Nine weeks from inception to delivery is a tough ask for any project, but even tougher when you don’t know for sure what you’re delivering. In this time, we had to decide on content for the week to join alongside the hackathon (and how long the hackathon should be).

As with any big project, we started off with a large steering group, but people dropped out as other business pressures took over. But we had a solid core of 16 people who took different elements for the week and ensured that we delivered a top-class event. Right from the start, we were determined to create something that stood up in its own right, not a cheap rip-off of Booking’s Innovation Week. The feedback we got was amazing, but more on that later.

Finding (and filling) the venue

The conference day we were organising was the cornerstone, and it set the stage for the rest of the week. Initially we wanted a venue where we could run one or two tracks, keeping things simple to make sure it all went smoothly. After Julie and I walked around a number of venues, we thought we had The One, only to be pipped by Gavin who wanted the Science and Industry Museum (the new name for the Museum of Science and Industry).

When we went and saw the space in the flesh, it was perfect – even if it meant going from a one or two-track day to having to run four or five tracks, which now felt pretty daunting. The atrium area that it gave us as break-out space for breaks was just fantastic as we could look down on the main museum exhibits, which really gave an extra dimension to the space.

Once confirmed, we sent out a call to arms across Product and Engineering, asking for talk submissions. We already knew we had a number of talks from Booking’s Innovation Week that were voted top… just a matter of finding a further 25 talks as we were looking at a number of external speakers as well.

The responses we got internally blew us away and we had a hard time whittling the talks down to fit into the final plan: four tracks with six talks of 30 mins each. Working out who to put in each room was also a challenge, as the rooms held anything from 40 to 130 people and it became a bit of a guessing game. As it turns out, we got some of the guesses right, and others completely wrong.

For every problem…

In the final couple of weeks, the pressure definitely felt like it had been ramped up as issues crept out of the woodwork, from suppliers’ delivery dates slipping to upcoming deadlines on finalising different media (print, screen or video).

Asking for the final presentations from our speakers the week before meant we could combine them into single slide decks for each room and make sure they worked on the vanilla laptops we borrowed from Service Desk.

We had a final look at the venue the Thursday before, when we found the lovely open atrium was now covered in scaffolding and blackout curtains due to a leak in the room – a major disaster!! Some very tense conversations and negotiations with the venue followed, and we learned that what we were seeing was temporary until the longer-term hoarding (which would be wrapped) arrived the following day. At this point, we just had to trust them, but it still meant we had less space to use.

All was looking good presentation-wise until 48 hours before the big day, when we found out that the opening keynote needed to be provided in Google Slides, not PowerPoint. I had to spend all afternoon and evening getting everything uploaded to Slides, and converted and tested. With that sorted, the next issue involved the three videos that were to be embedded in the slides, which were no longer PowerPoint but Slides – and how do you make that work?

Turns out it’s simple… upload video to Google Drive and it can then be embedded. Brilliant. Until you find the video preview image makes your CTO appear warped! This was a disaster, so next I needed to get almost 4GB of video files and upload them to a private YouTube account where I could put in my own thumbnail image of the GoInnovate logo and re-embed them in the presentation with autoplay enabled. When previewed, however, this looked terrible. So I ended up opting for just a black title instead, as it looks smoother in the transitions.

By the time I’d finished the final run-throughs on Sunday night, I’d been suffering with a chest infection for an entire week. So as I approached Monday, I was in no fit state for anything, but at the same time too heavily invested to call in sick.

The big day arrives

Waking up at 5:45 on Monday was unpleasant but necessary, as I needed to drive to the office and load my car up with boxes, final equipment and, as it turns out, people. Craig and Peter had been in early, stapling the agendas  to hand out at registration.

With cars being unloaded and parked, and technical run-throughs going on in each room, we’d barely noticed the new plain white hoarding that had gone up. So much less imposing, it was a huge improvement – the space was still reduced but there was nothing we could do about that. The stream for Workplace was set up, and the only ‘things’ missing were two key people for the keynote: Ian from BookingGo and Ram from Booking.com.

Everyone was arriving now, and the bacon rolls were flowing smoothly enough to keep 330 people happy! This was fantastic: the only issue was that we couldn’t start getting people seated in the main room till after the tech run-through and level check for Ian and Ram. They did arrive in time, of course, and we were able to get people seated 20 minutes before kick-off.

The rest of the day ran like a dream, with lots of great feedback in the morning coffee break – and this was before we’d even broken out into the rest of the talks. All the talks were really well received, which is quite an achievement when you have such a diverse audience of technical engineers, software engineers, testers, product owners and analysts.

As the owner of the conference day, it all made my suffering through the chest infection worth it! After the mingle game (where everyone spoke to each other and learnt more about the colleagues they didn’t know) we moved into the hack planning and recruitment for teams. Once this was all over, with the venue packed up and into the cars, I could hand the baton on to the owners of the rest of the week and go to bed happy!!

As the week went on, we sat down and went over all the feedback we had: we’d averaged over 3.5 out of 5 for the morning and afternoon speakers. Everyone we bumped into was full of positive feedback and amazed at what we had delivered in such a short time frame.

There was some minor negative feedback, but this was all stuff that as organisers we were already aware of and would think about approaching differently next time. While we never had a defined vision or key results to measure this against, we were satisfied that it had been a resounding success – and one that we hope to repeat in 2019.