Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Running Diary: The Engineering Summit, Part 1

During the first week of November, 2006, I hosted an Engineering Summit. You probably don't know what the heck that is because I made it up. Actually I just made up the name, the concept came from my boss, but let me explain in a minute. Highlights covered in this Running Diary include:

  • Logistical planning for a large meeting
  • The importance of good relationships with administrative assistants
  • Dealing with sweat stains while giving an oral presentation in a hot room
  • Ice breakers and motivating good meeting behavior for 3 days
  • How interaction with higher level managers can improve morale
  • Setting a feedback loop to validate an event

The organization that my boss runs has about 100 people in it stationed all over the world and an annual budget of several million dollars. During a recent employee survey, it came out that people felt disconnected from each other and unclear on overall goals of what our team was trying to accomplish. Given the 10 different locations we all work out of and the close to 300 different projects we've done in the last year, I can't say that I blame them.

So, my boss had the idea of flying all our key technical leaders to the same place and have me host a little gathering where we could share ideas and talk about how our different project areas all contributed to the overall vision of our group. "Nerdfest '06" didn't really catch on as a name, so I came up with "Engineering Summit" instead. I was given a generous budget for the event, which seemed really cool until I realized that I had to make it worthwhile for 30 people to take time out of their regular jobs and families and come to California. No pressure, though.


I only had 30 days to plan everything, so time was short given all the logistics that had to be planned. The first problem was figuring out who to invite. That was trickier than I thought because I wanted to be as inclusive as made sense, but not invite all 100 people because not all of them have technical jobs, per se. It wasn't anything worth hurting feelings and burning bridges over either, though. I also wanted to have some people from a separate research group that we have in our company come as well. These folks look way further out there on the cutting edge than my guys have time for because we have pretty strict project deadlines to meet.

I settled on a list of about 35 people and almost all of them got back to me within a week. With 21 days to go, I knew that 30 people would be coming to our company headquarters California. It was then that I enlisted the help of my boss' secretary, Lydia. Among the best pieces of advice my Dad ever gave me is that you have to take care of everybody that might have some impact on your job. He was a high school teacher and coach for 30 years, so for him that meant getting on the good sides of janitors and groundskeepers, who could really make his life miserable (like "forgetting" to chalk the lines for a football game) if they chose to despite having jobs that a lot of people, right or wrong, turn their noses up at.

I was dependent on Lydia to get me a meeting room for each of the 3 days that would hold 30 people, order catered breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack that would each suite a variety of tastes and dietary needs (we have some vegetarians in the group, including me), and she helped organize travel for quite a few people. Needless to say, this event would not have taken place without her and I was going to make sure she felt appreciated for all her fine efforts. More on that later, though.


With the logistics in the good hands of Lydia, I next had to decide on an agenda. Again, these people were taking time away from their jobs and their families, I didn't want them cursing at me under their breath about wasting their time. I decided on 4 key themes:

  • Platform Deep Dives - We have two key platforms that we were moving as many of our projects as we could to and it seemed like a good opportunity to make sure everybody understood them. I'd have the technical project lead for each present something and do a demo.
  • Emerging Technologies - This is where the research group fit in. I wanted them to give presentations on the top technologies they thought might make a difference in the next 5 years. My hope was that not only would my guys start to think about these things, but that the close interaction with the research folks would foster some trust with that group that we were missing.
  • Guest Speakers - The site for the Engineering Summit was chosen to be our company worldwide headquarters for a reason. Our management leaders all work there and this was a chance to get all my front line people in a face to face with all the folks who drive company cars.
  • Non-Technical Aspects to Engineering - With my boss' blessing, I worked in the topics presented on this blog.
Given all that, I had to line up time on the calendars of all the upper management types, get the Emerging Technologies and Platform Deep Dive presenters to come up with slides, and prepare my own material. Then, I had to organize the 27 hours we'd all be stuck in a room together with the right order mix so that people wouldn't get bored of one presentation type too many times in a row and work in potty breaks too. It was a busy 21 days.

Next, in Part 2, a sweat attack attempts to foil my opening remarks to the session but an introduction game accomplishes its intended purpose. If you'd like to skip ahead, Part 3, goes into the biggest lessons learned from the actual meeting segments and the importance of having a feedback loop.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 12:23 PM   0 comments

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