Optimize for People: Lessons from Monktoberfest 2013

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Day drinking and unconventional marketing isn’t just for Don Draper anymore. A couple of years ago, RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady mused on Twitter about doing a tech/beer conference, and received a resounding "yes, do it" from the tech community. The Monktoberfest launched in 2011 and has drawn an impressive line-up of speakers and attendees ever year since.

The Monktoberfest is an odd duck when it comes to tech conferences. O’Grady and the RedMonk crew haven’t tried to grow the conference every year, and it’s not an event for announcements or deep technical content. Mostly, it’s what happens when people who care about tech, social, and beer run a conference for a like-minded audience.

Instead of splitting into multiple tracks, the official schedule consists only of one track of speakers and it’s all A-Game stuff. No sponsored talks, no keynotes, and no product pitches.

Blissfully, the conference starts at 10 a.m. instead of the usual early morning start. It’d be nice to see other conferences take a cue from Monktoberfest on this. When you’re attending a tech conference, you’re almost certainly going to be out later than you would when you’re in your normal work schedule. There’s also the matter of having most of your day consumed with the conference instead of regular work – meaning that an extra hour in the morning for calls or email is a life-saver.

Standout Talks

The speaker line-up at Monktoberfest has always been impressive, but I also appreciate that the line-up changes dramatically from year to year. Some conferences tend to have the same folks speaking every year – but this year’s slate of speakers is entirely different than last year’s. (Excepting Stephen O’Grady, but he was emceeing the event, not giving a prepared talk.)

Thinking about a startup? Zack Urlocker’s "Scaling the Machine" talk and Alex Payne’s "Letter to a Young Programmer" address two aspects of startup life. Urlocker tackling the practical, Payne providing insight to counter the romantic view and conventional wisdom of working at startups.

Urlocker provided some advice and insight that would be good not only for those thinking about or running a startup, but also for those who run/work with open source projects. For example:

  • Start with a minimum viable product.

  • Understand how it’s used, not just how much it’s used.

  • Don’t worry so much about reacting to competition. Remember the long-term strategy. (Hint: Have a long-term strategy.)

  • Ask what investment/work will most impact growth.

  • Data beats opinions.

  • Velocity trumps everything.

Another stand-out was Deirdré Straughan’s Marketing Your Tech Talent. Safe to say, having worked as a tech journalist and for companies trying to promote their technologies, Straughan’s advice is both excellent and underutilized.

Straughan made the case for marketing a company’s (or project’s) tech talent, and gave some do’s and don’t for doing so. Why do you need to market the company’s tech talent, instead of hiding them away so recruiters won’t find them?

Having great technical talent reflects well on your organization. It’s a great way to promote a company or project. It also helps recruit (and retain) more technical talent. Great technologists typically want to work with other great technologists.

Straughan also argued the importance of involving your technologists in creating technical content, because it’s the best form of technology marketing. (Hint: It may also be cheaper and more efficient to generate.)

She also cautioned against trying to control the message or tone with technical folks. Her advice to marketeers working with techies? "Facilitate conversations between techies – then get out of the way." To put it another way, "anything you can do to get technologists working together is worth it."

Tyler Hannan of Basho delivered a fantastic, Lessig-esque talk ("Medieval Art, Collective Intelligence, and Language Abuse – The Ethos of Distributed Systems") that had the audience totally captivated. Unfortunately, I can’t really do it justice in a summary because I got so involved in the talk, I stopped taking notes. (As anyone who’s sat in a meeting or talk with me will tell you, this takes some doing – I’m a habitual note-taker.)

On day two, Michael Ducy talked about "Putting Tech to Work for Your Community," with a presentation about how he used some of his tech skills to help out a committee working on school redistricting. Rather than focusing deeply on the tools, it was a talk about how those of us in tech can use our talents to help our local communities.

The most inspiring talk came last on Friday. Linda Sandvik talked about Code Club, a network of volunteer-led after-school coding clubs in the U.K. for kids nine to 11 years old. Sandvik, the co-founder of Code Club, talked about how the project got started and how it’s grown into an amazing 1,242 code clubs reaching more than 18,000 kids. If that sounds amazing, consider that the project started as an idea from a pub discussion in March 2012.

Kids start with Scratch programming, and move on to designing their own Websites, putting projects on GitHub, and working with languages like Python and Logo.

The biggest hurdle? Finding enough volunteers to reach all the kids that are interested. Sandvik spent some time during her presentation to encourage the audience to volunteer.

A Word About the Beer

Sandvik’s talk brought us around full circle, really, to the core of Monktoberfest: get the right people together over a beer (or several) and good things can happen.

Despite the fantastic talks, the best part of Monktoberfest was the conversations over beers with folks who you might not ordinarily run into at other tech conferences.

It’s also worth pointing out, though, that the beers (and food) were as spectacular and unusual as the attendees. We sampled a variety of beers that you don’t ordinarily find – including one that was from the only barrel available in the United States. A big hat tip to Ryan and Leigh from Of Love & Regret for the beer selections.

As O’Grady says, Monktoberfest is a conference "optimized for the people," with a focus on the elements that make a conference fantastic.

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About Joe Brockmeier

Joe Brockmeier works for Red Hat as the Editorial Director, Red Hat Blogs. Passionate fan of Linux and open source, Vim, music, art, cats, and polar bears. Not necessarily in that order.