Damage control is not quality assurance

During this year Perl QA Hackathon, even though I organized my first Perl event more than ten years ago, I still learnt a few things.

The not-so-great

First, no matter how well-prepared you are, there will be problems big and small:

  • People problems, like last minute cancellations and missed flights (we had enough funds to cover both the missed flight and the actual flight, thanks sponsors!)
  • Money issues, like finding out the hard way that there is a maximum one can spend on their credit card (happened to both organizers)
  • Technical problems, like the wifi always sucks everywhere. The venue guest wifi had probably never been tested with so many people (remember smartphones double the number of associated devices) and kept disconnecting some of the attendees, and the hotel wifi was worse.
  • Access issues, like although my badge supposedly gave me 24/7 access, it couldn't open the building door on Sunday morning. My biggest achievement by far that day was to manage to open that door. It only took three hours! (And then we had to badge every hour to prevent the alarm from blaring.)
  • Information problems, like had I told everyone where the toilets were during my introduction talk, I wouldn't have had to answer that question for most of the first morning.

The greatest ever

Second, having a good team is essential. Both while preparing the event, and while the event is happening.

So thank you so much to the pre-event team, Laurent Boivin (elbeho) for doing most of the work before the event (he's going to say it's a lie, but he's just being nice, so ignore him) and keeping on reminding me of the stuff I had to do. If people's expenses could be covered, it's because he spent so much time looking for sponsors, producing all the papers they needed, and then reminding them we expected the money they promised us. Thank you Laurent, although this was my idea, nothing would have been possible withour your help.

And thank you to the "event staff", who did all the grunt work during the hackathon, while I was trying to hack with the others. They took care of keeping the kitchen clean, and the tables full of food and drinks, running errands whenever something was missing, comforting me when things went wrong (closed doors!) and actually finding backup options (renting a conference room at the hotel while I was desperately trying to reach someone who could open the doors). Thank you Wendy and Laurent, you came to Lyon, on your own funding, knowing you wouldn't have time to hack (you actually had no intention to), because all you planned to do was help the participants focus on their task by taking care of the mundane details.

This might not seem like much to some, but this was a gift of love for the community, Perl and CPAN. I'm not sure we deserve you, but I'm glad you're here for us. Thank you. ♥

The I-told-you-so

Finally, based on this newly gained insight, here's my one big piece of advice for next year's team (hi Tina!): just pick a hotel as the venue, if possible (i.e. within budget).

The main reason for that is that it's probably simpler to let professionals handle everything:

  • If the hotel rents conference room, they also deal with cleaning them, having them opened at the right time, etc.
  • If you can get the conference room to be opened 24h/day (minus some time for the cleaning team), you give your attendees a lot of freedom. They can go back to their room (in less than 5 minutes) to take some rest or a shower, and be back to hacking in a snap. And you'll get them to hack more!
  • If the hotel has a restaurant, you don't have to worry about the dinners, and they can be pretty fast (more time for hacking!)
  • Even if the hotel has a restaurant, you can probably arrange for snacks being offered in the room, either by you or by them -- if the price is right, you shouldn't bother with doing it yourself.
  • If there are things to fix up or patch (like the netword, because the rule of all geek events is that the wifi always sucks), you can negociate this in advance with the hotel team. E.g., get them to let you plug your own wifi router in the room, connected to one of their plugs. Then you can then offer wired access to those participants with bad wifi.

Speaking of budget, the budgets for the 2014, 2012 and 2011 editions are all online. There is some useful information in there. And as is the tradition since 2011, we will pass all surplus to you, when the accounting is done (more work for Laurent!).

My last piece of advice is of course: get the best people to help you. You'll need them.

See you all next year in Berlin!

4 Comments

I think it's very helpful to have a couple of "break-out spaces" -- places where people can go for noisy discussions, or noisy people can go for discussions.

Yes, holding the event in a hotel is an excellent suggestion.

I remember YAPC::EU 2010, whose venue was a hotel. Many of the attendees stayed in that hotel, and the advantages you mention apply are all on the mark. And as an in-hotel conference-goer myself, I can say that especially the fact that I could duck out and up to my room for a short break and then slip right back into the bustle, both in no more time than an elevator ride, was by far the best feature of any conference I’ve attended so far. It also removed the need to figure out a commute and then do it daily. It also made sure that basically everyone launched into their evening activities from the same location so it was much easier to socialise beyond a small clique (although this bit is obviously not relevant to the QAH where you want maximum hack time).

So holding the event at a hotel not only frees the organisers from many concerns, but the attendees also.

Using a hotel is a great idea. Certainly when it is within the budget.

But remember, even when you let the hotel take care of breakfast, lunch, dinner and inbetween snacks (ow budget again), they might not accomodate for all the little things. Large amounts of grapes, for instance, just to be taken by the handful (my preferred way of eating them), from a bowl (instead of still hanging in a bunch on their twigs). My experience is that the hotel buffet can be boring quickly.

So even if you let a hotel take care of this, make sure that there are bakeries, supermarkets and other shops, restaurants, bars, ATMs/banks and certainly public transport nearby.

There's always something you want to do yourself (like giving somebody a toy Lamborghini, just for the fun of it). There will always will be a group that wants to be on their own for a short time, away from the others, to not be disturbed.

Another suggestion for next time. At the start when doing the stand-up introductions, have people mention what they do for their job / where they work. This can be handy for knowing who to ping on things, and might prevent embarrassment for n00bs (like me :-)

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