*APAC Heritage Month* This is Your Tech Leader Speaking
Tech conferences have changed over the last year. Today we're speaking to Michele Playfair, Executive Director of Events, APAC Region at Skills Matter about the state of play. What's good, what could be worked on and where to next.
Hello and welcome to Cloudflare TV. My name is Amy Bebo and today I am filling in for Gretchen Scott and we are going to go ahead and interview Michele Playfair.
And Michele, you have been doing conferences and do you want to give us a little introduction to you?
Sure. Good morning, Gretchen, or afternoon for you, I guess. Poor Gretchen got done in by the Australian Internet, sad face.
But it's lovely to chat with you.
Yes, I am currently working for a company that's now called Skills Matter.
It's based out of the UK and the US. Previously, I was working for YOW Conferences.
So we're still kicking on down here in Down Under and I've been doing that for about two, two and a half years now.
So yes, I have a long history of lateral moves in IT.
And yeah, this is what I'm doing now. It's fun.
It was more fun before the plague, which I think we can say most people can say that about anything.
Yeah, yep, yep. But yeah, we've managed to cling on and we're very fortunate to, in Australia, have a lot of community support.
We have a great community who are still keen to hang with us, even though we couldn't be all together in person.
And that has definitely helped us weather the 2020 storm.
And we're looking forward to getting back to in-person events later on towards the end of this year, which is exciting.
Yeah, it is. I think we were all taking in-person events for granted for a really long time.
And now we've all realized, you know, just what a gift we used to have, you know, in being able to just all mix together very freely.
And then, you know, what it looks like to take that away and then build it back.
And so speaking of, you know, non-linear trajectories, do you want to go into a little bit of how you went from being a consultant to a teacher to creating conferences?
Sure. I guess it started at the beginning.
I did do computer science at university. So I started out as a, they called them programmers back in those days, kids, kind of in software development.
And I worked for the artists formerly known as Anderson Consulting. So they are now Accenture.
And I started out with them as a consultant and was almost immediately exported.
So like we were having a little chat beforehand in the backstage, I did live in the US.
I was in Minneapolis for a while and North Carolina and New Zealand and traveled around.
And it was really interesting introduction to, I guess, IT work because as I don't know if all consultants go through this, but as in that company in the roles that I was in, we were expected to be able to do all of the things.
So it wasn't just, you know, here, go write a program. We were doing a lot of analysis stuff, a lot of testing stuff.
So, you know, presentations to clients.
So it was a really good introduction to just general IT work, which has stood me in good stead because when I came back to Australia, having freshly been on a small talk project and people in Australia were like, you what now?
Small talk? Yeah, no, we don't have that. And apparently back then the thought of moving to another language like Java from small talk was considered impossible.
So I ended up getting a job as I think my initial role was a support manager.
So I was working with an Internet banking product and just kind of dealing with customers that way because I had dealt with customers before.
And from there, I ended up going to a client site and working on a lending product.
So I kind of evolved into being a BA, which again was something I had done a little bit of before and writing a bunch of documentation, that kind of thing.
And I stayed with that company for quite some time and did that role for a while.
And at one point their testing manager left and they said, oh, we need somebody who can be our QA manager.
Would you like to do that? And I guess from the Richard Branson school of when somebody asks you to do something, say yes and work it out later.
So I was like, oh heck yeah, I can do that.
So I ended up being the testing manager of, I think we had 75 testers who are all offshore in the Philippines.
And I did a lot of travel to and from Manila, learned a lot about software testing.
And really, again, community is so important because during that time I had been living in regional Queensland.
I moved to Melbourne, didn't know anybody, but hurray for meetups and conferences and things.
And I just met a whole bunch of super helpful people who really helped me get kind of going in that role between reading books and but when you have live humans that can tell you, oh, you know, try this, do that and people to bounce ideas off.
And I think that really accelerated the learning that I needed to do, not knowing anything, but wanting to be the best test managing person that I could be.
And from that kind of group, I branched out into learning a lot about agile stuff and team facilitation and whatnot.
So then my next role was an agile team facilitator.
Again, you know, kind of sideways, not really moving on from being a testing manager, but another arrow in the quiver, as it were.
And from that role, I got asked, hey, do you want to come and work at YOW? And I thought, oh, heck, that sounds like fun.
Why not? So I did that as well. Oh, I skipped the teaching.
Yeah, when I was in Queensland, I did a postgrad on learning to be a teacher.
And I taught senior classes, grade 10, 11 and 12, IT subjects. I did that for six months after I graduated, was filling in.
One of the teachers I had a prac with had to step aside from that role for a year.
So he kind of hauled me in and said, come teach my class, which was really nice, because I kind of bypassed the whole department of education interview process and just got launched right into the classroom.
So I skipped all the paperwork. And that was great.
I was learning. They were learning Flash ActionScript, RIP, if anybody remembers that.
He messaged me a few months after having rewritten the whole course, and he's like, oh, wow, this is so much better.
Oh, nice. So you get to make impact, even though you only swooped in for a little while and bypassed all the requirements, which I'm a huge fan of.
I'm a huge fan of circumventing bureaucratic processes in any way that I can.
I'm a fan. And so what is YOW? Can you tell us more about that for people who might not be familiar?
Yeah, sure can. So YOW was started, oh, gosh, where are we, 12 years ago now, I think, by a gentleman by the name of Dave Thomas.
No, no, no, not that Dave Thomas. No, not the other Dave Thomas, but the other Dave Thomas.
Interestingly, there are two Dave Thomases circulating in the Agile community from way back, one of whom is on the Agile manifesto and the other one who was associated but isn't there.
So this is the second of the Dave Thomases.
So he was in Australia. He was working as a professor up in Queensland and launched in and went, oh, where's all the tech conferences at?
And back then, particularly in Brisbane, there really weren't any big conferences in Australia.
So everybody said, oh, no, Dave, there's nothing here. Not going to happen.
Australia is too far away. Nobody comes here. Just it's not going to happen. And Dave said, oh, yep, hold my beer, and just rang a bunch of people that he knew and said, hey, come to Australia.
It's warm. It's great. Let's roll up a conference.
And so he basically grew this company as he termed it his hobby and brought all the kind of premier, I hate the term rock stars, but you know what I mean, the premier software development people from the US and the UK and Europe that normally we wouldn't get to see in Australia and brought them down for a big tour.
So started off in Brisbane and then Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne. So pretty much every December, there's a big festival of about 40 speakers that come over from international destinations to Australia.
And we have these software development conferences.
Really, really great to kind of keep people in the loop. It's really expensive, obviously, to send your whole team to reinvent or, you know, whatever's happening over in San Francisco.
So a lot of the time we just, you know, sort of peer through the Internet going, oh, look at all the fun people are having.
I wish we were there. Look, there's the golden age. That's it. So the name people often ask about, which is another funny story.
So the original conference was an offshoot of a Danish conference, which was the Java and object -oriented conference, which J-A-O-O, which if you're an Australian, you say J-A-O-O.
But if you are Danish, you say something like, sorry, any Danish people listening for my pronunciation, but it's something like Yau.
So when they came, the Australians would say, oh, are you going to the J-A-O-O conference?
And the Danish people would say, it is Yau.
It's like, nah, mate, J-A-O-O, I can read. So Dave finally went, you know what, we're going to write Yau.
At least then it sort of sounds right and everybody's happy.
And it's worked out well because, I mean, it's not a Java and object-oriented conference.
And because the name doesn't really mean anything, it can mean whatever we want.
And it's a funny story. Yeah. So I was wondering, I'm like, does it stand for something?
Like, what is it? Okay. So, and then what exactly do you do?
And then how, what is the combination with what you were talking about, which was skills matter?
What do I do? Oh, herd cats and wave arms is the short description.
It's interesting because being a very small company. So Yau, you know, has, even with our event people that we bring in for our in-person events, you know, there's just a handful of folks that work on it and I'm the only one that's full time.
So it's a little bit of everything, you know, it's like running your own small business because you need to just do strategy and marketing and, you know, a lot of, I mean, marketing sounds like marketing, but for me, it was mostly just getting out and talking to people and finding out what they're interested in, what do they need to learn?
What speakers are interested in seeing, you know, how can we help community groups?
How can they help us? I have a colleague called Sabina who's in Brisbane, who does a lot of the same sort of conversations with sponsors.
She handles all the money side of things, which is great.
So we kind of like the dynamic duo just in terms of keeping these things running.
And then, you know, if there's a whole bunch of folks that are involved, but yes, I never thought I'd spend so much time in Canva in my life.
I'm not a designer, you know, I don't know if I should be plugging products, but it certainly makes it easy when it's like, quick, I need a visual, like get in there and try and make something.
So yeah, all sorts of things.
But the Skills Matter group is a company that was running in the UK for many, many years.
If anybody watching is from London, you probably know who they are because they are absolutely massive, massive, massive over there.
And they have recently, I guess, gone through a change of ownership and are looking very much to become a global, like a premier global company, not just in the UK, but also in the US and through Europe and APAC.
So their quick way to APAC was to merge with us.
So that's how we ended up working under the Skills Matter umbrella. And we have a lot of the same speakers.
We run, you know, they run conferences as well.
They do a lot of training as well, which we do. And so it was a nice synergy and a good fit.
So a lot of my work since that took place last November has been just working to how we can align things and, you know, get the websites going together and kind of start doing things across time zones, which is always fun.
Yeah. Yeah. The time zone thing, you know, is really, can be really challenging.
I think when it comes to working, you know, like throughout, you know, the world, I've noticed it.
Like, I don't, I have to look on Google every time.
I'm like, what time is it somewhere else? Oh, well, I actually have, I don't know if I'll be able to show this on this, but I actually have a printed off little sheet, which is from, I think world time, but it's got all the cities that I normally deal with.
So Perth, Sydney, Auckland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, and Berlin.
And then I can quickly scan over and say, okay, it's one o'clock here.
Oh, it must be what? 8 PM in Los Angeles. But yeah, it certainly makes programming conferences challenging.
We just did two conferences over the last couple of weeks and I was extremely smug that I managed to get all the speakers in, you know, because we invite speakers without regard to what time zone they're in.
It's not like, oh, we definitely need somebody on West coast time for this slot. It's kind of like, who's a good speaker.
And we have a program committee that does that.
And it's like, here you go. Here's all the speakers. Merry Christmas. And I get to play human Tetris trying to work out where we can fit them in so that they're not doing things like, Hey, your talk's at 3 AM because that's convenient to us.
So that was, that was an interesting logistical challenge. And, you know, some of our speakers were great because most of them prefer to talk live.
We don't necessarily ask them to pre -record unless they're more comfortable doing that, or we've given them some kind of a wonky time slot.
And we had a guy who was, so Don Syme, who is big in the F sharp community, it was a functional programming conference and his slot was midnight UK time because we had him open the conference because he's awesome.
And I thought, well, of course he's going to record and he's no, no, no.
I'm not, I want to do it live. And I said, I'm so sorry.
It's at midnight and it's like, I'll be fine. You know, I'm going to get into it.
And I thought, I'll bless you. That is fantastic. So yeah, we had, we've had some speakers who will do their life talk at 7 AM or, you know, 9 PM, just super, super obliging of them.
But yeah, it's, it's somehow the last two conferences worked out.
So just got to try and keep that, keep that going. Kind of brings me into my, my next question, which is obviously, you know, everything changed last year for, for doing conferences.
And so, you know, basically, you know, you took, did you take all of your events online?
We did. We, we had an initial, our first events of the year are generally in May.
And we didn't make it by May because by then we were still in, oh my gosh, you know, are we even going to, should we just pack up and, and quit this whole thing?
Like, what are we going to do? But we did a couple of smaller events in June, July, when we kind of worked out, okay, people might show up and, and it was very experimental.
It was our first online thing.
We just said, tickets will be like 50 bucks or just pay what you think. And, and people, people attended and we thought, all right, okay, this is, we can do this.
We kind of kicked on with that through, through the rest of the year and onto the ones we just had last week, which were online as well.
Yeah. So what, what's working well?
Have you had any like unexpected wins or things that you weren't expecting were going to be more challenging?
Like what's working and what's not working?
I think what has been really good about online is just the accessibility side of things.
We definitely have had feedback from people that said, oh gosh, you know, I have always wanted to go to one of these conferences, but I live in, you know, insert regional town here.
I live somewhere that I can't easily get to the city and the cost of, you know, the travel and the accommodation and the tickets and everything, it's just too much.
And I'm so excited.
I can actually now attend and, and the same with, you know, people with maybe with disabilities or just with some, there's some reason that they can't attend physical things.
It's, it's overwhelming. There's too many people. They've got a bad back, you know, I had one person who was like, Hey, I've got a bad back.
I can't go to these things, but look at me, I'm in bed.
I'm still, I'm attending. This is great.
So that, that to me, I think has been, has been really worthwhile. And just the appreciation from the community that even there's something, you know, I think it's, it's not perfect and it's not ideal and we really wish we could be together, but Hey, you know, yeah, I'll buy a ticket, you know, we'll hang out online.
It's going to be fine.
The way we've run our events is we, we stream them on YouTube and we kind of put the whole way track in Slack because most people in our field are familiar with, with that.
And it's not like here, learn a whole new product, which I think people find off -putting for some of the online conferences where it's like, Oh, I've got to download this thing.
And where's the button for the, the, the, the, there.
So we just started out with that and just tried to keep it really simple.
And I think people appreciated that as well. It's just, you know, click here, watch the thing, go into Slack, have a chat.
And some people got, have been really involved and engaged in the Slack as well, which is, I think that then it's fun.
If, if, if people treat it like watching a TV show, then it's, it's, you know, there's no fun in that, but when people get engaged and make it more like a watch an online watch party and they're kind of commenting on things and having a general chat that that's what makes it fun.
But obviously the downside is yes, it's online.
We're not together. You lose that sense of engagement.
For me personally, I find online conferences and events way more stressful than in-person ones, because in person we have quite a big team of events people, you know, there are, there's a venue, the venue is managing the air conditioning, the food, you know, all that kind of thing.
We have a huge team of volunteers that are roaming around, you know, answering people's questions.
We have, you know, events staff that are making sure things run smoothly.
And I just get to walk around and, you know, talk to people and eat.
Online ones, oh gosh, I have to do the horror.
You're not sitting there on the back end, like making sure things are working.
Well, I'm very, yeah, I'm very thankful we have an AV guru, black belt in AV, he calls himself.
So he runs our, the AV side for all of our in-person conferences and he's been doing our online ones as well.
So he's the producer and has the big setup with the, you know, five screens and four machines and make sure everything runs smoothly.
And yeah, he's basically the engine of our, of all of our online events.
Thank you, Richard. Yeah. And, and that's, that's been an absolute lifesaver.
Yeah. It sounds really, you know, like, like you mentioned, it, it, it kind of levels that, you know, these online events kind of level the playing field a little bit for, you know, accessibility, you know, people don't have the costs associated to, you know, like you said, to get to a place, to have a hotel and to do all that, you know, or physical limitations.
What do you vision?
How do you, is there a hybrid then that once you're back to these in-person events, you know, you're still kind of trying to level that playing field for those people that now have a taste of, I want to do the conference from my bed.
Like, how does that going to come together?
Exactly. And that's, and that's, you know, you've absolutely hit upon a very big, you know, idea or, or issue or whatever is we're not going to turn that off.
It's, it's not going to be like, oh, I'm glad you enjoyed our online things.
Well, it was convenient for us, but now, you know, boom door closes.
So we are of course now looking at hybrid and that's going to be our next round of experiments, which, you know, of course has its own logistical challenges because now what we're looking at is streaming in and out.
And, you know, you may have seen the effects of the Australian Internet already.
So who knows what could happen here. But yes, again, Richard has, has set up a bunch of tech stuff, you know, that he can take on the road.
So the idea is that both, you know, speakers can be either in-person or streamed in.
And that's going to help us with a lot of speakers who have, you know, for various and sundry reasons, not been able to come to Australia.
But of course, obviously we want humans there as well.
So it's going to be a combination of in-person and remote speakers and then in-person and remote attendees.
So just the next logistical challenges is going to be around how can we make it so that there's not the same experience, but it's, it's not just people watching TV if they're online, you know, we need to find ways for attendees to interact when they're, you know, in the same audience, whether they're there or remote.
And, you know, the challenges are around, how do we do Q and A's and make them interesting?
What happens when everybody goes, Oh, break time, you know, and, and all the people who are there are, are they all talking amongst themselves and the online people talk amongst themselves?
Do we have a great big screen where people can be like, Hey, you know, and, and see each other.
But then it's going to be really noisy in the, in the hallway.
How do we, so it's, it's going to be a lot of let's try this. Let's try that.
How are we going to have speakers on those little doubles where there's, you know, like the iPad on a Segway where you can go and talk to the speaker and he's, he or she, or they are, are just on a little, little screen.
And again, is that too noisy?
Do we need a separate room? So there's a whole bunch of it's going to be fun experiments.
It's so great. You have all this like testing background and you know what it is.
Yep. That's it. Well, and, and, you know, you have to try these things and see what works and what doesn't.
And yeah, some things might not work.
Good. We know we won't do that again. But we have to try new things.
You know, we've had a great formula. It's worked brilliantly for years.
But you know, Hey, we, we, we can't go back. I don't think, I don't think we should go back to the same.
And I mean, I, I suppose this is a wider post COVID sentiment, you know, Oh, let's get back to the way it was before.
And well, no, let's, let's do better than we did before.
So that's, that's kind of what we're aiming for in our little microcosm here.
Yeah. That's the dream. Right. And so when is your next like in-person event happening?
So our next events are in September.
And again, we're kind of keeping with our, Oh, and when I say ours, this is, this is for YOW, for APAC.
So Skills Matter is still running because they're in the UK and the U S they're still online.
So they've actually, they're actually running ScalaCon as we speak, although it was overnight, so it might be finished, but the next three yesterday, today, tomorrow are ScalaCon.
And there's a whole bunch of online events that are, that are scheduled.
But for us in APAC, September, so we're keeping our normal schedule, May, September, December, September is Perth.
So Perth, Singapore, Hong Kong was our previous tour. So we're going to physically, because it's within our little travel bubble down here, hopefully state borders stay open.
We're going to run the in-person part of it in Perth and then stream it to everybody in that UTC plus eight and adjacent time zones.
I mean, obviously the online stuff, people can attend from anywhere, right? But it's kind of nice to not be watching things at 3.00 AM having done that far too often to have it kind of in your time zone and get together with your colleagues and all that kind of thing.
So that's Perth. And then because New Zealand is also in our travel bubble, we are going to do New Zealand.
So the 14th and 15th is going to be Perth and then the 21st and 22nd in Wellington, New Zealand.
So we haven't, we haven't physically been to New Zealand before for a conference.
I think we've run some smaller events there and we were going to do it last year as our first year, which of course didn't happen.
So we had a little online version last year, but I can't wait.
I used to live in Wellington as well. So I'm really hoping that we can pull this off.
And of course, you know, you have backup plans and your backup plans for your backup plans.
So we will definitely and always be there online. And we're just hoping that we can do the physical part of it as well.
So, you know, that's your next thing as part of ticket sales, you know, everybody can get an online ticket and then you buy the add-on, which means you show up in person and you get to eat and drink and hang out with us.
And, you know, the speakers will, will plan for the in-person speakers to travel, but if they can't, there'll be online and the sponsors will be all online.
But if they can, and they want to, they can have a, you know, a regular sponsor booth.
So everything's kind of plug and play so that if anything happens, we can just, you know, refund or deal with that little bit.
And then the online one we'll, we'll carry on regardless.
So logistics, we're getting, yeah.
It sounds like a lot. Do you have any tips for people that might be watching that go to conferences online?
Like how does it? Did we get Interneted again?
Oh, dear. Sorry, you froze for a second. I don't know if it was you or me.
Oh, it's me. My Internet connection is being deemed unstable, not unlike my emotional nature.
Yes, exactly. Yeah. So, so what, what, what can people do to get the most out of an online conference experience?
I think it, it depends on the setup.
Obviously most conferences really try and find ways for the attendees to interact in one way or another.
I went to one event kind of, oh, sometime last year where they were very excited about the fact that it was small groups and you'll be in Zoom and you can talk amongst yourselves and everybody had the camera off and nobody talked.
And I was kind of like, well, I have my camera off because it is 2am and I am in bed.
But I think it's, it's quite hard sometimes for people to, to just pull the pin and get involved, but you get so much more out of it.
I mean, like I said, we, we run hours on Slack and some people get super engaged and chatty and some people obviously don't.
And I think it's, it's, you will get more out of it if you, if you put in.
But I mean, it's the same for an in-person conference.
There are some people who love the hallway track and they love the networking and they love getting out amongst it.
And then there are some people who are just like, nope, nope, nope, nope.
I am here for the talks. If, you know, I will be outside during the breaks because there's too many people and I just know.
So it's, it's, it's a similar thing. I think if you can have a little watch party, you know, depending on the setup of the conference and your current quarantine and isolation status.
If you, I mean, even I've been in events where they haven't necessarily, it's been a webinar, so they haven't necessarily had a way for people to interact with the main group, but I've had a group of friends who were watching it also.
And we just set up a little chat amongst ourselves. So we had either a channel in a Slack we were all in, or maybe a little signal group or something.
And so we were talking amongst ourselves during the conference just to sort of, you know, Oh, what do you think of that?
Let's talk about this later. Just, you know, the making notes thing, the talking, it just kind of reinforces what you're learning.
So yeah, any, any way that you can interact with other humans.
Yeah. Yeah. We're going to wrap up. Cause we only have 18 seconds left. I didn't do a very good like intro to wrapping up, but I will say, you know, more engagement, less entertainment, people come be engaged.
Don't expect others to entertain you, but thank you so much, Michelle and have a wonderful day.