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Going Virtual with NDC Copenhagen

A month ago, I was in Denmark doing a promotional event for NDC Copenhagen - and nobody was even considering the possibility that we might have to turn it into an online-only event – but as the agile manifesto says, developers should be prepared to respond to change instead of following a plan. And, wow, the last four weeks have been intense. We’ve had less than a month to turn a physical conference into fully virtual online event - two days of workshops, one day of talks across three tracks, nearly 250 attendees and speakers…

We did it. Right now there’s three talks streaming live, there’s 247 people online on Slack, there’s Q&A happening in the Slack channels, I’m watching Scott Helme stream his “Stories from the Trenches” infosec talk live on YouTube, and it’s all working remarkably well. Here’s how we did it.

Transparency and Trust > Technology and Tools

We worked hard to keep speakers and attendees in the loop about what was going on. I ran webinars and Q&A sessions last week for all of our workshop trainers and presenters, we ran another online session on Monday for attendees, and I’ve been running ad-hoc equipment checks and Zoom sessions with speakers to help them make sure everything’s set up and good to go. It’s been a very steep learning curve for all of us, but it’s worked.

We also solved a lot of potentially complex problem by deciding, early on, that were going to trust people. Attendees would get invited to a Slack workspace but we weren’t going to require authentication; we’d run live streams as unlisted YouTube streams and trust our attendees not to share the links. This meant we didn’t have to worry about passwords and security and managing access, and could just focus on the attendee experience, the speakers and the content.

Familiar Tools

Over the last few weeks, I’ve tested every single video conferencing and online chat platform I’d ever heard of, and a few that I hadn’t. WebEx, Whereby, GoToMeeting, Zoom, Hangouts, Skype, Slack, Discord, Jitsi - and I’m sure there’s a few that I missed.

Let’s put it this way. None of them is remotely close to meeting together in real life, but all of them are vastly better than getting sick with coronavirus - so it comes down to what constraints and capabilities we’re optimising for, and what we’re prepared to compromise on.

There are virtual conference platforms out there - but there’s no way we were going to have enough time to evaluate the options, choose a platform, get the crew and volunteers up to speed, set up accounts for the speakers and partners, and have it all ready to go by April 1st.

We also wanted to make sure that, wherever possible, our speakers could present their sessions using equipment they already had; some of our speakers create a lot of video training and so are already tricked-out with greenscreens, cameras, and microphones - but a lot of them just have their development laptop, maybe a USB webcam and a headset microphone, and the last thing we wanted to do was ask speakers to go out and buy specialist equipment when we weren’t ourselves confident about the format and the technology yet. So we decided to go with familiar tools, hooked together in interesting ways - Zoom, Slack, Slido, YouTube, and e-mail.

We set up a dedicated Slack workspace for NDC Copenhagen 2020, and decided that would be the backbone of the virtual conference. Folks who bought tickets got invited to join the Slack workspace, we use Slack for discussion, announcements, Q&A, chat, and - here’s the key part - at the end of the conference, we’re going to delete the workspace. That’s it: conference is over, see you at the next one.

How We Set Up Slack

  • Every Slack workspace has a #general channel. We renamed #general to #announcements, and locked it down so that only administrators could post to it and nobody could start threads.
  • We created dedicated channels for each conference track, which we used for speaker Q&A and audience feedback.
  • We set up a #hallway-track for attendees, a #speaker-lounge private channel for speakers, and a dedicated #organisers channel for the NDC crew and volunteers.
  • We locked down most options, so that attendees couldn’t invite other people, couldn’t create custom emoji, that kind of thing.

How We Streamed Talks

We went with a hybrid approach here. My initial idea was to use Zoom for all the sessions - to start a Zoom meeting for each track, and have speakers and attendees join and leave those meetings over the course of the day, just like folks wandering in and out of session rooms at a physical conference. I’d run a bunch of meetups and social events on Zoom, with 50+ people in the same meeting, and it worked pretty well.

We had several requests from attendees to be able to watch the live streams without actually joining a room. That might sound a bit weird, but NDC Oslo has always had an overflow room; all nine tracks are projected on big-screen TVs, you can sit with a pair of headphones and jump between talks without disturbing anybody, and we wanted to try to replicate that for the virtual event.

So, with some help from the crew from Video for Web in Norway, here’s the setup we ended up running.

image-20200403142821621

  1. Each conference track is a Zoom meeting, that starts around 8am and runs right through the day. One of the NDC crew stays in that meeting all day - they’re the track host; they’ll help speakers get set up and connected.
  2. The Video for Web crew have three separate PCs, each one connected to a different Zoom track. These are running Open Broadcast System (OBS) - they’ll do a live capture of the speaker video and screen share from the Zoom call, combine this with the Slido feed and some NDC branding, and stream the result to YouTube.
  3. We email every speaker an invitation in advance, including the Zoom link and password to join the appropriate track, and the time of their meeting, including the timezone - more about that in a moment
  4. The speaker joins the Zoom track 10-15 minutes before their talk session, checks their camera and audio are working, and begins sharing their screen.
  5. When the talk starts, the Video for Web team switch over each stream to the live feed coming from Zoom via OBS.
  6. We embed the YouTube stream link in each of the Slack channels for tracks 1-3.

For a couple of my talks, I also shared the direct Zoom link in the Slack channel in case folks wanted to join directly, which actually worked really well - more on this later. We also ran Slido alongside every session, giving the audience the chance to ask questions during the talks.

What We Learned

Some Folks Like Zoom, Some Folks Like YouTube

For the talks where I shared the Zoom link, I got 5-10 attendees joining the Zoom call directly, with the rest watching over YouTube.

As a speaker, it’s amazing how much difference it makes even just having a few people “in the room” - we kept the audiences muted, but being able to see people smiling and raising hands makes the whole thing feel so much more like a live presentation. The YouTube stream has about 30 seconds of latency - so the quality’s great, but if you tell a joke, people on YouTube laugh 30 seconds later, so there’s really no way to use the YouTube stream as part of any realtime audience interaction.

So for future events, I’m going to try to run a hybrid format where there’s a real-time option like Zoom or Hangouts for people who want to be part of the “live” audience, and a close-to-real-time YouTube stream for folks who want to dip in and out or have it on in the background.

Zoom socialising? Nice idea… but doesn’t really happen

One of my favourite things about conferences is the ad-hoc conversations that happen - in the coffee queue, over lunch, over drinks at the end of the day. We tried to replicate that using Zoom by spinning up chatrooms between sessions, but for some reason it just doesn’t work - nobody joins the rooms and it never really catches on. We did run an online quiz event last night, which got about 20 people online at one point - but most of them stayed muted with their webcams switched off; I could see them playing along and answering questions on Slido but I wouldn’t say we had much in the way of conversation.

That said, there’s been some great conversation happening in the workshop groups over the past two days, so it’s not the tool or the format that’s the problem… I’ve already written several posts about the weirdness of trying to socialise online; I suspect this is just one more thing that people haven’t figured out yet. We’ll get there.

Slido needs a nudge to get people using it

We ran Slido live Q&A sessions for all the conference talks. Some talks, it didn’t get used at all; but those talks where it did get used, it was completely silent until somebody asked the first question - and then it got very lively.

I think there’s two reasons for this… first, until somebody asks a question, it’s just a static panel in the corner of the live stream. Once the first question appears, there’s some movement and some action and people go “ooh, I want to use that!” I also know there’s some weird cultural things about certain audiences where folks are more than happy to interact but nobody wants to go first, and I haven’t worked out yet whether that’s more or less pronounced when the events are running online.

So - if we’re going to use Slido in future, we’ll have a couple of prepared questions standing by to start things off; once folks see it being used, they’ll probably dive in and get the conversation going.

USB-powered lights are literally the devil… 😈

One of the speakers was having huge problems with audio - pops, crackles, weird electrical interference. We spent literally hours trying to track down the problem - reinstalling drivers, checking different mics on different platforms… and eventually worked out that they were running a USB-powered light off one of the computer’s USB sockets, which was generating some really, really weird interference.

There’s a separate post coming up about how to set up and test equipment for doing live remote presentations, but it looks like one of the golden rules is: don’t have anything plugged in to your USB ports that isn’t required to do your talk. Webcam, microphone, whatever you need to do your presentation or live demos - but if you’re using USB ports to power lights or charge your phone or anything, unplug it until you’re done.

So… What’s Next?

In another life, I was getting on a plane tomorrow, flying from Copenhagen to Saint-Petersburg via Helsinki, presenting The Art of Code at DotNext, travelling from there to Riga and then on to Kyiv for .NET fwdays - and then back on the NDC bandwagon at the end of April for NDC Porto.

But here in the upside-down, that’s all postponed, cancelled or gone virtual, so the next big thing on the schedule is NDC Porto, which we’re now running as another online event. Copenhagen’s gone great, we’ve learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t work; we’ve got lots of interesting new ideas to try and lots of valuable feedback and information to share with all our speakers…

image-20200403161930704

For now, though, I’m gonna open a beer, fire up a Zoom call and enjoy a bit of post-conference relaxation. See y’all for the next one!

"Going Virtual with NDC Copenhagen" was posted by Dylan Beattie on 03 April 2020 • permalink

Going Virtual, Part 3

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, people used to go to pubs and bars and talk to each other face to face. You remember. Now that we’re living here in Generation Lockdown, that’s not a thing any more, and so we’re all socialising on Zoom and Hangouts and WebEx. Until last week, I’d never joined a “Zoom party” in my life… this week, I’ve joined four. It’s been interesting, and fun, but humans, we got some details to figure out if this thing’s gonna work.

Let’s start with some observations. Human gatherings exist on a spectrum. At one extreme there’s the business meeting, in which a group of named invidivuals meet at a specified time, for a specified time. During this time, all the attendees are expected to give the meeting their undivided attention. One person speaks at a time, the rest listen, maybe somebody takes notes, and when it’s over, everybody leaves. Now I know as well as any of you that meetings in the real world don’t necessarily work like that, but most of the software we’re using to talk to each other now was designeс сердечным приветомd for business, and so it is designed to try and replicate that experience.

A little further along, there’s dinners, tabletop gaming sessions - probably still the same group for the duration of the event, but it’s a little more relaxed. Then there’s house parties and pub nights, where there’s a definite location where “the thing” is happening, but people are wandering in and out, splitting into conversation groups, branching and merging and mingling and going outside for a cigaratte. And then there’s one of those nights when you head out alone, visit four or five different bars, seeing who’s where, bumping into random friends and friendly randoms.

I love parties and pubs and bar crawls, but the social dynamic of those events is not 20 people sat around taking it in turns to speak. I miss the ebb and flow of social events. What’s the online equivalent of going to the kitchen for a beer and staying in there chatting for half an hour because everyone in the living room is currently talking about school fees and you’re bored off your ass? Where’s the quiet corner where you can sit for half an hour and have a proper catch up with a friend you’ve not seen in a while before going and rejoining the main party? Video chats are very binary - you’re in, or you’re out. Sure, you can be in with your mic muted and your video switched off, but at some point when you decide you’ve had enough, do you interrupt everyone to say goodbye, or just disconnect? Interrupting feels rude. Disconnecting feels rude. The cues around body language that we rely on to know when it’s OK to speak – or that we subconsciously pick up on to know that somebody else would like to say something – are much, much harder to pick up on. And the medium amplifies people’s naturally extrovert or introvert tendencies. People who are loud tend to get louder, people who are quiet tend to get quieter.

There’s also weird stuff here about boundaries. We’re all stuck at home, nobody’s going outside. Everybody’s struggling with work/life balance, and sharing neat ways to deal with it. I’ve spoken to people who go out their front door in the morning, walk around the house and go in through the back door to start work. I’ve spoken to people who have sleeping pyjamas, work pyjamas and relaxing pyjamas - because hey, pyjamas are comfortable, but wearing the same ones for 24 hours is gross. But the psychological cues we get from physical spaces are gone. Office: drink coffee, do work. Pub: tell jokes, drink beer, it’s OK to swear. Home: sit around in your underwear watching TV. Now those spaces are gone and we need to work out how to simulate them. I live alone in a house with a lot of technology; right now I’m trying to work out how to join Zoom calls from my living room TV so I’m not doing all my socialising from my office – partly ‘cos it feels friendlier somehow, and partly because drinking beer at my desk regularly is likely to be the start of a very steep and slippery slope.

I think we’ll figure this out. Some new social conventions are going to emerge, and quickly. Stuff that was just about tolerable when we used video chat for paid meetings will quickly become socially taboo. We’ll figure out how to digitise liminal spaces, we’ll come up with ways to use the tools and tech we’ve already got in interesting ways. This crisis is going to do for online communication tools what World War II did for aviation; we’re going to see an unprecedented wave of innovation and invention. Not all of it will work terribly well, but the things that do will be genuinely useful and a year or two from now we’ll be astonished that we ever tried to do online comms without them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. Somebody’s telegrammed me a whatsapp with a link to the slack with the link to the discord where they’re trying to decide whether to go to zoom, webex, jitsi or hangouts later, and I should probably join in. It’d be rude not to, right?

"Going Virtual, Part 3" was posted by Dylan Beattie on 22 March 2020 • permalink

Going Virtual, Part 2

There’s this whole Einstein relativity space/time continuum thing - you move faster in space, you move slower in time, and apparently vice versa. You know the one. And I gotta say, it feels like since we all decided we were going to stop moving around in space, the moving-through-time thing has gone into overdrive… today is March 19th. Two weeks ago I was in Copenhagen, celebrating my partner’s birthday at Warpigs with a bunch of old and new friends from all over the world. We spent Friday cycling around Copenhagen on rented bikes; on Saturday we went to Sweden for the day. Sunday we flew back to London. A week later, Denmark had gone into total lockdown; as of today, Copenhagen is deserted, and pretty much the entire software industry is hunkered down, working from home and waiting for this thing to blow over.

Last Friday I ran an online lunch over Zoom. On Tuesday I ran a virtual meetup. Tuesday night I had online drinks with the Linebreakers - and then somebody messaged me to say there was a party going on on Microsoft Teams as part of the Virtual MVP Summit, so I stopped by there for a bit, and then invited everyone back to Zoom… but let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a proper conference if I didn’t turn up to some Official Corporate Drinks and drag half the attendees away to a sleazy rock bar somewhere. Nice to know that some traditions work just as well online as they do out in the Big Room.

And yes, this is all still very weird; the news cycle has gone into overdrive, nobody has the faintest idea what new restrictions and cancellations are going to be announced in the next 48 hours, and we’re all figuring a lot of things out very, very quickly. As you probably saw, NDC Conferences has hired me as their Online Community Ambassador for the next few months whilst we’re working this stuff out - which is awesome, because it means I can give this stuff my undivided attention until we’ve all worked out the details.

2020-03-19_13-37-45

Today I ran our second virtual meetup - we had Filip Ekberg talking about pattern matching in C#, with lots of technical content and code samples; Clifford Agius talking about building a mobile flight simulator out of a burger van, and Christine Seeman talking about ashtanga yoga and even showing us a couple of yoga positions live via Zoom, which was really cool. We had 66 live attendees at one point, most of them live on camera and voice chat, and we tried out a couple of different things based on feedback and ideas from Tuesday; here’s what we learned.

Timezones are Weird

I mean, we knew that anyway - but we had a bunch of folks in Europe on their lunch break, Christine presenting live from Omaha, Nebraska where it was still early morning, and folks tuning in from as far away as Australia where it was already evening.

It Takes Two: A Producer and a Presenter

For today’s meeting, we had Martin Thwaites “producing” the meetup - I added him as a co-host on the Zoom call, and he was the one muting and unmuting people, switching the ‘Video Spotlight’ onto the speaker, answering questions in the chatroom, and that kind of thing. This was a huge improvement over Tuesday - it meant I was free to host the meetup, stand in front of a camera and actually talk to people without having to remember to click this and select that and keep one eye on the chat session.

We might have found some weird behaviour around “mute all” when working with multiple meeting hosts… further research required, but at the end of the session we found a few folks were stuck on mute and couldn’t unmute themselves. We’ll run some experiments and report back.

But generally, I think we file this one under “best practice” - the producer runs the meeting, the presenter does the talking. It also wasn’t a problem at all that Martin and I weren’t in the same room - or indeed in the same city; the platform coped with this just fine.

Martin’s comments on Zoom:

  • “Going full screen you can undock the speaker view - having the the speaker view, spotlight view and chat all on different screens helped”
  • “Switching the Video Spotlight during the Q&A needs some thought - it’s good to see you asking the question and the speaker answering it, but I’m not sure how jerky that was for the audience.”
  • “Having speakers as co-hosts might help - finding them (in the gallery view) to spotlight them was a pain”

Use Sli.do for questions

We set up a Slido event for this, and shared the link in the chat and as part of my intro slides. One great thing to remember about online events - if you want people to go to a URL, you don’t have to rely on web addresses and QR codes on a PowerPoint slide; you can just get the producer to put the link into the chat.

During this part of the meetup, I used the Open Broadcast System (OBS) rig to superimpose my ‘talking head’ onto the Sli.do “presenter view” so that video attendees could see the questions, which worked great (and looked quite professional as well!)

During discussion at the end, Shahid Iqbal - who recently hosted a virtual meetup as part of NDC DevOps - pointed out that it can be really confusing having questions going on Sli.do and people posting questions in the Zoom chat. Something else that we’re going to need to figure out as we go along.

Martin’s comments:

  • “Dismissing questions is an easy way to moderate, they disappear from the screen. Having it behind you helped. Promoting the questions needs to be a bit more insync so that the video switching happens better.”
  • “I’m thinking that it might be an idea to think about streaming to a location that then outputs to Zoom, then something like OBS can combine the streams – so the idea would be that all the hosts somehow join a stream, and that stream is sent to the zoom… would make coordinating the speakers easier, but has some fairly significant downsides”

Equipment Makes a Difference

I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but when you’re running an event like this, it’s quite apparent that people fall into three broad categories when it comes to online presenting.

  1. People who haven’t really ever done this before - which is fine; the main reason I’m running these virtual meetups is to give everyone a chance to practise, refine their setup, adapt their material and so on.
  2. People who are clearly experienced presenters and have also done a lot of video calls and remote meetings, but haven’t really tried presenting online before. These are the folks who don’t need a whole lot of practice, but for whom investing in a better mic or a decent lighting setup will make a huge difference to how well their material works in a virtual format
  3. People who basically talk to cameras for a living. The folks with the professional-quality microphones, the hi-def cameras and green screen backdrops.

Now, there’s definitely a law of diminishing returns here - particularly for live streaming, the difference between a built-in microphone and a £20 headset is obvious, but you’re probably not going to hear much difference between a £100 mic and a £500 mic once it’s been compressed through Zoom or Google Hangouts and streamed across the internet. I’ll be doing some more research around this over the next week or so, and hoping to share some recommendations with you all for mics, headsets, cameras, lights, etc. that’ll let you up your remote presentation game without breaking the bank.

If you want to see what a really top-notch remote presenting rig looks like, check out this YouTube video of Aaron Parecki running through his seriously impressive setup to see how deep the rabbit-hole really goes:

What’s next? Well, Friday afternoon we’ll be running a remote live coding workshop with Mathias Brandewinder - 16:00 UK time / 09:00 PDT - to figure out some details around running workshops with a lot of hands-on coding and collaboration; next week I’ll be running a couple of webinars with NDC for speakers and attendees at their forthcoming events, and I’m talking with the crew from BuildStuff about doing some online stuff with them as well.

Exciting times. Stay tuned.

"Going Virtual, Part 2" was posted by Dylan Beattie on 19 March 2020 • permalink

NDC Online Community Ambassador

Hi everyone.

Things are weird, and a little scary, right now. People, companies and countries are all responding to the COVID-19 crisis in different ways, but I think we’re all agreed that getting hundreds of people together in a conference centre for days at a time isn’t a good idea over the next few months.

For technology conferences and events, this creates some interesting challenges. I’ve been working with the team from NDC Conferences since January, helping to build stronger relationships between NDC’s flagship conferences and the developer communities that they serve. None of us is going to be meeting face-to-face for a while - but we’re absolutely committed to supporting those people and communities while this situation is ongoing. Big events like NDC are a lot of fun, but they’re also an incredibly important part of our industry. Conference workshops are a critical source of revenue for a lot of people working on open source software. Sponsors and partners use conferences to connect with potential customers and employees – and for attendees, an event like NDC is a chance to meet the experts, discover new technology, connect with new people, maybe even find their next job. Turning a physical conference into an online event isn’t easy; there are challenges around content, technology, infrastructure, scheduling - all sorts of things that we’ll need to figure out. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

To that end, I’ll be joining the NDC Conferences team for the next few months as their Online Community Ambassador, to help them – and all of us – figure out how to run the best possible virtual events. I’ll be running live trials, online workshops and virtual meet-ups to help speakers figure out the best way to adapt and present their material online. I’ll be testing equipment, platforms and formats, and working closely with all our speakers and experts to make sure we give all our virtual attendees the best possible experience. Obviously our initial focus will be on the technical content - workshops and talks - but we’re also going to try and virtualise the hallway tracks, the social elements and all the wonderful conversations that take place during an event like NDC.

It’s been a really difficult couple of weeks for everybody, but in a way, the timing is fortunate. NDC Copenhagen at the beginning of April is one of the smaller NDC conferences; NDC Porto at the end of April is a little bigger, and NDC Oslo in June is our biggest event. Now, obviously when everything’s gone virtual the physical locations don’t matter so much - but by the time we get to Oslo, we’ll have had plenty of opportunities to experiment with formats, figure out the details and make sure it all goes smoothly. And I know as well as you do that there’s no way an online virtual event can replicate all the conversations, coffee, drinks, dinners and boat cruises and atmosphere that make events like NDC so memorable, but we’ll be doing everything we can to maintain the character of our events whilst we’re running things online. Same speakers, same sessions, same conversations - but you won’t have to pay Norwegian prices for a beer afterwards.

We’ll be contacting all the confirmed speakers and workshop trainers soon to start working out some details. In the meantime, hang in there, take care of yourselves, and if you feel like hanging out online with some friendly nerds whilst we start figuring this stuff out, I’m running an open Slack at ursatile.slack.com and you’re all very welcome to stop by.

Thanks all.

Dylan

"NDC Online Community Ambassador" was posted by Dylan Beattie on 18 March 2020 • permalink

Going Virtual, Part 1

It’s March 2020 and everything is cancelled. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, Norway is closed, Italy is closed, the US has banned travel from most European countries, and the British government is, um, advising us to wash our hands while singing songs until we develop “herd immunity”.

With many countries now banning all large public gatherings, this has obviously hit IT conferences and community events hard. Within the last 24 hours, NDC Conferences has announced that their forthcoming events in Copenhagen, Porto and Oslo will be virtual online events; JUG.RU - the largest conference organiser in Russia - has postponed all of their forthcoming events until later in the year; local groups are switching to running virtual online meetups, and we’re generally all trying to figure out how to make the best of a pretty rough situation.

We’ve all done remote conference calls – and a lot of the time, they suck. A bunch of bored people dialled into a Slack call or something but not really paying attention; glitchy video, distorted sound. But if we’re all going to be working from home and running virtual meetups for the next three months, we probably need to figure out how to make things better.

Earlier this week, the London Women in Agile group switched their regularly monthly meetup to a be a virtual online event. I joined as a participant and was absolutely blown away - it was orders of magnitude better than any video conference or remote meeting I’ve ever seen before. This was partly thanks to the speaker, Judy Rees, who in a stroke of serendipity was actually talking about how to have difficult conversations with remote teams – but who also brought a wealth of experience and expertise about how to actually run a large online meetup. The meetup was run over Zoom, and Judy used features like breakout rooms to mix up the format and keep people engaged - and it worked brilliantly.

I came away from this meeting - or rather, disconnected from the call - thinking that there’s clearly a lot more to modern video conferencing platforms than I realised, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. So earlier today I organised a virtual online lunch - put links up on Twitter, Facebook and a couple of Slack groups I’m in, just asking if anybody wanted to hang out on Zoom and eat lunch together and play around with the capabilities of the platform…

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting with lots of participants

It worked great. Not perfect, but very, very good. I think everybody on the call saw a couple of new features they’d never seen before - the great thing about this kind of informal session is you can goof around and explore things; we were playing with virtual background, screen sharing, sharing jokes and links in the chat, folks helping each other figure out microphone muting settings and howto get stuff set up properly. And it was also a lot of fun - at the busiest point I think we had 32 people simultaneously online, and the platform handled it all pretty well.

Some specific things to think about:

  • At one point my home broadband dropped out for a minute. I switched my laptop to tether from my phone and reconnected - and, thankfully, everybody was still there; one of them had been promoted to the meeting organiser whilst I was disconnected, but it didn’t shut down the meeting or kick everybody out.
  • It actually worked pretty well via a tethered phone on 4G - not quite as good as broadband, but still pretty good.
  • A handful of participants were clearly on slower connections, and it makes a huge difference - in fact, I’d say if you’re going to try and participate in any kind of remote session, you absolutely need to get a connection that provides a solid 8Mbit+ of bandwidth. If you start breaking up whilst you’re speaking, or folks can’t hear you clearly, they’re probably just going to nod and smile and hope it wasn’t important - and that’s not a great experience for anybody involved.
  • The Gallery view works brilliantly - you can see everyone’s faces, you can see who’s talking, you can see who’s muted.

On the whole, it worked really well… so I’m going to do more. I’ll be using Zoom to run regular online lunches, drinks after work, that kind of thing – partly to give more people a chance to experiment with Zoom in a friendly context, but mainly because it’s just nice chatting to people in real time. (Yes, this means another hour or two of staring at screens instead of going outside… but hey, maybe outside isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…)

I’m also going to be running some experiments with virtual online events, to try out different formats and tools. A lot of big events this year are switching to virtual-only, and obviously a virtual event is never going to be the same as a physical one – but it’s also a chance to connect with a lot of folks who wouldn’t be able to attend the physical conference in person anyway. Besides, a lot of the people expressing reservations about virtual conferences are the same people who will happily spend hours playing Zelda or Minecraft, or sitting watching Netflix and then chatting about it on Twitter. It’s not the medium, it’s the content.

Wanna help us? We’ll be doing experiments, with Zoom and Twitch and YouTube and OBS and Slido and TwistCam. We’ll be fooling around with greenscreens and virtual slides. We’ll be running virtual meetups and online sessions, and we need content, we need participants, we need audiences who will honestly tell us all what works and what doesn’t, and bear with us while we figure all this out. If you want to participate in any of it, get in touch - email me, find me on Twitter, join my new Ursatile Slack team (yay another Slack! Just what you always wanted!) and get involved. Stock your fridge with snacks and drinks, figure out how to tether your phone in case your broadband goes wonky. Get a decent headset microphone - the mic built in to your laptop is not good enough for this, but even a pair of £15 earbuds with a cord microphone is probably good enough.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

"Going Virtual, Part 1" was posted by Dylan Beattie on 13 March 2020 • permalink