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DevOpsDays Austin 2022 Retrospective

DevOpsDays Austin was back in person in 2022 for our 10 year anniversary! So how’d it go? We are committed to transparency and metrics here so enjoy our retrospective.

Financially it went well; we sold 317 tickets and had 296 people show up (an almost unheard of 93% show rate), we were able to donate $28,000 to support the LGBT+ members of our community via Out Youth and The Trevor Project, bringing us to $100,000 donated to charity total over the history of the event, and still ended up with a $1000 increase in our bank account.

We also send out retrospective surveys to our attendees, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and even our fellow organizers to find out how we’re doing and get an idea of what we should do better on (or keep doing) in the future!

Here’s the deeper details if you want them: DevOpsDays 2022 Retrospective

To sum up, however, it’s looking good! Our last surveys were from 2019, from our last pre-pandemic DevOpsDays Austin, so we have a previous number to compare to.

Our attendee NPS was up to 77 (44 responses) from 62 (50 responses). And the things people loved were, basically, the personal interaction. Community, people, discussions, and openspaces were the most cited positives by far. We knew people had been missing that for a couple years now so our retrospective format and event plan were specifically designed to promote small group interactions.

The gripes were more varied. Primary was the food, which is fair enough. While we don’t intend to change from a boxed lunch format – it leaves so much more time for the actual conference, so we left fancy catered lunches behind long ago – we were forced to use the venue caterer and they ran out of food especially veggie options, and we had asked for breakfast tacos both mornings and on day two the breakfast was what I can only call “leftover meat bits.” So room for improvement, with the understanding that boxed lunches are here to stay, but we’ll definitely see what we can do about better options and especially making sure there’s not shortages of anyone’s dietary needs.

The other leading concern we’re just plain going to ignore, and here’s why. It was “the retro format – but what about technical talks, what about content for newbies?”

At DevOpsDays Austin we explicitly reject the assumption that all events must be the same generic thing every time. We specifically change our format every year. We’ve had the Monsters of DevOps where we went for flying in big keynoters (including all the authors of the DevOps Handbook) and doing everything up huge; we’ve had DevOps Unplugged where talks were voted in on site and there were no sponsor tables. This year we had a “class reunion” format with talks only being 20 minute “retrospectives” from what the speaker’s learned over their time in DevOps (some speakers were experienced, others were new voices). We very, very clearly talked about this format on our website, social media, and emails to attendees and sponsors. In the end, people just don’t read, and there’s nothing really to do about that. And we won’t be doing the retro format two years in a row, we’ll keep mixing it up!

Organizer feedback was good (we have 20 organizers), up slightly, with everyone enjoying working with the group, and some concerns about unclear roles and roles already taken. That’s always a challenge – we have a lot of organizers but not all of them are up to actually leading something. We have people volunteer to own roles and then encourage them to reach out to the others/the others to chip in when we need something, but that doesn’t always go well, which is frustrating for everyone. In the end, most roles need someone who can commit to consistent participation over the planning period (there’s a couple specialty roles like making signage that can be backloaded, but not many). But we want to be inclusive and not tell people “no, take the year off if you can’t be putting in a couple hours a week including making the organizer calls, and truly own something.” We’ve wrestled with this for 10 years, no clear answer is in sight.

Speakers love speaking at the event. NPS was 92, slightly up from 90 in 2019. They love the audience, how supportive and welcoming they are, and how low stress and chill the experience is. There’s always some AV issues as a fly in the ointment – we do AV checks but not everyone shows up for them.

Volunteers have a good experience too. NPS was 88, slightly down from 94 but still good; we try to make sure that the load isn’t too much on any given volunteer so they can also enjoy the event. Posting the openspace topics is always a challenge each year; we tweet out photos and then desperately type them into the sessionize, but a bunch of attendees are social media impaired I guess and it’s hard to get the schedule to everyone, but there’s not a lot of options given that openspaces are predicated on doing the agenda immediately previous; I’m not sure more time would help short of printing out copies or having live monitors everywhere.

Sponsor feedback was down from 60 to 50 NPS. They do like the audience and authentic content. The main problem was the new venue and unclear flow meant that the platinum sponsor rooms were more out of the way than we’d planned (we gave them tables in the gold area as well once this became clear). And then the general sponsor gripes about it not being a good lead gen event. We always tell sponsors this is a good participation event, not a good lead gen event, no badge scanners, no sponsor list, etc., but a previously mentioned people don’t read, plus the teams being sent out aren’t the people buying the sponsorships and often just assume they’ll be getting a standard conference experience. We sell out every year so I’ll worry about it when that stops.

There’s one other thing worth mentioning, which is that we did require masking at the event and asked people to either be vaccinated or test prior to the event.

One the one hand, a couple sponsors and attendees griped about the masking.

On the other hand, despite other events resulting in superspreading (Kubecon EU, RSA, even some DevOpsDays events):

So, with all due respect, we are very happy with our choice and that we had a safe event. No one likes wearing masks. If you don’t like it enough to not come – don’t come. Hopefully it won’t be necessary next year.

Everything was pretty good! There was one issue, though – in all the survey sub-questions, there was a drop in the perceived friendliness of the organizer team, so we’re going to make some changes there – stay tuned to hear what!

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DevOpsDays Austin Donates to Out Youth and The Trevor Project To Support LGBTQ+ Youth

We were psyched to be back and meeting in person for DevOpsDays Austin 2022 this year! Charitable donation is a part of our Austin tech culture and very important to us, and since it was our 10th anniversary we aimed to hit a total of $100,000 in charitable donations since we started the event in 2012. And we did it! We’re happy to have $28,000 to give to local charities after our event this year.

That left us with the question of who to donate to. We like to choose things that fill the greatest need in our community at the time, and strongly bias towards supporting Austin area charities. Our state government decided to help us make our decision by starting a pogrom of discrimination against LGBTQ+ Texans.

Many of our colleagues in the Austin technology community are gay, lesbian, transgender, nonbinary, or identify with other nontraditional gender identities and sexual preferences, or have family members that are. I myself have a transgender son who I’ve loved and supported through his transition, and now he’s a happy, healthy adult. We find the attempts of the Texas government to institutionalize hostile behavior towards them deeply unacceptable and want to find ways to support them.

We looked initially at charities like Equality Texas that are working to ensure the rights of LGBTQ+ Texans, but as we discussed we wanted our funds to go directly to the benefit of people in need, and not all go to the lawyers fighting the long fight.

Since $28,000 is a lot, we decided to split it up into two $14,000 donations. After some research we nominated two recipients, Out Youth and The Trevor Project, and brought them to the DoDA organizer team for a vote, which they enthusiastically approved.

We selected Out Youth for our first donation as a deeply local Austin organization directly supporting LGBT youth.

For 32 years, Out Youth has supported Central Texas LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults by providing safe places where they are loved, acknowledged, and accepted for exactly who they are. Their life-saving and life-changing programs and services ensure these promising young people develop into happy, healthy, successful adults. Out Youth hosts a variety of programs to keep their youth mentally and physically safe such as drop-in times at their youth community center, by offering free individual counseling and group therapy sessions, and through their in-school-support services. To find out more information about ways to get involved and about their services, please visit outyouth.org today.

It’s funny that our relationships with these charities usually start with us showing up with a big surprise donation and then after that getting deeply involved with the organization; we plan to go tour their house and spread the word about volunteer opportunities with them to the Austin technology community.

Not only do I have a transgender son, but also fellow Agile Admin and conference organizer James lost a brother to suicide. So while The Trevor Project isn’t Austin based per se, it does help many Austinites, and its mission of suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth is deeply and personally meaningful to us both. Therefore we chose them for our second donation this year.

The Trevor Project has worked to save young lives by providing support through our free and confidential crisis programs on platforms where young people spend their time — online and on the phone: TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat and TrevorText. We also run TrevorSpace, the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, and operate innovative education, research, and advocacy programs.

  • The Trevor Project’s research has found that having at least one accepting adult in an LGBTQ young person’s life reduces their risk of suicide by 40%.
  • Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all of the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected by anyone with whom they lived.
  • “You are lovable” – this is one of the most common phrases The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors share with youth in crisis.
  • According to Trevor’s research 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

You can sign up to become a volunteer counselor on their site; there’s extensive training and it requires a year commitment.

In closing, we appreciate the work Out Youth and The Trevor Project are doing and hope that others will look into finding ways to support them as well.

To the LBGTQ+ technologists in Austin, you are welcome, and both DevOpsDays Austin and other user groups we run like CloudAustin have published codes of conduct that don’t allow any hostile behavior towards you at our events, and we look forward to interacting with you there. Happy Pride Month!

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DevOpsDays Austin Hits $100,000 In Charitable Donations

DevOpsDays Austin believes in supporting the local community that supports us, the techies of Austin. As we’ve grown and we’ve been able to end some of our years with extra money from our sponsors. We are careful to be thrifty with the event and rely on our volunteers to do a lot, and all DevOpsDays events run on a nonprofit basis; one of the few core rules of all DevOpsDays is that the events are not for individual or corporate profit.

The Austin technical community is a cross-section of, and part of, our community. We have a diverse set of individuals from many backgrounds and neighborhoods all around the area. As technologists we are largely blessed with decent salaries and technology companies have lots of money, and many of the keenest needs in the area need relatively little funding to make a real difference. We believe it’s our responsibility as a part of the community to use part of what we make to give back to support the most vulnerable among us. Therefore we’ve made it a point to use our excess funds to give back to charities that directly help those most in need.

We started DevOpsDays Austin in 2012 from nothing, and relied on a free venue (courtesy of my employer at the time, National Instruments). We made enough to make a down payment on a venue in 2014, and by 2015 we were confident enough of our finances that we considered our first charitable donation.

The Charity Page In Our 2022 Yearbook

The natural choice was the Central Texas Food Bank (at the time, known as the Capital Area Food Bank), a well known long time Austin charity that combats hunger in the area. We gave $5000, and we also did a charity drive at the event, handing out leftover t-shirts and swag from the previous two years to those who made a donation of their own, which sent another $2600 to the food bank.

In 2016 we moved to a new, larger, much more expensive venue (the Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium out at UT Austin) so we could let more people attend DevOpsDays. That put us at the limit of our finances for a couple years, especially with our 2017 “Monsters of DevOps” blowout conference with many international speakers and great fun events. But by 2018 we had that venue dialed in as well and had $20,000 left over that we decided to donate to charity. That year, instead of sending all the donation to one charity, we let each of our 20 organizers send $1000 to a charity of their choice. This ended up driving our helpful accountant Laura at ConferenceOps batty trying to get proper tax receipts from everyone, however, and we promised her we wouldn’t do that again.

Then in 2019 we had a great event, sponsors were in a right frenzy to get in and we had to add more sponsor booths to accommodate them – which was a lot of work, but left us also with a lot of leftover money ($25,000, off a conference with only a $200k total budget). We weren’t sure how we could be the most effective with a gift like this, and one of our organizers said “Did you know… There’s a new project here in Austin that builds miniature houses for the homeless in a beautiful community?” And that’s how we were introduced to the Community First! Village, a quickly growing and very effective outgrowth of Mobile Loaves and Fishes to house the homeless. And it turns out $25,000 is exactly how much it takes to build one of those homes. Our organizers enthusiastically approved the donation and we went out and did a great tour of the site, and many of us have returned as volunteers since.

And then the hard times came. During the pandemic, DevOpsDays Austin was on ice. In fact, we had planned on moving to an even more expensive hotel venue and had a down payment in place when the lockdown came, and we had to get a lawyer into play to get our deposit back.

But the needs of the community weren’t on hold. We have many Black and brown technologists in our community, and the high profile brutality directed at them was completely unacceptable. Long time friend of DevOpsDays Austin, John Wills, started a fundraiser for Black Lives Matter around making a quilt with all his DevOpsDays shirts (many of which were from Austin) in 2020, and we felt compelled to donate $2000 of the more than $12,000 he raised.

DevOpsDays Shirt Quilt

Then we were in the long night of lockdown. We weren’t doing anything from a DevOpsDays Austin perspective in 2021, though there was a virtual DevOpsDays Texas conference to fill in some of the gap. But as jobs and aid dried up, hunger became a critical need again in Austin. Fellow organizer Boyd Hemphill encouraged people to help out and volunteer during a virtual meetup, and his words made my conscience burn till I brought it to my fellow DevOpsDays Austin organizers to see if we could dip into our reserves and help. They all enthusiastically approved a $10,000 donation to our old friends the Central Texas Food Bank again.

Two donations without any revenue, that’s good enough till we can have an event again, right? Well, you’d think, and then Russia went and invaded Ukraine.

While we’re an Austin organization and we’ve always given to help out in Austin directly, we have many Ukrainians as part of our local tech community. I worked with many of them hand in hand while I was running teams at Bazaarvoice, as we had a great relationship with the Ukrainian consulting company Softserve. We brought many of them here to Austin to work with us, we went out together, I had toasted them with “Slava Ukraini!” Many of our organizers had similar experiences. And since we don’t like bullies around here, that riled us up. After a discussion along the lines of “well, we started from nothing once, we can do it again if we have to,” we donated $10,000 to Ukrainian relief organizations Razom for Ukraine and Nova Ukraine.

And that brings us up to date with the past, but we finally managed to have DevOpsDays Austin again! In May, we got a great venue (the University of Texas Alumni Center, at half price courtesy of Bill our venue lead being an UT alum) and planned for a slightly smaller than usual (350 masked attendees, to hedge against super-spreading) conference on our 10 year anniversary – the DevOpsDays Austin 10 Year Class Reunion.

Since it was our 10th anniversary, we did a yearbook. And when I put the charitable donation page together for the yearbook, I realized we’d given $72,000 to charity over the years. 10 years and an even $100,000 sounded mighty nice.

The conference went great, and all those sponsors have been saving up their marketing money wondering what to do with it. After some laborious running of numbers I realized we could free up the $28,000 donation to get to that bar and leave enough for us to make a venue down payment the next year.

As we contemplated this year’s donation our Texas state government decided to openly attack the LGBT+ citizens of our state. Many of those in our technical community we meet with every month in user groups are gay, lesbian, transgender, binary, and so on, and this is a direct attack on many of our coworkers, colleagues, and friends. And not just them, but their children.

As a result we gave $14,000 to The Trevor Project, a national service that provides suicide prevention hotlines for LGBT+ youth, $14,000 to Out Austin, a local place for youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities. I’ll write a separate post about those organizations and why them, and more importantly how you can help.

But in the end we’ve been very happy that we’ve been able to use our position as techies in the tech hotspot of Austin to consistently give back. We’d challenge other conferences, tech companies, and individual technologists to do so as well – especially to reputable charities that directly help those who need it.

I hope that DevOpsDays Austin can continue to give back in this way over the next ten years too!

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DevOpsDays Austin is Back For 2022!

Your DevOpsDays Austin 2022 Organizers!

Well, we had to skip 2 years in a row due to the pandemic, but we were finally able to have DevOpsDays Austin in person again in 2022! It’s our tenth anniversary of DoD Austin, we had the first one at National Instruments back in 2012, one of the early DevOpsDays in the US.

We had to move to a new venue, and used the beautiful University of Texas Etter-Harbin Alumni Center (our site lead Bill is a UT alum which makes it half price!). The Etter-Harbin Center is right across from the stadium where we had DoDA in the years leading up to the hiatus. It has plenty of great outdoor spaces, which we used for lunches and happy hours, as well as a great main ballroom with views of the outside. It worked great for our target of 350 attendees, and we think we could make it work for more in the future.

We were thinking and came across the perfect theme – it’s our tenth anniversary, and we’re just back from the pandemic, and DevOps is also just a little more than ten years old and at a weird inflection point that has people asking “is DevOps dead? Where does DevOps go from here?” So we decided that since we were also in the Alumni Center, the obvious theme was our 10 Year Class Reunion!

We don’t take our themes lightly at DevOpsDays Austin. We settled on a new theme for our talks – instead of the normal RFC for whatever technical and culture topics, we required all talks to be a retrospective format – reflecting on what you’ve learned over the years of DevOps and what you think the future holds. We had lots of great speakers, many of whom are long time parts of the DoD Austin community, both locals like Rob Hirschfeld, Christa Meck, Ross Dickey, and Victor Trac, as well as folks from other parts of the Earth like Patrick Debois, Damon Edwards, J. Paul Reed, Pete Cheslock, and Michael Cote, who all frequently come to Austin to share with us.

And we printed a yearbook, with pics of speakers from all the events, our tshirts over the years, and more! Very snazzy, and we had people sign each others’ yearbooks to add some fun to the hallway track. In fact, you can view the yearbook online and buy a hardcopy here if you want!

The DevOpsDays 2022 Yearbook

We did require COVID protocols – masking inside and (honor system) vaccine or test, and while it is a bummer to not see each others’ faces, it also resulted in only one person I know of getting COVID the week after, so well worth it.

We didn’t have to worry about sponsor interest! We sold out quickly. Here’s the ones I got snaps of!

Everything went great, and it was super to finally get back together and interact with our local DevOps community. J. Paul Reed led a great session where a retro was done on DevOps in general!

And one of the best things is that we managed to carry on our tradition of giving our excess proceeds to charity! I’ll do a separate post on that, but the short form is that we contributed $28,000 to LGBT-supporting charities, half to The Trevor Project and half to Out Youth here in Austin, bringing us to $100,000 given to charity over our 10 years in existence! Stay tuned for more details on that…

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DevOpsDays Austin Reporting In

Hello Austin area tech professionals, and happy holidays. We weren’t able to have DevOpsDays Austin in 2020 due to the pandemic, though we did manage to get our money back from our venue and refund all the attendees and sponsors fully. But what’s going on with DevOpsDays Austin now?

OK, the bad news up front – we don’t believe we will be having DevOpsDays Austin in 2021. Given the current projections of the pandemic, vaccine distribution, remaining unanswered questions about how long social distancing measures will be required (through the summer at least, longer depending on how many anti-vaxxers are literally infecting our society) and the 6 month lead time required to book venues and plan and execute a show like DoD Austin, we are not going to have our usual event this year, instead planning to come roaring back with a big, fun 10th anniversary DoD Austin in our usual May time slot in 2022.

We don’t want DoD Austin to be the “first one out of the gate” to test large events. The organizers (who are also involved with various smaller events and user groups) will be staying on top of things to have smaller gatherings later into 2021 to gauge risks, response, and so on.

But, there are two pieces of good news.

The first is that since Houston, Dallas, and Austin are all in the same boat, in March of 2021 there will be instead a DevOpsDays Texas virtual conference! Some of the organizers from those three cities are banding together to try this out, with Discord-based openspaces and all kinds of innovation, based on how the team with Matt and Sasha and folks put on DevOpsDays Chicago virtually this year. Ticket sales and CFP are open, so if you are hankering for some Texas style tech, that’s your hot ticket in 2021!

The second is that DevOpsDays Austin is donating $10,000 to the Central Texas Food Bank to help fill the dramatic need the pandemic has inflicted upon our community’s families.

A little story time on this one. We hadn’t thought about doing anything at all this year in terms of DevOpsDays Austin – we are still a little touchy after having to bring lawyers into play to get our venue money back when we couldn’t have the event due to COVID, and we ran a real risk of getting completely busted out this year. So in our minds we’re just sitting hard on our nest egg waiting for winter to lift, and with our (and everyone’s) next event more than a year away to be honest DoD isn’t the top of our list of things to even think about in a given week.

But one of our DoDA organizers, Boyd Hemphill, also runs the Austin DevOps meetup, and their meetup joined our CloudAustin meetup this year for our annual “12 Clouds of Christmas” lightning talk event (also being held virtually for the first time ever). During the announcements he made an impassioned plea for people in general to help out their local communities by donating with their time, treasure, and talent; even in the relatively affluent Austin suburb of Pflugerville they are distributing food to hundreds of families a week now through his church and network of local charities because the need is so high right now.

Over the next couple days, Boyd’s words continued to sear my conscience in an attempt to spur me into action. I finally resolved that while it was lean times for DevOpsDays Austin as well, that while it’s easier to give in fat times than in lean, the need is most in the lean times. So I took the idea to James and Karthik, my fellow core organizers. They went through the same cycle I had, from “But there’s a lot of risk and uncertainty and we just fought to get that money back” to “This is totally the right thing to do” in a short amount of time.

We already had a DoD Austin organizer meeting scheduled for last Friday, to touch base after a long time apart and talk about our plans and come to terms with “no 2021” and “plug into DoD Texas if you want to help with a virtual event” and all. This is a big financial decision so we brought it onto the agenda and put it to the whole organizer team to vote, and everyone was extremely in favor. Boyd was there and was surprised by it too, having no idea what his words had set in motion! Someone noted “we started DevOpsDays Austin from $0 before, we can do it again if we have to.” Luckily this isn’t busting us out and we’ll have enough for a venue down payment in 2022, but the sentiment is appreciated.

So I wanted to thank Boyd for the spark, all the DevOpsDays Organizers for setting the fire, and also all our previous DevOpsDays Austin organizers and attendees for providing the fuel. We really appreciate all the participants in our local tech community and love its passion for giving back and helping Austin and the surrounding area.

This morning I spoke to a lady from the Central Texas Food Bank and she said that donations are currently being tripled due to matches from a new donor that just came on, their Web site only says doubled but even getting your Web site updated promptly is difficult right now during the holidays and a pandemic!

In closing I’d like to encourage you to also consider if you can help others right now as well. It’s hard times, but we in tech are mostly pretty well off; there are many unemployed or having to work hard, public jobs during a plague to make ends meet. The generous nature of the Austin tech scene is one of the best and most distinct things about it – the sharing, collaboration, and openness are what makes it better and stronger IMO than some other areas’ tech communities. Help keep Austin weird and help your fellow humans this holiday season!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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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