverage your community. First and foremost, you need great contacts in your community to pull these off. Build those contacts, because you’ll be looking to them to help with content, venues, marketing, and finding sponsors.
  • Have a clear vision on the event’s goals. Keep a very narrow focus on what you want to present. One track. Period. Think hard about the audience you’re targeting. We specifically targeted .NET U to folks who were not involved in the community. We blogged and spoke to user groups: “This event isn’t for you – but tell your colleague that’s never been to a community event.”
  • Content is King. Hand pick great speakers to deliver topics lining up with your event’s goals. Make sure they’re on board with the vision and clearly understand what you want them to deliver. Getting their suggestions on what to deliver is fine, but make sure they first understand what the event is trying to do. Remember, one track. You’ll only need four to six speakers.
  • Get a clear schedule early on. Get your schedule nailed down before you press forward. Times, presenters, descriptive titles, short and clear abstracts.
  • Find a free venue. You absolutely can’t do one of these events if you have to pay for a venue. Look to your local Microsoft office, look to community colleges, check with your local business community, check with local training companies. Drive home the idea you’re putting on a free event to improve the skills of your local developer community.
  • Find free AV resources. You need one projector and one screen. If it’s a larger venue you may need two projectors and two screens synched together. Check with community members to see if they have gear they can borrow from their companies. Check with your MS reps. Check with local training companies.
  • Avoid venue catering costs. Many venues with catering services look to make their money not on renting the facility, but by charging you $14 per head for an awful box lunch. Instead…
  • Bring in food and drinks. Line up bagels and coffee from Panera or some place similar. Panera delivers, so that was a big win for me. I paid $300-ish for coffee and bagels for 100 folks. I ran to Target and picked up another $150 of sodas, water, and snacks. (Funyons, FTW!)
  • Skip lunch. Look to a venue with several restaurant/fast food choices near by, then clearly indicate to your audience that they’re on their own for lunch. Leave one hour in your schedule to support folks getting out and back. Attendees of a free event won’t mind running out to get their own food as long as you make it clear from the start.
  • Find a couple sponsors. Reach out to companies that are already involved in your community. You need $500 to support an event for 100 geeks. It’s simple to make a pitch asking for $250 from two companies. Don’t let sponsors come and take over your event, but make sure they get some exposure via logos on slides and frequent mentions during the event.
  • Skip recording. Recording sessions sucks, plain and simple. It’s a hassle, there’s a lot of moving parts, you need special gear, it interferes with presenters, it never turns out as well as you’d hoped, it… The list goes on and on. We’ve tried for years to get recording working at various events, and it’s always been a complete PITA for one reason or another. Skip it.  (Note: If someone with a history of success volunteers to do this, then by all means take them up on it. Just don’t let the recording come anywhere near injecting friction into your speakers’ gigs, or the audience’s ability to get great content.)
  • Find a registration system. Look to something like Microsoft’s community registration system, Microsoft Group Events. Look to Meetup.com. Look to something similar. DO NOT WRITE YOUR OWN SYSTEM.
  • Pimp the event. Get your schedule up on blogs. Get the word out to your own community contacts. If you’re in the .NET world, make sure your Microsoft Developer Evangelists help you spread the word. Reach out to your local business and educational communities. Hit up local media.
  • Expect drop off. Free weekend events have drop off rates of up to 40%. Free weekday events often see over 20% drop off. Accept it. It’s not you. Well, maybe you do need different deodorant.

This list isn’t all that long, is it? It’s all common sense. You can do a great event on the cheap. You can have a whole lot of folks learn some great content and come away all excited and motivated to improve their environments. You can do this without giving yourself an ulcer and losing sleep. Honest.

Go do a neat event. Get people fired up.

Then do more.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Software Engineering 101 Conference Wrap Up

Wow. 90 or so folks showed up yesterday for an amazing event: the Software Engineering 101 Conference. Everyone seemed pretty fired up, energetic, and happy at the end of the day after hearing Leon, Scott, and Jon cover some great topics.

We went through Object Oriented Programming basics, SOLID software design, code metrics, and production debugging. All these were fundamentals[1] for an afternoon of test driven development in a hands-on workshop environment. Leon, Scott, and Jon delivered some great content and really got the attendees engaged before proceeding into the afternoon workshop.

The afternoon workshop was really, REALLY fun to observe. There was a tremendous amount of energy going on in the room as folks paired to solve the problem given them: part of the rules engine for Greed from the Ruby Koans.

One interesting thing really struck me: how quickly all the attendees jumped in together and got productive in pairs. Pair programming freaks a lot of people out for a number of reasons, so it’s sometimes hard (at least in my corners of the .NET world) to sell.  We never even gave the attendees a choice. We told them in several pre-conference mails that the afternoon would be pairing. Leon fired off the workshop with “Get ready to pair.” Not once did we open the door for folks to work by themselves, and I think it really paid off.

We’re looking at some possibilities for repeating this conference, perhaps even as an online/live session. More news on that if anything comes of it.

This was an awesome day for me, and I’m really thankful that Leon, Scott, and Jon jumped on board when I pinged them. I couldn’t have gotten three better presenters in the Heartland, and that’s sayin’ something because the Heartland kicks every other region’s assets for speakers.

One last thing: many thanks to EdgeCase and Cardinal Solutions for jumping in with sponsorship funds. We were able to get food, drinks, and snacks for the attendees, all courtesy of Joe and Jeff. Many thanks also to Microsoft and Brian Prince for opening up the venue to us.

[1] I had someone remark that Scott’s Production Debugging presentation wasn’t on the same content line as the OOP, SOLID, metrics, and TDD sessions. They were right. BUT! I pulled in Scott because A) his session has a tremendous amount of fundamental material in it, B) He’s an awesome presenter, and C) I wanted to see it and I got to pick the conference’s content. :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Leading from the Front

In my Leadership 101 talk I really harp on the importance of leading from the front, particularly as you get higher up in an organization. I illustrate this with a story of the battle of the Somme in France in World War I. The allied generals were so far from the front they didn’t know about flooding which made it impossible to cross the battlefield in any effective manner. Tens of thousands of casualties resulted in the first day of what turned in to a long campaign. All because the generals lead from the rear, where the environment was completely different.

I just don’t understand “leaders” of an organization who don’t take the time to learn the details of the environment their organizations operate in. How can you lead if you don’t know your environment, your clients, your company, or your people?

The Dayton Daily news had a great article in its Sunday paper on executives and upper level management at Miami Valley Hospital here in Dayton who are terrifically engaged and at the front. Leaders there do four hours of “rounds” a week at the hospital – as doctors do rounds to visit their patients, executives and management do rounds to visit their workers. They also interact with their customers – the hospital’s patients.

This is a terrific practice that keeps the hospital’s leadership in touch with the pulse of their workers and the hospital’s patients. The article, plus its two companions here and here, highlight the great benefits the entire hospital is seeing because of these policies.

Making this sort of effort ensures leaders understand the environment their people are working in. Leading from the front ensures leaders understand the environment the company creates for its customers. Leading from the front ensures leaders are keeping open lines of communication to workers and customers, and are seeing things about their company first hand.

It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a huge company of 70,000, a small company of 150, or a team of three. You’re jeopardizing your success if you’re not consistently and frequently getting out to interact with clients and workers.

Lead from the front. The benefits are amazing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Upcoming Speaking Gigs

I’ve got a couple speaking engagements coming up over the next two months:

  • 23 Sept: Software Engineering 101 Conference. I’m helping organize it and am giving a short grok on tools for monitoring code complexity.
  • 24 Sept: I’m teaming up with Justin Kohnen to talk at the Dayton .NET Developers Group. We’re covering a few of the shiny toys in .NET 4.0 and Visual Studio 2010. It’s also the culmination of our membership drive!
  • 13 Nov: I’m very flattered that I got selected to talk at the Tyson Developer Conference. This is my first speaking gig outside the Heartland district, aside from showing off some cool prototype cockpit systems to a bunch of hung over A-10 pilots in Las Vegas years ago. I’ll be giving three talks there: Leadership 101, Three Tips to Improve Your Process, and Acceptance Testing with Selenium and Cucumber. I’m awfully excited about the opportunity to speak there! (And big props to Phil Japikse who hooked me up.)

Be sure to look me up if you’re at any of those events!

(And if you’re looking for speakers at one of your events, I’d be happy to send you my current list of abstracts, if’n you’re interested.)

music note Now listening to "Polaris" by Jimmy Eat World

Busted “Contact Me” Link Fixed

Doh! I missed the mail that my 2idi wasn’t providing my contact service any more, so the “Contact Me” link on my sidebar hasn’t worked for, uh, more than a couple days.

It’s fixed now, and you can use 1id.com’s service to get in touch with me.

Sorry for the goof, and thanks to the reader who let me know about it!

music note Now listening to "All Too Well" by The Kingpins

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: Living Green, The Missing Manual

Living Green, the Missing Manual by Nancy Conner, pub by O’Reilly, ISBN 0596801726.

This book can be preachy and a bit breathless in some of its content, but it’s really a fascinating and educational read.

Conner works hard to cover a lot of topics and gives you material on everything from the chemicals you may not know about in your home to alternate and renewable energy sources. Along the way she also covers raising a green family (I raised two kids via cloth diapers and was happy to see them covered), building/remodeling, eating green, responsible shopping, and a number of other topics.

A number of topics were thrown out without enough evidence of whether or not there’s really a basis for concern (the impact of volatile organic compounds offgassing from foam in furniture or dryboard markers, for example), but generally Connor does a very nice job of giving you a good background on the topics she’s writing about. There are also a lot of resources referenced in the book so you’re able to go look at more material from one side of the story, at least.

While there’s a chapter dedicated to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” Brown seems to carry that theme through the book. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but I found it very helpful to consistently find small reminders of those principles in many of the book’s topics. I’m a proponent of reducing the number of things around me and trying to reuse as much as possible – but I’m nowhere near as good at it as I’d like to be.

Overall I enjoyed the book and found it very useful.

music note Now listening to "Alive" by Off-Kilter

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Great Discussion Podcast on Deep Fried Bytes

During devLink a few folks from the region’s community were gabbing about a variety of topics, including burnout, motivation, FUD, and a number of other topics.

Keith Elder pulled out his recording gear and ended up capturing some really interesting commentary from a lot of people. You can listen to the podcast on Keith and Woody’s Deep Fried Bytes site. (They’re also on iTunes, so go subscribe if you haven’t already!)

There’s some tongue in cheek references to this being a group therapy session for Leon, but the discussion’s really so much more than that. A number of the community’s most active members offer up gems of wisdom on a wide range of topics.

It was fun to participate in the discussion, and it was fun to listen to. (Much more so than the DNR show which gave me heartburn enough to write about elsewhere…)

music note Now listening to "Date of Rebirth" by Origa

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