Rethinking software developer events after COVID-19

Virtual events might actually be better for developers than the real thing—if we do them right

Rethinking software developer events after COVID-19
Fahad Al Nusf / Getty Images

What if you held an event for software developers and no one showed up? If you’re a developer advocate, or in any kind of developer marketing role (even if you don’t call it that), that’s not your nightmare, that’s your reality. Developers all over the world are holed up in their bunkers with the cold blue glow of their LED monitors reflecting from their faces. They aren’t going to meet-ups or user groups, and they certainly aren’t getting on airplanes to go to conferences.

So how do events go virtual? I asked one developer advocate, Jessica West of Launch Darkly, about what is going on with developer events in a world where no one shows up physically.

Why are developer events important?

I know a lot of developers who have never gone to a meet-up, let alone a conference. I also know a lot of developers who until recently seemed to live in an airplane and go to every event. So one of the questions I had was why are events important? Why should a developer care?

According to West, developer events are important because they allow people to connect with the community. If you’re a new developer, you can chat with other developers starting their career. Or if you’re a seasoned developer who is learning something new, you can meet other developers who have already been there and done that. For any developer looking for a job or trying to level up a career, events are an opportunity to learn from others through both networking and talks.

Who goes to developer events anyhow?

“We see a wide variety of people that go to these events, but it also depends on the region and the scope of the event, whether it’s a 200 person event versus a 20,000 person event,” West said. “I think you see much different people at Re:Invent for example, versus a community-driven event, like what we have at Trajectory, our user conference for LaunchDarkly.”

“Trajectory is very focused on what we are launching as a company in a product. We’re a small company versus Re:Invent is a massive, massive platform. It’s bringing people in from all around the world. It’s a week-long event, so we’ve got those on opposite ends of spectrums,” according to West.

In the smaller events, you have more developers trying to learn something entirely new or new to the industry. They look for networking and mentors as well as knowledge. These events put people in the same space and allow them to connect with a certain technology community, like JavaScript, for instance.

In larger events, such as re:Invent, you have more product launches and typically higher-up people in the organization because the travel expenses enforce selectivity. Aside from the salespeople and developer advocate types, developers go to the bigger events in order to find out what’s happening in the industry.

What are the best developer events to attend?

West recommends going to language-focused events, especially those in your region. For JavaScript, this includes events such as JSCon, DinosaurJS, or CascadiaJS. She suggests it is a matter of what community you want to be a part of. It is a matter of what you want to learn and who you want to network with.

What tools are virtual events using?

In-person events starting in March have been canceled. This started before government mandates, but in many places, there are legally enforced controls (but not where I live because bowling and tattoos are just too important). Some conferences—such as Google I/O—were canceled outright. In a more extreme case, O’Reilly laid off its entire in-person events staff.

Groups are doing different things here. Some are starting with the basic tools they have in place:

  • Zoom for video conferencing and using capabilities such as “breakout rooms.”
  • Twitch for live streaming coding sessions. One of my co-workers is really big into this, but I use too much profanity while coding. Every stream would be sponsored by the letter D, F, and S.
  • YouTube for publishing the event afterward or in some cases instead of a live presentation.
  • Slack and Discord for interactive chat and socializing.

There are even some companies that host events in an actual virtual world where you create a character, walk in the room, and sit down or visit the sponsor hall and meet a sponsor. There are multiple ways to do this including:

  • AltspaceVR — A company owned by Microsoft that was recently used to host the Educators In VR.
  • Spatial — An independent company used by Mattel and Ford for collaboration.

How is a virtual event better than a webinar or YouTube?

That really is the question to be solved. Many people are using breakout sessions and Discord servers to provide that interactivity. You use breakout rooms with Zoom to let people have chats. However, recreating the spontaneous hallway chat that one might have at a conference is difficult. There is simply nothing that can replace human to human contact.

Even speakers often find addressing an audience they can’t see unsettling. This author personally finds it a bit draining. You can’t gauge the audience’s reactions. Incorporating some interactivity with tools like Kahoot! or a moderator to break it up with questions can be helpful for both the audience and speaker.

From an audience perspective, a good virtual event enables a Q/A, a chance to find the speaker online afterward and ask followup questions. For many attendees safety is also important. Conferences are wise to set up moderation. Particularly larger conferences, especially those with a low barrier to attendance, can attract trolls or just bad behavior. West recommends a clear code of conduct and people to enforce it.

For attendees, the content also needs to be digestible. People might be willing to attend an eight-hour to ten-hour conference. They probably aren’t willing to watch videos for the same period of time. Consider your layout and perhaps run multiple smaller events throughout the year.

Finally, organizers should ensure that speakers have all of the A/V equipment needed such as microphones, cameras, and green screens.

How do sponsors fit into virtual events?

In most virtual conferences there won’t be any exhibit hall or place to hand out swag. Sponsorship is something that needs to be rethought. Sponsors still want to connect to the communities that you’re assembling, but finding ways to let them do that in a way that doesn’t annoy the attendees is critical.

Most people won’t mind a brief thanks or mention at the beginning of a talk (assuming it isn’t a direct competitor of the speaker’s employer) or keynote. Including offers for swag and other giveaways is a great way to gauge interest and let a vendor get their “Virtual badge scan.” Finally, prominent mention on sign-in, sign-up, and other administrative pages is a good asset for brand awareness.

However, virtual conferences don’t cost as much to put on, and the sponsors probably won’t expect to pay as much.

The upside of going virtual

West noted that one of the advantages of going virtual is that she’s seeing a lot more content and demos from people that may have been going out to give talks. “I think it is a really, really great thing to see rich content like that coming out,” she said. 

Speaking from my own personal experience, there were times in my career where my kids were young and there were events I didn’t go to or speak at because there was a graduation or a play or concert that I wanted and needed to attend. There were also times when I was young that I just flat didn’t have the money. Even if the travel was comped, I wasn’t getting paid for travel time. Virtual events solve these problems. 

Virtual events are also an opportunity to up your video content game. I’ve worked for many vendors who drop their conference video on YouTube afterward, and it is almost indecipherable. If you think through “this is going on the web” and you try and make the content appealing for that audience, your content may continue to draw an audience long after the event has ended.

Start now if you haven’t

Frankly, if you’re a vendor and you haven’t been thinking about this, you’re late to the game. There likely won’t be a vaccine until next year—if everything goes well. Even after the immediate crisis, things are changing in society, the economy, and business climate rather rapidly. This kind of engagement is probably not something you’re just doing for this year. Figure out how you’re going to provide a virtual conference with compelling content, engagement, and opportunities to connect and your virtual conference might even be better than the real thing.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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