April 12, 2016 - 1 comment.

Why we host a conference just to help our competitors

OpsConf

OpsConf attendees track how they're connected to each other

If you think it’s crazy to gather 19 of our competitors from 16 companies across three continents just to give them free advice … well, yeah, you would actually not be the first person to think that.

But the truth is that I started OpsConf — short for Operations Conference — at a time when I desperately needed some free advice of my own. Table XI was growing, and we were figuring things out on the fly. In the development world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you’re the smartest, that you have all the answers you need. But two years ago, trying to figure out how to scale Table XI without giving up the things that make us great, it was pretty clear that I did not have all the answers. I needed a bigger sounding board. So I built one.

OpsConf Team

Table XI hosted the first OpsConf last year in Charleston, SC, and from the start, it’s been different from other conferences. One, Table XI isn’t trying to make a profit — another reason people think we’re crazy. Two, it’s not for founders, it’s for the people trying to run the operations of small- to medium-sized consultancies. Sometimes those people are also founders and developers, but at OpsConf, we’re talking about the nitty gritty of making the trains run on time. Three, we personally invite all the attendees, to make sure everyone who was there was there for the right reasons and won’t take advantage of our trust. Everyone who attends OpsConf is someone we personally pull out a seat at the table for. This year, all 16 invited organizations met on Amelia Island in Florida and spent four days putting that trust to good use. We shared our mistakes, made ourselves vulnerable and found solutions to the problems that plague development consultancies like ours:

  • How to hire for talent in a tight labor market
    This is one every company is struggling with these days, not just development and design companies. Hiring tech talent is tough — and it affects how we recruit, how we onboard, and how we train our people. We dug into the problem, and came up with solutions not just for hiring that talent, but for retaining developers and designers and supporting their growth.
  • How to improve our diversity
    Diversity ties into the tight labor market, but in some ways it’s even tougher. It’s not just finding developers and designers from different backgrounds. It’s making sure our companies are inclusive places where everyone feels welcomed and safe enough to share their ideas. Of course, part of the solution to diversity is pulling together people from all over the U.S. and five additional countries to share experiences.
  • How to build out a pipeline of clients
    Sales and marketing come naturally to some people — but those people usually aren’t designers or developers. We build our companies to make sure we have the best talent to tackle our clients’ needs. And sometimes that leaves us sitting around thinking, ‘Okay, where do we get clients in the first place?’ We were able to offer advice to smaller firms who haven’t yet built out a sales and marketing process, and we were able to learn from the mistakes and successes of other shops who have.
  • How to manage all the small problems that come up at a consultancy
    What’s the best time tracking software to use? How do you staff projects? How do you go about offering health insurance? There are so many big and little questions that come up for operations folks, and they have nothing to do with what got us in those jobs in the first place — the ability to build great products for our partners. Being able to share advice on how to plan for an employee’s maternity leave or whether to track vacation saves us countless hours of frustration. Instead of each company having to puzzle out the answers alone, we can all come together and swap information. We end up with better answers, and we get back to the real work of helping clients that much quicker.

Fireworks at OpsConf

This year we learned a few things about running a conference too. Not just how to dodge burning bits of fireworks — yeah, that picture is not taken with any zoom — but how to facilitate trust. Last year we all came into things ready to beat our chests and talk about what we’re great at. It’s natural, but it’s also intimidating. We had people take the Myers Briggs personality test beforehand, so we knew we had some introverts in attendance. Instead of asking all 22 people — our 19 guests, plus our two-person Table XI delegation — to just trust each other right away, we figured out how to help everyone earn that trust.

This year we started OpsConf with a one-day "Oops Conf". It is, like it sounds, a chance for us all to talk about the biggest mistakes we’ve made throughout the year. Then we broke into groups of five to analyze what went wrong and what we can learn from it going forward. Mistakes are humbling, honest and open, and they helped us instantly build bonds across cultures and continents. By the time we went out that night, everyone was over it, and we all had a great pickup line. “Hey, what did you f**k up this year?”

Building that trust right out of the gate made the whole conference so much more valuable. By day two, all the mistakes were out in the open and off of the table, leaving us free to problem solve and learn.

OpsConf Campfire

We also figured out a way to harness that trust when we’re not sitting together around a campfire. Last year we tried to do quarterly calls with all 26 participants across 8 different time zones. It was a nightmare. Scheduling was impossible, and the more introverted callers rarely had a chance to share at all. This year we’re trying something much more likely to work. We’re splitting everyone into groups of six, then arranging monthly calls that follow a set structure. We’ll stagger the calls so a different group goes every week, then we’ll post the notes to a shared forum. That way everyone can build deeper ties with their group, while still keeping tabs on everyone.

We learned a ton at the conference, and we all leave feeling 10-feet tall and invincible. But that’s not even the best part. We also all leave with a global network we can ask for help. It’s been transformative for Table XI. Year-round, I can call someone who’s already found an elegant solution to a problem I’m struggling with. And I have 16 dev and design firms, each with different specialities, that I can tap if we need access to their talent. We can send our own developers to work alongside these global teams and learn new things, or we can work together on a project, getting the best of both our teams. It’s an unbelievable competitive advantage.

So yeah, we may be crazy. But every year I leave OpsConf thinking anyone who’s not doing this is truly insane.

Once a month for the next year, I get to turn to some of the best consultancies from all over the world and tell them what I need the most. And after four days sharing the best and worst of ourselves, I know they’re going to help however they can.

Published by: Mark Rickmeier in Business

Comments

Mark Johnson
August 22, 2017 at 7:45 pm

This is a great idea. Do you ever publish these findings?

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