Starting Tech Talks From Ground Zero

I’m at DevSpace 2018 right now, and just participated in a Open Space about Lunch and Learns.  As I have previously written, I am the curator for Tech Talks at my workplace.  Instead of talking about how our tech talks work today though, I want to give my ideas on how to start up a tech talk or lunch and learn culture from absolutely nothing.

 

Remember, you don’t have to have something fully launched day one for it to be valuable.  Be Agile.  Create your MVP for Tech Talks, and iterate on what works; throw away what doesn’t.

Challenges:

Typically, people run into some challenges when dealing with starting tech talks.  I think I can break it down into three core obstacles:

  1. Time / Space constraints
  2. Content Creation
  3. Cultural Resistance

 

Time / Space Constraints

Look, I get it, nobody has time.  It’s tough to work around schedules, deadlines are looming, and people are busy.

Or maybe it’s tough to get everyone in one room.  Maybe you don’t have large enough meeting areas.

You can still find ways to scale down tech talks to get them started.

  • Consider talks during lunchtime.  Ask people to bring their own lunch.  Host a discussion.
  • It doesn’t have to be long; even just a 15 minutes show and tell can do wonders.  Start small, and lower obstacles for people to give talks.
  • Do a code brainteaser together, or a code challenge, or show off one use case for a library
  • Even just a here’s the tech I’m working with discussion is fruitful; you’ll be amazed at the discussions that come up after that
  • You can host small talks just around a roundtable, in a team room, or an unused conference room.

Content Creation

If you happen to have space and time to host talks, it may be tough to get a steady stream of content to be presented.   A lot of people feel like creating a good powerpoint presentation is a lot of work (that’s because it’s true).  This turns a lot of people off because they don’t feel like they have time.

Other people don’t feel like they are experts in a technology.  This is okay, encourage them to still give talks.

  • Consider just throwing up conference videos that have been recorded and discussing afterwards
  • Offer alternative formats to a slides or code presentation.  Look for a panel talk, or just a debate.  Emulate hallway discussions.  A really natural conversation is just as awesome (if not more) as a prepared slide deck.
  • Pair inexperienced people with experience people and have them give a joint talk.
  • Offer small bites (such as 5-15 minute talk slots) that don’t feel so daunting.
  • Find out what people want to hear, and convince others that they have knowledge (no matter how rudimentary it is)
  • Explicitly encourage and coach new presenters
  • Even just do a whiteboard session.  The act of sharing knowledge is more important than the medium used.

Cultural Resistance

This is the toughest one.  Maybe your audience doesn’t like leaving their office.  Maybe managers don’t want to give time for learning.  Maybe people don’t feel like the content is useful.  Regardless what it is, there are still things you can do.  (YMMV with a lot of this advice, so take it with a grain of salt.  You need to decide how much to balance pushing for a tech talk culture with implications in your workplace).

  • Do it on “free time” such as a lunch break.
  • Tailor the talks to align with learning opportunities that would benefit your domain
  • Teach about “efficiency-improving” items such as new libraries or new workflows
  • Seek out the people who are like-minded, and just start with them.  As people talk about what they are learning, the hold-outs may get curious
  • Start with just a team, or a subgroup of people
  • If all else fails, maybe it’s time for a new job (depending on how much a culture of continuous learning matters to you)

 

I’m curious what other challenges you’ve had in launching tech talks or something similar in your company.  Leave a comment or send me a tweet at @PatViaforever because I’d love to hear from you.

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