DX Engineering Manager
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When I joined Algolia, we were 25. We had a weekly meeting of the whole company, in which everyone could speak up and share what they did during the week. The communication was smooth, and everyone knew what everyone else was working on.
Four years later, we are 350. It has become more difficult – even in the engineering team – to share knowledge among team members. At Algolia, we firmly believe that the best way for a company to grow is by learning from each other. Therefore, we need to be able to share knowledge proactively.
That is why, more than a year ago, we started “Show & Tell”, our weekly session of knowledge sharing. During Show & Tell, people do live presentations on stage in front of their fellow employees on an Algolia-related topic. Let’s deep dive into the first year of this event.
Before going into details on the how of Show & Tell, let’s see why we decided to create this event. Sure, knowledge sharing is key to the success of our company, and that’s the primary reason why we wanted to do this. But it’s not the only one.
Algolia has had exponential growth. When we started Show & Tell, we were 150 employees; today, a little more than a year later, we are 350. This makes it a lot harder to know and meet everyone. Speaking in front of the company is an excellent way to make yourself known!
One positive side effect is that people start to identify you as an expert on a specific topic. This allows you to share skills across the company and lets people know they can go to you if they have an issue with a particular technology or topic.
Algolia values public speaking skills; it provides a 2-day public speaking workshop for any employee who desires it. Show & Tell offers us an opportunity to put this workshop into practice, helping us hone our public speaking skills in a safe environment, where we speak only in front of our colleagues.
To provide this safe opportunity to get to know each other and practice public speaking skills, we needed to make sure the event was well organized.
Since the beginning, we decided to go for a weekly, 30-minute format. This is short enough not to impact daily work and long enough for two or three presentations. We decided to schedule it just before “Happy Hour” – our less formal weekly get-to-know-each-other event, where we share a relaxed time with our coworkers. As we are across 5 time zones, with 10 hours of time difference, we wanted it to be during most of the employees’ office hours. Hence we decided to go for 4:30 pm GMT, which is the beginning of the workday in San Francisco, the middle for Atlanta and New York, and the end for London, Paris, Lyon, Nantes, and Prague. We wanted to make it easy for everyone to attend.
We started small. In the beginning, there were 3 presentations, 10 minutes each. Speakers were assigned slots and were given only a few days to prepare. We quickly realized that 30 minutes of presentation easily turns into 45 minutes when you add questions and answers.
During this year we learned and improved the organization of the event. Let’s look at the actual anatomy of our “Show & Tell” event, S&T for those in the know.
The organization of S&T is split into 4 parts:
1. Picking topics
2. Preparing the evening
3. Running the show
4. Post-show follow ups
Before presenting anything, we need to select the topics. Since the beginning, we decided to only choose Algolia-related subjects, such as projects done for Algolia, new features, new tools, or rehearsals for presentations that would be given outside of the company. We now select two topics instead of three. The only constraint is 10 minutes, so that each speaker has enough time to answer questions.
We also encourage new employees to speak about their onboarding project, and we include non-technical talks by our marketing, sales, and recruiting coworkers.
We now pick topics a month in advance, to give the speakers time to prepare. This enabled us to more easily replace last-minute cancellations, which only occurred twice on more than 120 presentations.
To further prevent last-minute cancellations, we notify the speaker two weeks before their presentation. One week before, we send a template of slides with some idea of a plan. It’s not mandatory to follow it, but often it helps the speaker to structure their presentation.
We also encourage speakers to rehearse, by providing them time slots when they can come and do it in front of the Show & Tell team. This way they can get feedback beforehand, and improve their slides and public speaking skills.
We are big Slack users; a few hours before S&T, we send a reminder on the #algolia channel with the program of the day, so employees can decide whether they want to attend or not.
A few minutes before the actual event, we prepare the room where the presentations take place. We also live stream it for the whole company, which requires a bit of preparation. We record the live stream so those unable to attend can view it later on.
Each week we have a Master of Ceremony who runs S&T. Their role is to start the show, present the speakers, close the session, and introduce speakers for the following week.
On the day after the event, we put the recording and slides in our internal learning platform, where anyone can access the previous presentations. We also send a recap email to the whole company with links to the learning platform, as well as the schedule for the following week.
During this year of organizing such an event, we learned some tricks from the trenches.
The most important is to celebrate the speakers, who, every week, present a topic in front of the whole company. This event wouldn’t be anything without their dedication. Speakers rarely come forward and propose topics on their own; most of them think they have “nothing to share”, or that “it won’t be interesting”. Therefore, it’s essential to identify who can talk, and then proactively push them, just a little, to convince them to speak. This is why it is necessary to fetch information from technical leaders and managers because they have a better vision on which topics are trending, and who can best represent them from their team. Additionally, keeping an eye open to what happens in the company can help us find speakers. We maintain a list of who spoke, so we can go and find topics from people who never did. Having a backlog of potential presentations can also help fill an empty slot.
We are quite fortunate to have a big room for the presentations, with all the equipment to make it work; however, some of us have organized this kind of event in much smaller companies, with fewer resources. The main point is to do it at your own scale – you can even use your break room, do it at a different pace, etc.
Last but not least, ask for feedback! We do it every six months, and each time we get valuable information on what to improve. For example, this led us to move S&T 30 minutes earlier, so more people could attend.
We’re continuing S&T this year. For now, we’re keeping the same format, but will experiment more. We already did lightning talks, a special session on a dedicated topic with four shorter presentations (5 minutes). We received good feedback on this. People said it was more dynamic and required less preparation from the speakers, so we’ll do it again!
We only had around 5% of non-technical talks so far; we will thrive to have at least 10% in 2019.
During this year of Show & Tell, we had 70 speakers doing 120 different presentations, with topics that included “Low-level performance in C++”, “How to organize a marketing event?”, “What is tech recruiter’s daily job?”, and “How to write better PHP”. I’m very proud to see the dedication of our speakers, and I’m equally dedicated to celebrating them indefinitely!
Staff Software Engineer