Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Conferences are a double edged sword

This post isn't for developers, its for managers.

In the Python world once a year there is Pycon. In other languages, tools, and frameworks they all have that one big conference where all the top people go. There are classes, tutorials, scheduled talks, open spaces, keynotes, and tons of networking. All your developers will want to go, and the ones that do will rave about the time they had. So how do you as a manager handle a big conference?

Conferences are a double edged sword. If handled well they will be a huge boon to you and your organization. Handled poorly and they can be devastating to you, your projects, your team, and your organization. Knowing which way to swing the 'conference sword' in such a way that you don't get cut is a handy tool to have in your pocket.

First, remember that at the big conference there will be lots of networking. Make sure your developers are really happy with you before they go. Also have your developers go with business cards. Ask them to bring back business cards. Remind them of whatever referral policy your company might have. Why pay for a headhunter when your own staff can do the hiring for you?

Second, remember that people will be scoping out your staff for potential hire. Don't anger your developers immediately before, during, or immediately after a conference. Keep deadlines as far away as possible from the conference. Don't begrudge them leaving and task them with petty work. Because what would have been training plus an energizing break for your staff will now be considered job fair by your staff.

Third, try to cover even a portion of the costs of the conference. If your organization doesn't officially do conferences, then offer to pay for their time during the sprints just so long as that open source work even tangentially affects what they do back at the office. That way they don't use up so much leave and odds are they'll have lots of smart comrades around to help them through some of the tricky parts.

Fourth, when the developers come back, ask them what they learned. Ask if they can incorporate these lessons into current or future tasks. They'll gush about twenty new things and most of them will be inapplicable. But there will be one or two things that are a perfect match and you'll both be grinning at each other in regards to challenges now effortlessly overcome or new services you can offer.

Fifth, try to go yourself. In fact, try and organize the whole trip. If you are close enough, rent vehicles and drive down. Set up the hotel rooms. You'll be able to network with other manager types and your staff will rave about you. Hiring will become that much easier.

So lets look at two ways to handle a big conference like Pycon:

The Wrong Way
  • Block any attempts the developers make in getting reimbursement for the trip.
  • Schedule deadlines around the conference. If anything goes wrong, declare that this is why people should not go.
  • Before the conference, grumble about developers going away and then when they come back grumble about time lost.
  • Developer time lost at the conference should not be compounded by talking about the conference when they come back.
  • Act surprised when your team comes back angry and at low morale levels. Act more surprised when they leave for positions elsewhere.
The Right Way
  • Get business cards and fliers for your staff to bring to the conference.
  • In the meeting before the conference, go over the company referral system for new hires. Also offer beer or a meal for new hires.
  • At least get the developers paid hours for the sprints. Beg and borrow from your own manager to try and cover other parts of the conference. Act surprised with the gratefulness of your staff.
  • Afterwards, dedicate a staff meeting to things learned at the conference.
  • Go yourself and hang out in the vendor room. Hand out cheap but goofy swag. Bring thousands of business cards and hand them out. Visit a few talks. Invite developers from other companies to meals. Boast about your staff and company. Be amazed by the new hires you pick up.

5 comments:

Coderanger said...

Another important trick, by booze for the sprints.

Doug Napoleone said...

I am now very curious about the event which triggered this fantastic post ;-)

Andrew Dalke said...

Don't forget dancing and dipping in the hallways! That was one of the highlights of the conference for me.

pyDanny said...

@Andrew,

Thanks for the tango lessons. Saturday night was very magical thanks to you, Jennifer, and Honza. Next year lets have a tango open space!

Andrew Dalke said...

"tango open space" - So there!