Tag Archives: devopsdays

Community First! Village

2019-06-08 10.21.02

DoD Organizer Family Tour

DevOpsDays Austin sponsored this great charity this year with our proceeds, and the program is so cool I wanted to do a whole post on it.

Community First! Village “is a 51-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness.”  It consists of 200+ micro-homes and RVs and supporting infrastructure, they’re at 78% of capacity already, and they are planning for another 300 homes to be built. They’re located in southeast Austin out near the Travis County Expo Center.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0012.JPG

Aerial View of Village

And it’s really nice! The primary kind of residence are little mini-houses, 180-200 square feet in size, with electricity but no plumbing.  There are standalone bathroom buildings with individual lockable rooms. There’s kitchen buildings for more extensive cooking. There’s RVs, more expensive but better for those with medical problems. There’s a community garden (with chickens and bees), a store, a hairdresser, a garage, a forge, and more.  Heck, there’s a bus stop and an Amazon dropbox.

Here’s a series of pictures I took on our tour.

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Austin has around 2200 homeless, and the number continues to rise. My parents visited me in Austin a couple months ago, and we went out and ate and they were shocked by how many were on the street, especially as we drove through the “shelter district” downtown. There are many efforts to help, but this is an approach I hadn’t heard of before, and wanted to share with everyone.

How Does It Work?

Donna Emery, the Director of Development for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, gave us a tour and told us all about it. She’d love any of you to come tour the village as well! Mobile Loaves & Fishes as an organization has been serving the homeless for many years, and this is their deeply considered idea at making a permanent difference.

The village isn’t a shelter; it’s intended to be permanent. They identify candidates for the village via social workers and the array of people trying to help the increasing homeless population (there’s a database they all use to track homeless clients and try to get them services and such).  The person says they want to get into the Village, and there’s an about 12 month runway program to get them ready and in.

There are three rules to living in the village.

  1. Have to pay rent. Micro-homes rent for $275-$375/month, the RVs more like $435. They work to ensure they have their social services and encourage “dignified income” working in the village or otherwise. 96% of the residents pay their rent on time, which is better than your average apartment building!
  2. Have to follow civil law. This isn’t “anything goes”, and safety is paramount. They don’t turn you away if you have a alcohol or substance abuse problem – you’re only going to get over that if you have housing – but crime isn’t allowed. It isn’t a major problem for them; homeless are generally the victims, not the perpetrators, of crimes (other than the criminalization of being homeless, of course). Applicants do have criminal background checks – they don’t disqualify you out of hand for having a record though, but don’t allow sex offenders and evaluate a past of violent crime carefully.
  3. Have to follow the rules of the community (like a strict HOA) – you have to care for your neighborhood. This isn’t a jungle, it’s a community. The place was very clean and well tended. (Pets are welcome, though! We spoke with a man walking his dog at length on our tour.)

Last year, residents earned $650k in “dignified income” – working in the gardens, crafting, doing maintenance, working in the garage and market…  You can make $900/mo from a job cleaning the community bathrooms, for example. Donna stressed that they don’t rely on handouts – it harms the dignity of the people and you don’t take care of things that are free. When a major tech company donated a bunch of tablets, they set up a monthly tablet rental.  “But those are free, we’re giving them to you, don’t make money off them,” they initially complained. But MLF explained that handouts are an unhealthy dynamic, and this way the renters respect the tablets – and themselves – more. They’ve put a lot of thought and experience into creating a place where communities and lives can grow for people that have had nothing.

Of course, they provide a lot of help, from social services to things like teaching them to use Netspend for money management.

Blue ribbon Austin business and organizations have donated a lot of the infrastructure to make this work – Alamo Drafthouse, HEB, Charles Maund, the Topfer family, and many more.

Really A Community

But the thing I found the most striking about this is that it’s really a community, and a part of the larger community around it.

40% of the residents are women. There have been two weddings so far among the residents and two residents passed away with their wishes to be interred in the Village. The average age of homeless coming there is around 50 and they’ve been chronically homeless for around 10 years. This isn’t an attempt at “give them a shower and shave and get them a job and send them back out into the wild,” this is a permanent home where they can belong as long as they want. Donna shared with us that what really makes persistent homelessness is some kind of crisis combined with a collapse of a person’s social relationships – no family, no friends to help. Being sent away from a community doesn’t tend to form better social support, does it?

From their FAQ:

It’s all about relationships. Mobile Loaves & Fishes desires to empower the community around us into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. We achieve this vision through Community First! Village by taking a relational approach for connecting with our homeless brothers and sisters, instead of a transactional approach. When we bring an individual into community with others, we truly begin to make a sustainable impact on their lives.

Mobile Loaves & Fishes believes that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family. That’s why our focus at Community First! Village is to do more than just provide adequate housing. We have developed a community with supportive services and amenities to help address an individual’s relational needs at a fraction of the cost of traditional housing initiatives. We seek to empower our residents to build relationships with others, and to experience healing and restoration as part of engaging with a broader community.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0643.JPGThe businesses aren’t just for the residents – you can go there to the garage and pay to get your oil changed.  You can go attend their movie nights (the Alamo donated a projector) that are open to the public like any movie night in any park. They do things like a trail of lights during the holidays. There’s plenty of reasons for non-residents to go there, it’s not a “camp.” It’s just a subdivision, really, like any other one you’d drive through in Austin.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0173.JPGHeck, you can go live there. 170 of the occupants are former homeless, but there are also many “mission families” living there with them to provide help and more strongly tie them into the social fabric of the Austin community.  Or you can rent spare homes on AirBNB!  They have a hall (“Unity Hall”) that can accommodate up to 300 and there’s a commercial kitchen attached (also staffed by residents) so you can host events there – we started seriously looking at it for smaller tech events. (More pics are in the slideshow above).

How Can You Help?

Let’s get real.  If you’re reading this tech blog you’re probably incredibly well off. Working for a company that’s incredibly well off. We have an embarrassment of riches in the tech scene here in Austin, living next to people with nothing. In DevOps we talk continually about collaboration, sharing, and community – one would think that our appetite for helping the less fortunate would go farther than just making sure you get an underrepresented person on your next tech panel.

You can help with funding.  Their Phase II capital campaign is building more homes and supporting buildings, a clinic, and more. Eventually they want things like dental care (an especially hard problem; it’s relatively expensive but dental problems unheeded turn into medical problems quickly). You can give, you can encourage your company to give. DevOpsDays Austin made spare money from sponsors, so we were able to put $25,000 into sponsoring one of the homes in their next phase.

You can help by volunteering. Persons or groups can email them and get set up to come help!  Get your church or other organization involved. They’ve had over 100 Eagle Scouts do their projects out there.

You can help by participating in your local government.  They had a long battle to be able to start the village and had to locate outside the City of Austin because of the never-ending NIMBY-ism of residents not wanting “those people” anywhere near them. Advocate for compassion and the homeless in your city council and other venues.

CFV_14_ResidentYou can help even by just going there, using the businesses, interacting with the residents to weave them into the fabric of Austin. Go on a tour to see what they’re doing out there. Bring your kids! We all had a great and deeply moving family outing in our visit to the Village.

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DevOpsDays Austin 2019 Retrospective

2019-05-02 12.49.54As mentioned, DevOpsDays Austin 2019 went off great!  And after the event, we sent out extensive surveys to attendees, sponsors, volunteers, speakers, and even the organizers to learn and improve. (Thanks to everyone who gave their feedback, we appreciate it!)

Last year we also did an extensive retrospective to figure out how we wanted this year to go, and this year’s event was driven by that feedback and our vision to make DoD Austin the place for practitioners to come, learn from each other, and build the local community.

Let me share this year’s retro with you – some of the numbers and sentiments are below with my thoughts. If you want the full details, sure, here you go!

Full DevOpsDays Austin 2019 Retrospective (pdf)

If you’re not familiar with a NPS score, it’s used to measure sentiment on a scale from -100 to +100.  When you get asked “would you recommend” something on a 1-10 scale, generally they’re taking that number and bucketing it into 1-6 being detractors (counted as negative), 7-8 being neutral, and 9-10 being promoters (counted as positive). Above 0 is “good”, above 50 is “excellent.”  See more about NPS scores here.

Sorry about the quality of the pics, these are basically ones I snapped myself on my iPhone. But hopefully they show some of what happened at the event!

Attendee Feedback (62 NPS, 50 responses)

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Damon Edwards

“Informative, laid back, friendly, humorous event. My favorite conference for a couple of years now.” 84% of attendees said they were likely to return.

The things people liked the most as measured by the freeform comments were the openspaces (9 comments), the speakers/talks, especially their diversity (8 votes), the culture/atmosphere of the event (5 votes), and the community and people (5 votes).

This makes me happy. DevOpsDays isn’t just “a conference,” it really focuses on building community – people meeting each other in a friendly and collaborative environment. The content is nice but it’s not the primary value of the event.

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Mandy Whaley

Concerns people had the most were “Nothing/great job” (10 votes), difficulty with travel and parking at the venue, including handicap access (6 votes), talks (6 votes), we want better lunches (4 votes).

Read on for more but we’re probably changing venues next year and will keep access in mind.  Now on the lunches – we used to have fancy lunches and they were a significant time and effort sink, with long lines, lots of time spent, and so on.  We moved to box lunches and now lunch goes fast and easy and leaves everyone more time to interact with each other.  We do not plan to ever change back from that, but we will see if we can get a BBQ place or something to do a nice lunch box.

(There were more likes and dislikes and we are evaluating action on all of them, but dang this post is going to be long already so I’m focusing on the top line items.)

Speaker Feedback (90 NPS, 10 responses)

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Pete Cheslock

  • “Everyone was really positive; welcoming, low-pressure environment.”
  • Experience – 50% excellent, 50% very good
  • Organization – 40% extremely, 50% very organized
  • Friendliness – 90% extremely, 10% very friendly

Likes: No tech problems/helpful techs/setup organized (x4), Supportive/welcoming (x3), Engaged audience (x3).  Dislikes: Chromebook support problem, schedule slippage, openspaces competing with Conversations talks.

Great overall, some things for us to tweak!  After several years in the same venue and buying a lot of gear, our crack AV team have the tech end of it pretty much down pat.

2019-05-03 15.20.05

Jon Loyens

Organizer Feedback (88 NPS, 8 responses)

  • “Just [wanted] to say how much I enjoy working with the crew and watching it all come together to put on a great event for the community. I get a lot out of doing it each year and see my contribution as an important way to give back.”
  • Time spent – 62.5% just right, 12.5% little long, 12.5% little short, 12.5% way too short
  • 93% likely to return (the one that isn’t pleaded a heavy year at work coming up)

Major likes included working together (x3), inclusion (x2), and the opportunity to give back (x2). Dislikes included some stressing out and looking for problems, and speaker notification happening late. There was good discussion about explaining openspaces more especially for the newer folks.

It’s important to me that our organizers have a good time too – my assigned domain on the organizer team is “Organizers” – besides working the master budget and schedule for folks, I facilitate and try to ensure that this volunteer gig is not onerous, and I’m happy we seem to be there.

2019-05-02 13.33.45

Deborah Hawkins

Volunteer Feedback (94 NPS, 17 responses)

  • Experience: 72.7% excellent, 27.78% very good
  • How much time you spend – 83% about right, 11% too much, 6% too little
  • 93% likely to return

We have a lot of volunteers from the community that come to slave away working the event for a free ticket and a couple meals, basically.  It’s very important to all of us that they have a good experience – these are the future organizers, and community members going above and beyond to give back to the community.  Boyd and Daria and the other organizers did a great job both organizing the work and making sure the volunteers had time to participate in the event and have a good experience – even given the storm-nightmare loadout at the end of the event. Thanks to all our great volunteers!

Sponsor Feedback (60 NPS, 10 responses)

  • “A++ highly recommend, etc. Y’all did a bang-up job putting this together, and the community is certainly a testament to your hard work and continuous efforts. I’ve told everyone at HQ that we need to learn from you.”
  • Experience – 70% excellent, 20% very good, 10% good
  • Liked: “Always a great event – excellent sessions, great opportunities to meet with customers and prospects.” Vendor area good. Friendly people and networking.
  • Disliked: Platinum sponsors were upstairs. Water bottles ran out. We want badge scanners. No day before setup. Only 1 minute blurb. Schedule off track. When will courtesy shipping be picked up.

2019-05-03 09.49.41So… Sponsors. For a number of years we kept expanding our sponsor offerings.  Then we realized the event had become too much of a traditional conference and we were spending lots of space, time, and effort on sponsors, when to be honest we don’t really need all that much money to put on the event.  Two years ago after a bunch of sponsor problems and everyone working themselves to the bone to provide professional conference services I did away with sponsor tables altogether. We let them back this year but really wanted to make the event not about that.  We also warn the sponsors up front this isn’t a “churn the leads” event, we want sponsors who are going to send technical people to engage with the community.

Did it work out that way?  Kinda. There’s too much expectation set up about what “conferences are like” and “DevOpsDays are like” and between the person purchasing the sponsorship and the people actually sent on site there’s a lot of room for expectations to drift.

2019-05-03 14.52.36

Tristan Slominski

I feel like there’s plenty of big conferences for that kind of sponsor engagement.  DevOpsDayses didn’t used to be like that, but as time goes on and they all grow it’s tempting to “improve” by making it more sponsor focused. We love sponsors who engage with the community but we consciously balance their participation in the event.

Funny story… Like I said we only let sponsor tables back on a limited basis this year. But there was a run on them, and we sold out of the ones we needed to fund the event quickly and had a bunch of sponsors still wanting to participate, including ones who had participated for  years. So we extended the sponsor room, just to let them participate, because we felt bad about excluding them. So we always sell out, so that’s probably a sign that we’re doing fine there.

And we got to sponsor a house for the homeless with the spare money, so that’s spiffy.

Recruiter Feedback (-50 NPS, 2 responses)

This is a new addition that didn’t work out so well. We had imagined a big recruiter speed dating thing. But few recruiters and attendees signed up for it so we pivoted into a recruiter fair.  It was during happy hour, but half the attendees leave before that. We had them by the bar, but the DevOps Trivia during the happy hour was also a big draw.

While all the recruiters rated their experience “good” they had low traffic.

So, sorry that didn’t work out. But I stressed to the organizers that this wasn’t a failure – if we don’t try new things that don’t work out sometimes, we’re not trying hard enough.

We’re one of the great grand-daddy DevOps events. We have years of experience, ample funding, and a big community.  Smaller DoDs, especially ones getting off the ground, often need to hew close to the “standard format” for a safe launch and to pay their bills.  We can afford to experiment, so I strongly urge the team every year to try different things.  It’s OK if we appeal to different sets of the community each year.  It’s OK to not do something again (even if it went well) and it’s OK to try new things as stretch goals. I kinda like putting how we run our event where our DevOps mouth is, so to speak.

This lets us try things out first. We were the first DoD with a multi-content track. We created the new “Conversations” talk format this year. We keep innovating, and sometimes there’s just not a fit given the constraints of venue, time, people, and so on. So this one didn’t go off great, but to me that just means we’re legitimately experimenting hard enough.

Ernest’s Retrospective Thoughts

Overall it went great!  Smooth, excellent execution by everyone involved. I feel like the Austin tech community is stronger for our event existing and that’s what I want out of it.

My main challenge personally this year was with the talks.

We really went into this year with an intent to curate the talks to a pretty specific practitioner format. DoD Austin has a bunch of years behind it so we don’t necessarily need the DevOps “talk circuit” talks to fill slots.  We feel like we can be very specific about the experience we want to curate – no repeat talks from other events (go watch them on the Internet, everyone posts videos!), some preference to local speakers, encourage diversity both in speakers and in content…  But we didn’t execute on that well.  We started using Papercall this year and it makes it easy for people to mass submit to multiple events – a great feature but somewhat antithetical to our needs. We had 200 submissions for 20 slots and had a lot of weeding to do and had to turn away a lot of folks. And while we had good talks, they didn’t fit our proposed theme necessarily.

We also just selected talks late, to where it risked people whose talks were declined not being able to attend because we sold out our attendee cap.

The second challenge was with openspaces.  In general the larger the event, the harder it is to make openspaces work. Once there’s more than 25 people in an openspace the format collapses and it’s just “2-3 people talking to each other and everyone else straining to hear,” basically a super crap panel talk. Putting them in the luxury boxes in the stadium worked really well there, because only so many people can fit into one, so it was a forcing function to keep them small enough to work. So they went well overall.

But some folks didn’t like them. Each year we get some feedback from folks more used to traditional content.  “Maybe we should get the openspace topics submitted before the conference so they’re already on the schedule!” No offense, but over my dead body. That’s not what openspaces are about and openspaces are the heart of DevOpsDays. They are for what the actual attendees want to talk about right then; the entire point is that they’re not programmed content. Early DevOpsDays were a couple talks and then pretty much all openspaces.  My general attitude is “if you don’t want to participate in openspaces, this is not the event for you.” We need to explain openspaces more ahead of time though, to seed ideas and get new people to understand the format.  Our experiment with mini-talks and then linked openspaces worked out great, I went to two of them and got high value out of them.

Next Year

A couple big changes are coming next year.

First of all, we’re probably changing venue.  We’ve enjoyed the stadium a lot, and love the staff there, but we’ve probably done as much as we can with the event in that particular form factor.

We’re considering going entirely to the new 20 minute talk format.  They were well received – if you really have more content than 20 minutes, a linked openspace is probably the best venue to explore it with highly engaged attendees!  And it’ll prevent people just submitting their “same talk” as much. We can also get more speakers in!

Also, we know it’s a bummer that we’ve been capping attendance and sponsors and that people who want to attend get turned away. So far we’ve felt like we have had to, both because of venue capacity but also to keep openspaces good and keep the great atmosphere and community and opportunities for engagement that make our event distinct.

Now that we have enough experience, we think we might be able to go bigger and still keep the small group and one-on-one interaction. We’ve all been to a bunch of conferences and seen other things – 1-1 mentoring table signups, for example, and other formats that facilitate it.  We’re also thinking about adding some “working groups” – opportunities to do something, produce position papers, whatnot, give the experts a really neat thing to do at the event.

And maybe even add on a third day, with all unstructured content. On a Saturday so people could bring their kids and stuff.

I wanted to just blaze big next year; the rest of the team loved the vision but reminded me how much burn-in there is on a new venue – getting A/V figured out, all the rough spots of a year one… So we may iterate into it, with getting a new venue and going slightly larger and trying out new engagement ideas next year, and then the year after saying “Big tent!  All are welcome!  Fly in for this one, no attendee or sponsor caps!” and making it a heroically sized event.

There’s no one right format for DevOpsDays – I encourage other organizers to keep experimenting as well.  Your event doesn’t have to be the same year to year; you can target different goals and audiences and sizes and such each time.

If anyone read this far, feel free and comment with your thoughts below! (Obligatory disclaimer, don’t tell me “well this isn’t right for my DevOpsDays” – that’s fine, none of this is to declare the “right” way to do an event, it’s just what is working for us in our community with our particular goals.)

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DevOpsDays Austin 2019 Highlights

devops_mascot_texas_color_swapWe held our eighth DevOpsDays Austin last month! DevOpsDays Austin 2019 was held at the UT Austin stadium for two days full of talks, openspaces, and so on. All the videos of the sessions are up on YouTube in the DevOps Austin channel that holds other years’ videos as well.

Here’s my top 10 countdown list of great things about this year’s DevOpsDays Austin!

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Platinum Sponsor Suite

10. We brought the sponsor room back, and added platinum suites in the stadium luxury boxes so sponsors that wanted to hold sessions could do so. There were very well attended sessions in these suites!

9. We had two content tracks and a new “Conversations” talk format – a short 20 minute talk followed by a linked openspace for interactive demos and discussions and command line stuff that doesn’t do well in a talk session. We only had space for a handful of them but they were very highly rated and we’re considering shifting significantly towards them next year.

8. We made the happy hour more modest and onsite, but with DevOps Trivia from Patrick Debois!  We had a bunch of teams compete and it was a wild and woolly time. We even used Patrick’s zender.tv online trivia thing to let people outside the venue compete.

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The remnants of the cupcakes

7. Our fine venue, food, and drink team and vendors… We ripped into some mini cupcakes at snack time!!!

6. The openspaces.  I actually got to attend some this year instead of just running around working.  And they were all brilliant.

5. Our organizers! We bestowed the title of MVP organizer on two organizers this year – Daria Ilic for her great job with communication and Dan Zentgraf for doing a yeoman job with the sponsors.

Special thanks to all the DevOpsDays Austin 2019 organizers: James Wickett (Speakers), Peco Karayanev (Speakers), Karthik Gaekwad (Swag), Daria Ilic (Marketing, Volunteers), Dan Zentgraf (Sponsors), Tom Hall (Sponsors), Boyd Hemphill (Volunteers), Scott Baldwin (Web site), Lee Thompson (AV), Carl Perry (AV), Ian Richardson (Attendees), Chris Casey (Signage and Slides), Richard Boyd (Venue, Food, Happy Hour), Asif Ahmad (Venue, Food, Happy Hour), Bailey Moore (Venue, Food, Happy Hour), and thanks to Laura from ConferenceOps for doing all our finances.

4. I let the other organizers talk me into buying the Jumbotron!  I am naturally thrifty so had resisted given the significant price tag in previous years, but we had a glut of sponsors and everyone really wanted it so I finally gave in. Karthik even changed his Slack name to JUMBOTRON to petition for it. It remains so until this very day. You  have to respect the dedication. So behold – the DevOpsDays Austin Jumbotron! (Yes, that’s real, not Photoshopped.)

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3. Check out our cool organizer swag I got each organizer this year as a thank you gift – custom Vans with the DevOpsDays Austin mascot on them!  (They’re only $80, if a little work intensive to design on their site, feel free and steal the idea!) People always love our DevOpsDays Austin shirts so I wanted to give the organizers a really distinctive way to show their pride in the event.

vans

2019-05-02 09.48.152. A very special thank you to DevOpsDays Austin from Mandy Whaley and the Cisco DevNet crew, who have been sponsors and speakers and attendees for many years.  I wasn’t expecting this – they actually used their sponsor shout-out time to present us onstage with a heartfelt card that they read to the audience.

We appreciate everything that Mandy and the team bring to the event and the card was super touching.2019-05-02-09.49.56.jpg

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1. What could be better than that, though, you ask? How can such a kind shout-out be number 2 on the list?

Well, we had a little problem, and that problem was a spare $25,000 from letting in the gold sponsors above our initial sponsor room cap because they really, really wanted in and we felt bad for them. DevOpsDays Austin (like all DoDs) is a non-profit, so while we keep a war chest to pay for next year’s venue and stuff, the rest has to go. Previous years we did some modest donations to the Capitol Area Food Bank; last year we actually had enough spare money so that we let each organizer do a $1000 donation to a charity of their choice. But this was quite a larger chunk, so what to do?

Some of the organizers brought up a great opportunity they knew about and had given to themselves. Here in Austin there’s a really unique program going on, the Community First! Village – a planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness.

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Community First! Village Micro-Home

And it turns out $25,000 is how much is needed to build a micro-home in their next phase of expansion, to house a formerly homeless person in their community. These are little 180-200 square foot homes with electricity but no plumbing that are the foundation of their village. The whole organizer team got super excited about this opportunity.

So that’s what we did – we sponsored one of these homes to be built. We’re pleased to have the ability to help Austin in a permanent way out of the conference!

I’m going to do a separate blog post on this because it’s an awesome program that many companies in Austin have been getting behind, and it’s remarkably successful in helping our large homeless population. But thanks so much to all the sponsors and attendees that made this possible.

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DoD Austin Organizer (and Family) Tour of the Community First! Village

We had a great time at DevOpsDays Austin this year and hope many of you did too. Next, we’ll publish a full retrospective that we hope some of you and other DevOpsDays organizers will find interesting.

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DevOpsDays Austin 2018 Videos Posted

Well, we were “unplugged,” but we managed to smuggle videos out anyway for your pleasure… Watch ’em, like ’em, comment to the speakers that you appreciate them giving to the global tech community!  Especially since this year they weren’t pre-selected, voting on talks was done at the event, so these folks prepared a talk but weren’t for sure to give it, which takes guts!

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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.

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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 hour. 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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DevOpsDays Summit Austin 2018 – “DevOps Unplugged”

Hey all!  We’re starting work on next year’s DevOpsDays Austin – our seventh here in the ATX.  Many of you have come out to the event (or another of the great DevOpsDays around the world). Well, we have some changes in store this year!

Last year’s DevOpsDays Austin, “Monsters of DevOps” was bigger than ever and had a stadium rock theme – we had a huge venue,  all the DevOps VIPs we could pull down (including the first time all 4 authors of the DevOps Handbook managed to get together at an event), multiple content tracks, killer swag, great food, a hackathon, the best Happy Hour I’ve attended at a conference, we invited in and comped local user groups to give talks…  Part of our continuing trajectory to make DoDA more all encompassing and awesome.

But – every year we sit down and discuss vision before we launch into the conference.  What do we want to accomplish and why?  Who are we serving and why?  Why are we, personally, putting in huge amounts of unpaid work to serve the community? “Because it’s there and we did it last year” isn’t a good answer, so we like to really put some thought into it.

This time when we talked about it, first in our core group and then with the rest of the 2017 organizers, we realized that we’ve been concentrating on “bigger” but we’ve been putting more and more money and effort into the parts of the event that aren’t really of high DevOps value. Here in Texas, it’s easy to conflate bigger with better, since we’re both the biggest and the best!  But we’re not sure that’s right. Many of the more expert people we know here in Austin don’t really come out to the event any more, unless they are giving a talk or recruiting for their current gig.  Talks and openspaces have kept focused on introducing new people to DevOps, enterprise folks, “horses and donkeys,” and so on.

And as we talked, we said “Well – what do we personally get out of the conference nowadays as attendees?”  The answer was “not much.” Openspaces are huge and end up being a couple people talking.  Talks are either pretty familiar from the conference circuit or also designed for new folks.  We have more content but it’s more passive content, sit and watch.  It’s good for the newbies but not as much for the experienced folks.

We contrasted this to the first couple DevOpsDays we went to in Silicon Valley.  The first couple were just in a big auditorium at LinkedIn.  There weren’t any sponsor booths. More of the event was focused on the openspaces and interaction between the highly driven participants. We ate box lunches wherever we could perch in the parking lot outside – and swag was just a t-shirt.  Heck, the third one was in a weird abandoned building Dave Nielsen had access to, we had to carry our own chairs around to talks and the food and stuff was in a concrete-and-cage loading dock. But it’s those events we got the most out of.

Therefore, this year DevOpsDays Austin is going to go to what we call a “Summit” format.  We’re reducing the size of the event, and focusing more on local, motivated practitioners.  What does this mean?

  1. No sponsor tables.  We’d love sponsors to participate, but in recent years we’ve gotten more folks who have either just sent aggressive marketers, or sent people we enjoy and then locked then down behind tables. So we’ve come up with a sponsorship package that gets them exposure and value but lets them actually participate in the event.  Folks that just want to churn leads will self-select out.  The sponsorships are less expensive, and we’ll just have venue food etc. instead of premium.
  2. No preselected talks.  Well, OK, maybe we’ll have one keynote a day.  But I went to a ProductCamp here in Austin and they did something brilliant – they had a RFC but don’t do a final selection – finalists show up and the audience votes on what talks they want to hear (kinda like openspaces but more prepared).  This means people who say ‘well… I’ll come to your event if I can talk (or sponsor if I can talk, or…)’ will self-select out. You come because you want to be here, and you can give a talk!
  3. Smaller headcount.  We’re lowering the cap (including sponsors and organizers and volunteers) to 400. We’re going to get openspaces to be the kind of highly engaged discussions that make the so valuable.  We’re going to be up front with people that attendees are expected to engage.  DoD used to be the only thing around to learn from.  But now, if you’re an enterprise person that wants to have some DevOps talked at them – you have  variety of options now, like you can go to DevOps Enterprise Summit (also a great event), or to another DevOpsDays like the one in Dallas using the conference format, or one of a dozen events either completely DevOps or DevOps-tracked.  But for here in Austin this year, we need something where the unicorns can also have an event meaningful to them, so they can gather and refresh on what’s going on. Not to say only “unicorns” are welcome, but frankly we’d prefer people only come out if they intend to discuss, share, and engage; this will not be a passive-learning friendly event.
  4. No streaming.  Every year we put a lot of work and money into live-streaming and/or recording the event.  But it’s often problematic, and doesn’t get viewed a lot – there’s so much content out there now.  But even worse, we end up having to degrade the experience of real attendees around the requirements of broadcast – space, money, schedule, the presenter has to stay in a little box… So we’re not going to do it.  You want to participate – come out and participate.

But How Can This Work???

That was everyone’s initial reaction to this plan.  But that’s silly – it has worked.  We’re just doing things that DevOpsDays has already done, that ProductCamp has already done, and so on. It’s just not what’s become customary.  After the organizers had a little time for it to sink in, they all rallied behind it with a vengeance.

We’ve run the numbers and just the basic $200/head attendee fees can pay for the venue, basic food, and a shirt, even if we get zero sponsors.  (We won’t have zero sponsors, we just put our sponsor page up and someone bought in the first hour it was live.) As we get more funding we’ll pump up the event, but deliberately focus on the core experience of highly skilled techies learning from each other, instead of adding distractions.

How Dare You Dis My Format???

This is the format we’d like to try this year.  Other events will use other formats and that’s fine. Here at DoDA we try something different every year!  We were the first to have multiple content tracks (over the complaints of some purists).  We added a hackathon, we added a local user group track… Last year we went big with a vengeance, and it was cool.  Now we’re going to do more small and exclusive, and that’ll be cool.  Next year, it’ll be different. Whatever your event is doing, more power to you, don’t confuse us having a vision we believe in with us thinking you’re “wrong.”

Come on down!

We’d love to see everyone out at DevOpsDays Austin 2018!  Come ready to interact and share.  Come ready to give a talk, with the risk it won’t make.  Come sponsor your company, just you won’t have a table to lounge at. This change has gotten us excited about running our seventh DevOpsDays, and we bet you’ll love it!

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Awesome Upcoming Austin Techie Events

We’re entering cool event season…  I thought I’d mention a bunch of the upcoming major events you may want to know about!

In terms of repeating meetings you should be going to,

  • CloudAustin – Evening meeting every 3rd Tuesday at Rackspace for cloud and related stuff aficionados! Large group, usually presentations with some discussion.
  • Agile Austin DevOps SIG – Lunchtime discussion, Lean Coffee style, at BancVue about DevOps. Sometimes fourth Wednesdays, sometimes not. There are a lot of other Agile Austin SIGs and meetings as well.
  • Austin DevOps – Evening meetup all about DevOps.  Day and location vary.
  • Docker Austin – First Thursday evenings at Rackspace, all about docker.
  • Product Austin – Usually early in the month at Capital Factory. Product management!

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