Steve Freeman is a Distinguished Consultant at Zühlke, a leading consultancy that helps companies successfully deliver innovative and complex digital, software and hardware solutions, at scale.
Zühlke has been running internal tech conferences for several years to accelerate learning across different teams in the ten countries in which Zühlke operates. The event in 2019 was the largest yet, with about 900 participants and dozens of sessions. We asked Steve about the role played by internal tech conferences at Zühlke.
Q1. The recent internal tech conference at Zühlke seems like a great success. What were the big take-aways for you?
First, it’s a chance to catch up with people from other sites that I don’t see very often. Second, it’s a reminder of the range of the company, there are interesting projects at other sites that are very different from what we do in London, especially physical device design. Finally, seeing the attendees at the various sessions is a way of finding people I need to talk to, or topics I need to raise with management. This conference was also a bit special because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the company.
Q2. Zühlke has a strong reputation for good engineering practices. How does an internal tech conference help to embed and spread good practices?
The best that can come out of a single event is that people get to know each other and are introduced to new ideas. Finding a community of people addressing the same issues helps to bind people together across the group, and consultancies always have to work a bit harder when people are scattered across client sites.
We run our group-level conferences every other year or so. We also run national-level “camps” for training every year, which are normally a week but shorter in the years when there’s a group event.
Q3. What things that happen now at Zühlke would have been impossible without the conferences?
I don’t know if anything would have been impossible without it, but I believe that it makes things happen more quickly. One point it does help to bring across is the scale of the company now, which is too easy to forget when focussed on our local activity. Just seeing everyone in the same room creates a critical mass.
Q4. What tips or advice would you give to other organisations looking to run their own internal tech conference?
Keep the submission process light and provide lots of support; actively encourage people to contribute, especially juniors; be explicit about how much company time is available for session preparation; focus the event on company goals, but allow some slack for serendipity; physically get together for the programme selection, it’s much easier to make trade-offs, but prepare; use index cards on a conference table for programme planning; get a really good logistics team (ours are amazing); have a house band across locations (we have some surprisingly good musicians).
Follow Steve Freeman online: @sf105