I organized an internal developer conference

My move to product manager of an internal tools team coincided with a reorganization in the company. A new organization was created, Engineering Enablement, focused on providing tools and services for software developers at the company. The director of product management of the new org decided that an internal developer’s conference would be a great way to (re)introduce people to the services and tools that the org has to offer, and provide an opportunity for our stakeholders to talk to us directly, to voice their concerns and their problems. 

Conference Design & Deliverables

My role was to organize and facilitate the conference. I’d never done this before, but I had attended a few conferences and knew what made for a good attendee experience. I worked with the teams in our org, as well as leaders from across the company, to source content for twenty different sessions. Once we had commitments from speakers, I could start working on the schedule. I had help from our wonderful executive assistants, who helped secure catering, and from our facilities teams who helped me understand the space we’d need and set it up. 

We ended up running sessions in two rooms for two days, with a poster session in the atrium outside of one of the session rooms. We also set up tables there to allow for people to eat and relax between sessions. 

Ensuring engagement

Since engagement was the primary goal of the conference, we made several decisions that were key to our success. We chose a date for the conference that was a week after our tri-annual release, so developers would be more free to participate. We also engaged with leaders across the organization, to help them spread the word and encourage their reports to attend. 

We incentivized developers to attend more of the sessions by raffling off a drone—each session attended counted as one entry in the raffle. I created a punch card to easily track which sessions people had attended. I was inspired by old school programming punch cards, so I included some images of those on the back, and a graphical layout of the schedule so attendees could have that handy as they went to sessions. Each facilitator punched attendance cards as people filtered in, and it worked well. 

Conference Materials: I created the punch cards with the schedule for each room on each side of the punchcard, and sessions were color-coded for each type.
I created stickers for some extra swag, since developers love adding stickers to their laptops, and they were relatively cheap to produce. I designed the logo to be reminiscent of the previous developer conference logo of a lightbulb, but with our own twist. The punch cards and the stickers were both ordered through moo.com.

Lessons Learned

We received some feedback from attendees that they would have like to have an opportunity to present at the conference, and that they wished the conference sessions were available to attend remotely. We had deliberately made those choices to have presenters be from the Engineering Enablement org, and to keep the developer conference offline at our Boston area location so that we could get that engagement in person. This really reinforced the main observation I made, which is that with an event this big, you cannot communicate too much. Utilize every communication channel at your disposal! 

The lesson I learned is to try it, because you might surprise yourself.

When my manager first asked me if I wanted to spearhead the conference, I was apprehensive, and didn’t feel like I had the experience to pull it off. I’m glad I took a chance, because I surprised myself. I learned that product management thinking can be helpful in other domains—having empathy for every stakeholder involved helped me figure out what I needed to do. We had 197 people register, an average of 36 people per session, and received heaps of positive engagement and feedback.