How it Started
The idea for the IT MegaMeet came about after a meeting between the then Student Rep (myself) and the then programme leader (Dr Jin Sa) for UWE's MSc Software Engineering. Jin informed me that the programme might not be open to new applicants next year as intake was down. I left that meeting thinking of the programme, what I'd learned, and how it would be a shame for other people not to have the same opportunity I'd had. UWE is one of few universities that have entry options for students from unorthodox backgrounds. I myself had no undergrad degree, but instead had several years of practical experience working as a software developer. I was able to prove my abilities by sitting modules from the MSc, surprising some by finishing top of the class. I was sure there were plenty of developers in my position, ones that would be interested in getting an MSc as academic recognition of their abilities.
I'd been the leader of the local Perl Mongers (Perl user group) for a few years, we'd done a talk at UWE before. The thought occurred to me that the other developer groups in and around Bristol would be interested in coming to the university. That if they all came together, to one event, we could achieve more than just raising awareness of the MSc. We could build a stronger IT community, with exposure for all the groups involved, and ties built between them and the university.
The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it. I met with Jin and Dr David Coward (Head of Department) to discuss the idea and got the go ahead. What it became was greater than I'd hoped, with over 20 groups getting involved, and lasting ties made within the community.
The MegaMeet challenge to other cities
I'd like to see an IT MegaMeet in every major city of the UK and beyond. I'll be documenting organising the second MegaMeet, with anecdotes from the first. Are you up to the IT MegaMeet challenge?
The first IT MegaMeet in Bristol
What I hope to give is an honest account, "warts and all", of my experiences organising the first IT MegaMeet. I think it's important to show the challenges and "characters" I encountered along the way, so as anyone taking up the challenge will be better prepared.
The first IT MegaMeet was held at UWE Bristol on the 19th of May 2012. It was organised in less than 2 months, which didn't leave a lot of time for planning, negotiating with groups, and getting the word out. I did the majority of this myself, it basically took over my whole life for the 2 months. Luckily the employer for my part time contract was very understanding and gave me the 2 months off. Unfortunately for my own business there were some unhappy customers, and leads that didn't get followed up. For anyone taking up the IT MegaMeet challenge, I highly recommend giving yourselves at least 6 months and getting other people to help from the start. Done that way I'm sure I could have organised the IT MegaMeet without such disruption to my work and life.
Getting the first groups involved
Jin emailed me on the 27th March to say we had a meeting with David on the 29th. That same day I reached out to several group leaders to see if they would be interested. I was hoping to get some evidence together that this event could work before I pitched the idea to David. The response had been very positive. Some of the groups I was already aware of, others I found from the Bristol Web Folk Calendar, the rest on Google. I sent them all the message:
I'd like to touch base with you with regards to an event I'm organising at UWE. At the moment I'm contacting all of the local IT/Developer groups to assess their interest in participating. Essentially the event is a Workshop where each group can present talks, promoting themselves, their chosen language/platform, and anything they think is interesting from their area. Side rooms would be available for hands on tutorials.
Invitation to the event would be open to the groups and their members, UWE staff and students, as well as the local IT & business community at large.
The aim of the event is to establish a closer connection between UWE's Computer Science department and the local IT & business community.
The first to get back to me that same day was James Moverley. I knew James from my Perl group, he had a good connection with Bristol SkillSwap. He is very out going and full of laughs, so an ideal person to have talking about the event. Dan Fairs was next, he ran the Python based Django User Group. Dan expressed his interest in getting involved. The following day I got a reply from Mark Wales of the Bristol Web Folk group, he was sure people from his group would be interested. Next was Ade Slade from the PHP South West group, they definitely wanted to be involved. Matthew Gillard from the Bristol Functional Programming group was very interested but out of town, he referred me to Thom Leggett whom also ran the group. Last to contact me that day was Mike Ellis from Bath Digital, again very interested.
The following morning I got a reply from Ali Flind of Girl Geek Dinners, they liked the sound of it. Just before the meeting with David I got an email from Thom Leggett, he was keen for his group to participate and also wanted to forward the email to a colleague at Nokia who was handling their local recruitment.
I printed out the various replies and brought them with me to the meeting. I pitched the idea, and offered up the evidence that it could work, and that the local IT groups would be interested. David was impressed, and gave it the go ahead saying that we could use rooms from Q block.
Following this meeting I threw myself into seeking out all the local groups I could, and trying to figure out how the event might actually work on the day.
I came across a group called The .NET Developer Network. I don't follow much from the Microsoft world, but I was still shocked to discover that they too were hosting an event called Developer Developer Developer South West at UWE the weekend after I'd planned mine?? Maybe this had been promoted at UWE, but I'd certainly never seen or heard of it. Their event had been running for 4 years, and I was very keen to get in touch with the organiser. The group leader, Guy Smith-Ferrier, got in touch on the 30th. Guy was very helpful, he had a lot of experience doing what I was trying to achieve. If it wasn't for his advice and insight along the way organising the IT MegaMeet would have been much harder. He was surprised I was trying to do it all myself, DDD South West have a team of organisers each assigned different tasks. Unfortunately with the timing of things Guy was busy organising his own event, so wasn't as able to have been as hands on helping me as he otherwise would have.
Nicolas Alpi from Bristol Ruby User Group was next to get in touch, he was interested and wanted to meet up and discuss the event. Ryan Northey from the Trinity Centre reached out to me. I hadn't contacted him directly like the others, so this was a good sign that word of the event was getting around already. Next were James Morris from Design Jam Bristol, Tarmin from Bristol Hackspace, Ben Griffiths from South West Big Data, James Routley from South West Founders, Sebastian from Bristol and Bath Linux User Group, and Drew Murray from Bristol Java.
I was trying to get everyone's number and talk to them all on the phone. Everyone was very busy; with the constant time pressure I had, waiting for email replies wasn't always an option. I started a private Google group for the local group leaders so that we could talk openly about the events organisation.
The ITMegaMeet.co.uk site
I had my web designer, Phil Knight, work on a design for the website. I provided some rough content, what the event was about, who was getting involved, etc. The employer for my part time contract, Lars Helgeson of GreenRope, provided us with an email marketing platform with event management. We hooked up a signup form to the site and prepared to start taking registrations. We adapted the affiliate software from my business, AllAffiliatePro, to use to track the results of a promotion competition.
The event at this stage, was still just "that IT event at UWE", it hadn't yet been given a name. I had several ideas, nothing seemed to really fit, or had been used before. Then I thought about what the groups do, they talk online and they meet in person... and what I was trying to achieve, I wanted them all to meet up together in one big meet... Super Meet? Big Meet? I settled on the alliteration MegaMeet. The only concern being that it sounds a little bit like gay porn, or a nickname for a stripper at a ladies night.
I was going to call it Bristol MegaMeet, it later became referred to a just the MegaMeet. The official name is Bristol IT MegaMeet. IT has become a very generic name for computing related activities. I'm always thinking of whether things might grow or spread. If this event worked, why not do something similar in other cities? I registered itmegameet.co.uk so as it might one day become a hub for IT MegaMeets across the country, allowing for city sub domains such as bristol.itmegameet.co.uk, cardiff.itmegameet.co.uk, etc.
I announced the site to the private group leader list on the 10th of April:
Looks like most of the group leaders are on this list now I came up with a name and worked on a site over the Easter break. It's got some more details and a rough outline for a potential schedule:
Please don't share this link yet until we've thrashed out all the details.
I've got someone working on a logo.
What I need from you all:
- Group descriptions
- Feedback on the schedule, timings, etc
- Tech Talk suggestions
- Lightening Talk suggestions
If a group just wants to do an intro and not a tech talk, then that's an opportunity for another group to put forward more than one. So it doesn't harm to ask around your group. As this could represent a different audience to your usual tech meets, then possibly pick the best/popular tech talk from a previous tech meet?
It would be great to have some tutorials going on. Unfortunately UWE is on holiday at the moment so I can't ask any lecturers, but really anyone can run a tutorial. So if you have someone in mind, please put them in touch with me.
If I haven't spoken to you yet on the phone then please send me your number or give me a call.
Would be good for us all to meet up and discuss the event face to face, maybe over food?
Guy was first to reply, and provided a lot of good feedback. I planned to put the site live on Wednesday the 18th, this didn't give a lot of time to get information for the site from the groups, but it was only 1 month before the event itself.
Meeting with groups
It became clear that the personal touch was needed to really motivate the groups and get the word out. Most of the groups held regular meet ups, so I tried to attend as many as I could. James Routley has said he was unsure about what I wanted, and that I should come along to the next SWFounders meet up to talk to him about the event. Following all the very positive emails and phone calls I'd been having, I wasn't really prepared for meeting James. He was an interesting character, very defensive, the conversation wasn't easy. Every few sentences he'd say "We don't want just anyone coming to our meet ups, we only want a certain sort, do you understand? Not just any riff raff".
At one point I thought I must be talking to the wrong guy, or perhaps the SWFounders meet was in a different room, "You did ask me to come and talk to you, didn't you??". I described the event, and who was getting involved so far. James laughed, "The Ruby group? The guy who runs the Ruby group is Nic and he's stood there, I doubt he'll be interested. You can talk to some of the other people here, but I doubt they'll be interested". Such a statement seemed very odd to me, "Good, I've been speaking to Nic on the phone and we've been planning to meet. I didn't know he was coming here tonight". I persisted but the conversation was clearly going nowhere.
"How many groups are involved?"... "At this point it looks like about 12" "How long are they speaking for?"... "At the moment I'm looking at hour long talks". James laughed again. "12 hours? 12 hours? I'm not going to sit there for 12 hours whilst people talk". "Ummm, no, we are looking at having 3 or more tracks, so people can choose which talks they go to"... James kept giving me strange looks, as if I was up to something sinister. "If you could extract the right sort from your event, then maybe I might be interested in talking to them. But otherwise we don't want just anyone coming to our meets, we only want the right sort of person. You're welcome to talk to the people here, but as I said, I doubt they'll be interested".
I spoke to Nic about the event, it was good to talk to him in person. He was busy, with family visiting and a new child, but very keen to be involved. I was impressed at his commitment. I spoke to a few more people before I left, there weren't any other group leaders I spoke to, but almost all of them were interested in attending the event.
PHP SW had a tech talk that same night. The conversation with James had dragged on and gone nowhere, so I was running late. Following that conversation now I really wasn't sure what to expect, even though I had already spoken to Ade on the phone. The conversation couldn't have been more different. We spoke at length about talks and a possible schedule. At first I'd suggested that each group do a 10 minute introduction about themselves, then follow up with a 50 minute tech talk in their chosen area. Ade pointed out that this would be more intimidating for both speakers and potential attendees. Following that conversation I adjusted the talks down to 30 minutes.
Unfortunately Bristol Design Jam couldn't make the dates so they pulled out. I was worried that more might follow, which spurred me on to find more local groups. I made contact with Stuart Church from Bristol Usability Group. He was interested, but wasn't available on those dates, nor were his co organisers. He was happy for me to post to the group to see if anyone else wanted to come forward, but only if I told him who had come forward so that he could vet if they were suitable. When I went to post to the group there was no mailing list. Only Stuart and the co-organisers are allowed to email group members, they only promote their own UXBristol events. They do have a blog on their site where members are able to post small messages, but unfortunately this is only seen by a small fraction of the group.
I made contact with Matt Hamilton from the Underscore group. Underscore is a general developer group, and probably Bristol's biggest. I'd purposely left them until later in the game. As some friends had warned me, the more people you get involved, the more people will want to be involved. I left the bigger groups and organisations until now so that they'd be more likely to take it seriously and get involved. Matt offered to talk about the group, and also do a talk about the python based Plone.
I had contact from Matt Baker at Bristol Uni. They were interested in getting involved. Seeing how the event came about wanting to promote a UWE degree, I didn't want to risk losing potential students to Bristol Uni. However I made it clear to Matt that if I ended up doing other events then I'd certainly want them involved.
Food and drink
Everyone would need to eat and drink. UWE has facilities, but events such as these usually have free food and drink on hand. UWE wasn't willing to pay for catering, so it was obvious that I'd need to find sponsors to pay for food. UWE has a policy that only their own catering services can sell and serve food on campus. On the 18th April, one month before the event, I made contact with Nicola Hategekimana from UWE's Events team. Nicola was helpful in making sure rooms were booked, arranging car parking spaces, catering, etc. She gave me the list of catering options with pricing and suggestions for tea & coffee breaks.
One thing I hadn't fully appreciated when starting this event, is that the local groups aren't just a bunch of geeks that like to chat about code. They each have ties with a large portion of the local IT employers. Those looking to hire were very interested in an event that looked like it was set to draw in a large crowd of local IT specialists.
I'm indebted to all the sponsors, without them the event wouldn't have been as successful as it was. Thom Leggett works at Nokia, he passed on details of the event to the relevant people. Nokia came back with £3,000. Based on this figure, a rough idea of catering costs from Nicola, and some idea of potential numbers from Guy, I set out the sponsorship costs. £3,000 Platinum, £1,500 Gold, £500 Silver, and £100 Bronze. Dan Fairs introduced me to Ben Glynn from Potato, a large Django employer in Bristol. He came forward with £1,500. I knew I needed at least £6,000 to cover the food and drink.
I saw Chris Bowles from Hargreaves Lansdown advertise for PHP developers on underscore. I emailed him about sponsoring the event, and he came back with the last £1,500 I needed. Now all I needed was to make sure enough people came to the event to keep the sponsors happy. It's a kind of chicken and egg situation. You need lots of people to come to the event for the sponsors to be happy, but you need sponsors to have free food and add credibility to the event for people to come...
Promoting the event
With less than a month to get the word out and get people signed up, promoting the event became an ever increasing worry. Especially after picking up the sponsors, I knew it was important to get enough foot fall for them to be happy. I'd expected news of the event to go viral, which to be honest it was, but at a much slower rate that I had hoped for. We had facebook, twitter, and linked in groups to promote through social media. Twitter appeared to be having the most impact which goes with our audience. Some people had signed up to our promotion contest to win a bottle of champagne, but not that many.
I encouraged all of the groups to get the word out to their members. I wrote an announcement for Dr Coward to pass on to the various computer science programme leaders, for them to forward onto their students. I got in touch with Alan Bennett, UWE's Student Employment Adviser who sends out regular job shop messages to students. With the kind of people we had involved, the event was turning out to be an excellent networking and job seeking opportunity for students. Alan was good enough to include the event is the next job shop newsletter.
Despite of this, we still weren't getting signups at the rate I'd hoped for. I decided to pay for targeted facebook and linked in advertising. Tried to get out to more group meets, and got hands on with the students and lecturers. I had some IT MegaMeet business cards printed and hit UWE's Frenchay campus. At this point most students were revising or sitting exams. I went between rooms and social areas gently disturbing students, checking if they were doing a computing related subject, and handing out cards. The majority of students I came across still hadn't heard of the event which was very disheartening. I convinced the student shop and food outlets to have some cards on their counters. I encouraged people to pass on the word.
For lecturers I resulted to knocking on doors. Making my way around the computing staff, informing them of the event, inviting them to it, making sure they'd forwarded on the announcement email to their students. As it turned out, quite a few hadn't forwarded on the email. Many were interested, with comments like "This is exactly the sort of thing this department should be doing", most wished me luck, some gave me names of other staff members they thought would be interested, a few said they'd come. Those lecturers whose names had been mentioned, but I didn't manage to talk to, I emailed.
I met with Nicola on the 25th April. We discussed the event, how it started, how it was growing, etc. We discussed some things on the site, how they wanted the wording of UWE, how there needed to be clear disclaimer and data protection statement. I described the event. How it was an open event primarily for open source groups. In the spirit of open source I wanted the event to the free, and I was giving my time to it without financial compensation. I told her about the sponsors I'd found, and how it was important to me that it didn't look as though I was trying to profit from the event. She agreed to invoice the sponsors directly.
Unfortunately, later that day I received an email destined for myself, David, and Jin that contained:
Finally, having spoken to my manager (Ian Senior) about the invoicing of this event it appears I am unable to invoice the sponsors directly. I will need to invoice Lyle as an external customer in advance of the event or David or Jin as internal customers after the event. If internal I would need a budget code for recharge purposes and I would be able to adjust the prices to reflect internal rates.
On the 26th I had an email from Nicola. She needed someone to sign off and be financially responsible for the event. The event could be done as internal, in which case the computer science department would provide them with a budget code, food would be cheaper, and the events team would collect the money off the sponsors. Otherwise the event would be done external, they'd need me to take personal responsibility for the finances and pay everything up front. Obviously I would have preferred to go the internal route, unfortunately I got an email back from Nicola that contained:
I've just spoken to David in order to clarify UWE's position on this event and he's clear that UWE's contribution has been through offering the venue in kind and that ultimately this is your event (and a much appreciated one).
I really didn't want to invoice the sponsors directly. I wasn't worried about them not paying as UWE was, I just didn't want to give the impression that I was trying to profit from the event. I offered to guarantee their payment, that if they didn't pay within the 30 days I'd cover it. Any solution I put forward and negotiated with Nicola would be knocked back by Ian.
Ian was another interesting character. I had some conversations with him on the phone, he wasn't looking to do me any favours, he wasn't interested in anything other than money up front. He said that all external events had to be fully paid 30 days in advance of the event. He said that catering orders needed to be finalised 7 days in advance. I pointed out that it was already less than 30 days to the event. He said in that case we needed to pay now. I pointed out that as the rooms were free the only real cost was catering, and that we weren't putting that order in until 7 days before the event. He said that they needed my best guess now, and that I'd have to pay for it. I told him it's looking like we wont be having food, but I suspect things might change 7 days before the event. I knew full well that UWE can give external events a 30 day invoice.
I felt pretty trapped at this point. I hadn't worked on anything else for a month, the event had already cost me considerably. More and more groups were getting involved, the schedule was filling out, people were signing up. I'd been battling to keep things coming together and I'd hit a road block from the very organisation I was trying to help. I'd been so blindly focused on saving the degree and trying to make this event work, that I hadn't actually stepped back and looked at where I'd gotten myself. So many people were talking about this event, local groups... local employers... and my name was all over it. If things fell apart now, not only would the degree be lost, but the reputation I'd only just realised I was building would be ruined. From my contact with Bristol Uni, they had said that they would be happy to host parts of this event or other ones like it. I have to admit, at this point I felt so frustrated with UWE that I gave it much consideration.
I had a call with Guy, he offered some advice and calmed me a little. He said it was like a test, I had to prove myself to everyone, and that next year he was sure it would be a lot easier and they'd at least give me a 30 day invoice. I explained the situation to the sponsors. I apologised that they wouldn't be able to pay UWE directly as they were expecting. Nokia understandably wasn't happy with this. After all, who was Lyle Hopkins? The sponsors were used to 30 day invoices at the least. I'd gone over the catering and after party drink options with Nicola. I knew that I'd have to front over £5,000 of my own money for the event to go ahead and wait for the sponsorship money to come in. Thanks to my business, at least I was already registered with the DPA and for VAT.
Groups I'd never heard of were getting in touch. I was also reaching out to bigger names such as the BCS. Anna Baik from the Software Testing Club Bristol. Marus Deglos from South West Drupal User Group. Maggie Kneller from the BCS. Serrie Chapman took over from Ali for Girl Geek Dinners. Unfortunately Dan Fairs from the Django group had to pull out because he couldn't find a speaker. I'd missed their last meet and I was kicking myself, meeting up with people face to face had proved the most effective action for inspiring speakers. I'd certainly hit critical mass with the groups, registrations were another story. With Guy's event having 300 attendees, that's what I was aiming for.
I had contact from Simon Goodyear of the new Salesforce User Group. I wasn't sure what to do with this one. They weren't open source, salesforce is a commercial platform. But they were just users of that platform, not directly Salesforce themselves and the certainly didn't have a budget. At this time the schedule was pretty much full, so I decided to defer on the decision and explained the difficulty to Simon.
Drew's Bristol Java group turned out to be nothing more than a medium for him to promote Java vacancies. Drew was a recruiter that specialised in Java jobs, he didn't know Java himself. However, I was trying to attract more students. Insight from a recruiter could be really useful to them. I spoke with Drew and he agreed to do a talk on getting a job in IT. I had another recruitment company contact me offering to pay to have a stand. I turned them down as I didn't want them to clash with Drew. The idea that the event might become full of recruiters wasn't appealing.
The real Java User Group had unfortunately died. Or was at least in stasis. The old leader had set the group to moderate all posts then disappeared. Plenty of people were in the group, and still joining it, but no one could post. I decided the IT MegaMeet was an excellent opportunity to start a new Java group.
Beware the Jabberwock
On 30th April I had an email from Richard Morrell. He was the Chief Evangelist at Red Hat and he was determined to get Red Hat into the event. He sold himself hard, talking about his experience, what sites and software he'd been involved in. Apparently everyone knew him and he had contacts everywhere, "You know who I am right?". He said with a few calls he could make this event huge. He gloated about his Jaguars and how much money he had made. He was very fast talking. It's hard to explain, but he tried everything to get Red Hat's name into the event. From telling me I was crazy not to have RedHat CDs and merchandise in the event bag, to claiming he was signing up the most people and threatening to pull his promoting. "If you don't want me to attend let me know and I'll pull the promotional tweeting and coverage on Red Het and my blog". Of course, everyone was reading his blog. I explained again and again that the sponsors had paid for the privilege to put they stuff in the event bag, and to put their logos on things. It would be completely unfair to them if Red Hat were promoting themselves for free.
I knew Richard was trying to play me. When I'd discussed the event with friends from my Perl group they'd warned me about people such as evangelists trying to take advantage of the event. He made me laugh a lot on the phone, mostly at his obvious attempts to get Red Hat's name on the event without paying. We had several calls. From his perspective the event desperately needed him to talk, the students needed his advice. "If you want me there to talk Open Source and to offer realworld tech experience to people who funnily enough will need jobs soon then I am happy to do so". Along with more claims "As the biggest employer in the Open Source space in Europe with the fastest headcount growth in the UK (we employed more grads and people aged 23-28 than any other technology company in Europe last year)". His new blog was already getting thousands of visits a day (Alexa told a different story), he could be sending so many people our way.
It was getting pretty frustrating. All this talk of expensive cars and being rich, but no intention of paying any money. 10 days to the event I pointed it out in an email that the silver sponsorship was only £500, probably less than it cost to fill up his Jaguar. He took offense to this, at least he said he did. When we next spoke on the phone he'd changed tact. The fast talking had been replaced with a slower for solemn tone. I'd pointed out that we'd be laughing about such things on a previous phone call and he apologised for taking my email the wrong way. I didn't need any more sponsorship money, the food and the after party were covered. I did have a lot of concern about this guy coming to the event as it was obvious he was going to promote RedHat no matter what. Keeping with the solemn tone, he said about difficult things from his life. He said he'd come along, not mention RedHat in any way at all, not bring his red fedora, he'd turn up extra early and help me setup, do anything I needed, and he'd stay late to help after. The tact had certainly changed, it was guilt trip now.
The day before the event I had one of the 30 minute talks pull out. I had to fill space, and there was no time to find anyone. The guilt trip had been working on me, he'd found his angle. He promised his talk would be able open source, and not a plug for Red Hat. It was a mistake to let him come along. He turned up late, claiming traffic on the motorway. Later I checked online, the roads had been clear. He said he had his red fedora in the car, I asked him not to wear it. Later I found him walking around with it, twiddling it in his hand. He said "I'm not wearing it". He said he'd already arranged Red Hat to sponsor the next event for £9,000, and spread the rumor around the event. He said he was going to record a podcast interview with me later in the day. After he did his talk he was gone.
Since the event I haven't heard a thing from him. I've had a chance to Google his name, there is plenty of negative opinion about him and his behavior. He wont be coming to the next IT MegaMeet. I have this here as a warning to anyone taking up the challenge-- If you have a concern about someone and you think they are trying to play you, then you are probably right. Don't let them in.
Student Union to the Rescue
With UWE's policy that only they are allowed to serve food on campus, there didn't look like there were any alternatives. Without the food less people would come, for those that did come the breaks would be full of hungry people hunting around UWE for food. With less people the sponsors wouldn't be happy. While promoting on campus I popped into a student union bar. Then I realised, there was another organisation that could serve food on UWE, the SU. I went to the SU office and ended up talking to Kirsty Tomlinson. She put me in touch with Paul Dingley, manager of the SU bars. The SU could serve food and drink on campus, but only in certainly areas, such as the student bars and there about.
Paul was very helpful, his attitude was friendly and accommodating, the SU prices were great. There certainly wasn't the feeling that he was just trying to squeeze money out of me. Quite the opposite in fact, I found myself offering to pay for extra bar staff, etc. I toyed with the idea of marching everyone over to the SU for lunch and only having UWE do the tea breaks. It was tempting as Ian had been, and was continuing to be, such a character. Nicola on the other hand had been making effort, and trying to help where she could. In the end I decided it would be too disruptive, but the SU could certainly host the after party. Now it was the 9th May, only 10 days until the event.
When I met with Nicola and told her about the SU hosting the after party. She went into the events office to get an updated contract, and Ian came out with her. This was the first and only time I met Ian in person. I gave him a firm handshake that went on longer than it needed to. He tried to convince me that having the after party at the SU wouldn't look professional, that it would ruin the event, that other functions were happening near the SU bar and that would get in the way. I explained that these are community groups, most of them meet up in pubs, it wasn't a business event. He asked if he could change my mind. I asked why I wasn't getting a 30 day invoice. There was a pause. He said unfortunately as he'd told me before he wouldn't give me one. I said I'd much rather have the after party at the SU, after all, technically the SU is a charity and with their pricing the £1,500 after party budget will go much further. Ian realised he'd lost UWE £1,500. He had really made things much more difficult than they needed to be, with UWE's catering policy he thought he had me trapped. But I'd found a way around him, and it felt good. I gave Nicola some chocolates to show that I appreciated her help, and that there were no hard feelings.
On 10th of May Ben from Potato came forward with the money early which really helped. It effectively covered the UWESU after party or half the first food bill. On Friday the 10th I got the first food bill from Nicola. The seven day deadline was tomorrow and I had to get the main order in. There was the option to make a small adjustment no later than 3 days before the event, but I had to sign off and pay now. The following Monday I paid both the SU and UWE, £1,560 and £2,961 respectively.
I'd encouraged everyone to sign up early, and not leave it late. But as expected there were a bunch of late registrations, and I needed to increase the food number by a third. On the 16th Nicola sent me another invoice for £1,564. I queried how the price had increased by 50% when the numbers had only gone up by 33%. She told me she hadn't used a formula, but instead just did a best guess on food and drink quantities. In my reply I told her to use the formula ORIGINAL AMOUNT x 33%, and she came back with an invoice for £928.74 that I was happy with. I paid it after the event when the Hargreaves Lansdown sponsorship money came through.
I Sense a Disturbance in the Force
Most of the groups were open and social. They had mailing lists where anyone could post, they had open discussions. If there was anything going on locally or further afield it would usually get mentioned by somebody on the group. However, some groups stood out as being different. Sold as community groups, but acting only in the interests a commercial entities in the background. They reminded me of dictatorships, and totalitarian states. I wanted to bring this up at the IT MegaMeet but Peter deterred me. He said it was best to focus on the good aspects of groups, and not the bad. He was probably right. But still, I wasn't happy with it. From my perspective, if free and open communication has been blocked from certain parts of the community, then that was damaging the whole. I felt compelled to fill the void. I outlined some new groups that could be started and made for open discussion.
A number of lectures had pledged to come to the event. This was good news. When talking to the various groups about doing things at the university, I'd told them the trick is to find a lecturer who's interested in your area. I created a Who's Who page on the IT MegaMeet site so attendees would know who to look for. The lecturers who came were Dr David Coward, Dr Jin Sa, Prof Larry Bull, Dr Prakash Catterjee, Dr Nick Plant and Dr Chris Simons. Chris stayed for the whole day and most of the after party. I was very glad they came, it gave the impression that the department did care about the local community.
The Final Days
Time had shot by. The event was basically upon us. I had 250 registrations and 20 groups were involved. I valued everyone's input and advice along the way, but I'd done all the leg work. Now I had a big snag. Working flat out I was able to get to this point, but on the day itself, there was no way I could be everywhere at once. I needed people to help give out badges, monitor the rooms, show people where the facilities were, etc. I'd asked all the group leaders to come to our last Perl meet so that we could discuss the event day itself. Of the group leaders, only Nic from the BRUG turned up. By sods law he was early and I was late and we missed each other. When I arrived only Peter Haworth from my group was there, and he couldn't make the event due to a previous commitment. It looked like I'd have to wing it.
I ordered an IT MegaMeet roller banner and a printed version of the schedule. I ordered some pre-cut event badges for the people that had already registered, and a load of blanks. I wanted on the day registrations for any last minute people. The only ID card printers I could find were for plastic cards and very expensive. I found a label printer on Amazon and had it next day delivered. Phil designed some posters and Nicola printed and laminated them for me, which I was very grateful for. I contacted everyone for their presentations, it was clear I was stressed.
IMPORTANT update for speakers!
PLEASE read this whole email asap and indicate to me you understand. DO NOT PUT IT OFF, I know you are all busy, there is lots that can go wrong on the day, and that can affect everyone else.
Please check the schedule, I've had to make last minute changes to accommodate issues for speakers, etc. Tomorrow it's being printed and laminated for the wall, there is no going back!
You must arrive in plenty of time for your talk.
If you are coming all day you can arrive as early as 9am to look at the rooms and podiums before the event starts.
For the slides themselves, please:
- Upload to http://www.slideshare.net and send me the public URL.
- Send me the file as a PPT
- Also have a copy on your person when you arrive just in case
NOTE: Do all three!
If you were hoping to plug in a laptop and for it to work you MUST plan for it not working and send me relevant slides to cover. Past issues include laptops not working with projectors, the projector connections being inaccessible due to security features at UWE, USB sticks not working or taking too long to load. Remember sods law, if it can go wrong it will.
Podiums are running Windows 7, MS Office.
All talk limits are hard limits, otherwise it'll throw out the schedule. There needs to be time for change overs, so only plan for 8 minutes group intro 26 minutes main talk. If you haven't finished TOUGH, you can always invite people to your group or to view the rest of your slides online. You need to practice your talk and time yourself, give yourself some leeway on the day.
There is a light snack available at pre-drinks, just juice/tea/coffee biscuits and Danish. So if you are used to a big breakfast please have it in advance. The UWE shop *may* be open, unfortunately no one has been clear with me on that.
Lunch and dinner will be provided. See the schedule for details.
Current count is 250 registrants. Registration will be available on the day.
It's hard to gauge exactly what will be popular on the day. But I've adjusted rooms in the schedule based on peoples interests. 49/50 are bigger than 48. The tutorial rooms are small.
Let me know if I've missed anything.
The day before was a mad rush. I was driving to pickup the roller banner, meet the various sponsors, and pickup their merchandise for the event bags. Nokia supplied the event bags. Picking these things up the day before meant I had no time to fill the bags, especially as I had to drive to Gatwick. For the Perl group's talk I'd wanted to have something special. I made contact with Carl Mäsak and Jonathan Worthington from the Perl 6 development team. These guys were super smart, and working on the cutting edge of programming language design. Nigel Hamilton joined me in spotting for their plane tickets and he provided them with accommodation. They did our 30 minute tech talk, and a 2 hour workshop. I was worried that I'd miss most of it, I was right; I heard it was very good.
I hadn't had chance to do slides for my own presentation, the introduction or the closing statements. I had been carrying around a notebook in my pocket to jot down ideas, so at least I had something to work with. I was up till gone 4am trying to get the slides done. I tried to figure how the day was going to pan out. David had pledged four student ambassadors, and Nicola had arranged them. They are basically students that the uni pays to wear a UWE t-shirt and help out. I had convinced a couple of girls from my kickboxing club to come along and help as well. I tried to figure out what roles they could fill. I really didn't know what I was doing, but then, I hadn't at any point organising this thing so far -- so it was nothing new.
On the Day
I picked up the girls from kickboxing and we headed over. We were on time but then sods law hit. There was a oil tanker stopped in front of the traffic lights with it's hazards on, a police car, and a guy in a white van. The van guy was arguing the the police. I waited and waited, the lights didn't change, the tanker didn't move, I didn't want to risk trying to drive around as that was probably what the van guy did, and he was clearly being nicked. Now I had a queue behind me, whatever this was it must have just happened when I turned up. I turned around and went another route that was much longer. I'd lost 20 minutes which really didn't help.
When I arrived Guy was already there, thank god. Some really early birds started to turn up already. The catering people were getting setup, but our registration tables were in the wrong place. A couple of the student advisers had turned up already. They helped me move the tables to the entrance and brought in event stuff from my car. I set the kickboxing girls filling the event bags, and spread the students out to help guide people to registration and refreshments. Guy manned the registration table and prepared the cards. I was glad when Pete Black from my Perl group turned up, I hadn't been expecting him. He set about helping Guy. I was no longer working alone, the I had finally become we, and we were going to make this work.
I had to get the podiums booted, logged in, and slides loaded. Unfortunately the log in process wasn't straight forward, and surprisingly time consuming. Luckily Jin turned up and was able to take over the boot and login. The sponsors turned up and setup their tables in the foyer. I put the schedule posters on the wall, and pulled up the roller banner. Speakers were turning up, I gave them a very, very quick tour of the rooms and equipment. A lady running one of the workshops pointed out the workshops weren't on the printed schedule. I couldn't believe it, how did I not notice this before they got printed? Luckily, as it turned out, most of the people turning up had already decided what they were going to attend from the website. Every minute that went by the flow of attendees increased.
The start time was almost upon us. I went to each room and loaded the slides from my USB stick. I had them sorted into folders and arranged by time so it was a simple case of dragging these onto the desktop. I put laser pens in each room. Most of the people had turned up and registration had slowed. I called in the students and gave them the time cards. We had one each for "5 minutes", "2 minutes" and "End now". I explained how they should hold them up at the appropriate time so that the speakers could see.
I was out of time. Most of the people were in the main theater, I called out for the rest to go in. I'd fought in front of crowds of people for titles. I'd taught busy classes of 30 or more. I'd given presentations. But I'd never spoken in front of this many people. With the frantic rush I hadn't have time to dwell on speaking and feel nervous. This was a blessing.
I did a short intro, declared the event as alpha. Asked everyone to please bear with us. Requested that they didn't distract the speakers, as so many of us were first time speakers (ironically, that slide came up straight after I got heckled). I praised the groups, what they stood for, the good they did for the community, and how great it was for us all to come together for this event. I handed over to David, and he spoke about the uni. It gave me change to go around the other rooms, check the speakers were able to use the podiums ok, try to deal with their issues. In the rush I hadn't setup the card printer, so some people had penned in badges. I got the printer and my laptop out and showed one of the girls how to do it.
I came back as David was finishing. I'd planned my own talk, How to get a Masters Degree in Software Engineering to be one of the first, to flow on after an introduction from Jin. This wasn't good planning as it tied me up whilst the other rooms started. I announced to everyone that for the next half hour Guy was the one to turn to if there was a problem, much to Guy's surprise, I'd forgotten to tell him. This was the crunch point for me, why this whole thing had started, I needed to convince enough people that the MSc was worth while to keep it alive. I thanked David, said if anyone thought they might ever be interested in having an Masters Degree then please stay, otherwise make your way to the appropriate room for the talk you want to see. Almost everyone left.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disheartened by this. Jin did a long intro, which was lucky as the slides I'd prepared but a few hours ago weren't nearly enough. I was running some calculations in my head, I couldn't expect all the people left in the room to sign up, which didn't leave enough. Some people spoke to Jin after and gave her their details. I didn't have time to dwell, there was still lots to do. In the break I did some introductions and tried to help the next set of speakers. People were still turning up, which they continued to right up to the last talks.
Various issues cropped up. Speakers not having a matching VGA adapter for their laptop, a water cooler going missing. I spent my time fire fighting, answering questions, and trying to preempt what was coming next. The girls had missed one of the sponsors letters from the event bags. It was important to keep the sponsors happy. When everyone queued up for lunch I saw the solution, I had the girls stand alongside the queue and slip the missing letter into peoples event bag.
Before lunch I hit a snag. Due to some last minute changes in the schedule I'd double booked myself. I needed to be at the Perl group intro and the Java group intro at the same time. Typically right before these a talk overran, which drew me away to end that. I started the Perl intro and passed over to Nigel when he came in, sods law again Nigel was watching the talk that overran so came in late. I'd forgot to remind him about joining in on the group intro. I hurried over to the Java group room but it was too late. Drew was about to start his talk on getting a job in IT and most of the Java people who came for the 10 minute intro had left. It was the worst mistake of the event. For those that remained I explained the issue with the old Bristol JUG, and how I was starting a new one. I hadn't had time to actually set it up before the event, but I followed up after with an email.
Lunch went well. In the end we had too much food, which I guess too many is a good thing, but personally I don't like needless waste. After lunch I did the re-introduction. I didn't have enough slides to fill the 20 minutes, so I ran through my How to get a Masters Degree in Software Engineering presentation. A bit cheeky, but at least this way everyone got to see it. People disbursed and things calmed down a little. Most of the fire fighting from earlier in the day had been done, things were running smoothly. I went from room to room checking on things, dealing with minor issues. There were a lot of happy faces, people were enjoying themselves.
After the final break one of the sponsors moved their stuff to the student union bar for the after party. There was a moment when the foyer was empty, the rooms were full. Everything that felt so hectic before seemed calm and still. We packed up and got ready to move to the student bar. Everyone gathered into the main room for the lightning talks and closing statements. I'd seen lightning talks at Perl events, they are short, sharp, and often a good laugh. When they were finished Piers Crawley got up to do an impromptu drinking song, no one was expecting it, and it went down well.
I finished off with the closing statements. Praised everyone for getting involved, and how great it was to have such a strong and varied community. I outlined some groups I felt were missing, and encouraged people to get involved with their creation. The lightning talks hadn't gone on as long as expected, so we finished early. I remembered that when I had brought up the event at our Perl meet last month, Nigel had said that an event is a success or not based on the overall feeling that it has. Looking around the room there were a lot of happy faces, there was a good feeling. I was very keen for everyone to come to the after party, and told a white (and obvious) lie that other exits had been closed, and the only way out was through the student bar. Just before everyone left, Guy came to the front, and he thanked me for putting on the event. He told everyone that events like these are usually organised by a group of people, but this one has all been done by just one man, who'd been working flat out to make it happen in a very short space of time. Everyone applauded, I couldn't help but smile. I'm very grateful to Guy for that moment.
The after party was great. The SU put on pizza and a BBQ, the food was good. Their drinks prices were so good that the £800 behind the bar lasted all night. We had our own DJ, with everyone making requests. I'd billed it as "party like a student", "relive those student nights", and some of us certainly did.
Life after the MegaMeet
After the event the IT MegaMeet had some really good reviews. People were very happy with it and enjoyed the experience. Those who didn't make it had regrets. In my quest to save the degree I'd created something that benefited the whole community. As luck would have it, word of the degree and it's entry options spread as well. Only some that came to my talk signed up, but other people that only read about it online through the MegaMeet did as well. The numbers were still very near the mark. It was touch and go. I came in for a final meeting with Jin and David about the degree, I really wasn't sure what to expect. In the end the degree got the go ahead. My original objective had been achieved. I saved the degree. But far greater than that, I'd inspired all the local IT community groups to come together, set aside their differences, and create something great for all of us. The IT MegaMeet had been born, and everyone wanted to do it again.
Thanks to Everyone
I'm grateful to everyone who got involved in the IT MegaMeet in any way, from groups to lecturers, from helpers to attendees. I couldn't have done it without you all. It became far greater than it's original objective, everyone benefited, there were nothing but winners all around. Thanks especially to the group leaders and organisers who commit so much of their own time freely, month on month, for the good of the community. Finally I encourage anyone out there sitting in the side lines to get up and get involved. Your life will be better for it!
Costs from the Event
I wanted to give my time freely to the event, and be open about the sponsorship and where the money went. This isn't a requirement if you are taking up the challenge, but I think it's a nice touch.