What do you want to learn in 2016?

As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we read all the comments on the evaluations attendees submit, both those on the conference evaluation and those on evaluations for individual sessions. As you’d expect, we look especially hard for themes, multiple people mentioning the same issue. Usually, when that happens, they’re on the same side of the issue.

For example, a few years ago, tons of people commented about poor WiFi service in the hotel and conference center. We used those comments to encourage the hotel to improve their offerings and that’s made a big difference.

Sometimes, though, all we can do is shake our heads because commenters want exactly opposite changes. For example, one of this year’s attendees indicated a preference for a keynote session that “will preferably get the crowd interacting” while another requested “Anything that does NOT involve audience participation.”

This year, fewer of you mentioned issues around the temperature in the session rooms. That may be because we worked with the conference center staff to find a temperature that seemed appropriate, and avoided resetting thermostats during the conference. It was also probably helped by the weather being a little cooler than we usually encounter. Nonetheless, there were still plenty of comments on the topic, but as usual some complained that session rooms were too warm while others found them too cool.

One theme that was new this year was people having trouble finding sessions in every slot, along with some comments about sessions being overcrowded. No doubt this was partly due to the fact that we had fewer VFP speakers and topics this year.

As speakers, we actually love it when a room is full. A crowded room generally has a lot more energy, and we feed on that as we present.

But we know that for attendees, getting to the session you want to hear and finding that all the chairs are filled is a bummer. So is looking at the list of topics in a given time slot and finding nothing that seems applicable to your needs. (In fact, we saw a reflection of this in some session evaluations, too, where the speaker was rated highly, but the ratings for “Session provided valuable information” and “Session topic was relevant” were much lower. In some cases, there was a comment along the lines of “This session was well done, but was a schedule filler for me. I don’t expect to use this.”

As we start planning for 2016 (yes, we actually started on the day that the 2015 conferences ended), we don’t yet know how many speakers we’ll be inviting. It’s likely that we’ll do something like we did this year, and pick a core group first, and then add speakers if early registrations warrant.

Beyond the possibility of offering more simultaneous sessions, we’ll try to do a better job of picking sessions that you want to hear. That’s where we can use your help right now, whether or not you attended this year’s conference.

We asked for topic suggestions on the conference evaluation and quite a few people offered ideas. They’re listed below. We ask that you comment on this post (or send us an email) both to tell us what you think of these ideas and to tell us what else you’d like included. We’ll include the list of potential topics in the Call for Speakers that will be released sometime in February.

Here’s the (long) list of ideas from the evaluations:

  • User Interfaces
  • VFP in the cloud
  • REST API with VFP
  • Disaster recovery
  • Case studies
  • Business development, marketing, sales, customer service
  • More non-VFP technologies such as Python
  • SQL Server
  • Web technologies (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced)
  • Client side web development (JavaScript,JQuery, Angular, JSON, etc.)
  • Web services
  • .NET technologies (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced)
  • Mobile technologies (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced)
  • More on Thor
  • 64-bit compiler
  • Building applications to run as a service and building complimentary UI based apps to interact with and/or control that service’s behavior.
  • Specific things I can do in xBase++ that will complement my suite of VFP applications
  • Lessons Learning Upsizing Data
  • Hosting VFP Apps in the Cloud
  • Building CXP apps for VFP developers
  • Alaska open panel: What features do you want? What direction do you want to head?
  • Cathy Pountney on Reporting topics
  • Rick Borup with an advanced session on branching and merging in version control as a half-day pre-con, especially if we could actually work through examples on our own systems

Some of you may notice that we have offered some of those topics before. Please tell us whether you’d welcome (updated) repeats of any of those sessions; we know that some of our prospective speakers are more likely to submit topics if they can recycle something they’ve presented previously.

Finally, we’ve had some suggestions for workshop-style sessions, where the speaker would would actually walk attendees through a topic, as they try it on their own machines. Obviously, such sessions would cover less material than a lecture-style, but you’d leave having actually tried the relevant technique or technology. Let us know what you think about this idea.

What do you think? Conference evaluations tell us.

All three of us who run Southwest Fox and Southwest Xbase++ are experienced conference speakers and we know how big a role feedback plays in getting better at presenting. So, it’s no surprise that when we first started running a conference, we spent a lot of time and energy discussing what we wanted on both session evaluations and the overall conference evaluation. We’ve tweaked those contents (especially at the conference level) over the years, trying to extract more and more information from our attendees.

Two years ago, we moved the session evaluation system online. With most attendees carrying at least one Wifi-enabled device, we felt that using a web-based evaluation system would make things easier for attendees, speakers, and ourselves. Overall, that transition has been quite successful. Among other things, it allows speakers to review evaluations from a session before they repeat the topic. (A big benefit to us is not having to hand-enter all that data.)

This year, we moved the overall conference evaluation online, as well. While we wish more people had chosen to submit conference evals (fewer than half of those present did so), the evaluations we got seemed to contain more information. Knowing how I feel about writing on paper, I suspect using a keyboard instead freed many people to write more and longer comments. We’re thinking about ways to get better response in future.

We added one section to this year’s conference evaluation. We asked each person to rank five conference features as to their importance. All of these features affect the cost of running the conferences (though some of them do so indirectly). The five items were:

  • Breakfast and Lunch Provided
  • Dinner Party Included
  • White papers for Every Session
  • Multiple Simultaneous Sessions
  • Meeting Rooms on Conference Hotel Property

We weren’t surprised at all that white papers (that is, session notes) for every session was far and away the most important item, with more than 2/3 of respondents ranking it #1, and another 1/6 ranking it #2; that is, 5/6 of those surveyed considered white papers as one of the top two items.

Since we consider providing white papers for all sessions a major part of the value proposition of a Geek Gatherings conference, we were glad to see that our customers do, too. Today, it’s rare for a conference to provide papers for all sessions; in fact, it’s rare for there to be papers for any sessions. So, we think our conferences stand out.

On the other end of the spectrum, people were even more unanimous that the dinner party we hold on the Friday night of the conference was the least important of the five; 80% ranked it last. We got the message. We’re already talking about alternative ideas.

As for the middle three items, your order of importance is multiple tracks, having the conference sessions at the hotel, and then having breakfast and lunch included. We’ll keep all that in mind as we plan for the future.

As I noted earlier, we got many more comments this year than in the past. They ranged from simple thanks to some detailed suggestions. One theme throughout the comments is how many of you come to the conference to see friends. Answers like that popped up in response to “What did you take away from the conference?” (this year, no one said “the towels”) as well as to “What did you like best about the conference?”

Because we were frank about the financial risk we take in running the conferences, and expressed our concerns about the future, a number of people offered us concrete suggestions, including changing the location and time of year, selling shares in the conference, and charging more, while others simply said that we should do whatever it takes to keep going.

We’ve already spent several hours face-to-face (thanks, Rainer Becker, for inviting all three of us to the German DevCon) discussing this year’s conference and what you had to say. We’ll continue to review the evaluation data as we determine our 2015 offerings. If you have additional comments or you couldn’t join us this year and want to share your thoughts, send them to info@geekgatherings.com.