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Dani Meier for Snapbean Software GmbH

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How we enable our developers to attend conferences

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I love conferences. It's a wonderful thing to attend one. To spend a couple of days with some buddies, meet new people, learn something new, be nerdy, and get inspired.

Unfortunately, in my experience, attending conferences always led to discussions:

  • Devs want to attend them because they get energized and inspired about it. They want to hear about the latest shit in their tech stack.
  • Bosses think their devs are only looking for a good time (what is bad about that anyway?)

So I am a developer - with all my heart. I am also the owner of a small Software Shop, so I'm also kind of a boss. Most discussions about conferences arise because they are misunderstood and create false expectations.

  • A conference is not training. You will learn something for sure. But much more you will learn about new ideas, new ways of thinking.
  • Most of what you see and learn at a conference is not directly applicable to your job, at least not immediately and without any effort. But it will inspire you. It will make you even more open-minded. You will profit from it in the long run, and so will your employer.
  • It's not a waste of money to send more than one person to the same conference. There's no value in it to give your co-workers a summary of all the sessions you've attended. Because they lack the whole around, it's perfectly ok, to sit in the same session as your co-workers do or to enjoy a beer after the conference with them. Even better, you can exchange ideas, and maybe you can find some opportunities to introduce some of the topics to your daily work!
  • Attending a conference is fun. But it's also hard work. I cannot tell you how exhausted you are after a full day at the conference venue: so many people, so many impressions.

Bottom line, we should lower the expectations we have on conferences. It's about having a good time and getting different perspectives.

This article will show you how we handle conferences in a very self-organized way, and we are so happy about it!

The Principles

Of course, there are always strings attached - but only two here:

  • there is a 💸-budget
  • there is a ⌚️-budget

Beyond that, there was no framework. So we defined some principles that represented our values and ideas:

Every developer who wants to attend a conference should be able to do so at least once a year.

Why? Because we love conferences and appreciate their value to our organization and our employees.

The whole process is fully transparent and predictable. No feelings or individual decisions are involved. It's just math.

Why? Because it's not right otherwise.

Individual recognitions are always tricky and tend to be unfair. Is employee A better than B, or is A just working on more visible and more thankful tasks? While it's a good thing to appreciate high performers' work, it's crucial to invest in average developers' motivation and inspiration.

Private participation is assumed.

Why? We think attending a conference is a privilege. It is a privilege we want to make possible for those who see its value.

How much should this be? Well, this depends on your concrete situation and budget. In our case, it's 10% of the financial costs and 50% of the time. But honestly, it's not so important. Just make sure not to exclude anyone. It should not be a question of money if someone can attend a conference or not. It's less about the amount and more about the involvement itself.

Do you have enough budget to cover everything? Nice, but still, demand private participation and instead invest some of it in drinks and food after work.

The choice of the conference is up to the participant and doesn't get evaluated.

Why? First and foremost, our employees participate in a conference to advance themselves. We encourage them and ourselves to think outside the box all the time. A conference is a superb opportunity to get in touch with technologies, people, and ideas outside your daily work.

So is it ok to attend a React conference as an Angular developer? Of course!
Is it ok to attend a conference about software testing for a project leader? Sure, have fun!
Is it ok to join a florist convention as a Scrum Master? Well, I don't get it, and I'm interested in your thoughts about it. But I trust you. So if you think this is valuable for you as a member of our company, then we're good.

We are all grown up, and we trust each other every day to do the right thing.

Modus Operandi

It's always good to have some good-sounding principles defined. You can print them with lovely big letters and hang them on the wall. But the hard part is actually to live those principles. To recognize what works well and what does not work at all. To reflect whether our actions still correspond to our principles, our values.

So let's be specific, this is how we are doing this:

  • Everyone who wants to attend a conference enters its information, like price and duration, into a sheet until the end of January. It's excellent to apply to more than one conference, but one must prioritize each entry.
  • At the end of January, there is always someone who can hardly wait to see the results. So this is the one who makes the calculation. There is no decision-making or evaluations involved.
  • We check if we have enough budget to fulfill all the entries. If yes, we're good to go, and all applications get granted automatically.
  • If the budget is not enough, we cut entries based on their priority. But we never cut the entries with the highest priority. Suppose the budget is then sufficient, all good. Otherwise, we distribute the amount (time and money) above budget over the remaining entries.
  • After attending the conference, the attendees will create a short (internal) blogpost about their experience to overview the conference to their colleagues. For example, they highlight some sessions, convey the inspiring mood at the venue or rave about the excellent food. But they explicitly don't have to share the contents of the session. If it makes sense to do so, this will happen automatically.

Of course, there are some possible glitches and some rough edge cases - but it does not have to be bulletproof. It just has to work for us.

Is it working?

Hell yeah! These conference visits are highlights each year. In these Covid times, we have chosen beautiful places to create our own conference locations for attending the virtual events.

Are there discussions and glitches about the rules? They are rare - because we are in absolute agreement about them and share their ideas and values. Why? Because we defined them for ourselves. That's the power of self-organizing.

And if it does not work well? We improve. That's the power of "inspect and adapt".

I'm happy to read about your opinion and experiences in the comments.

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