Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Running Diary: The Engineering Summit, Part 2

In Part 1 of this Running Diary on The Engineering Summit, I discussed what this meeting was about and the logistical problems you typically encounter when hosting a large business gathering. Here in Part 2, the actual meeting begins with a war against sweat stains and an "ice breaker" game that set the proper tone for 3 days of being locked in the same room with 30 people.


Opening Monologue


The morning of the first day was pretty exciting, but not in a good way. Maybe "panicked" is a better word. One of my Emerging Technologies speakers couldn't make it at the last minute, but we arranged for him to attend by phone. Another Guest Speaker canceled altogether, but I had an extra of my Non-Technical topics prepared in case that happened.

The real shocker came when the facilities people didn't set up the room for 30 like Lydia requested, but instead it was set up for 12. Fortunately, I arrived 30 minutes before everybody else and, with the help of another early atendee, was able to arrange the room to accommodate everybody, but not without the physical strain of setting up folding tables and chairs. That ended up contributing to something later, though.

I shook a lot of hands and placed a lot of names and voices with faces as people filed in. About 10 minutes after our official start time (allowing for stragglers), I began my introductory remarks. My first joke (an attempt to lighten the mood and get everyone smiling) fell completely flat, as did my second. I was beginning to think this whole thing was a really bad idea. Even when my third attempt at comedy went well (note to self: lead with the self-deprecating mother-in-law joke next time), as I started to talk about why were were all gathered together, I started to feel it.

Between the chair and table lifting, my animated style of speaking, the relatively small room populated with 30 people, and the heat coming off the projector displaying my slides, I was already developing huge sweat stains under my arms. What made it worse was that I made the mistake of wearing a light blue cotton button down shirt, so as the material got wet it turned a very noticeable darker color. First, I tried keeping my arms down so they wouldn't show as bad, but I soon realized as I was discussing the importance of the non-technical skills portion of our agenda that this ploy was making it worse because the heat didn't have anywhere to escape and the stains got even bigger.

Fortunately, we started into our introduction exercise and I got to sit down with a cold bottle of water. That stabilized the situation, but I may go to a wardrobe consisting of nothing but black and navy shirts from now on to prevent this from happening in the future.

The Introduction Game

There are a few things that I hate about gatherings like this:

  1. You always give introductions at the beginning and nobody ever listens to anybody else.
  2. People will bring their laptops and plug into the network, giving them license to ignore the proceedings.
  3. Despite adequate time to pee, too many people come back late from the breaks.
By borrowing from techniques I'd seen in other classes, the goal of my introductory exercise (and the running gag it created) was to eliminate those three things. It went like this (and keep in mind that most of these people had never met each other in person before):

  • You introduced yourself and were given $1.
  • When you were done, you had to give the name of every person who had introduced themselves before you. If you did this successfully, you earned another $1.
  • If you were late coming back from a break or were caught using your laptop, you were fined $1.
  • All the fine money collected at the end of the 3 days would go to buy an Amazon.com gift certificate for Lydia.
The teller at my local Wells Fargo thought I was nuts when I went in and asked for 60 one dollar bills, but besides that this had the exact effect I was after. Everybody got to know everybody else's name because they heard them over and over again. Some of the people later in the cycle cheated by writing the name order down. One guy was creative enough to make a seating chart and then sold it to somebody else for an extra dollar.

It got us in a festive mood and given where the proceeds were going, people were pretty quick to pay fines. I found I only had to be tough on that the first day and after that, people were on time, paid attention, and policed themselves. I even got extra contributions to Lydia's Amazon fund, which she greatly appreciated after the whole thing was over.

In Part 3, key wins from the sessions are described and the importance of having a feedback loop is discussed.

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