DevOps Down Under 2012 - what happened?

Almost 2 days ago Patrick kicked off a discussion about organising another Australian DevOps conference in 2013 amongst a small group of passionate DevOps who are actively involved in the Australian community.

While the discussion was trundling on without me, I felt I owed everyone involved an explanation of what happened with this year’s unrealised conference, and why the conference fell flat.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Having come back from a year of backpacking around Europe and attending the first DevOpsDays conference, I took it upon myself to try and replicate the success by organising the first DevOps Down Under conference in 2010.

It was a relatively small affair held downstairs at Atlassian’s Corn Exchange offices in Sydney, and I put the thing together on a shoestring budget in my spare time with some on-the-ground help from Atlassian’s Nicholas Muldoon.

The event was successful, with people from all across Australia and New Zealand to attending. At the end of the conference, each attendee was asked to write down one thing they loved, and one thing they hated about the conference.

Stacks of love and hate

This gave me a great starting point to build another conference on, and in early 2011 I started getting the itch to do another. At the same time, Evan Bottcher pinged me about ThoughtWorks lending a hand to organise another DevOps Down Under in Melbourne later in 2011.

The most consistent feedback we got from the 2010 conference was that the coffee was “a little bit shit”, so we fixed that by moving the whole conference to Melbourne.

After an initial planning meeting, ThoughtWorks kindly lent Chris Bushell and Natalie Drucker to assist with organising.

I was just starting a new position at work, and wasn’t able to dedicate nearly as much time to organising as I had in 2010. I provided the initial vision and direction, but without Chris and Natalie’s tireless efforts and persistent pestering of me to get my arse into gear, the conference would have been but a shadow of itself.

Attendees at #dodu2011

By the time DevOps Down Under 2011 wrapped up in July, I was tired and wasn’t feeling fired up about putting on another conference just yet. I decided to wait and see how I felt in the new year.

Around March this year I started thinking about doing another conference, but the spark wasn’t there like in other years. I decided to press on regardless, motivated by my perceived expectation that people wanted another conference.

The vision for DevOps Down Under 2012 was to build a quiet, intimate, and safe atmosphere that was removed from the rat race. To achieve this, the plan was to cap the number of attendees at 140, find a venue outside a major capital city, and source high quality talks.

Venue shot for #dodu2012

The venue & budget was in place, and we got a really great collection of talks submitted. I simply failed to execute on anything beyond that.

The main reasons why execution failed were:

  • I had lost the passion for organising the conference, and was motivated by the wrong reasons.
  • I had even less time to commit.
  • Everyone involved was similarly time poor.
  • There was no organisational cadence.
  • I didn’t lean enough on other people to help me do the grunt work.
  • I didn’t have the time to fix any of these problems.

With the benefit of hindsight, I simply shouldn’t have tried to put it on.

Seeing people putting their hands up to organise a 2013 conference takes a huge mental weight off my shoulders.

Through my own actions and inactions, I have felt the responsibility of leading the conference organisation year-on-year has fallen to me. In 2012 that pressure became paralysing, and my eventual coping mechanism was to ignore the conference entirely.

As for my future involvement: I am still burnt out, and it would simply be unfair to myself, the organisers, speakers, and attendees to commit to taking an active role in organising a 2013 conference.

I have provided the current crop of potential organisers a collection of resources to get them started, and I am extremely confident they will manage to pull off something spectacular.

Drawing on my battered experience of organising several conferences, these are the key actionable things I believe you need to make an event like DevOps Down Under happen:

  • Have at least 3 people who can each dedicate 2+ hours a week to doing the grunt work. Anyone who tells you organising a conference is anything but a hard slog is either lying to you, or doesn’t know what they are talking about.
  • Do weekly catchup meetings to keep things on track. Increase the frequency of these closer to the conference date.
  • Use a mailing list for asynchronous organisation.
  • Nominate someone to lead & own the conference vision & organisation.

I hope the above arms you with enough information to avoid falling into the same traps I did.