Looking Back at Tech Perspectives

Posted by Kyle Young

Once a year, our engineering team and stakeholders gather together at an off-site location to celebrate the technologies our developers are building across the organization. We call this yearly tradition, Tech Perspectives.

We recently celebrated our fourth annual tech perspectives here at VDMS, and want to tell you about it. However, instead of giving a lengthy recap of the whole event, we would like to review the event’s inception and a few key takeaways from this year.

Where Do Conferences Come From?

Four years ago, EdgeCast founder Alex Kazerani dreamt up and created Tech Perspectives. His goal in designing the conference was to reverse the siloing effect caused by our independent team structure. Tech Perspectives provided a platform for teams and individual engineers to share their work. The first Tech Perspectives in 2014 was aimed precisely at painting a comprehensive picture of the engineering organization. This was accomplished by all team leads giving a twenty minute talk reviewing the technologies and people they worked with. Tech Perspectives has grown and changed in multiple ways since its beginning four years ago.

This time around, CTO Frank Orozco kicked off the day with a talk that reiterated the importance of a collaborative culture. He spoke about maintaining a unified organization where teams support one another, and where the organization supports innovation and individuality. He encouraged the organization to be driven by its core values. Essentially, he argued that when value-driven teams are free to stick to their mission, the organization benefits from successful and happy employees.

CTO Frank Orozco gives the opening talk at Tech Perspectives 2017

Three Take-aways from 2017

1. Format Change

A common challenge when planning any conference is balancing the amount of content with the length of the event. Each year Tech Perspectives saw a dramatic increase in the number of talks. Fueled by the desire to give all team members an opportunity, the second tech perspectives invited all engineers to propose a talk, if they wished. Each consecutive year of the event brought additional speakers and an additional day. In 2016, forty speakers gave talks over a three day period. Combined with happy hours and team building events, the conference quickly began to feel like a marathon. This year, we decided to take a cue from other large conferences, and divide the talks into multiple simultaneous tracks. For 2017, we landed on providing four tracks and reducing the duration of the event from three days to only one.

These tracks were centered around the ideas of Learn, Share, Build, and Evolve. This allowed us to have thirty full talks in one day, and we added even more sessions to the event by featuring lightning talks. A lightning talk consisted of a typical 20 minute session, divided among four separate speakers. Each speaker presented a lightning fast 5 minute version of their talk. These were well-received, impressively condensed technical topics into a small window of time. Well done to all of our lightning talk participants!

After the event, it was noted that we could more effectively tie business goals to the tracks. One suggestion was to add introduction and conclusion segments for each track. These segments would summarize what attendees heard and tie the content to company goals. As we grow, learning how each team ties into the overall direction of the organization is of the utmost importance.

2. Venue Change

This year we moved to a venue well suited for the new format of our conference: the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood and Highland center. Our Los Angeles offices are in Playa Vista, fifteen miles away; therefore the first step of the day was using the company provided Uber or Lyft credit to journey to Hollywood. Venturing to a new area of town was a fun start to the annual celebration. The venue provided guests ample space with lots of elbow room. It featured a large center hallway with four attached rooms, perfect for accommodating our four tracks of talks.

The main entrance to to Tech Perspectives 2017.

We rented the entire top floor providing us a plethora of space for booths and tables. We strung large banners across walkways and welcomed attendees with a SWAG station. The patio immediately in front of the ballroom was large enough to provide afternoon snacks; therefore allowing the collaboration to continue without losing hungry attendees.

Attendees check in to receive their official Tech Perspectives sweatshirt.

A new venue also creates new opportunities for leveraging the space creatively. Next year we may utilize the main-hallway for post talk discussions with the authors. Allowing those who had further questions to immediately round-table with the authors, and collaborate right on sight.

3. Discussion and Feedback

The week after Tech Perspectives, we gathered feedback and held a retrospective as an engineering team. One popular suggestion was introducing more discussion sessions into the event. The thought was we could reshape the way we achieve the goals of the conference, especially the goal of sharing knowledge. In the future, we may want to go beyond the typical 20 minute “talk” format. We could create a session dedicated solely to communication, where the engineering leads can facilitate a discussion of current initiatives, with time allotted for a Q & A.

Finally, there was a consensus that speakers and aspiring speakers wanted more visibility into the talk selection process. This year’s submission process consisted of writing an abstract of the talk, what would be covered, and why. From there, reviewers selected which talks made it (or did not make it) into the event. Some feedback suggested instituting existing practices from academic style conferences, such as nominating individuals to a programming committee. This committee would assign reviewers and select talks based on feedback from these reviews and how they fit in with the vision for the day.

Bottom Line

As long as we grow, it will be necessary to engage in active knowledge sharing to avoid siloing. We hope to continue to improve and get more creative at accomplishing this year over year. Doing so will require honest examination of our current efforts and how to improve. Ideally next year, we will implement changes based on this year’s feedback and create new opportunities for insight and collaboration between teams.

If you have any experience or suggestions from conferences you have been a part of, we would love to hear them! Please reply to us on Twitter @engage_vdms