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Q&A on the Book Internal Tech Conferences

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Key Takeaways

  •  An internal tech conference can be a powerful way to encourage learning and development 
  • They can also help to transform an organization’s culture to one of collaboration, sharing, and openness
  • It’s important to mentor speakers so they gain confidence in their talk and have a good impact
  • Following up on an event is essential to really establish those learnings and see the longer term impact
  • The book includes a “toolkit” to help people run their own internal tech conferences

The book Internal Tech Conferences by Victoria Morgan-Smith and Matthew Skelton is a practical guide on how to prepare, organise, and follow-up on internal tech conferences. It shows how to run internal events that enable sharing and learning across teams and departments, and explores the benefits that such events can bring.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Internal Tech Conferences from Leanpub.

InfoQ interviewed Morgan-Smith and Skelton about the benefits that internal tech conferences can deliver, how they compare to external/public conferences, supporting and encouraging people to submit a talk, how to ensure that things go well on the conference day and the do’s and don’ts of internal tech conferences, and following up after the conference.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Victoria Morgan-Smith: It started with a spontaneous lightning talk at an agile conference several years ago: I was struck by the questions being asked about how to open up conversations around empowerment and agility. The blockers people were experiencing in their organisations were more cultural than structural, and I felt the urge to stand up and tell them about the internal conferences at the Financial Times. These events acted as an explicit invitation to everyone in the department to challenge each other by sharing their ideas or by posing difficult questions, and were a great step towards a greater democracy - which is essential if you are trying to introduce agile values. 

Matthew and I then got talking about all the other benefits associated with internal conferences, in terms of establishing a learning culture, and finding/elevating knowledge that exists (often hidden within teams) and decided to write an article about the how and why of internal tech conferences for InfoQ in 2016. Since then, we have encountered many more examples and stories that indicate that there is a growing demand for this type of activity, and found ourselves offering people advice so often that there seemed to be a space for a book which could act as a practical guide to anyone wanting to set one up.

Matthew Skelton: After hearing an inspiring talk by Victoria, I realised that we had similar experiences of running internal tech conferences. I was then part of a team that ran half-day events every six months for a company in London, so Victoria and I decided to pool our experiences. Since that article was published, we’ve seen an increasing number of “switched-on” organizations running conferences for their teams. We thought it was time to write the first book on the subject!

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Skelton: Having organized internal tech conferences ourselves, we knew that there were some people who need to be persuaded, generally people in technology leadership of some kind. This includes people in official positions of leadership (CIO, CTO, head of engineering, IT operations manager, etc.), those people in more informal technology leadership positions (team leaders, senior engineers), as well as people who just like to lead by example.

Morgan-Smith: We hoped it would be a useful read for anyone involved in organising an internal tech conference. Once those in leadership positions had been convinced of the value and decide to hold one for their own organization, then we'd encourage the creation of the event itself to be carried out by practitioners from within the department. Members of an organising team will find that the book is full of experiences, advice, and tools to help them design and run a successful event. 

InfoQ: What are internal tech conferences?

Morgan-Smith: We’re talking here about a technology conference run by and for people within a single organisation. It’s generally a full- or half-day event for employees to learn new things, to commune with peers, and to take time out of the everyday to reflect on their wider context. It can have a mixture of content, from a wide and diverse range of people from across the department (or organisation, even) using talks, debates, panels, open spaces, workshops and more. 

A key difference between this and public conferences is that instead of this being for a handful of people to go out and hear from external speakers, this is an opportunity for everyone to hear from experts from within the organisation. “By the people, for the people” is a very powerful format, recognising that technology departments are full of incredibly smart people, and so the focus is on learning and improving together in a setting where sometimes-sensitive details can be shared openly with colleagues. 

Skelton: Underneath the “surface” of visible activities around an internal tech conference are the organizational dynamics of a developing learning organization. At one level, you can see an internal tech conference as a manifestation of a drive for whole-organization improvement - the “fruit” of honesty, transparency, and a willingness to learn. In some respects, a series of internal tech conferences can be seen as a kind of barometer for organizational maturity and effectiveness.

InfoQ: What are the main benefits they deliver?

Skelton: Internal tech conferences can bring many different benefits to an organization. They encourage an organization to be honest and realistic about its achievements and approaches, compared to what’s happening in the rest of the industry. They provide an opportunity to celebrate achievements by different teams - a kind of breathing space to reflect and review. If you decide to include people outside technology/IT, an internal tech conference can also help to explain technology to non-technical people too (in marketing, sales, legal, and so on) which I know from experience can have a profoundly positive effect on the relationship between IT and the rest of the organization. 

At an individual level, people are given the time & space to develop confidence and skills in speaking and presenting. These people may go on to represent the organization in public conferences and events, helping with reputation and recruitment; they will certainly use their new skills to produce better internal presentations and documentation for things like team showcases, sprint reviews, and technical specs, all of which will help their team and other teams to be more effective..

Morgan-Smith: Learning is a key contributor to staff motivation, and so an event like this which visibly demonstrates the value the organisation places on it, as well as enabling genuine learning at scale, can make a significant difference to staff morale and the confidence and courage that come with that. 

Additionally, the connections that people build at these events can be long-lasting. Hopefully you’ll see employees inspired by what they hear, striking up conversations with people they do not meet every day, and you will see better practices, new ideas, and champions for change emerging across the department.

InfoQ: How do internal conferences compare to external/public conferences?

Morgan-Smith: The main difference is focus - it is not just about discovering emerging trends out there in the industry, it’s about enabling new ideas to disseminate across the organisation. Technology is changing so fast, that if one team has tried an emergent technology or approach to working, has an opportunity to showcase it, or debates the pros and cons of it, it can be a great way to bring the rest of the department along.

Another factor is cost: with many public tech conference tickets costing upwards of €800-1000 per person, many organisations find that an internal tech conference is a highly cost-effective way of training and developing staff, whilst simultaneously improving cohesion and camaraderie.

Skelton: Another advantage of an internal tech conference over a public conference is that presenters can be more open about the details in their talks. Did a firewall change result in a million-dollar loss? That’s an easier (if still painful) story to tell internally than in the full public glare. Similarly, success stories that are not ready to go public can be shared internally more easily than in public.

Also, new or less experienced speakers may find it easier to speak in front of their peers and colleagues rather than a room full of strangers at a public event. With an internal conference, you are in charge of all the details relating to speakers, so you can tailor their experience and offer more support and mentoring than is often possible for an external conference. That said, external conferences are an amazing way to showcase your organization, so the best thing is to combine internal and external tech conferences by using the internal conferences to train speakers for external events!

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that preparing for a talk at an internal conference can lead to a speaker learning by herself/himself. Can you elaborate?

Skelton: Preparing a talk (or writing an article) is an excellent way for someone to force themselves to understand a subject deeply. The speaker will find gaps in their knowledge and discover how well their experience aligns to the experience of others in the industry, providing a baseline. This reflective approach to speaking and writing is hugely beneficial for many people, and prompts them to investigate things further than they had done before, deepening and broadening their awareness and (ultimately) making their material much more compelling.

Morgan-Smith: If someone is going to stand up and talk to an expectant audience, they do need to make sure they know what they’re talking about. So they need to really test their own knowledge beforehand. This can be a great opportunity to focus the mind on something that interests them, but which they have perhaps not explored as fully as they’d like to. So not only do they get to share their existing knowledge with their peers, they get to develop it first, and so this self-led learning can give them a lot more than any training course might. 

Or course the other thing they learn is how to express themselves from a platform. Learning how to articulate potentially complex ideas in an engaging way, how to present those ideas coherently and visually, how to project their voice - all of those are hugely valuable skills that they will also learn in preparing for their talk.

InfoQ: How can we support and encourage people to submit a talk?

Morgan-Smith: This is worth putting some time into. Unlike a public conference where there is a steady supply of submissions from confident, regular speakers, you are looking at a much smaller pool of people who potentially aren’t experienced in speaking at all - for many this will be their first time. So taking steps to let them know they will be supported and mentored will help them step forwards. 

Having a conference organising committee who truly represents the department will help too. If potential speakers can see that the event is inclusive - because the organising committee includes “people like them”, then this will encourage them to feel that this is an event that will welcome their voice. That means diversity of role/seniority, as well as of gender and race etc.

And be ready to give them nudges - ask line managers to offer encouragement to their direct reports, directly approach people who you think have an interesting story and point them towards the submission form. Some people just need a direct invitation to realise that this means them too!

It can be helpful to highlight what they will get out of doing so. Not only is it an opportunity to share knowledge with people, it is also a terrific development opportunity. This is a relatively safe space for them to try out their voice, and could be a first step to public speaking if that’s something they want to do. 

Skelton: A convenient way to encourage people to submit a talk is to use regular lunchtime talk sessions (sometimes called “brown bag” lunches) as an opportunity for people to try out a new talk before the conference. The lunchtime talks - with perhaps only 30-50 attendees - are less formal and intimidating than the full conference, and so people are happier to try their talk there. For example, during 2018, I was an engineering lead for a large UK government department with 70+ teams. What worked well there was to listen carefully to comments in meetings, chats on Slack, and speakers at team showcases and identify experience and examples that brought something new or important to the department. I’d then either suggest right there that they do a lunchtime talk or approach them separately; either way, we’d work together on the talk outline and slides to get the message clear, then schedule the talk at a lunchtime session. This mentoring of speakers is crucial for success with tech talks, because it gives speakers the confidence that their talk is going to work well for the audience.

InfoQ: What can be done to ensure that things go well on the conference day?

Skelton: In the book, we have put together a “toolkit” that covers all aspects of planning and running an internal tech conference, including things like making sure that audio-visual technology is working, people know where to go for talks (printed signs), and having good food. One of the most important things to ensure for a smooth conference is to have strict limits on the lengths and timings of talks; do not let speakers just talk and talk - insist on ending talks on time. Also, make sure that each session begins on time so that the schedule does not drift. 

Morgan-Smith: One of the biggest things, really, is communication. Make it really easy for people to see what talks are on where and when, to ask questions or provide feedback on any problems. Have a “host” who is visibly providing structure to the day. Recognise that something about the day will likely evolve - be it a speaker running late necessitating a schedule change, or a room having a problem, remote connectivity letting you down, or something else entirely. 

InfoQ: What are the dos and don'ts of internal conferences?

Morgan-Smith: Do start planning early; there is a lot to do and speakers need time to engage and then prepare.
Do get senior management “on side”; you need active encouragement from them for people to get involved/attend, so make sure no-one ie being pressed to attend meetings that day.
Do remember to keep it fun; keeping the energy levels up can mean some good food and some careful scheduling to raise people up after lunch and then send them away on a high note at the end of the day.

Skelton: Don’t expect to see immediate results just from a single instance of the conference. You can expect to see some positive changes from a single conference, but many of the benefits start to appear only when people know that further events are coming and that they can be part of them.
Don’t use execs or managers to run the conference, and don’t have execs or managers do more than a small fraction of the talks. Internal tech conferences are a way for the organization to develop and learn, not a way for management to push a specific message. Don’t expect people to prepare for the conference in their own time. Done well, an internal tech conference will deliver huge benefits to an organization, so managers should expect staff to work on the conference as part of paid work.

InfoQ: What suggestions do you have for follow up after the conference?

Skelton: After the conference, start preparing for the next one - seriously! Part of that preparation is to identify learnings from the conference and then to broadcast that learning to the organization. This helps to emphasize the value of the conference and to get more people excited about taking part.

I have found that doing a public blog post summarizing the event is a good way to make the event “real” for people in the organization. Write about some of the topics discussed and spoken about, and share some photos. Use the summary blog post as a way to attract new people to the organization through the culture of learning and sharing that you’re now demonstrating.

Morgan-Smith: Start by reflecting on what you wanted to achieve by it. Did you achieve it? How do you know? What will you do differently next time? To build on Matthew’s point about planning the next one, this reflection will capture what went well/could do better whilst it’s fresh, so that you can make next year’s even better. 

In terms of following up on the event itself - look for signs that people may be considering follow-up activities either to do with more talking forums, or small action-groups who want to instigate a change inspired by the event. Be ready to them a nudge: without taking them over, encourage them, elevate them, challenge them, and then you will start to see a lasting impact from this event.

About the Book Authors

Victoria Morgan-Smith is director of delivery, Internal Products at the Financial Times, where she has been helping teams succeed since 2009. Before this she was a developer for 9 years, a background which fuels her interest in finding fun ways to coach, energise and motivate teams into self-organising units. She is passionate about collaboration beyond the team, adopting agile principles to get under the skin of what will deliver measurable business value around the organisation. Twitter: @VictoriaJMS LinkedIn: victoriamorgansmith 

Matthew Skelton is head of consulting at Conflux, where he specialises in continuous delivery, operability and organisation dynamics for software in manufacturing, e-commerce, and online services, including cloud, IoT, and embedded software. Recognised by TechBeacon in 2018 as one of the top 100 people to follow in DevOps, Skelton curates the well-known DevOps team topologies patterns at and is co-author of the books Continuous Delivery with Windows and .NET (O’Reilly, 2016), Team Guide to Software Operability (Skelton Thatcher Publications, 2016), and Team Topologies (IT Revolution Press, 2019).  Twitter: @matthewpskelton LinkedIn: matthewskelton Slideshare: matthewskelton


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