Open sourcing a format
Two years ago I wrote a blog post "On the benefits of Developer-led initiatives " where I talked about tech meetings, which at the time were still fairly new to us. We’ve now been doing tech meetings at Box UK for just under three years - our first took place in August 2008 - and it’s a format that’s working very well for us in terms of training, knowledge sharing and personal development. So, being a company that loves sharing and collaboration, it seems appropriate to share a bit more about what we do!
So just what is a tech meeting?
A tech meeting is a short, fairly informal meeting in which a Box UK employee talks about a concept, technology, practice or process, and opens the floor afterwards for questions and discussion. They occur during work time, and there’s no compulsion to come, no register, it’s just an opportunity to learn. Bringing baked goods, or nice cheeses, crackers and grapes, is entirely optional but encouraged! Here are some common characteristics of a tech meeting:
|Length||Generally 15 minutes to one hour|
|Attendees||Internal - any colleagues that are interested!|
|Time held||Post lunch lull (2.30pm or so)|
|Frequency||Twice a month|
|Catering||Whatever you feel like!|
|Venue||Anywhere with a projector (if needed)|
The topics are decided by the person giving the tech talk, and can be about any area of interest, but they are often sparked by attending a conference, reading a book, coming across an interesting link, or contributing to an Open Source project.
Is this just for techie topics?
It started that way, but once the tech meeting concept settled it proved so successful that it spread to other sectors of the business. So interspersed with technical topics like “Getting to grips with Git” and “Password Analysis” are now subjects including “Scrum for non Project Managers”, “Raising Commercial Awareness” and “Copywriting Basics”. This left us with the slightly cumbersome terminology of “Non tech meeting” so we decided just to call every talk a “tech meeting”. Have a look at our “topic list” below - we’ve covered a huge amount of subjects!
Bringing tech meetings to your workplace
“Outside of learning and development, tech meetings are a great thing for our marketing department as they enable us to keep in touch with what's happening from a tech perspective but also help us understand people's strengths and areas of interest in order to identify topics for blog posts or other content-related activity.”
- Lisa Innes, Box UK's Head of Marketing
If tech meetings sound like something that appeal to you, then why not implement the format in your workplace! Even if you’re a small shop with only a couple of devs, knowledge sharing helps to keep people creative. Tech meetings rely on committed staff, but through sharing their interests and passions they also help to foster enthusiasm in the rest of the team.
It can be hard to justify spending a lot of time on tech meeting preparation, so in all honesty it is often done in the speaker’s own time. However, although it can be fun there is no way they would have been allowed to continue if we were just doing it for kicks or for “a break” - tech meetings have had both direct and indirect benefits to Box UK as a business as well as to our staff as individuals. It’s not necessarily something you can put a figure on, but here are a few things tech meetings have helped us achieve:
- Introduce new concepts and technologies. For example, one of our Senior Developers James Cryer (@jrcryer) gave a tech meeting on jQuery mobile, which was instrumental in helping to decide mobile strategy for a recent project.
- Spread ideas. We often find that one tech meeting will inspire somebody to investigate the topic even further, which in turn leads to new ideas.
- Prevent people from being stuck in a rut. In the web and mobile industry, we cannot ever afford to rest on our laurels!
- Grow a community. Box UK has a strong community where ideas are freely shared, technologies discussed, and problems tackled - tech meetings have a large part of encouraging that.
- Build confidence. Getting staff used to presentations helps them increase their confidence, which can be useful preparation for any client-facing work.
- Training and morale. Tech meetings played an important role in helping Box UK achieve the coveted Investors In People Bronze status.
The IIP report , which asseses and identifies organisational excellence, stated that "Tech meetings are seen as a great way of sharing and up-dating people on the latest technology. People commented on the range and quality of presentations and this is seen to be a good thing, giving people the confidence to present. At tech meetings everyone wants to share new technology or solve problems in an interesting way."
Because of the slightly ad-hoc nature of tech meetings, we don’t have a fixed schedule, but generally in every three week period there will be at least one technically-focused tech meeting and a non-technical tech meeting. Our schedule of tech meetings is maintained on the calendar on our Microsoft Exchange calendar service so that we don’t clash with client meetings or project deadlines.
A note of caution
There should never be any compulsion for staff to conduct tech meetings - encouragement and gentle prodding is fine but requiring people to do it is not in the spirit of the format. You may realise there are times when a tech meeting naturally fits; we find, for example, that people coming back from conferences have plenty to share, and that disseminating that knowledge through a tech talk maximises value to the business. If people really don’t want to host a tech meeting however, yet still want to contribute , there are many other ways they can contribute to the technical community of your workplace; we also encourage this through things like our “Unboxing” series of blog posts, our IRC channel, office chat, and in our internal “Link Tuesdays”, to try things and report back to the community.
Getting tech meetings going can initially be tough. Box UK is in an enviable position as we have an extremely enthusiastic, widely knowledgeable team who are passionate about what they do and always on the lookout for new stuff, so nobody has to "push" the tech meetings, but this didn't happen overnight; it took a fair bit of effort and tweaking of the format before it felt like a natural fit for us. However, the effort we have put in has more than paid off, as all sections of the business now use the tech meeting format to share information, innovation and research.
So, how was it for you?
If you give tech meetings a go in your business, we’d love to hear how you got on! If you’d like any tips in getting up and running, let us know!