Hear the story of how Rob Barnes, who had just joined HashiCorp's Developer Advocates, was tapped to co-emcee HashiConf Digital last June.
In this blog article, I’ll take you through my rollercoaster journey of being a HashiConf Emcee, from attending the last in-person EU conference as a practitioner, to joining HashiCorp as an Employee and, co-hosting the first digital HashiConf.
If HashiConf has taught me anything about myself, it’s that I am a wind-up merchant, when hungry, my stomach makes really rhythmic sounds and I am a serial burper. My burps come with full bass but I’ll get to those stories shortly.
I have long been a user of HashiCorp tools and a great admirer of the communities behind them. This admiration led me to attend my first HashiConf EU event in 2019 in Amsterdam. It was such an amazing experience that I booked my ticket for HashiConf EU 2020 almost immediately after coming home from the conference.
At the time, the idea of attending HashiConf as an employee of HashiCorp as opposed to a community member wasn’t a dream or even a thought. After deciding to take a role with HashiCorp as a Developer Advocate, I was really excited about the prospect of meeting so many practitioners in person and building new relationships. My excitement about HashiConf had clearly hit new heights.
Nobody could have foreseen the global pandemic that has completely changed our lives. My heart aches for all that have lost loved ones to this deadly virus.
The amazing team of people behind HashiConf Digital had been preparing for an in-person event in the beautiful city of Amsterdam up until six weeks prior to the conference. As tech conferences around the world began to cancel their events, it was no surprise when HashiCorp announced that the conference would be revamped into a digital conference.
As disappointed as we all were not to be doing an in-person event, I could feel the excitement from the team about the possibilities that the digital experience could bring. “Through adversity comes opportunity” were words my late father used to say to me anytime things got tough.
Being the first digital conference that the company had done, it was a huge deal for all involved. It was important to provide an unforgettable experience for all the attendees. As a Developer Advocate, part of my role is to help put together and run events, in an effort to engage with practitioners in our community. This has many elements to it, from running workshops to giving talks.
Not even one week after I started working with HashiCorp, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that of all the amazing people we have at this company, they wanted me and my fellow co-host Domi to emcee the main track of the conference over three days. So shocked I was, I thought they made a mistake and accidentally sent the message to the wrong person. I re-read the message again and it started with “Hey Rob, How's your first week going?” I thought wow, this is unreal that I went from imagining attending as an employee, to now being invited to host the event.
As an African living in the UK, I have never seen anyone that looks like me host a major tech event. This was an important moment for many reasons but especially for that. My initial thought was, as great as this is, I’ve only been here for two days and I’m not ready for this. I spoke to my wife about it and she could see where I was coming from. She also reminded me that one of my greatest fears in life is not trying, and wondering what could have been. That removed all doubt from my head and compelled me to accept the challenge.
I had never done anything like this before. The most I had done was give talks to audiences nowhere near the size of what HashiConf Digital attendance was expected to be. The amazing thing was that I got to share all of my fear and excitement on this journey with Domi. She started at HashiCorp a week prior to myself and we both knew each other from the London tech community, through meetups.
The experiential team, along with the production company, prepared a script for us to follow. I hadn’t seen the script and it made me nervous because I have a need to just be myself. I couldn’t see how a script would allow me to be myself. How wrong I was. The script ended up being like a framework. It contained details about the schedule, housekeeping rules, code of conduct, etc. As for how we delivered that content, we were given creative freedom to do our thing.
To deliver the best experience possible, the production company shipped us a live broadcasting studio setup. When the courier rang my doorbell and I saw the size of the Box, I literally yelled out “WOWZERS”. Then the courier said, “wait until you have to lift it”, so I tried to lift it and the thing weighed a ton!
My wife and I share a home office, each of us with our own desks and setups. We had only moved into this house the month before so we were still settling in and unpacking. This meant the only room that was feasible for me to use to host the event was the office. My wife works as a business analyst and as you can imagine, she has many meetings. I bring this up because hosting this conference had an impact on my family too. She was forced to work downstairs on the dining table for the duration of the conference. I should also mention that I'm a recovering but scarred network engineer and absolutely hate cables. I have a clear desk policy but that went out of the window when the equipment arrived. The mess was driving me insane and stressing me out.
Whilst preparing for the conference, I was also part of the community team that put together the closing keynote. As a globally distributed team across multiple timezones, this had its challenges. Adding all of the onboarding activities into the mix made for an exciting but slightly chaotic period.
The preparation for the conference consisted of a table read, a technical check, and a dress rehearsal. There were some issues with my internet connectivity so the production company had to send more equipment to aid in the live streaming. This meant another technical check. In the initial meeting about this, I thought I'd wind up the team by pretending that I thought the event was happening in October instead of June. I honestly cannot find the words to describe the look on everyone's faces when I asked what date in October it was. Fear, confusion, anger all mixed up into individual facial expressions. It was priceless.
Since the lockdown, with the barbershops being closed, I’ve been cutting my own hair. Well, what's left of it. This is great as I can operate based on my schedule and not based on opening / closing hours of the shop. The only thing is, I did get too relaxed about it and forgot to cut my hair on the Sunday before HashiConf. I woke on Day One in a panic realizing I needed to cut my hair. I needed the audience to see all of the curves on my bald head. With the power in my hands I made sure of this.
On the morning of day one, we were conducting a final rehearsal and technical checks. It started on a Zoom call with the idea of ending that call and communicating via my microphone and earpiece. Bear in mind, they can see me on the live stream camera. When they did the audio switch, they asked me to say something to check if the microphone was working. I had other ideas though. I decided to mime instead of talking. The sound engineer started freaking out as he couldn’t understand why the sound wasn’t coming through. I let them sweat for about 90 seconds and then hit them with “Naw I’m only joking”. The response I got was a combination of amusement, relief, and anger all in one sentence “Rooooob, don’t do that”, followed by sounds of chuckles from the whole production team. That was a moment.
The first day was also the birth of our producer Jerom’s nickname, Dad. I had a bunch of HashiCorp swag in the form of t-shirts in different colors. He would ask me to try different colors on to see which worked best with the background and lighting. I pointed out to him that nobody has told me what to wear since my mum and dad when I was a child. From that day forth, Jerom was no longer, long live the “Dad.”
During one of the intermissions on the first day, a burp just slipped out. I genuinely forgot the production team could hear me. “Dad” made sure to remind me of this by imitating my burping sound. The burping began flowing freely off air, each time with a quirky message from “Dad”. I guess it was payback for all the windups that I subjected them to. Hey man, all is fair in production and banter. It got to the point where they recorded all of my burps and had a burp counter. It reached a high of 31 on the final day. Secretly I think there was a bet on how many times I would burp. It’s all good though. It was a great laugh. I do wonder if Domi knows this though as she couldn’t hear me off-air.
I’d say the most challenging part of being an emcee was the live Q&A discussion panels. Doing a virtual event gives you split-second delays in communication and presents the risk of us all talking over each other. I think we had one hiccup after which Domi and I worked out a system to try to avoid this.
Domi and I felt it was important to give the attendees the live experience and provide as much real-time interaction as possible to fill the gap between this and an in-person event. We both had a pretty decent following on Twitter so we used that to help deliver this interaction. We wanted to make it a fun experience for all, so we came up with a few challenges on the fly. The most notable was the “Salute your captains” challenge. I feel like this kind of interaction aided in bringing the community closer together in such times where we can sometimes feel alone.
Some tweets from the #SaluteYourCaptains twitter challenge:
It was pretty tricky to find ways to tweet in between sessions and find time to prep for the next part. The other challenge was the fact that Domi and I couldn’t hear each other unless we were live on air so all communication had to go through our producer, “Dad”, or Slack. The problem was, I had my phone on silent so it didn’t go off whilst live on air so I would sometimes miss notifications. We had to do all of this and keep our energy levels high to maintain audience engagement. I think I can add perseverance and “multi-tasker” to my CV now.
Let’s not forget the hunger! Due to the times of the conference, lunch was a Greek myth. About an hour into the conference, my belly started beatboxing, making the sounds of sweet drum ‘n’ bass music. The lack of lunch also had an effect on our energy levels. With rehearsals starting at 9 a.m., our break between then and the start would depend on how well the technical checks went. This shortened our break sometimes so it was really long days, most of which had us on our feet.
I think HashiConf was a learning experience for all of us. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to talk whilst you have a voice in your ear. This is made harder because I'm deaf in my left ear so my brain processes sounds differently to most people I guess. Somehow, we managed to learn pretty quickly how to adapt and deal with this challenge.
All in all, it was a great experience and I personally had so much fun with the team putting this production together. Seeing all of the positive comments and energy made it all worth it. It was more than difficult at times but it was a joint journey with the team to success and I am proud to be part of the first ever HashiConf Digital.
We invite you to join us at our next HashiConf Digital, October 12-15, 2020 (PDT timezone). Registration is free to attend. Real-time product workshops are also available, and will require a nominal fee to reserve your seat. Register here.
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