A Distributed Future Sync Conference Story- 23 mins
4 hours have passed.
Today marked the end of the 2020 Future Sync conference. Whilst it wasn’t our plan A, the end result of eight months of work was two six-hour long broadcasts over the 16th and 17th of April 2020 via YouTube, broadcast to over 7000 people around the world. I’m really happy with what the team has managed to put together, the talks that were part of the event, and the amount of engagement we had.
At this point after the in person conference, I’d be surrounded by attendees, many of whom I’m honoured to count amongst my friends, sampling some of the South West’s finest adult beverages.
Not this year.
This time round I find myself in my home office, reflecting on the previous few months. Yes. I’ll soon have a belly full of pizza and cuba libre. That hasn’t changed. Sure. I have a post-conference buzz. The last 30 or so hours have been chocked full of top speakers, plenty of conversation with attendees, and enough tweeting to keep me content for the next few months. I’m super proud of what myself and the team around me have achieved. But this is different.
Typically, the first thing done after arriving at the hotel room following the after party is to brain dump any bright ideas which appeared over the event in the vague hope that we’ll be able to achieve them the following year.
But this year is a little different. And this is where I’m going to be really honest with you.
For a whole host of reasons I won’t dive deeply into, 2019 was a year to forget. Whether it was my personal physical or mental health, the relationships with those closest to me, the health of my family, my career, or public facing personal brand…… 2019 was tough. There were moments that the goal of hosting another conference was the only thing I was enjoying working towards. Certainly on a professional level. I was really looking forward to it.
Then the global pandemic happened.
38 days before the conference was set to run it became apparent that it wouldn’t. Not officially, but the global trends of COVID-19 were clear. We would be in lockdown by the time the event rolled around. As company directors there were 2 obvious options. Postpone until later this year or cancel for 2020. We agreed to think about it for a few days. Discuss. Then decide a few more days later. During this time we started to get questions from sponsors and speakers about the conference. All we could do was to reassure them that we were working on a plan B in case we needed it and we’d get back to them about it soon.
So. Cancel or postpone. A tough decision.
Postponing would throw the rest of the year out. After a 6 month long mini-retirement following a decade plus of 50 to 80 hour work weeks, the 2020 conference was supposed to be a bookmark in my life. The start of a new adventure. The moment when I got back to work proper with a whole host of opportunities most dream of in front of me. Go and join an exciting tech startup in Cornwall? Start work with an established enterprise level software development company a little further afield with the “South West Vibe” that I thrive in? Continue along my own entrepreneurial adventure? Or take a side step, leave the country and join an organisation doing some really exciting things across the European continent? The world feels like my Oyster.
Whilst none of these plans were set in stone, one thing was for sure. I’ll be getting up to speed in a new role in a new chapter of my life for the second half of 2020. Focusing tons of time on a conference wasn’t realistic. Postponing was out of the window. Given that events around the world are currently cancelling plans for September, October and November, this was the right call.
What about cancelling? It would suck, but we could possibly put the extra effort into the 2021 conference. That could work. By this point we’d spent a good chunk of the money generated on non-refundable conference things. Cancelling without paying every single penny back to ticket holders, sponsors and speakers who’d be left out of pocket was never an option. That’s just not our style. I’d put myself into debt before that would happen.
Time to run the numbers. It wasn’t good. This was our third event and the first which was on course to just about break even. The first two cost us personally as directors, draining thousands of pounds from our own pockets and we couldn’t afford to do it again. This down to the wire budgeting left us in an awkward situation. Cancelling the event would plunge the company into debt, which would most likely lead to closing it and the Future Sync conference plus connected activities down completely. It would be the end of this adventure. Forever.
Not acceptable. Time to create a third option.
“Let’s run it online” I casually threw out to the team. As long as we can keep at least half of our sponsors we’d be able to cover the ‘back of a fag packet’ expenses of running a remote event. “We can do this” I encouraged everyone. The looks on their faces showed their lack of confidence in this option. Nonetheless, it was decided to commit to doing a remote event, not really knowing what was involved.
It’s a mizzly Friday afternoon and just 34 days before the event is due to run.
We need to let attendees know as soon as possible, and it’s going to take a week or so to find out if sponsors and speakers would be keen to stay on board. But we need to let attendees know soon. A vague but reassuring bcc email was sent out to sponsors with an outline of a plan, effectively begging them to stick with us at least for another week whilst we figure things out. Anyone who wanted their money back could have it without question. In full. Hopefully they wouldn’t all take it! A similar message went out to the speakers. We’ve got a weekend to decide what it is we’re going to do before letting people know.
The following Monday, with 31 days to go, we made a public announcement. A big one. “We’re not cancelling. We’re not postponing. We’re pivoting.” we proclaimed. The event will run online, be expanded to two days and made bigger and better, albeit different, than we’d planned. Anyone with a ticket already can have their money back. Tickets to the new distributed event are free, but you can add a voluntary donation if wished.
Shit. How are we going to pull this off?
I was scheduled to have a 10 day holiday at the end of this week and intended to take it. Time to knuckle down. Get in touch with the speakers with more information and see who is up for the newly rejigged event. Most were. Check. Contact the sponsors and see who is happy to come along on this new adventure. Most were. Check.
The team set about putting a new plan in place, one where the speakers all come to Plymouth to either broadcast live or record as if there was an audience, but one where the attendees enjoyed the event from home. Awesome. Plan B can work. Pinning our collective hopes on it, we told everyone involved and the response was really positive. Time to go on holiday, ponder this all for a short while before coming back to create some awesomeness. Everything was in place.
Then the lockdown happened, the venue closed and travel became restricted.
Shit. We need a plan C and there’s only 21 days to go.
A fully remote event is the only way forwards. Do we use a pre-built platform or something different? Whichever route we take, keeping the event open and easily accessible was key. We do this for the in-person event, something online should be no different. The conference was established to showcase talent from the South West UK, blending them with notable names and rising stars. A closed platform would limit this reach. Open it is. Tickets must remain free. Can we afford it? Don’t know. Commit first, figure it out later.
“Let’s ask all the speakers to pre-record their sessions”, allowing us to piece it together into two six hour long streams, one for each day. We’ll need to record a few videos ourselves. Intros, outros, sponsor messages and the like. That’s fine. This can work. It has to work.
14 days to go, we sit down with a spreadsheet and pencil out a schedule, expecting that each speaker will talk for roughly 30 minutes. 15 speakers. Half an hour each. That’s seven and a half hours of content plus about an hour to allow for our ‘filler content’. 8 and a half hours total.
Shit. We need 12 hours worth.
The hunt for new content begins. At a local community leaders meeting a few weeks earlier, the idea of short explainer clips to go into a podcast was floated. Let’s do that. We’ll get content for the conference and a podcast at the same time. Double bubble! I reached local community leaders, close contacts and a few people I admire online. “Fancy making one of these”? I asked. A lot of people said yes and over the next week we received 28 clips with an average length of 1:45. That’s another 49 minutes, and we can repeat them. Let’s call it an hour and a half to play it safe. We’re up to 9 hours of content….but didn’t know this until a week later.
Shit. We need even more content.
7 days to go and we have a serious problem. We’re going to fall short of filling all the time we’re going to be broadcasting. Not the end of the world. At this point we had 700 tickets in the bag and knew our new reach was global. We can use videos from last year if needed. Most people won’t have seen them, even if they attended the in person conference. But it’s not ideal. WTF else can we do?
A few more frantic reach outs in the final week found us another two sessions. One coming from the US with another from Exeter. Awesome. We encouraged them to make the session as long as they wanted, up to 45 minutes. These people were great speakers and we knew they’d be able to fill the time with quality content.
Phew. It’s going to be ok. Hopefully. We’ll worry about it when we sit down to make the schedule, which we couldn’t do until everyone’s talk had been received, with a deadline set at 48 hours before the event. It’ll be fine. Hopefully.
All throughout this pivot, marketing the event went out the window. Sure, we put some money into Facebook ads to keep it in people’s minds, but that was about it. Time to start shouting about what we’re doing. A full day was spent filling the social schedules, dripping out content over the next seven days. Uh oh. It’s Easter this weekend and people will be with their families and not online as much. Too bad. We can’t ask the world to hold off on Easter for another week. It’ll be as effective as it will be.
The rest of the week was spent recording speaker intros and outros, before we knew the content contained within the talks. We recorded a bunch of sponsor messages. I did a skit about cream teas. Reached out to sponsors to find out if they had any video content we could use. After five consecutive 15 hours days recording, posting online and editing videos we’re finally getting there. Talks started to drip in from speakers. The feeling that this might actually work started to grow. It’s going to be ok!
Then we sat down to create a provisional schedule. 72 hours before we start broadcasting. Talks we’re coming in shorter than expected.
Shit. We still don’t have enough content.
Even adding a couple of talks from the previous year won’t get us over the line. What can we do? Beats, Rhymes and Unit Tests marathon. Errrm. No. Linking up with a close contact who was one of the backup speakers for the in-person event proved fruitful. She has a brilliant talk that’s been given at a few conferences before so very little prep would be needed. Pre-baked so to speak. Yes! She’ll do it. Phew!
Talks started heading over to the video editor for processing. He created a visual layout so that content for social media could be overlayed onto the stream, which eventually got abandoned 3 minutes before we went live. Slight problem here too. A week ago he agreed to do a trial day for a new job. On the day before the conference. He won’t be around for most of the day before the event. Fuck. “It’ll be OK” I reassured myself, not really believing it. We’re used to pulling all nighters on projects, this will be no different. Then he had the worst news he could receive. A family member died due to Coronavirus. He’ll be around even less, and understandably so.
We redistributed the work amongst the team to take the pressure off him.
The three days before the event are a blur. The core team kept going on just two or three hours sleep a night, working every other second of the day. Personally, I only left my home office to use the bathroom, not even taking the time to play with Dexter the cat. Slept under a blanket on the sofa bed so as not to disturb my partner. All our families kept us fed and watered, for which we’re eternally grateful.
16 hours to go and we’ve still not got a schedule.
I furiously started piecing it all together in a spreadsheet. This is taking longer than expected. Probably because we’ve got to stitch 132 separate video clips into something approaching coherent. Talks, special guest clips, ad breaks and cream tea propaganda. They all go in. As soon as day one was mapped out we created the public facing schedule and sent it out to attendees and speakers. A promise was made that the day two running times would be added within a few hours. Very agile.
11 hours to go and the final talk arrives. This might actually work!
Shit. We’ve not confirmed that the original social media team is going to be still involved. There are ten hours until we start. Phew! They’re still down, but didn’t get confirmation until 30 minutes before the event starts. How did I let that slip? We’ve not written any content for them to use, but we can create something for the first few talks to give some slack on broadcast day. Then we can write the rest. This is going to be a late night. But it’ll be ok.
5 hours to go I take a short nap.
2 hours to go and the video team finished the last bit of editing the talks. They steal 30 minutes of sleep and, upon waking, feed their young families. With a hot bacon roll in their bellies, it’s time to queue everything up in the broadcast software. Just the first few hours to allow for some breathing space before we start. There are only 91 pieces of video, 40+ overlays and countless transitions to queue up for day one. What could possibly go wrong?
1 hour to go we have a quick group chat to check we’re all good to go. We are. This is going to work!
30 minutes to go. The broadcast hub turns everything else connected to the internet off. All the bandwidth is dedicated to the stream. I posted a bunch of messages on Facebook and local slack groups that we’re about to start and provided all the links needed to join in for anyone without a ticket.
10am on April 16th 2020, with 1000 plus ticket holders due to tune in, we start broadcasting.
People are engaging online and on YouTube. Local Slack groups start to come alive. The opening talk from Jeremy Keith is going down really well. This is working! Then, around 10:45am, we start getting buffering issues. It is on our end? Is it on YouTube’s? Probably ours. Afterall, the broadcast is coming from the grounds of a country estate nestled on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. A very rural and remote location. Is something using up the bandwidth at the broadcast hub? Is their internet being throttled? Has their kid tuned into Cbeebies on the iPlayer? No. She’s asleep. Must be something else.
The buffering stops. The stream is going again. We quickly brainstorm a few potential causes and eliminate them, even if they seemed very unlikely to be interfering. Throughout the day we had more intermittent buffering issues. More troubleshooting ensues each time to no avail. The conclusion is drawn that we’ll have to make do with it. Not ideal, but good enough for now. We’ll dive into it a little deeper this evening.
Engagement continues with people all around the world. This is exceeding our wildest dreams. The talks were brilliant, each one of them awesome in their own way. The speakers really pulled it out of the bag. The audience too. It says a lot about our local followers that the most engaged with part of the day was the cream tea skit, which taught the audience how to make a cream tea the proper way. Jam first.
The day one broadcast draws to a close.
Time to leave the office for the first time in what feels like forever. What’s that funky smell? Oh. It’s me. Grabbing the first shower in what must be days feels refreshing. That’s better. After a quick bite to eat and a play with Dexter it’s back to work.
The stream fell off schedule today despite being planned down to the second. Double checking what’s timed for day two, we spot a few mistakes and put them right. Come the closing session of today, we were only 3 minutes ahead of the stream in creating social media content, causing a ripple effect on other plans. Can’t have that again. Let’s get writing. Before he hits the hay, I link up with the broadcast manager. “I’ve figured out what was causing the buffering” he proclaims proudly. His cat.
As it turns out, he forgot to turn off one thing. Just the one. The external internet connected security camera. Everytime his cat entered or left the house it would trigger an upload of the high definition camera feed to the cloud. This gloriously high quality video of a cat licking itself caused the drop outs. It wasn’t noticed at the time because all the mobile phones in the house were on airplane mode, meaning the usual notifications didn’t come through. Phew. He figured it out, that’s all that matters. Tomorrow’s stream will be cleaner as a result. We can’t hold it against Toothless. He was just going about his kitty cat business.
In the early hours of the 17th I actually made it to bed and got a few hours of decent sleep. Upon waking, I peer out of the bedroom window. The skies are ominously dark and grey. It looks like a storm is coming. Hopefully that’s not a foreshadowing of what’s to come today. Hopefully it won’t knock out the internet or power. A hurried coffee and a quick brush of my teeth later, I head to the office and settle in for another 8 hours of frantic work.
Shit. The internet is down.
Luckily, a quick restart of the network and it’s extenders brings it back.
Linking up with the broadcast manager, I discover that the entire day’s content is queued up, meaning more focus can be given to keeping it on time. Fantastic. The social team now has pre-written content for most of the day, with just the odd bit to do ad hoc. Nice. After grabbing a coffee top up before we go live, I settle in once again to start posting to the same local slack communities and facebook groups with the updated link to today’s stream. We’re good to go.
Day two broadcast starts at 10am on the 17th April 2020.
It’s going flawlessly and the team is much more settled today. There is a rhythm to our work. We even have time to chat in our group about the talks. This is how it should be. Kicking back, enjoying the content, chatting with attendees and following the process. Fantastic.
Then one of our speakers sends a video response to the questions asked on day 1. “Of course we can fit it into today’s broadcast” I responded, unsure if we actually can. It gets sent to the broadcast hub, and we rapidly move the content around the main talks to accommodate it. Thankfully we used a bunch of day two videos on day one to account for my poor time adding up, meaning there was set to be repeats. We’re thrown 10 minutes behind schedule by the end of the additional clip, but manage to replan the remaining days’ content to get us back on plan within a few hours. A great Q&A session about a worthwhile project. Well worth the effort.
The rest of the day went without a hitch, and at 4pm it drew to a close. At the end of the stream we swapped out some graphics on youtube, pushed the 2021 website live and updated social profile bios for next year. A whole load of pats on the back went out to the team, along with a furious exchange of celebratory gifs.
We did it. Against all odds. Despite all of the challenges and undeterred by the technical hiccups. We managed to pull it off. We actually did it.
With a bottle of my favourite rum on ice for the last few days it was finally time to crack it open. Pouring a large glass of cuba libre, I leaned back in my chair and breathed a sigh of relief, letting the ice cold drink work it’s magic.
Between then and now we’ve received a whole load of congratulations from friends, business partners and attendees. Both publicly and privately. Every moment of stress and strife was worth it. We managed to inspire, educate and entertain. Sure, a whole load of plans went out the window in the weeks, days, hours and even minutes before we went live, but that’s ok. Sure, it wasn’t the in person event we hoped to hold. We still managed to pull it off.
None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of our awesome sponsors. They really put their faith in our ability to achieve something, even when it seemed impossible. For that, we owe them a lifetime of gratitude.
None of this would have been possible without the excellent talks from the speakers. It’s surprising so many agreed to remain a part of the event, especially given plans changed quickly and often. They truly rose to the occasion. For that, we offer our sincere thanks.
None of this would have been possible without the short clips we received from around the world. Many of these were arranged with only a few messages via twitter or email. They ran with the idea and exceeded our expectations. For that, we’ll be eternally grateful.
None of this would have been possible without the amazing team that has grown around the event over the last few years. They went above and beyond to help create a memorable day for everyone it touched. For that, we paid them. Of course, we are beholden to them too.
And lastly, none of this would have had a point if no one turned up to watch. The biggest thanks to every one of the 7000+ people who tuned in over the two days to take part in the event. Whether they were there for the whole broadcast or just dipped in and out to catch the odd talk, we really appreciate them giving time to the event.
But right now, 4 hours have passed.
My glass is empty. It must be time for a top up. The traditional afterparty pizza has just arrived. It’s time to eat. Most importantly, it’s time to celebrate and reflect on what we collectively achieved. Something which we can be proud of.
With the 2020 conference in the bag, thoughts will inevitably turn to 2021 soon. Can we create a blended event, combining the best of the in person event with a remote offering? I’m sure we can. We’ll start work on that next week though.
But right now, the rum needs my attention.
Afterall, we’ve got 8532 hours to make it happen.
It’ll soon be time for a fresh plan A.