I attended Velocity Conference 2014 in Barcelona this week. And it was a blast.

View from the Velocity EU 2014 venue's
terrace

The conference venue alone, which is located right next to the sea, and one could spend the breaks on the terrace which has a great view towards the shore, made it a somewhat special event. (Of course, to me as a german at a time where winter begins, anything with open water and a lot of sun is awesome). The conference itself was very good on it’s own, even without such a great venue.

What I liked most about the conference is how they managed, from a programmatic point of view, to put together a very diverse conference. One got to hear about in-depth performance and optimization topics, but also a lot about how to lead modern engineering organizations and how to build open and diverse teams. The program chairs & committee did a great job there.

While the conference provided high quality content and speakers throughout, I’ll only highlight the session that made the most impression on me.

Both conference days started off with 90 minutes of short Keynotes. Those already gave a good glimpse of the overall topics of the overall conference, and got covered in depths in the later sessions.

Steven Shorrock - Life after Human Error

The very first Keynote already was a highlight with Steven Shorrock’s Life after Human Error. Although starting a bit slow, he presented a great introduction into the field of Human Error and gave very practical advice that could be directly applied.

Looking back, what I found somehow funny: He basically said, as the first presenter of the conference, that we should rather not conduct post-mortems at all but rather look at systems under normal circumstances and try to find out how they will probably react when pressure will be applied. But throughout the conference so many people basically stated, that obviously everyone should do post-mortems. I wonder how Steven experienced that.

Laine Campbell - Recruiting for Diversity in Tech

In her Keynote, Laine in the beginning shortly touched on the subject of why diverse teams are a good thing to build and cultivate. Most of the time though was then given to very concrete advice on how to get there, which boiled down to

  • Get everyone to the party by always recruiting from underrepresented groups
  • Set Goals, Track and Enforce them such as “50% of applicants must be women”
  • Eliminate Daily Beatdowns by defining acceptable behaviour
  • Eliminate Implicit Bias for example by anonimyzing job applications, building balanced interview teams and reviewing your interview techniques and questions for bias regularly.

I especially liked the focus on concrete actions that anyone can do, even if all those steps are still quite hard to implement, and the mention of inherent and aquired diversity, which while being somehow obvious, was new to me and opened another way to think about the whole topic.

Mark Zeman - Better Performance Through Better Design

Mark simply put on a great show in his Keynote, where he talked about how design can help with improving performance.

He presented a no-BS three-step approach that he called designing designing and consists of

  • Define your project principles. The GDS Design principles are a great example for such principles.
  • Have interdisciplinary teams.
  • Measure and share your (performance) metrics. He mentioned PerfMap as one tool that helps with that. Be sure to share them in a way that’s accessible and meaningful for others. Show business people how performance affects the experience, possibly compare it to the competition in the market.

Mike Rembetsy - Hand-made Operations: Scaling Workflow and Management at Etsy

Even though Mike’s session was a replacement for a session that I originally wanted to attend, it turned out to be a really great session. That Mike is a seasoned presenter certainly helped with that. It also helped that I really like sessions, that share the experiences some people or team make over the course of time, while they try to solve some problem.

Mike showed the different implementation of the processes in their operations team and how they evolved over time. He shared many useful bits & pieces and tweaks that help with minor but important challenges.

It was most useful for me, as a confirmation for the fact that everybody, even companies with awesome teams as John’s and Mike’s, struggle with the same problems everybody else does. And that the solutions they come up are somewhat similar to what one comes up with a little bit of thinking and iterating.

Mandi Walls - Design Reviews for Operations

Judging from the abstract of Mandi’s session it was clearly geared towards operations people.

However I, as more a developer and manager, found it super useful as a very broad (and still very deep at times) overview for operational requirements of systems. Kind of like a Definition of Ready for operations.

She touched so many subjects, gave so many good advice and mentioned so many possible pitfalls, that it’s impossible to list them here.

You should really go and watch the video or look at the slides. Even more so if you sometimes wonder what all those operations folks think about and what they work on all day.

"Yak Shaving Expert" sticker

Sidenote: Mandi works for Chef, and they had the best stickers ever at their sponsor booth of the conference. Thanks Mandi for sharing them and handing out some :)

Marni Cohen - Mansplaining 101: Cisadmin Edition

I didn’t attend this session, but the buzz on Twitter was very positive and people afterwards said very good things about it. Go check it out and watch the video. I certainly will do it.

Jonathan Klein - Cognitive Biases in Engineering Organizations

Jonathan’s session gave a very accessible overview of a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past, but didn’t yet got around to consistenly use it in practice. “Using” as in, be aware of biases while working in a team.

In the session, Jonathan told a story that everyone in the industry can relate to, and highlighted the different biases during the interactions that take place in the story. This not only made the biases way easier to understand but also provided concrete situations one can look out for in the future.

Really great talk, so go watch the video or look at the slides and references, where he also lists all biases he talked about.

Honorary High-Five for listing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as recommended literature.

Adam Christian - The Black Magic of Engineering Management

Adam’s session was a whirlwind tour through what modern engineering management is about and what he learned over the past years while growing the SauceLabs engineering team. He presented the session very authentically which made it even more enjoyable and worthwhile to attend.

He iterated over so many good advice in the session that it’s impossible to cover them all. Personally I liked the “Know yourself” part best, because it’s so obvious in hindsight but so unintuitive when you’re doing it. Not all points were new to me, but it was great to be confirmed in many things and see the challenges are not really unique.

Go watch the video once it’s posted or look through his slides

I later had the chance to talk to him and two other participants at his Office Hour slot, which again helped me with my journey.

To be continued …

In order to make this amount of information somehow digestable, so I covered the second day of the conference seperately.