Half boiled Brilliance - Web Directions Code Leaders 2017

Half-boiled Brilliance: Web Directions Code Leaders 2017

Leaders has the potential to be the best event of the year. Its first outing hit about a third of that potential.

Good news: the core format is just so great, really

Good news, everyone

SEEK International were kind enough to send me along to the inaugural Web Directions Code Leaders in Melbourne, Australia on the 2nd of August. This was a little bit easier for me to get to than for any of my colleagues from Hong Kong or Malaysia, since it was just across the Yarra River from my house.

Leaders is a small conference (~100 people), split into tables of 8-10, with colleagues very deliberately sorted on to different tables. Each table has a facilitator to get conversation going and keep it moving (our table’s facilitator was Jenna from Deloitte, she was great).

Your company is guaranteed that you will participate in an interesting discussion with your peers, learn something about their work and share some of your own successes. This is particularly useful for employees that are bad at networking, and usually go to conferences to half-sleep through talks and get material for snarky, meme-filled blog posts without actually talking to anyone.

The day iterated through the following loop:

  1. Traditional talk with slides
  2. Each table discusses the talk and brainstorms questions
  3. Tables take turns to ask their questions of the presenters

Step 1 works exactly like every other conference you’ve ever been to. Step 2&3 are where the magic is.

In this format, you have the discussion conference talks are supposed to provoke, right away, with people who are not your colleagues or your usual set of conference friends. Even if you suck at networking. Even if you miss the after-conference drinks because you have to get home to your cat. Even if the subject isn’t one of your current hobby-horses. The value of going to a professional conference is baked in.

And the people in that discussion are excellent - the conference’s leadership premise skews the pool very senior, that does give you a broad range of people who nonetheless have a pragmatic focus rooted in the real concerns of their organisations and a solid library of experience to draw on. I sat with leaders from Atlassian, Xero, the NSW Justice Commission among others, and found their contributions extremely valuable.

As a bonus, you get significantly better questions for the speakers than the usual format, validated by their tables and avoiding the twin evils of dead air and dominance of tangential concerns from whoever manages to get a microphone.

TLDR: I want to go back next year.

Bad news: this year’s execution missed the mark

Bear of bad news

I don’t want to criticise Web Directions for not perfectly nailing this format in their first attempt, but there were two fundamental missteps that caused the event to only approach its potential about 1/3 of the time.

Too technical

Four of the six talks were not really idiomatic to what I (and several other people on my table) understood the premise to be - they were interesting technology talks but not strictly relevant to technical leadership. After Brian Terlson’s talk on ECMAScript’s standards process and roadmap, my table agreed not to talk about the Javascript class syntax because it would be a waste of our time together. Chris Lilley’s talk comparing old standards proposals to the practical implementations of them decades later was entertaining but packed the material actually relevant to the room into the final slide and last few minutes. I learned a few interesting things from Andrew Betts (performance benefits to edge servers near the user even without caching!) and Zero Cho (building for poor and unreliable networks means you have to assume asset downloads can fail, not just be slow), but they felt more appropriate for the general conference on the following two days - and indeed all four of these gentlemen presented similar talks at Code proper.

I got the sense that the organisers might have felt these talks were conceptually appropriate for people in a position to make strategic decisions, but these sorts of technical details are not in of themselves strategic. They’re relevant to anyone on a technical team, and indeed your stereotypical enthusiastic junior would probably know more about them than your archetypal jaded senior. Meta-strategy, talks on how to make strategic technical decisions and facilitate the technical direction of your team, would be significantly more valuable.

Too many talks

By packing six iterations of the Talk - Discuss - Questions cycle into one day, the conference did not leave time for its own format to breathe. Each talk was 30 minutes long. Discussion was 15 minutes long. Questions were 15 minutes long.

The absolute best part of the day, the core offering, the bit I just spent a bunch of words praising - discussing the talk with your peers and learning from them - was compressed into six fifteen minute chunks, and only two of those chunks were in the context of on-premise talks. Every single time questions rolled around it interrupted a good conversation. I would have loved to have had more time with that group and hear more about everyone’s ideas and experiences, and I’m sure every table felt the same.

The surprising bonus value of the day - much better questions for the speakers - was likewise badly constrained. Generally less than half the tables got to ask a question of a given speaker, despite every table brainstorming good questions.

Killing two of the technical talks, replacing one of the remaining ones with something on a more meta approach to best practice, and distributing the time freed up to the discussion and question phases would allow this to be the conference it wants to be.

Back to good news: the last two talks were great

Compliment sandwich

Josh Duck’s talk on “Designing a Culture that Fosters Growth” drew on his experience as a developer and manager at Facebook to build a message on developing engineering careers. He dismissed the myth of the “10x developer”, instead highlighting how there are different archetypes of engineering contribution and that you’ll get very different results out of engineers depending on which team and which problem they’re working on. He de-emphasised specific technologies in favour of attributes/behaviours of a successful engineer (or indeed team member) and focus on the actual outcomes. In an atmosphere of mutual trust, an engineer is empowered to learn or build whatever technologies she needs to achieve those outcomes.

I found it particularly interesting that Josh had trouble directly answering a question about demotivated team members, because Facebook goes to such extraordinary lengths to make sure engineers are working on a purpose they believe in, with almost unlimited autonomy in how to achieve that purpose. He didn’t quote Dan Pink, but I think anyone familiar with the Purpose/Autonomy/Competence model of motivation wouldn’t be surprised that in that context you’d be much less vulnerable to having demotivated engineers.

Our table had a great but all too brief discussion of engineering career tracks, how to make time for learning, and how Facebook’s lessons might scale down to the 99% of organisations without their fantastic resources.

Elle Meredith’s “Re-imagining the Hiring Process” covered diversity at the intake level. A lot of her talk was very familiar and well validated from a SEEK context - the huge advantages of a diverse team, the dangers of wording in your job ads, implicit bias in screening candidates and their CVs etc. Two critical take-aways for me were the importance of not expecting your employees of diverse backgrounds to do all the hard work of adding diversity to the hiring process on top of their actual jobs (there’s a definite tension when you don’t have many, say, female engineers - you need a diverse hiring panel but it’s unfair to drag the same woman into hiring over and over as the token lady), and the technique of asking for code samples rather than a code test. Assessing a wide range of code samples from candidates is much harder on hirers than whatever customary test they set, but allows the candidate to show off something that came out of a context that suited them, rather than a high-pressure effort that’s hard to fit in around children or other out-of-work demands.

And I loved the tagline “hire to grow your culture, not fit it”.

I’m proud of SEEK’s continuing efforts to hire in a better, more inclusive fashion and was happy to talk about them with the table. But I definitely got the sense many companies (especially our peers and rivals for talent) are tackling the same problems with enthusiasm and doing better than us in some areas. The really strong focus on mentoring and nurturing potential rather than particular skills that came through in Elle’s talk and the practices of many companies seems like a lower-friction path to growing the diversity of an organisation that we perhaps underutilise with our tendency to hire very senior engineers and rely heavily on contractors.

This is one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working with SEEK International and the Global Delivery Pod; already in my short time with the global business I’ve worked with a much broader range of seniority and seen some great mentoring from my peers. And while the Melbourne office is profoundly multicultural, there’s a distinctly different character in actively working across multiple countries. You’re in a much stronger position to leverage the power of diversity when you can draw on even more of the global pool.

TLDR: Go next year if you can

Koala dismayed at Web Directions selling out

This year Web Directions Code sold out crazy fast, during the early bird period. I missed out despite having my manager’s credit card in-hand, ready to go. I managed to get a Leaders ticket, I suspect, because as a new event, people were still somewhat unsure of the value and format (it was still a full room, it was just possible to buy a ticket).

Next year I think Leaders will sell out faster than Code. It doesn’t need much refinement to be truly great. It’s a safe bet it will get it.

Jye Nicolson is a Senior Developer at SEEK International, working with the GDP and SEEK Asia. He likes hipster frontend technologies, hipster food and hipster coffee, but insists none of that makes him a hipster.

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