Organizing an Internal Conference - Lessons Learned from ProdConf 2014

As we look back on the year, we wanted to reflect on our inaugural internal conference, ProdConf 2014. It was a great opportunity for the Braintree/Venmo product teams - from offices across the world - to gather in one place, share inspiration and discuss the future of the Braintree platform.

Now that we have the experience of our first conference under our belt, we’re sharing what we learned to help others do the same, especially since we didn’t find many tools for organizing this kind of event and instead relied upon dumb luck. Overall, we found this event to be a huge win for our team and definitely worth the cost and effort.

The Conference Format

This was the hardest and first decision we had to make. Everything, from our choice of venue to the types of presentations we solicited, depended on what format we decided upon. After a brainstorming session on what made our favorite conferences special, we decided on a single track, two-day conference with the following rough daily structure:

  • A morning of prepared, formal presentations from a variety of technical and non-technical roles within the product team.

  • An afternoon of a few more prepared talks followed by either Open Spaces or Lightning Talks.

A single-track conference created a shared experience to bond over as well as allowed us to be more selective in choosing talks. No matter how good the speakers or selection committee, we realized no format would be perfect though. Open spaces and lightning talks let our attendees choose the subjects that mattered most to them.

What Worked Well?

  • Trust and delegate. As long as each volunteer understood their goal clearly, trusting our volunteers paid dividends in the quality and diversity of the conference.

  • We invited a committee of volunteers to represent our various teams, offices, and roles by selecting the talks submitted to our call for presentations. This led to a high degree of quality in the talks, as well as buy-in from the team.

  • We had many first-time speakers, so we paired experienced speakers as mentors to new speakers. We encouraged our mentors to check in periodically through the talk preparation process. This was a big step in preparing conference-quality presentations and was appreciated by speakers and attendees alike.

  • Our design team volunteered a lot of time and effort to make great signage and swag for the event. I didn’t realize how much this would contribute to the vibe of the conference, but it was a key part.

What Would We Do Differently?

  • We scheduled 17 talks running between 20 and 40 minutes in two days. While this meant a ton of great talks, this schedule left little time for breaks, socialization, and interruptions. Next time we will schedule fewer talks to allow for longer breaks and a better hallway track.

  • We waited too long to open our Call for Presentations. We opened the CFP for submissions two months prior to the conference and closed it three weeks prior. While this was the right duration for the CFP, we should have moved both the start and end dates up by three weeks each.

  • While many expressed interest in having the the conference talks recorded, relatively few people have watched them. For the next ProdConf, we’re considering cheaper ways to capture talks for posterity such as audio recordings accompanied by slides.

  • Employees from four different continents attended the conference which meant that many people didn’t know one another. It would have been great to organize some kind of activity that helped attendees break those barriers and meet new people.

  • Organizing this kind of conference became a full-time job in the last weeks of preparation. Next time, we’ll account for that rather than scramble to make room for it alongside regular product work.

Concrete Feedback

We sent a post-conference survey to inform whether and how we should organize the next installment of ProdConf. While we can’t share all of the results publicly, here’s what we can share.

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This is the most important metric of success! Based on this unanimous response we’ll definitely be doing another installment of ProdConf in the future.

Responses were pretty evenly split between presentations, lightning talks, and open spaces. I read this as having about the right balance between these events.

This last graph indicates that most people were satisfied with the single-track format of the conference. However, enough people were dissatisfied that perhaps a dedicated time for breakout tracks is in order.

Based on the responses from attendees, we’ll definitely be organizing another internal conference for our team. It was tremendously valuable as a growing company to put aside our work for a couple of days to discuss our platform and our team.

If you are running—or are thinking about running—such an event, we’d love to hear how it’s going. Good luck and happy conferencing!


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Scott Parker Scott builds software and teams to build software. He enjoys solving hard problems with great people. More posts by this author

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