DevOpsDays Austin 2018 Retrospective and 2019 Prospectus

logoAll right, DevOpsDays Austin 2018 went great and the organizers (thanks be unto them – James Wickett, Dan Zentgraf, Boyd Hemphill, Richard Boyd, Scott Baldwin, Lee Thompson, Karthik Gaekwad, Marisa Sawatphadungkij, Ian Richardson, Bill Hackett, Chris Casey, Carl Perry, and our ConferenceOps finance handler Laura Wickett) have had the time to do a retrospective and both share what we’ve learned and set a course for next year’s event! This is long and I assume mostly of interest to other DevOpsDays organizers, so buckle in.

DoD Austin this year was another experimental year. Austin was the third DevOpsDays city in the US and the eleventh globally, and has been going every year since 2012.  Because our community has such a long history with DevOpsDays, we experiment with our format to find what works the best for us.

This year, we tried a couple daring things (more details in DevOpsDays Summit Austin 2018 – “DevOps Unplugged”):

  1. Voting on talks onsite instead of ahead of time (saw this at ProductCamp Austin)
  2. No sponsor booths (like the early DevOpsDays, Silicon Valley was like this for several years)
  3. Boxed lunches (like the early DevOpsDays, Silicon Valley was like this for several years)
  4. Capped headcount low at 400 (despite having sold 650 tickets last year)
  5. No streaming the talks (video is coming though)

Read the linked article for why, but the TL;DR is that we’re a nonprofit conference that exists to drive community engagement, and the “DevOps Talk Circuit,” the increased sponsor lead-churn demands, the time we spent on fancy lunches and such, and just the sheer number of attendees and weight of extras we were adding on were choking out the actual goal of the conference.  Despite having a huge slate of great keynoters at 2017 and everything being the biggest and best DoDA ever – we the organizers didn’t have a good time. We didn’t learn anything or make new friends. And we heard from other experts in town that said the same thing. So a dramatic change was implemented to pare the event back down to basics.  But how’d it work out?

We did a bunch of retrospective activities to find the answer!

  1. SurveyMonkey survey of all attendees
  2. Survey of all sponsors
  3. Community retrospective at the Austin DevOps user group
  4. Organizer retrospective

Attendee Survey Feedback

Of 400 attendees, we got 51 respondents (12.5%). Our overall NPS was 25 (“pretty good”). We don’t have a last year NPS to compare to, we didn’t do a great job of post event surveying last year mostly due to burnout (once you’ve spent most of your time prepping a conference, it’s time to get back to your real work, family, etc.).

Food Quality Talk Quality Openspace Quality Venue Quality Happy Hour Quality
Very high – 9 (18%) Very high – 6 (12%) Very high – 7 (14%) Very high – 12 (24%) Very high – 12 (25%)
High – 20 (39%) High – 27 (53%) High – 12 (47%) High – 29 (57%) High – 12 (25%)
Neither – 17 (33%) Neither – 9 (18%) Neither – 12 (24%) Neither – 7 (14%) Neither – 22 (46%)
Low – 4 (8%) Low – 8 (16%) Low – 8 (4%) Low – 3 (6%) Low – 2 (4%)
Very low – 1 (2%) Very low – 1 (2%) Very low – 3 (6%) Very low – 0 (0%) Very low – 0 (0%)

So everything was 50% or better “very high or high,” which seems good. We asked about favorite sponsors – ones mentioned by multiple participants include Cisco, Red Hat, NS1, VictorOps, Sumo Logic, xMatters, and Praecipio.

The comments were enlightening.  This year’s format was pretty divisive – there were lots of comments about liking voting on the talks and lots of comments about not liking it; there were lots of comments about liking e.g. “The new format with less vendor bloat” and then also lots of comments wanting sponsor booths back. And frankly, that’s what we expected – the new format was expressly designed to be attractive to some kinds of attendees and sponsors and not to others.

Overall, the positive comments predominated on the openspaces, keynotes, and ignites, and negative predominated on the talks and lack of booths.  (Several of those respondents identified as sponsors.)

Sponsor Survey Feedback

Total sponsor NPS was 7 (“good”) from 14 respondents of our 17 sponsors.  Again, there wasn’t the usual bell curve distribution – some sponsors loved it and others hated it.  The venue and the conversations people had onsite were very highly rated. The limited swag table aspect was low rated. The 30 minute suite sessions and lead quality were sharply bimodal – for example:

How did your 30 minute suite demo go?

  • Did not use 7.14%
  • Very well 7.14%
  • Well 28.57%
  • Neither poorly nor well 14.29%
  • Poorly 28.57%
  • Very poorly 14.29%

User Group Feedback

Read the board yourself!  Attendees, some organizers were in attendance.

image1

Analysis

Change is hard

People’s expectations were hard to alter. Especially in the sponsor realm where the person who books the sponsorship isn’t usually the person that comes on site.  One sponsor comment said “Without a booth, not worth our $5000!”  Well, yeah, that’s why we didn’t charge you $5k this year. People that go to multiple DevOpsDays, and especially sponsors, but even people who had just been to our event multiple years – we emailed and tweeted and blogged and put stuff on the signup forms, but the changes were still a surprise to many.  Voting on the talks was a concern not as much from speakers, but from people who “wanted their schedule set in advance!” and from people who were “afraid it makes speakers feel bad.”

Money isn’t hard

Even with the much lower sponsor cost this year ($3k), and lowering our headcount significantly (400), and providing the same great venue and lunches and breakfasts and drinks and not 1 but 2 shirts and blowing it out on the happy hour, plus being ripped off by our happy hour venue (not going back there!!!), we were still well in the black enough that we’re giving thousands of dollars to charity at the end of the event.

In fact, one of the advantages of this year’s format was that we weren’t giving 1/3 of our tickets away for free to a huge army of organizers, to speakers, etc.  Adding more sponsor stuff requires adding more volunteers that just eats back into the revenue stream again.

Specific Outcomes

Voting on talks

There was enough pushback that we won’t do that next year.  Submissions were lower this year, and a bunch of people dropped out before the event.  However, many of the people who dropped out are, to be blunt, the people we wanted to drop out. Talks “submitted on behalf of” someone. Vendor roadshow talks.

Here’s the thing – here in Austin, we’re pretty blessed.  We have a huge tech community with all the big players.  If you want to “have your secretary submit your talk, fly in, drive to the venue, give your talk, fly out” – whoever you are,  you really don’t have anything more interesting to say than the people who are already here. So if your goal being at DoDA isn’t to interact with the community, we have plenty of talk submissions already, thanks.  I get that if you’re starting up a DoD in the middle of nowhere the people on the “DevOps Talk Circuit” are key to bringing in new ideas and jumpstarting you, and I don’t devalue that.  But for us, we don’t need that and it doesn’t serve the needs of our current community.

This isn’t to say people from away aren’t welcome – John Willis is from Atlanta but he’s part of our community, because when he comes here that’s how he interacts with us.  (One of the “What did you like the most” survey comments simply said “John Willis.”)

People suggested various half-measures – “have us vote a week before!” But the additional logistics on that is very much not worth it, especially given what we think we’ve learned about our talk needs – read on for that!

Sponsor tables

OK, no sponsor tables was not universally beloved. Some sponsors – and not just the “here for the leadz” sponsors we were deliberately discouraging with the format – didn’t like it because it was harder to interact with folks about their product. But – here’s the rub – we had just as many complaints last year when we *did* have sponsor tables!  “My table was in the corner.” “There wasn’t enough foot traffic driven to me.”

The stadium format is pretty “noisy” and if we had sponsor tables back we’d have to do talks in some far-away rooms again, and removing those rooms this year saved us a lot of money and also people always hated it (like – FAR away).

Also, I’ll be honest, we had problems with sponsor misbehavior last year.  Silver sponsors claiming a table and standing behind it like a gold. Sponsors going out on the field (forbidden by UT). Sponsors trying to have food trucks park outside (also forbidden by UT police). Disruptive activity of a number of different sorts, requiring lots of work by organizers and volunteers and venue staff to deal with. I am sure many of them thought they were being “scrappy” etc. but in the end, we don’t get paid for this conference so we don’t need to put up with crap for it either. Discussion about “firing” certain sponsors was had.

We aren’t going back to the usual sponsor tables, but we are going to try something even more different – read on for that!

Boxed lunches

In early DoDA, we kept having super-deluxe Austin fare – BBQ, tex-mex – not from a caterer but from the real good places. This was for all the folks from away we were bringing in and wanted to show an Austin good time to!

Unfortunately, last year food lines for 650 people were a problem. Vendors weren’t adequately prepared with people or food.  We had to have many volunteers assigned. Food lines were super long and slow and a source of frustration.

This year we did have some comments about “I wanted the deluxe foods.” But they were far overwhelmed by those who appreciated being able to grab sustenance and get back to why they are here, learning and discussion. So with enough money we may try to get some kind of super-deluxe box lunch, but the box lunches will stay.

Lower headcount

The lower headcount was universally beloved except by lead generators and those who couldn’t get a ticket. More and better interaction, many positive comments noted the more intimate communication in openspaces and hallway track.  Keep.

No streaming

Worked out great.  No one complained, and the cost and org/volunteer time and schedule and stage compromises we have to make for live streaming are immensely negative.  Not going back.

2019 Planning

First of all, a disclaimer.  I am sharing this in the interests of transparency and helping other organizers learn from what we’ve done.  I don’t claim Austin is doing things the “one true way” and I know our community’s needs are different from many others. None of this is intended to denigrate any other events and their decisions. You don’t need to justify why you do things differently or why any of this isn’t right for your community.

Every year I start our planning with some basic questions.

  1. Do we want to have a DevOpsDays Austin next year?
  2. If so, why?  What is the goal of this year’s event?

“Inertia” is a bad reason to do anything.  We don’t have “money” as a reason because we have to spend what we get, we don’t pocket anything except some gifts. (My kid has already appropriated the bluetooth speaker I got this year…)

The group of organizers (over a tasty dinner at Chez Zee) decided “yes”, and after a good bit of discussion they decided that to us, this year, the goal of DevOpsDays Austin is to “Promote collaboration and sharing and networking specifically for the Austin technical community.” Now, that’s a pretty non-controversial statement on its face – but then as we plan stuff, we really test it against our goal and see if it supports it, is neutral, or takes away from it.  If it’s neutral or takes away, it goes.

This decision and clear statement (I think Marisa is who put it together for us) pricked my memory and I pulled out our attendee survey comments.  What did you like the most about DevOpsDays Austin 2018?  “Ability to collaborate with others.” “Enjoyed hearing what others were doing.” “Focus on the community.” “It’s a well-run, intimate conference.  I always see people I know.” “The community involvement.”  Her sentence crystallized what people were telling us was their favorite part of the event – super!

OK, so what does that mean for each area?

Content

People love the lightning talks more than anything.  Then the keynotes. Then the talks. It’s why we tried the attendee voting. The discussion covered how many of the talks seem too long and boring even at 35 minutes, and people trying to get too technical in them suffer from people not being able to follow along well due to screen size and large group.  People say they want themed tracks and stuff, but we rely on volunteers giving talks, we aren’t buying these off the shelf somewhere (“Give me 6 Kubernetes talks, 6 DevOps culture talks, 6 DevOps manager talks, and 6 intermediate level technical talks…”)  We are still committed to multiple technical tracks (DoDA was the first DoD to do this, many are still uni-track) because we’re 7 years in and we have a great diversity of experience in our community, and people don’t want to sit through the same messaging again.

Some talks are beloved and others aren’t.  As we sifted through the details, one comment from “What can we do better” on the attendee survey came to me.  “Talks focused on ‘I am a _____, here’s the problem we had and how we solved it.’ I say that because one of the coolest, most useful talks I saw was the Coinbase engineer who described how he used EBS volumes creatively to solve their scaling problem.”

So we decided to retire the voting but heavily curate the talks.  We don’t want “whatever talk you’re giving nowadays on the DevOps talk circuit” – we want talks in that format, the problem you had and how you solved it.

We’re working out the details, but we’re thinking about having these talks be more like 15 minutes long, with then linked openspaces that afternoon for the truly interested to get together and go ‘command line level’ with them.  This also allows for more breaks and collaboration time.

We also decided that idiosyncratic is better.  A couple of the organizers got excited about a sports/fitness theme to align with the stadium; one wants to set up a 5K, one has a wife that does yoga classes and we could have one, we can give fitbits as speaker gifts… While I and the other Agile Admins have been filming lynda.com courses and doing other creative things, the advice we keep getting from producers and directors and content managers is “Use *your* voice.  Do what *you* find interesting and other people will find it interesting.” Andrew Shafer loves running Werewolf games at openspaces at conferences, and people really respond to it! So we’re not going to hesitate to put stuff in we find interesting and we figure that enthusiasm will draw others. Trying to give attendees a “standard conference experience” is severely counterproductive because there’s plenty of regular conferences for people to go to, they get sick of it, and that doesn’t fit the devopsdays ethos in the first place.

Sponsors

I challenged the group.  “Tell me why we should have sponsors at all?  Half our revenue was ticket sales and half was from sponsors.  If we double ticket prices to $400 – still very low for any 2-day conference in the world – we can just not take sponsors at all, done and done. If we needed their money it’d be one thing, but we don’t. Let them spend their ‘limited marketing budget’ on the DoD events that do need it. How do the sponsors contribute to our goal other than with funding?”

The immediate response was that there are a bunch of sponsors who *are* part of the community and interacting with them is important; we have loads of Amazon/Google/Atlassian/Oracle/etc hiring going on here for example, and folks who work for Chef and Salt and Puppet and so on in town… We want those folks to be part of the conversation.  Just not disrupt that conversation.  And, some people pay for those tickets out of pocket so having some money to defray attendee costs is good.

We decided to try something different – we are using the luxury boxes at the stadium more and more; they’re relatively inexpensive and we used them for all the openspaces and such this year.   What if, we said, we intersperse sponsor suites with openspace suites, maybe even have them host some of the openspaces, do their own presentations in there too for whoever’s interested?  This means a limited number of sponsor slots (no more than 10, possibly fewer), but a more premium experience right there where the action is happening. And target Austin-presence companies to let them know about it. They can also then get food/drink catered into their suites to bring people in even more.

Attendees

Keep the headcount low – at least our limit of 400 from this year, if not lower. Consider a ‘two-tier’ ticket price with one price if your company is paying and another if you are; Data Day Austin has used this format to good effect.  Lets the non-backed solo folks in without breaking their bank but lets companies that do send attendees pay a reasonable amount.

Venue

UT Stadium is great, we don’t really see a reason to do all the work to change if we’re not doing booths and we’re going with a suite strategy for sponsors. Plus we have developed great relationships with the venue staff.

Keep refining the AV experience but doing it ourselves – we bought equipment and have a large set of “A/V geeks” so we don’t need to have outside people do it.

Food

Keep with boxed lunches. Austinites have had enough BBQ and tex-mex and this event is primarily for them per our goal. The benefit of fast lunch and snacks was tremendous this year. Could spend more on boxes from premium vendors but keep it boxed.  Maybe do drink service ourselves because we got truly rooked by the UT caterers on it this year.  Though Rich said he found the place the athletes eat and we might be able to get in on that… Keeping it fast, though, one way or the other.

Happy hour

We put a lot of work into this and spend double what the happy hour sponsor gives us each year, and then only half the people come and only half of those say they like it.  This year we had unlimited food and booze at a venue with video games in it for Pete’s sake, I think we’re done chasing the idea of the ultimate happy your. Probably we’ll do more of an onsite short sponsor room crawl at the venue, and then an “after party” we don’t put as much money/work into. “A couple free rounds at Scholtz’, get your own ass there.”

Conclusion

All right, that’s all the plan one dinner could get us.  But in the end, we’re happy with how the event went this year.  We’ll change a couple of the things that didn’t work out – talk voting, no booths – but not back to the old way because we already know that was suboptimal, instead we’ll try more options!  If you don’t have experiments not work out, you’re not being experimental enough, so we embrace that with DevOpsDays Austin.

Let us know your thoughts too!  Who are you, and what do you get or want to get out of DevOpsDays Austin?

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