I’ll be standing down as chairman of Scottish Developers shortly. I’m not leaving, I’m just looking for a different role within the user group. But as I’m hanging up that particular hat I felt I would add my own personal feedback to the feedback we have received over the last three DDD Scotland events.
On the whole the DDD events in Scotland have been exceptionally well received, especially considering the amount of polish in the main DDD events that happen in Microsoft’s UK HQ in Reading. I suppose from my perspective, sitting on the inside, seeing exactly how it is hanging together I’m always amazed that the feedback is so positive. It is a testament to all the other organisers, speakers and helpers on the day that help keep the event running smoothly.
That said, I feel there are some people that are not fully aware of what goes into organising this event, and on what kind of a budget that we manage it. The speakers are not paid, they volunteer their time, travel, and accommodation expenses.
What makes a DDD event?
The goals for DDD events, as a whole are:
- The event is free to delegates
- There are no marketing talks.
- No speakers from Microsoft.
- The sessions are voted on to the agenda prior to the event.
You don’t have to aim for everything on this list, and at DDD Scotland we didn’t for various reasons.
We do our best to ensure that it is free to delegates. And we’ve managed that three years running and we will continue to do that for as long as we can.
What follows is some information about how we run the events based on the feedback we have received. I hope this gives you a little insight in to the event. We have received other feedback too that we will be acting upon to improve the event, and if possible we will act on the feedback below to improve things too. I just really wanted to get over the constraints we were running under so you didn’t think that after three years we weren’t listening. We do value all feedback.
The event is “not very well advertised”
We have no advertising budget so we use social media such as blogs, twitter and the like to get the word out. However, even with no advertising we were still oversubscribed. The event “sold out” in 15 days, 3 hours and 35 minutes. After that it went to a waiting list. At its peak there were 88 people on the waiting list.
“Tons of people who signed up didn’t come, maybe the people on the waiting list should the get the spaces of the people who didn’t turn up.”
We do our best on this count. If people realise they cannot come they can unregister which means the website will invite someone on the waiting list along. However, if someone doesn’t want to go and they also don’t unregister then there is little we can do about it.
Over the three years we have run the event we have had a 30%-33% drop out rate and we take that into account when allowing people to sign up. For example, this year we allowed 280 people to sign up before the waiting list was activated, in the end we had 188 delegates turn up on the day. We were aiming for 200 delegates, the same as last year. Last year we had 176 turn up.
In the 24 hours prior to the event the waiting list dropped by 60% allowing nearly 50 people that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to go a chance to get to the event.
“As you go feedback [is] better than a few days later”
This is interesting. There is a debate between some of the various DDD organisers as to which is better: online feedback after the event or paper based during the event.
I can’t say which provides better quality feedback. However, my particular take is that I want to get feedback to the speakers as quickly as possible. The sooner a speaker gets feedback the quicker they can see issues they may have and resolve them, or the quicker they can see what is working or what people appreciate about their presentation.
I also feel that when I get asked for feedback immediately I have a better recollection of what I’m feeding back on. If I wait a couple of days the memories are fading and I won’t recall something that would have helped the speaker improve.
We did a little experiment, with one of the speaker’s permission. He happened to run the same session at DDD8 in Reading as well as at DDD Scotland this year. We compared the feedback he got on line for DDD8 versus the paper feedback he got from DDD Scotland. Roughly the same percentage of the audience filled in feedback, of those that did, roughly the same percentage filled out comments (which is more valuable to the speaker than the raw ratings do). However, where there was a significant difference was that the amount that was written in the freeform feedback was greater online… Perhaps, as developers, we are so used to typing that we can’t write so much these days. But then, was all that extra written material an increase in quality as well as quantity?
I guess the debate will continue on that front.
“Make it a 2 day event, do it twice a year (or more)”
I’d love to do that. It is just very hard work for doing it once a year. But the two day idea is certainly something I’d entertain.
Scottish Developers have noticed that if we run day events during the week we do get a slightly different audience so perhaps it would be an excellent way of reaching out to those that can’t make a Saturday.
Incidentally, the Saturday concept was so that the event didn’t impact on the working week so that contractors didn’t lose a days pay and so that the genuinely enthusiastic could continue geeking out at the weekend.
“The lunch break was too short”
The lunch break was 90 minutes. However, we do have activities on during the lunch break to keep people interested. Unlike previous years, this year we only had grok talks – these are short 10 minute talks that represent topics that would not suit a full presentation or a taster for a full length session.
“more in depth” – “not for beginners”
One of the key aspects of DDD events are their democratic nature. Some people may want more elementary sessions while others may prefer more in-depth sessions. But on the day, what is on the schedule was put there by votes. Every single session was voted in. Back up sessions are chosen by votes too. No session appears without having been voted in.
However, that said, when the ash cloud threatened to disrupt the travel plans of most of our speakers we would have been prepared to bend the rules on that one slightly just to be able to put on an event.
“put feedback forms in goodie bag”
Interestingly we did that last year and we didn’t get that many of them back. People either just didn’t realise they were there or forgot about them. Either way, it meant that the feedback was not as comprehensive as we’d have liked.
Putting the feedback forms on the seats works better for us we’ve found.
“The food was a bit disappointing” – “More coffee in breaks” – “Why not run a café?”
Yes, we know. Unfortunately our budget didn’t allow us to stretch any further than we did. The catering bill was by far the largest expense. Since GCU kindly donated the venue to us for the day the catering budget accounted for about 90% of the running costs.
The first year we ran we got feedback decrying the fact that we didn’t put on breakfast. Possibly this was due to some people who were used to the DDD events in Reading which have the backing of a big corporation that can afford, to us, such luxuries.
There is a café on the ground floor at the venue, however it is closed on a Saturday. We did, the first year, look in to opening it up but were told that was not possible.
Ultimately, what we can afford depends on how much sponsorship we can pull in. This year was particularly disappointing. We were lucky in that we still had a sizeable chunk of money left over from last year which, in fact paid for most of the conference this year. Next year we will be starting from a relatively clean slate financially. Simply put, the cupboard is bare.
“Too much Microsoft oriented presentations”
The conference is run as democratically as we can. If you want to see more non-Microsoft oriented technologies then we need more submissions from people offering non-Microsoft oriented sessions and then we need enough people to vote on them.
We also had people asking for more consistent tracks and we do our best to work in a route through the agenda so that a person who has a high level interest in a particular area, say web technologies, has a route from start to end. But ultimately we can only work with what we have, and what we have are sessions that were submitted and a set of votes telling us what people want to see.
For the future
There are a number of points above that we will try to fix, just as soon as we can. For example, we’d love to keep you all properly fed and watered during the day. We’d love to do this more often, have an event every 6 months or a two day event. We’d love to vary the city.
For these things we need more sponsorship. Not just the variety where a vendor gives us free licenses. I’m not saying we don’t want that. We love to get items from sponsors to use as prizes or swag, it keeps things interesting during the day, but ultimately we need things we can use and the bottom line is mostly money.
If you have any ideas that will help up put on a better event, especially if it helps us solve the issues we currently have then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org