The family, the crew, the international group
Let’s be honest: for most of us, networking is a rather tough task to do, especially starting a conversation. When presented with the choice between catching up with familiar faces and introducing yourself to someone unknown to you, most of us opt for the easier option of catching up with friends.
At European Magento events, there is usually an international group of different people, some call it the crew, the family, a lovely bunch of guys and gals. Some of them are rather new to Magento, others have been working with it since the very beginning. Most of them you will see on stage as speakers.
The more you are on tour with this group of international Magento people, which is steadily growing, the more you tend to spend your time with them during the events – at least that’s my observation. Also, most of the group members are very active on Twitter. You can often find them in the first two rows right in front of the stage in the dev track (a good spot to take tweetable photos and to quickly jump on the stage to hold a talk).
I absolutely love the time I get to spend with these kind people. They inspire me. Their support enabled me to make my first steps in the Magento sphere. Their energy, passions and life stories also help me recharge after a long conference day. A conference without them just wouldn’t be the same.
— Sander Mangel (@sandermangel) 29. Oktober 2016
We all attend these events to broaden our horizon, learn from other people, and share ideas. Staying within your bubble and our own peer group – in digital or real life – limits your chances of being challenged by a different view. I would like our community to spread its enthusiasm further, encourage new people to become speakers, let more voices be heard.
Fortunately, you can meet someone new within the crew at each event. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that it’s hard for others to enter this group. Wouldn’t it be better to be more open and welcoming to others?
As much as I like this group, I don’t want it to be separate. Just like the rest of the group accepted me amongst them, I would like this group to welcome anyone interested and kind.
With a group as international as this, there is no way around speaking English, so there might be a language barrier. But there is also a different cultural barrier: this group has its own inside jokes and quirky ideas. I wouldn’t want anyone to give this up. It’s our spirit. But we should be concious of the consequences. I myself am guilty of using an inside joke on stage, not explainig it. That’s the opposite of inclusive behaviour.
After Meet Magento Romania, I realized I had barely met anyone new. Just a handful of people, most of them inside this international group. Do other attendees at these events feel like this group is separating itself from others? Or is everyone else all settled in their own groups as well? Your opinion is welcome here! There’s a comment section below or my inbox looking forward to hear from you!
Be more approachable
So far, I have discussed the topic with my colleagues, Andreas and Fabian, and Fabian Blechschmidt. We’re trying to find a way that would make it easier for us to get to know new people and for others to talk to us. Here is what we have come up with so far:
Tips for attendees
Don’t spend all the time with people you know. That sounds a lot easier than it is. But if you intend to meet new people, that’s the best way to do it. Join people you haven’t met yet during breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee breaks… Be warned though that talking and eating don’t go to well together. Find a healthy balance of meeting new people and catching up with friends to make the most of your conference days.
Tips for speakers
If you mention towards the end of your talk that you stick around for questions and that you are open to feedback, you basically invite people to come talk to you. That’s encouraging, isn’t it? Also, my colleague Fabian gave me the advice to stay near the stage and not join any other group straight away. Those who don’t like to raise a question in earshot of an audience prefer to talk to you alone. So stay apart from the rest for a little while. As someone new to speaking at conferences, this can be hard to accomplish. I often find myself seeking immediate feedback after a talk, as open and honest as possible, which usually comes from people you know rather well. So instead of joining the group again, I should better physically separate from the group, looking around for anyone trying to approach me.
You could also offer a “meet the speakers” where you can find all speakers in one place at one time, inviting the audience to come over, talk to one of them and discuss questions of any kind. When you want the audience to be able to talk to a speaker, make sure that the speaker is approachable, which means he or she should not group together with other speakers.
If the other speakers don’t seem to be interested in the idea, you could announce a “meet me” time and place just for yourself. For example, in front of the after show party’s venue.
Tips for organizers
As silly as they might sound at first, group activities are a friendly way to force people to talk to others. For example, at MageUnconference Netherlands, the organizers had divided all attendees at the pre-event party into little groups of four or five people and gave us the task to translate four sentences into the mothertongue of one of us. So three Dutch people taught me a few sentences in Dutch (“niet zoveel als deze overherlijke stroopwafels”) and I taught them a few in German in return. It was fun and in my opinion a good way to break the ice. It’s certainly more suitable for a pre-event party than the morning of the first conference day.
What about offering an extra timeslot or place for those who would like to meet others? Most conference locations offer great facilities with stages, but comfortable areas with seats are pretty rare. And what if there was a 30-minute slot in a separate room, designated either for a discussion group, smaller groups talking, or just to sit down on a comfortable chair for a chat?
At Magento meetups in Aachen, we always have a round of introductions to make sure everyone at least knows who else is there and what they do. In my opinion, it helps to find someone you share a common interest with or someone who can help you with a specific issue (frontend, backend, design, SEO, performance, …). That certainly doesn’t work with a group of more than 30 people for it simply takes to long. But as an organizer, you can set the tone during the opening talk and the last session, where you can introduce the people organizing the event.
The after show party at Meet Magento Sweden 2016 offered a great way to talk to new people with its classic sit-down dinner – if you sat at a table with someone you haven’t met yet. At other after show parties, however, the music is often too loud for a proper conversation. A separate space with less noise for those interested in talking would have been great in my opinion.
New Year’s Resolution
Since this was my last major event in 2016, I’ll take it as my New Year’s Resolution for 2017 to interact more with locals and anyone outside of this crew at international events. I take this TED talk by Kio Stark as an inspiration. If you have any suggestions how we can make it easier for attendees to get in touch with each other and mix, I’d love to hear from you.