Internal Tech Conference Toolkit
This blog post is the last in a three part series on running internal technology conferences. The first post addressed why you should run an internal conference and the second post focused on how to help speakers prepare for a conference. This article is a collection of tips and ideas based on Klarna’s experience running the KonferenSE, Klarna Engineering’s internal conference. These tips worked for us, but what works for you might be different, so think of this more as a guide for what to think about than a step by step guide. The topics are arranged loosely in the order in which you should be thinking about them.
Table of contents:
- Pitching the conference to management
- Call for Papers
- Building the agenda and selecting the sessions
- Confirming/declining sessions
- Helping presenters prepare
- Photos, videos and music
- Signing people up
- Collecting feedback
- On the day
Pitching the conference to management
When you approach engineering management to get approval for your conference you’re looking to get two things. The first is simple approval: a budget and permission to work on the project. The second is true buy-in and support. This means making it clear to team leads that everyone should be able to attend (no meetings on the day of the conference) and that speakers and organisers should be encouraged to invest time and energy in preparing for the event. It also means giving the conference team the scope to make their own decisions about the details of the event. In particular, letting the conference team select the sessions and put together the agenda can lead to more diverse and refreshing content.
The right way to approach the management team depends a lot on your organisational culture. Preparation that might be useful includes having some idea about what sessions you’d like to see (for instance tools that should be more widely shared or areas of the business you’d like to learn more about), having a sense of the budget and being very clear about the benefits the conference would have for your organisation.
In Klarna’s case getting approval for the conference was remarkably easy — it took less than a week, a one page pitch and a totally fictional sample agenda to go from two engineers chatting in a room to full management approval and a budget.
Here’s a list of the main expenses you should plan for, along with roughly how much of the conference budget they accounted for in Klarna’s case:
- Venue and food. (70%)
- Swag (tshirts, stickers, name badges etc) and printed agendas and posters. (A little over 10%)
- Video and photos. (A little over 10%)
- External speakers. (A little under 10%)
- Speaker training. (In Klarna’s case this came from the general training/education budget)
- Participant transport and education costs. (In our case all the participants were already in Stockholm to participate in Klarna’s yearly Kickoff. If you can find a way to make the conference feel like a natural part of the company’s calendar, it does smooth the path.)
The make up of your organising team should be representative of the people who will attend your conference. Try and find organisers who work with a variety of technologies from across the organisation and who are based on different sites. You might find the diversity checklist a useful tool to check that your organising team is as diverse as you’d like your presenters to be.
Most of your team should be engineers, but it’s also invaluable to get help from people who are experienced in organising events. The KonferenSE team has included the Engineering Department Coordinator and a representative from the HR team, and there’s no way it would have happened without them. As well as simply making things happen (finding the venue, publicising the conference internally, coordinating with outside providers) they knew the organisation well and had great suggestions for how to make the event better. Michal Tirosh from HR also gave a couple of great lightning talks, on consecutive years, (on hiring female engineers and the relationship between HR and developers) and Elspeth Andrell, the Department Coordinator, gave some really nice introductions to some of the speakers.
It’s important that people joining the team realise that arranging the conference is hard (and rewarding!) work, and that it’ll take up a significant amount of time and energy in the run up to the event. Their manager and/or team should know this too.
Finally, think of all the tasks that need to be done and make sure that there is someone on the team willing to carry them out. Do you have someone to build and maintain the website? Do you have people who will coach speakers, or encourage people to submit talks? What about giving the opening and closing words on the day? If you don’t have anyone on the team who will do this work then do you have someone who will take charge of getting it done, either by outsourcing it or finding someone in your organisation who is willing to help?
Klarna’s team (for a 350 person conference) was made up of 9 people — 7 engineers and 2 non-engineers. This size worked well for us.
One of the team’s first tasks is to set a timeline for the conference’s preparation. The sample timeline below is relatively relaxed, and is more or less what Klarna did for its second conference. However, if you have a pressing reason to organise something much faster it is definitely possible — Klarna’s first conference took place 10 weeks after it was approved (one month of which was during the summer, when most of the Swedish headquarters take long vacations).
6 months to go
- Assemble your team.
- Choose a date (if there are any conferences that many of your developers attend at the same time of year contact their organisers to make sure you don’t clash).
- Book a venue.
- If you’d like to invite any external speakers, start approaching them. Many high profile speakers get booked up a long time ahead.
- Make sure the date is booked off in department calendars.
- Start picking a theme.
4 months to go
- Launch your website.
- Open your CFP and start encouraging people to submit talks and workshops.
- Start thinking about your speaker training.
- Start planning transportation and accommodation for people flying to the conference.
2.5 months to go
- Close your CFP.
- Choose the sessions and assemble an agenda.
- Get the speakers to commit to speaking, and start booking their first practice sessions. Read more about how to help speakers prepare.
- Start finalising talk titles, descriptions, speaker bios and photos.
- Book a photographer and videographer. Bring the photographer in to take portraits of the speakers.
1.5 months to go
- Announce the agenda on the website.
- Open the sign-up form.
- Start finding suppliers for your swag.
- Run speaker training.
- Start working closely with your presenters to prepare their presentations.
1 month to go
- If any of your sessions are workshops with limited spots, close registration for them and send invites to the participants that you have spaces for. If the workshops take place on the day before or after the conference this is especially important, as the participants need to have the workshops in their calendars well ahead of time.
- Every presenter should have made a serious start on their session, including a walkthrough or dry run.
- Make sure that all your swag is ordered, or that the supplier can work on short notice.
2 weeks to go
- Registrations should officially close. You can still accept last minute registrations if people’s plans change or there are new hires.
- Every session should be more or less final. The focus now should be on practicing and making the slides look great.
- Print name badges.
- Start planning practicalities like when the team will get to the venue and how they’ll set up.
- Email workshop participants to let them know about any setup they need to do ahead of time, for instance downloading or setting up tools.
Venues get booked up a long time in advance, so make sure to book your venue early. Some considerations:
- Does the venue have space for the kinds of sessions that you want to run? If you have some large sessions (keynotes, for example) then is the room that will accommodate them also appropriate for smaller sessions when you break into smaller tracks? Is there space for workshops?
- Does the venue have experience accommodating conferences?
- Is the AV equipment (projectors and sound systems) appropriate? Is there a technician who can help you with any problems on the day?
- How’s the WiFi?
- Is the venue easy for the participants to travel to?
- Is there good space for mingling? How about lunch?
- Can the venue cater for the dietary requirements of all of your participants?
Picking a keynote is tricky, because you want a talk that is relevant and interesting to all of the conference participants. An opening keynote will set the mood for the rest of the day, so it’s really important to get it right. Sometimes the right solution here is to invite an external speaker. In 2015 we hosted Dan North (who also ran a workshop) followed by Dave Farley in 2016. Whoever you consider, make sure to watch videos of their previous talks to check that they’re a good fit.
Picking a design/branding theme for your conference can be a lot of fun. It’ll impact the website, printed materials and swag. You can even let it influence the music between talks. If you get it right it’ll help people get excited and remember the day. Naturally Klarna’s first conference was viking themed, and the second conference has an unquestionably epic retro theme.
Giveaways will help people remember the day, and it feels great to see them around the office over the following year. Participant t-shirts, stickers, name badges with custom lanyards, organiser t-shirts and speaker gifts all work well.
When picking a speaker gift consider picking something that the speakers will display proudly on their desks — it’ll keep people thinking about the conference (and contributing to it) throughout the year.
If you are ordering clothing then check whether the sizes you are ordering come out the way you expect. If participants end up with t-shirts or hoodies that don’t fit, then they won’t wear them.
Always assume that your supplier will face delays, and tell them that the conference is a few days earlier than it actually is. Make sure to have both straight and fitted cuts available, in a variety of sizes. We ask participants what size and cut they want as part of the signup form (and make sure to hand them the right size on the day) and ordered plenty of extra in each size and cut. You can also write the size on the back of their name badge to make it easy for you to find them a shirt on the day. It’s worth including a ‘no shirt’ option, too.
It also makes sense to have special organiser shirts in a bright and noticeable colour to make your team easy to spot on the day. Whether it’s a question, a complaint or a compliment, people will want to find you!
Finally, when you design a shirt try and make one that people will wear!
Call for papers
For me publishing the CFP (call for papers) is the most nerve-wracking part of organising a conference. The conference will only succeed if you have enough people willing to talk about interesting subjects. To make matters worse most submissions tend to come in right before submissions close, so it’s hard to know how you are doing until it’s done.
The first step is putting together a form that includes all the questions that you’ll need to ask to choose the talks. Google Forms was good enough for us. Don’t forget to include a clear deadline and information on who to contact with enquiries at the top of the form. Aside from the obvious questions (working title, description etc) you might want to ask:
- What lengths/formats is the talk appropriate for? Choices here include full length talk, workshop and ignite talk, and will be informed by the structure you plan for the day. It’s best to let them select more than one option, as that will give you more flexibility when scheduling.
- Who is the intended audience, and what background knowledge is required? This won’t always be obvious from the description alone.
- Have you spoken at conferences before, and if so where can we see videos? Be careful that you don’t discourage new speakers with this question.
There’s a tricky balance between having a quick and easy form to encourage lots of people to submit without thinking too hard, and having a detailed form that will make it easier for you to select the talks without having to go back to the potential speakers with lots of questions. This is especially true the first year that you run your conference, when people might need a bit more encouragement to participate.
Alongside the form itself consider publishing an explanation of what you look for when selecting sessions, and what kind of sessions you avoid. This will help people submit better talks and also help you when the time comes to select the sessions. You can see Klarna’s first iteration of this document here.
Once your form is ready it’s time to send it out. In addition to sending it to Engineering you might want to send it to other departments (or key individuals) that might be able to give talks that are interesting and relevant to your engineers. Some of the most memorable talks at Klarna’s conferences did not come from developers. For example Daniel Lange from Product spoke about user testing and cultural differences and Georgios Kryparos from Security Operations gave a engineering focussed and demo-packed introduction to client side attacks (hackers targeting your laptop when it is out of the office.)
There are plenty of people in your organisation who have fascinating things to say about their day to day work, but who don’t realise that other people will find it interesting. There are also people who have a talk idea, but are nervous about speaking and are waiting to be given a nudge to submit it. You may also find engineers who want to talk but could use a little help working out exactly what to submit. Encouraging all these people to submit their talks and helping them work out what to put on the CFP is one of the areas where it is worth investing a lot of time and effort.
Here are a few practical things that you can do:
- Think about impressive or interesting things you heard about over the past year, and reach out to the people responsible to suggest they submit a talk.
- Talk to the team leads and have them approach people on their team with ideas and encouragement.
- Get the organisers together and go through each team in the organisation. What are they uniquely good at? What would you like to know about their problems and solutions? When you’ve found some topics talk to the teams and suggest them.
- Make sure the CFP is regularly mentioned in newsletters, all-hands meetings and on Slack/HipChat/IRC. Make sure people know who they can approach to talk through ideas.
If your CFP goes well then you will end up turning down lots of submissions. When you approach potential speakers yourself, make sure they understand that there’s no guarantee that their talk will be submitted.
Setting the structure of the day
The first step in working out your agenda is choosing the structure of the day: the number of tracks, the session lengths and how it will all fit together.
Klarna’s conferences included:
- 45 minute talks, including 5 minutes for questions. Full length talks are good for subjects that require more in-depth coverage.
- 30 minute talks, including 5 minutes for questions. These suit some topics better and are less intimidating for less experienced speakers. They are a good candidate to put straight after lunch, when attention spans tend to be shortest.
- 5 minute ignite/lightning talks, where the slides auto-advance every 15 seconds. This format is often a highlight of the conference. They also give you a chance to get more people on stage, and for speakers to get across a single interesting idea. We’ve found that they’re a good high energy way to end the day, and we don’t run other sessions at the same time.
- 100 minute workshops. There are lots of different things you can do with this format. They provide opportunities for mingling, memorable experiences and a break for people who find sitting through talks difficult. Klarna’s have included coding games, a hands on introduction to Klarna’s UI components, a security challenge walkthrough and more.
- Bonus workshops/training and unconferences the day before the main conference.
- A keynote, opening words and closing words.
When working out the timing don’t forget to include plenty of time for participants to get to know each other (breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks or drinks.) You’ll also need to schedule time for people to move between sessions. You can look at the KonferenSE website to see the format used by Klarna.
Once you’ve worked out the structure of the day you’ll know how many talks of each type you can include.
Choosing talks and workshops
Choosing which submissions to accept is a challenge, and one that we still haven’t fully solved. The process Klarna uses is as follows:
- The team meets to discuss the process. We review the guidelines on ‘how we choose talks’ that we published alongside the CFP.
- The whole team reviews every submission and gives each one a point score. The method we use is quite arbitrary, but seems to work well for us. We divide the talks into categories: workshops, regular sessions (grouping 45 and 30 minute talks together) and ignite talks. Each member of the team is given a fixed number of points to allocate per category. Usually the number of points is equal to the number of sessions submitted to that category. Then they go away and, in their own time, fill in a Google spreadsheet with their point allocations. If they only like two of the workshops they can allocate them all their points. If they like them all equally then they all get one point (which is equivalent to not voting at all!)
- Once everyone has voted the talks are sorted by the number of points they receive, though we also count the number of people who voted for them. This usually divides sessions into three categories: sessions that are obvious yeses that got lots of votes from many people, sessions that got a good number of points (either lots from one person, or a few from many people) and sessions that we can probably ignore.
- The team meets again to actually choose the talks. We start with workshops, then discuss 45 and 30 minute talks, and finally move on to ingnite/lightning talks. The results of the vote are a useful guide here, but they aren’t the only factor. We make sure that the sessions cover a wide variety of subjects, and that we have speakers from across the organisation. We’ve found it useful to use a diversity checklist (below) to ensure we have the kind of variety that we’re looking for. In this meeting it’s important that team members are really open with one another about how they feel. In particular, if anyone on the team is passionate about a particular talk then we make sure that their opinion is heard. Usually this meeting ends with agreement about most of the sessions, and some questions that we need to ask the speakers about submissions that we aren’t totally sure about. For instance, we might want to ask a speaker who wanted to speak for 45 minutes if they’d be willing to speak for 30 minutes, or we might want to check what practical experience a speaker has of their subject.
- Once we’ve answered all the questions we meet again and make the final selections.
The diversity checklist
Here are the questions we ask ourselves to check that our selection of sessions and presenters is varied enough:
- Do we have representation from each of our development sites?
- Do we have talks that will interest people with different specialisations? For instance frontend, backend, product/business, infrastructure, ops.
- Do we have enough ‘fun’ sessions? Introductory sessions? In-depth technical dives?
- Do we have a good balance of genders and nationalities?
- Do we have enough newer or non-management employees?
Putting sessions into the agenda
Once you’ve chosen your sessions it’s time to arrange them in your agenda. Some tips:
- Get an understanding of what the different rooms look like. Make sure that you don’t put a niche talk (that’ll have a smaller audience) in a big room.
- Audiences tend to go to sleep in the session after lunch, so this is a good slot for fun topics and energetic speakers to keep everyone awake.
- Consider printing the session titles on cards and physically rearranging them. It’s fun, and it works.
- Once you have a draft agenda imagine different conference attendees (you can imagine specific people you know, if it’ll help) and check that each of them have something they’ll enjoy in every time slot. Don’t have two talks that will be of the most interest to the same people going on at the same time.
We found that having one or two people work on putting the sessions into the agenda before taking it to the team for approval worked well.
Once you have your agenda together start approaching the selected speakers. Make sure they know what’s expected of them and have them commit to your various internal deadlines (read more about these in this post on helping speakers prepare.)
Once all the presenters have confirmed, it’s time to let the other people who submitted know that they weren’t accepted. Sometimes their talks would make a great tech talk/brownbag presentation during the year. If that’s the case make sure to tell them, and let them know how to set one up.
Helping presenters prepare
Helping presenters prepare is by far the most important part of the organising team’s job, and the area where you should invest the most effort. Because it is so important it has its very own article.
Photos, videos and music
Audiovisual media can add a lot to the day. Options to consider include:
- Filming the talks (make sure to discuss including the slides/screenshare with the videographer.) You can use these internally so that people can catch up on talks that they missed. With the speakers’ permission you can also publish and promote them online. This is a nice way to give back to the community, and it helps your brand.
- Portraits of the speakers to use on the agenda.
- Photos of the event, to share and enjoy.
- An intro clip to use at the start of videos, with a jingle. Watch any of the videos from 2016 to see what I mean. You can use the music as the speakers get on stage. It’s nice if this matches the theme you use for your swag.
- Music to play between the talks.
Signing people up
Think carefully about what you need to know from the participants before you send out the signup form. Things that are easy to forget are:
- Allergies/dietary requirements.
- Shirt size and cut.
- Any information you want to be able to print on the name badge. We print name, role, team and site. This makes mingling a bit easier.
- If you are holding workshops that have a limited number of participants, include an option to register for these on the signup form. Do try and include a link to the agenda, so that people know what they’d be missing out on. Also include any information you need to decide who gets allocated spots. In our case employees always get preference over consultants.
- Deadlines for signing up. As discussed above, it might make sense to close signup for the workshops before you close signup for the conference itself. Regardless, be aware that you’ll have last minute registrations after the deadline.
It’s amazing how many participants cannot remember whether or not they filled out the signup form, so give them an easy way to check this. Again, Google Forms worked well for Klarna.
Consider how you’ll collect feedback ahead of time. Whilst planning the conference keep thinking about what feedback would be useful when planning the event next time, and use those ideas to choose your questions. When you put the form together put some thought into how you’ll analyse the data, so you don’t end up with information that is difficult to make sense of.
On the day
Make sure that everyone in the team knows what their responsibilities will be on the day of the conference (preparing rooms, handling registrations, coordinating with the videographer etc.) Agree on a way to stay in touch (Slack? WhatsApp?) and make sure that the team is visible and easy to approach with questions. Make a point of taking good care of the presenters.
Finally, find time to step back and enjoy it! After months of work you can watch as your whole engineering organisation shares their knowledge and experience and celebrates their culture.
Once it’s over head out for a meal and drinks with the organising team, and don’t forget to hold a retro. Also, if you found this guide useful or have any feedback please let me know!
About the Author
Ben Maraney is a Software Engineer at Klarna. Klarna’s internal conference grew out of a conversation between him and Case Taintor that quickly spiralled out of control. He has been on the KonferenSE organising team from the start.