thoughts and learnings in software engineering by Rotem Tamir

Why run an internal engineering meetup

Introducing TechNex, Nexar’s internal R&D Meetup

One of the things I like doing most as part of my job at Nexar is hosting TechNex, our internal, bi-weekly R&D meetup. In this post, I want to tell a bit about it, why I personally put time and effort into running it and why you should consider starting an internal engineering meetup in your company.

What is TechNex

  • One hour, every two weeks. All our R&D staff meet after lunch in the amphitheater in our Tel-Aviv offices
  • Broadcasted and recorded in our videoconferencing system. We want anyone from our team to be able to watch the meeting from anywhere in the world and at anytime.
  • Tasty snacks are provided.
  • Attendance is voluntary. (But very high, possibly related to the presence of said snacks)

TechNex talks are

  • Short 10-15m talks. With the occasional longer deep dive.
  • Casual. Speakers share from their experiences. We do not expect conference grade material.
  • On the topic of:
    • Something cool you did
    • A useful tool you’ve discovered
    • Things you’re experimenting with
    • Things have recently learned or were exposed to
    • A nasty bug you’ve squashed
    • A project you’re planning and want to share the architecture for
    • Engineering/Research topics you want to raise awareness to

Why I do it

When I pitched TechNex to Bruno, our CTO, I had a list of all the benefits of having an internal meetup in line. I will go into these in a bit, but the truth is that I do it for pretty selfish reasons:

  • I like to hear people talking about what they are working on. Nexar is a company founded on a moon-shot premise. We aim to use commodity hardware to build a realtime safety network on the road. When you break it down, this premise becomes a pretty large set of very hard R&D problems. As an engineer, I can only focus on one or two of them at a time. Hosting an internal meetup, I get a chance to stay in the loop with all the rest.
  • I want to be a part of a geeky engineering community. Work is where I spend most of my days, and it is important to me that my workplace will be a community which I enjoy being part of. To (loosely) quote Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, a community is created when its members have a common relation to a center. The circle is defined by its radii, not by the points on its circumference. An internal meetup which celebrates technical discourse is one way to shape a collection of individual researchers and engineers into a group which revolves around such a center.
  • I like tasty snacks.
Nexar baker-extraordinaire Assaf Lavi, getting real with the tasty snacks.
Nexar baker-extraordinaire Assaf Lavi, getting real with the tasty snacks.

Why you should do it

Regardless of your personal motivations, having an internal meetup has plenty of benefits for your company, some of them are:

  • Sharing soft skills - when you get people to share stories from their experiences they pass on a lot more than just “to achieve outcome X try doing Y”. They share their way of thinking about problems, their terminology and their reasoning. This soft, know-how, kind of knowledge is otherwise siloed in smaller teams.
  • Getting to know people’s personal interests - if talking on stage is voluntary, people will talk about things they like. This means that you will get to know our people’s areas of (current) focus and (overall) interests. If someone is really into a technology or methodology, whether at work or outside of work, you should praise and be honored to learn about it.
  • Getting to know other projects - as your company grows, you quickly reach the point where people are focused in specific areas and they lack concrete understanding of what other people are working on. People will have some mental model of the other systems in your company, but they will always be partial and many times incorrect. Getting people to describe in detail projects they are working on helps people on other teams develop more accurate mental models which better incorporate a project’s constraints, strengths and weaknesses.
  • A platform to promote ideas. Software engineering is perhaps the most “meta” profession out there, we build our own tools, write our own blogs, invent our own ways of working. Constantly reading, constantly arguing about how to do a less terrible job. Engineers in your company have big ideas about how to improve work, let them preach and try to influence their peers!
  • Team building and a sense of pride. When you hear your peers describe a nasty bug they’ve squashed, when you hear a researcher on your team break down a cutting-edge algorithm they’re developing, you feel as if these achievements are your own. You develop a sense of pride in belonging to the band of geeks that happened to accept you into its ranks. This feeling is stronger than any happy-hour or game console at the office. Proud people brag to their friends and bring them along to enjoy the ride.

Lessons learned running an internal meetup

  • The hard thing is finding content. Even in a team that’s working on crazy hard problems with sizzling hot technology, it’s not always easy to find enough talks to fill the next session. If you’re responsible for content you need to have a tight-circle of peers who are committed to the meetup and will help you with finding speakers, suggesting topics and speaking themselves. You will need to become good at the kind of water-cooler chat where you ask people what they are working so you can keep a mental map of what interesting things are going on right now.
  • Pick an interval and session length that you can fill. It’s fine to start small with a monthly meeting of 45 minutes. The important thing is to build a team habit. When people become used to the meetup, they begin to treat it as one of the tools they have to achieve things in the organization, “oh, you should definitely present that next TechNex”.
  • Record everything. Make sure you record every session and collect and archive the materials somewhere that’s accessible to your team. You won’t believe the amount of awesome stuff you will collect, it will be very useful to your team down the line.

Wrapping up

Running an internal meetup should be fun, so enjoy yourself and if you need any help organizing one in your company, feel free to reach out!