Early on a Thursday morning, three blocks from the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, I park in an underground lot, punch a secret code to get through the door, and enter a world that's part fantasy convention and part tech conference.
There's no registration; you can't buy a ticket at any price. Of the half-dozen visitors to the event, five must sign an NDA promising not to reveal what they see. (I'm the only one who doesn't have to sign.)
Start with a dozen development teams that contain every role needed to ship software. Each team works on a different product or service, but most share technical architecture. The teams continually experiment and refining their process — but how you do get the teams to talk and share ideas, to push the good ideas out to a larger audience and share them?
That's the goal of DevCon, a one day, 99 percent employee conference for the technical staff at Techsmith. (The company also has a one-day, company-wide conference called EvCon.)
What does a conference like this look like? Is it worth the investment? Should your company do something like this? That's what I came to find out.
Once I get in, I pick up a schedule, map and ID badge at the sign-in table. Nothing unusual there — other than the staff wearing cloaks and carrying battle axes, it could be any technology event. Almost.
After sign in, I find a seat in the main conference room, say a few hellos, plug in the laptop, watch the "Welcome to DevCon" Lord of the Rings-themed video and take a look at the conference program.
Excited Employees Get the Goods Before the Session
My first session: "Whole-Team Test Automation: What is ATDD?" with Clint Hoagland — ATDD being acceptance test driven development, a method by which teams come up with examples of the code, and automate the run, before writing the production code.
Hoagland demos an open source .NET tool called SpecFlow that lets the team create examples in something like English. His whimsical example involves a Fortress Alarm:
When the fortress' alarms are enabled and a secret agent is trying to infiltrate the fortress, 15 dogs are released.
SpecFlow can take a raw English sentence and create "skeleton code." It's then up to the technical team to write the plumbing to connect that code to the software under test, run the test and report the results. That separates the process of creating the examples (in near English) from the process of creating the code to check.
Indeed, just making up-front examples, in any language, can prevent the arguments over what the software should do that are so common in software development today. Hoagland points attendees to Elisabeth Hendrickson's paper on ATDD, which has much more detail on the concept.
Takeaway: The session is sparsely attended — not because it's uninteresting, mind you, but because teams dug into the ideas before the conference so much that Hoagland calls his session "old news." People asking for a brown bag early? That's the kind of thing that just can't happen at a public conference.
Learning Means Leaving Your Comfort Zone
After ATDD, I go to "How to do Research at TechSmith," though I'm admittedly not quite sure what that means. Is it to figure out the size of the market, or what customers are doing with the product?
Turns out that TechSmith, like many technology companies, has but a few specialists in user experience and marketing research. Most product teams work independently, and there aren't nearly enough researchers for one each team. Casey Wright and Stephanie Arnhoff proposed this session to teach their methods to a larger group.
Wright and Arnhoff recommend getting away from the customers who are your biggest fans — the exact type that might classically be invited to a beta. After all, those customers love what you have. You'd like to know weaknesses and opportunities to improve. To find those things, find customers in the trial process or people who haven't heard of your technology, combined with a meaningful incentive. A $25 Amazon gift card might be the right price for half an hour of time.
To meet those folks, go to a public library or a conference not directly tied to technology. Arnhoff, for example, attended a legal tech conference and talked to attendees about how they struggle. Her goal wasn't to "sell" TechSmith products as much as it was to find pain points that TechSmith might be interested in solving.
Once you have the data, Wright and Arnhoff present a second contrarian insight: Don't do a big, formal, PowerPoint-style presentation. Instead, work with the teams building the software and talk to them about your findings informally, in meetings, when figuring out how to build what when. Create a wiki or blog post that people can read and share internally; a one-time talk that forces the false dilemma of either "Change everything right now" or "Ignore the feedback entirely."
Takeaway: If you really want to know what people want, ask them — and don't ask the same people you always ask. Find a meaningful way to share their answers with the rest of your team, too.
Next, I head to an application virtualization session with Michael Kracker and David Ripley. The speakers start with the classic problem: You can only install one version of a piece of software, and its configuration files may be per-user … or not. Application virtualization solves this problem by finding every bit of custom elements for an installer, and at runtime, then redirecting and "wrapping" them in a different directory. This lets programmers run, say, five versions of Firefox on one machine, or compare behavior in the current version of the build to the previous without having to spin up a virtual machine. Kracker and Ripley end by comparing two application virtualization products — VMWare's ThinApp and Microsoft's App-V. This is an entire category of software I didn't even know existed.
Takeaway: When you attend a conference, you can learn a lot by attending talks on topics that fall outside your area of expertise. When putting together a conference agenda, think of ways to encourage attendees to do the same.
Discussions, Hands-on Sessions and Even Games Help Employees Learn
At lunch, I grab a bite from the buffet and settle down to TechSmith Feud, a Family Feud-styled game show. Staff asked non-IT employees how they think programmers act; the programmers/players have to guess the most popular answers.
From the rest of the staff, the No. 1 perceived drink is Mountain Dew, the perceived favorite princess is Cinderella, the preferred sidekick is Robin and the greatest fear is public speaking. (Breaking the build, ironically, didn't make the list, but "power outage" did get eight votes out of 100.)
After lunch, I drop by "The Spies Who Love You: The NSA and Data Collection." Again, I'm not sure what to expect. Outside the door, I meet William Hamilton, TechSmith founder and CEO. He appears reserved, focusing more on what attendees are learning (and why) than any "chief executing" — at least for today.
Here, Glenn Hoepnner doesn't just tell the story of Prism, the NSA's social media snoop system. He covers the history of technology spying in the United States, starting with Christopher Pyle, a 1960s whistleblower who, as a U.S. Army captain, learned that Army intelligence used 1,500 plainclothes agents to watch every demonstration of 20 or more U.S. citizens.
Hoepnner's story is compelling. In his narrative, every technical innovation brings a new incursion into privacy. The tentacles of domestic spying stop every few years, thanks to Pyle, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, then start again on something else. The session makes people think, consider their values and build community. Clearly, this is a matter of concern for the company, which does store customer-sensitive data on its servers. I can see why the CEO might want to sit in the back and listen.
Takeaway: TV shows like to rip storylines from the headlines. If a news story matters to your business, conference topics can be ripped from the headlines, too.
Responsive design, or adjusting a Web page to fit a (smaller) screen resolution, is one of the newer ideas to hit the software scene. In one 45-minute session, Ross Porter manages to describe, teach and use three different responsive design frameworks — foundation, skeleton and bootstrap — to build a Web page. He accomplishes this by inviting us to a Google document with links to "raw" pages and helping people work through the frameworks as a "canned" exercise.
Case Study: Rapid Application Development the Zappos Way
Next is the session entitled "Get Your Git On." I prepared for a general session on using Git, but instead see two presenters, Bill Scanlon and Scott Schmerer, who carry the discussion from when to branch to tips and tricks to save keystrokes on commit to how TechSmith will use Git going forward. Again, I hear the frank conversations that just can't happen at a public event, combined with the ability to actually make a company-wide decision, right there, in the room.
Takeaway: A conference is more than just listening to presentations — much more, in fact. Your employees will learn a lot from discussions and hands-on, interactive sessions.
Comfort Is 'First Step Down the Road to Obsolescence'
After a day of information at DevCon and with an overloaded mind, I decline the offer of a beer at the after party to talk to Jess Lancaster, an old friend and the manager of the testing practice at TechSmith. I find out more about how testers work at TechSmith: They're embedded in the teams themselves, making events such as this even more valuable for cross-team communication.
Lancaster shares one more aspect of the event. "Having a company conference means people who are respected get asked to present — by their peers, by their leads and managers," he says. "It makes it likely the person, who may be very shy, will come out of their comfort zone and do something they would not otherwise. That breaks open information, but it also gets people used to pushing their boundaries."
Lancaster gets silent for a moment, as if carefully considering his next words. "You know, people like comfort. Comfortable is an easy place to be. But getting stuck in a comfortable place? That's the first step down the road to obsolescence."
The point sticks — but I don't quite see it that way. Comfort might be stopping on the road to the future, while the road goes ever on. For TechSmith, "going on" means getting executive buy-in for an all-IT offsite conference, replete with sponge battleaxes and robes. To get here, a lot of people were pushed out of their comfort zone.
Where does your road lead next?
Matthew Heusser is a consultant and writer based in West Michigan. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mheusser, contact him by email or visit the website of his company, Excelon Development. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.