Event Organisation – The Feedback

This is the first post in a series of random thoughts on community events that I’m writing based on my experience running a user group and the Developer Day Scotland conference.

In this post I’ll concentrate on receiving feedback.

Photo by Craig Murphy


First, I should like to concentrate on the management of feedback. If the event asks people to fill in feedback then it should be collated and returned to the speaker as soon as possible. For my user group meetings I try and ensure that when I get home afterwards I collate the feedback and email the speaker before I go to bed. The quicker the speaker can receive the feedback the quicker they can see how they did. The closer to the event the more they will remember and the better they will be able to evaluate the feedback effectively. For Developer Day Scotland I got the feedback out to all the speakers within 3 days.

If the speaker doesn’t receive their feedback after a number of weeks they they are most likely to have forgotten specific incidents during their presentation. The guy that writes “Loved the quip about…” or “It was most annoying when you…” has effectively wasted their time if you, as a speaker, can no longer remember making the quip or doing the annoying thing. The quip may have been an off the cuff remark made in the moment that you could have incorporated in to your future presentations – If you can’t remember it, then you’ve lost the opportunity to re-use it and entertain as well as educate. Similarly, if you can’t remember the annoying thing then the comment about it won’t help you so much. It isn’t easy to purge annoying habits if you don’t remember doing them or associate a particular habit as being annoying.

Bottom line on this point is to get the feedback to the speakers promptly. Devote time to collating it and delivering it to speakers. The sooner the better.

It’s all very well and good saying that but how do you turn around the feedback quickly?

If you have a paper based feedback system in place where you are collecting feedback after each session, you can have people help you input that into excel or a database. That will help you get the feedback processed quicker. In this case many hands make light work.

From personal experience, I don’t recommend the online feedback that happens after the event. This style of feedback takes longer because you are waiting on the attendees actually fill it in. Some might do it promptly, others might take their time, and some will just plain forget. From an organiser’s perspective, the online feedback may seem to be an easy win; it is much easier to collate as it is done online so the database is being populated by the actual attendees. Of course, as the feedback is filled in after the event the attendees recollection starts to fade.

If you want to get as many people to fill in the feedback as possible I’ve found that basing prize draws on the feedback forms submitted encourages more people to fill in feedback. For events such as Developer Day Scotland we had some prominent sponsors offer us developer tools as giveaway item. But smaller items such as books, T-shirts, mice can do just as well for user group meetings.

Having been responsible for collating feedback for a variety of speakers I’ve seen a fair amount of variety in the comments. However, I have to admit that I’ve never had a stunningly bad speaker at any of my events yet. For the most part feedback is positive. The audience generally really does want the speaker to succeed and will often give some leeway for things that go wrong that is out of the control of the speaker.

I’ve also found that there are a few really angry people out there who only ever give bad feedback. So, if you are a first time speaker and you’ve got one of those nutters at your session try not to take it too personally. I’m not going to go on at length about how to interpret feedback as Barry Dorrans, an experienced speaker at DDD and other events, has an excellent post on the subject on his blog: Is “bad” feedback the best feedback?

Finally, there is feedback form itself. What do you ask people? How do you want the results. There are two main types of answer, in my opinion. The first is the tick-the-box style where you just tick the box for the score out of 5 (or 10) on a particular aspect. The second is a question that requires a text based answer, a few words or a couple of sentences.

For the event organiser the questions that ask people to tick a box are often better because it means that when you collate all the feedback together you can rank the speakers. I did this for Developer Day Scotland (and published some of the results.) You can set a base line where you say, if anyone drops below this line they don’t get invited back, or if anyone goes above that line they are automatically accepted next time. Or, if you are like NxtGenUG you can use these scores to give out prizes to the best speakers.

From the speaker’s perspective the text based answers are often better because they give a greater variety of feedback and allow the evaluator to express themselves. This can be used to tell the speaker what they did well, to show appreciation, to point out a negative aspect, or to suggest a way to improve. The wide variations in what people can put would rule out giving them tick-boxes to mark off.

For the text based answers the questions have to be open. They have to encourage people to say what ever they want to say without constraining them into thinking that something isn’t important because it wasn’t asked for directly. I often reduce it to just two questions. “What did you like?” and “What didn’t you like?” And other times I’ll also include the catch all “Are there any other comments you’d like to make?”

Hopefully you’ve found this useful for your own events, or perhaps you have your own comments you’d like to add. Either way I’d welcome any feedback so feel free to leave a comment.

Feedback on Developer Day Scotland

I was recently one of the organisers for Developer Day Scotland (aka DDD Scotland) in Glasgow. It was on on the 10th of May and was the first of its kind in Scotland. I’ve also just finished putting together the event feedback for the various speakers and for the event itself. It is always interesting as a speaker when you receive your own feedback, and for me it has been interesting putting together the feedback for all the speakers to see what people liked and didn’t like.

If you weren’t at Developer Day Scotland and don’t know what it is I’ll explain it briefly. We had a conference in the centre of Glasgow based on the DDD events that are normally held at the Microsoft Campus at TVP in Reading. It was aimed at Developers mainly, but we also had a SQL track for DBAs. In total we had 132 delegates arrive on the day.

On the whole the comments were very positive. There is some room for improvement and we will be looking to improve in certain areas for next year. But there were some disappointing comments that suggested people either didn’t quite know what the event was actually trying to achieve or completely had the wrong end of the stick.

First, just to blow our own trumpet, some of the positive comments:

  • Good selection of sessions
  • Lot’s of T-shirts
  • It was free
  • It was on a Saturday (no time off work)
  • Well organised
  • Based in Glasgow

A small number of people commented on the location. Most comments were extremely positive because there have been very few (if any) events like this in Scotland, however, a couple were disappointed because it was so far from London. I have to say that from the point of view of people in Scotland the fact that the vast majority of conferences we see are located in the south east of England (in or within about an hour-ish of London) was actually one of the main drivers to bring the DDD format to Scotland. We had seen an increasing number of Scots make the trek south for each DDD and their only real complaint with it was the distance they had to travel. The DDD events will continue to be held in Reading for the foreseeable future and indeed DDD7 is going to be on November 22nd, but there are now regional DDD events (such as DDD Ireland and Developer Day Scotland) that will take place from time-to-time.

Some people were disappointed by the length of the sessions. They thought more time was needed as some speakers seemed to be compressing too much information into too short at time. I have to agree that in many cases the talk did need more time. There are a number of possible solutions to this. Speakers could indicate a length of time for their topic and we have variable length sessions. Obviously the logistics in this is more complicated, but it is doable. Another possible solution is to request all speakers prepare a longer talk. For some this will be good as their talk was a compressed version of a longer talk, but for others this may leave them with a large period of time at the end with nothing to do. We will work on this problem and try to produce something that allow speakers to run for the time they need to discuss their topic.

Another common bit of feedback was that it wasn’t so easy to tell what level each of the talks were at. Next year we will introduce a system where it will be easy to see what the prerequisites for a talk are.

One person wrote simply “not enough user interactions”. I’m not entirely sure what they mean by that, however, the experimental open spaces session we did at lunch time was very successful and we packed the room out, so we will aim to do more of these next year. Perhaps that will solve that particular problem as they tend to allow a lot of interaction between all the participants.

We had some comments about the fact that “all the sessions were based on Microsoft technology”. We did have some non-Microsoft based talks submitted, however the talks that appear on the day are voted in by the community. However, two of the talks we had on the day were in fact technology independent. We try and keep the process as democratic as possible. Hopefully next year we will get more non-MS topics submitted and more non-MS delegates voting on these sessions so we can have a more diverse programme of sessions available on the day.

We did receive some excellent feedback, but there is always room for improvement and I hope next year’s event will be even better. In the mean time, Scottish Developers will still be running events in the evenings.

Finally, I really must thank all those that helped out in the preparation and on the day. We had 15 excellent speakers without whom we would not have had an event at all. We had a number of people that helped put the day together including John Thomson, Martin Bell, Frank Kerrigan, Craig Murphy and Brian Hainey. And a number of people who helped out on the day including Duncan Lundie, Ged Mead, Beverley Hatchard and Catriona Mackay. Hopefully I’ve not missed anyone out.

Developer Day Scotland – The scores on the doors

Developer Day Scotland was last weekend and went very well. I’ve just finished collating all the speaker feedback and I’ve sent each speaker their feedback information (all anonymised). We had excellent speakers and I want to recognise the best speakers that we had on the day.

Was the session as expected?

  • Third place: Ben Hall
  • Second place: Barry Carr
  • First Place: Daniel Moth

Rate the presenter: Overall

  • Third place: Allan Mitchell
  • Second place: Guy Smith-Ferrier
  • First place: Daniel Moth

Rate the presenter: Slides

  • Third place: Richard Fennell
  • Second place: Oliver Sturm
  • First place: Daniel Moth

Rate the presenter: Demos

  • Third place: Guy Smith-Ferrier
  • Second place: Barry Carr
  • First place: Daniel Moth

Rate the presenter: Information

  • Third place: Oliver Sturm
  • Second Place: Guy Smith-Ferrier
  • First Place: Daniel Moth

DDD6 Feedback

Well, I’ve received the feedback from my session at DDD6 and here it is:

Overall: 3.73
Knowledge: 4.13
Presentation: 3.93
Content: 3.4


By the looks of it, the session was quite well received by most people. As you can see from the Histograms there are a small number of people who obviously really didn’t like it, but you can’t please everyone I suppose.

I also received some text comments to which I’d like to respond.

One person indicated that the panel re-enforced what he already thought about recruitment agents. I wonder if that Included Karl. I suppose he did spend some time apologising for the rotten apples in his industry. It is unfortunate that a few rotten apples can spoil the whole barrel. I’ve had my (un)fair share of dealings with rotten agents, but I’ve also dealt with some really good professional ones.

One person wanted more questions that were relevant to contractors. I actually did try to get a contractor on to the panel, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Also, only 2 questions directly mentioned contracting or freelance employment, which actually represents 40% of the questions (There were only 5 questions in total). I’m sure that had there been 3 questions that dealt with contractors, there would have been a comment from others that it was too one sided in the other direction. Finally, remember the audience were given an opportunity to direct the questions by submitting questions. I did my best to choose a fair representation.

One person regarded Barry Dorrans as “the bastard boss (and proud of it)”.  However, as I recall, Barry did say that this was just his interview technique to ensure that the candidates could stand up to difficult clients. I know some people may not like that, but if that’s the way the business operates then it is important to know if a person is likely to fold under pressure from a client. This also reminds me of a story I heard a while ago about interviewing potential police officers. One of the questions upset of of the candidates. The question was “What would you do if someone vomited on you?” However, it is a valid question. Police Officers are regularly vomited on and so the question helps the interviewer understand how the candidate will react in that situation.

One person thought the topics were too narrowly focused. From my point of view it was a difficult call. The subject area is quite large and I wanted to cover a variety of topics. If I had been too broad with each topic I’m sure I would have received complaints too as we would have had to spend more time on each topic. As Bart Simpson so succinctly put it “You’re damned if you do! You’re damned if you don’t.”

Finally, although someone did say they thought the session was “very good” they didn’t find it interesting. I’m wondering if they submited any questions for the panelists? If they did, did we go off topic with it? (We actually asked every question that we received – although we did have some in reserve in case we ran out.) This session was highly geared to running in the direction that the audience (hopefully) wanted it to go in. So, I am obviously disappointed if someone attended and found it not to be interesting.

I also received some compliments, but I wanted to respond to some specific points that were raised.

My plans for DDD6

I’ve been looking through the agenda for DDD6 and there is a lot of fantastic sessions there and I’m going to have to make some hard choices on the day. So what appeals to me:

In the first session I’m interested in Oliver Sturm‘s “Business Applications with WPF – The Full Monty” and also Ian Cooper‘s N-Tier applications with LINQ.

In the second session I’ve also got two conflicting sessions that I want to see: Chris Hay‘s “Introduction to Silverlight 1.1 (no pesky javascript in this talk)” and Gary Short‘s “My Favourite Patterns”

The third session is my toughest choice as there are three things I’m quite interested in. The second part of Oliver Sturm’s “Business Applications with WPF – The Full Monty”, Mike Hadlow‘s “Why do I need an Inversion of Control Container?” and Ben Lamb‘s “Being Lazy with Microsoft PowerShell”

After lunch I’m up with my “Question Time on the subject of Recruitment“. The panel includes Barry Dorrans, Sarah Blow, Frank Kerrigan and Karl Lightfoot. I would like to see some of the other sessions at that time, but naturally I’d like you to come and see my session.

Finally, I’d like to see Barry Dorran’s session on “Web Services? We don’t need no web server”. Although, if I don’t feel I can take any more information in I’ll probably end up in “Swaggily Fortunes”

To round it all off I’m sure there will be a geek dinner somewhere – although that’s not been announced yet.

DDD6 Full… Already!!!

Registration opened yesterday for ~350 people + a wait list. It DDD has broken records again by being booked up in about 1 day!!!

I didn’t believe it so I went to the registration site and sure enough it says that it is accepting registrations to the wait list only.

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My session is a GO for DDD6

I’ve just had a confirmation email through that my session has been selected for DDD6.

A panel of experts will answer the audiences questions on the subject of recruitment chaired by Colin Mackay. This session is for you if you are looking for a job and want to find out what companies are looking for. You are trying to hire someone but don’t know what to look for. You have been burned in the past and don’t want to repeat the experience. You have a question about recruitment no one else seems to have an answer to.

There will be a question box on the day for you to post your questions, but if you want to email in advance, you can email your questions to colin@scottishdevelopers.com. Submissions by email close at 23:59 on the 23rd November.

The panel is:

Sarah Blow: Founder of Girl Geek Dinners and software Engineer.  She has grown up around technology and HR with parents in both industry sectors and works closely with Women & Technology and companies to create a better understanding about how women may be recruited in different ways to men.

Barry Dorrans: Senior consultant for a major consultancy and Microsoft MVP. When interviewing he takes the red pen and becomes intellisense for whiteboards.

Frank Kerrigan: Development team lead for an insurance company’s internal development team in Glasgow. His team writes enterprise applications for internal customers using C# and SQL Server. Frank has been in devolvement and support of enterprise systems for 15 years.

Karl Lightfoot: Recruitment Consultant that for the last 9 years day in day out has only been recruiting developers in the Midlands region for the largest IT Recruitment consultancy in the UK. He has successfully recruited for large and small corporations through different market states of the supply / demand of talented Developers from Visual Basic 3 to .Net 2005.


I haven’t said much about SQLBits, a community conference that I was at last weekend in Reading. It was a brilliant day out and I hardly spent anything. The snacks and lunch were free at the venue (Microsoft Campus) and the “GROUP BY” (Geek Dinner) was sponsored so it didn’t cost anything either.

A big thank you has to be said to Tony Rogerson, Simon Sabin, Martin Bell and all the other organisers that helped make it such a fantastic day.

Here are some photos of from SQL Bits that were taken by Craig Murphy:

Pre-SQLBits dinner - Simon Sabin and me
Simon Sabin and Colin Mackay

Pre-SQLBits dinner - Martin Bell and me
Colin Mackay and Martin Bell

Pre-SQLBits dinner - Martin Bell and me
Colin Mackay and Martin Bell

At the GROUP BY event after SQLBits
Tim Leung, Colin Mackay, Martin Cairney, Tony Rogerson

sql-bits group by group hug
Group hug at Group By

SQLBits - I was the room monitor
Me as a room monitor in Chicago 2

Sessions submitted for DDD6

I’ve submitted three session ideas for Developer Day 6 in Reading. A 60 minute session on recruitment (which has been a recent theme on my blog and other places), a grok talk on taking the panic out of the presentation and a micro presentation on SQL Injection Attacks.

I guess I’m looking forward to the micro-presentation most because it is such an interesting format. 20 slides of 20 seconds each. I’m basing the topic on a presentation I did a couple of years ago as I still see lots of questions on SQL in forums where the original code is susceptible to attack.

The grok talk, “Take the Panic out of the Presentation”, it to encourage people to get up and talk at community events by letting them know how to get over their anxiety of public speaking – It isn’t as hard as it sounds.

The presentation that I’m doing really isn’t a presentation. I’m chairing a discussion on the subject of recruitment. There will be four panellists from across the UK and from different types of company so hopefully it should be a lively discussion as there is a lot of opinion out there about interview skills, what should go on a CV, technical testing and so on. The questions will be supplied by the audience in advance so that I can figure out what is most popular and devote time to these things. The audience will be able to interact as well and be able to offer their opinion too.

Of course, these sessions have to be voted in first.


DDD6 – Proposed Sessions

It is now possible to propose a session for DDD6. It has only been open for a few hours and already there are a few good sessions available. Now I’m in a quandry. If this is the quality of all the sessions I’ll have no idea what to see. Not to mention that I’ll be submitting my own session idea.

So, if you have a session idea then get over to the DDD website and submit your session idea.