Conferences for Introverts

Conferences for Introverts

Last Update: September 2015

Preamble: What is an Introvert?

Let’s get this out of the way first so we know what this document is about.

‘Introvert’ is an overloaded term. It can mean anything from pretty much its direct meaning (which we’ll get to in a minute), to the stereotype of the sullen teenager or loner. For the purposes of this document, we’ll use this definition:

An Introvert is someone who regains emotional energy from being alone.

An extrovert, as you might guess, is a person who gains energy from interacting with others. It’s that simple. How a person ‘recharges their batteries’ is a personality facet that usually doesn’t change much, and is pretty difficult to try to change on purpose. Thinking about it for a second, you can probably tell which you are. Humans seem to be roughly split down the middle.

So, when I say that most engineers are introverts, please know that I’m not making any pejorative as to what they’re like. All I’m saying is that they need certain things to function well.

What this Document is

This is a collection of tips and advice on how to run a successful gathering (i.e. conference, training, offsite) for a set of people who include introverted people (hint: that is most gatherings).

Why I should Listen to You

Hi, I’m Dave. I’ve been at Google since 2004. For most of that time, I’ve been an Engineering manager. I was a junior one, and then I was a senior one (I started as a junior sysadmin, I’m now a Director). I am enormously introverted. I will actively avoid talking to people I don’t strictly need to talk to. I am stupendously inept at small talk. I’m okay with this.

Aside from the usual bouts with imposter syndrome that we all face, the idea (knowing myself as I like to think I do) that I interact with, talk to and manage people for a living is a deep and powerful mystery to me.

I’ve been to many, many training courses, both internal and external to Google (and at previous jobs). I’ve also designed conferences of various sizes (everything from 7-person team forming/development style things, to 200-person multi-day offsites). These were mostly for engineers, who seem to have a higher population of introverts than is normal (in the statistical sense). For many of these, I’ve had the opportunity to structure agendas and content so it’s a conference I’d like to attend.

Also, I have opinions and a text editor, so get comfy.

Why in-person Gatherings are a Good Idea

Summits are great, right? Yay summits. We’re going to have a summit. Or we’re going to do a training course or a team-building event. Won’t it be jolly? We’re going to have the best of fun.

Team Cohesion

The ‘full mesh’ of a team interacting at a personal level isn’t something you can replicate with any level of technology. You can install 4K resolution videoconference units on every flat surface in the office, but it still doesn’t beat having a large, high-bandwidth conversation in person. Maybe you, as the conference organiser, have a big announcement or a big program to charter. Maybe there’s a discrete thing to get done. Great, these are good when they can be done in person. Picking up on nuances of what people think is way easier in person. You don’t get the 5 minutes of unfiltered chat on one side, after the conference call shuts down - it’s all in the room.

Accidental Collaboration

If this is a team meeting, you often get sidebar conversations that happen outside the core agenda. A lot of good stuff happens here. Ask yourself this:

If your conference had no agenda, and you just put the people in a large space with the tools to work together, would it have been a useful time?

If so, this is a useful cohort. This is a good use of everyone’s time and you’re already winning just by having this cohort spend time together. Any agenda on top is gravy. Pat yourself on the back.

Personal Connections

Even if someone doesn’t share much about their life outside work, it’s good to ‘reset the clock’ and get some face time anyway. It can be hard to maintain an interpersonal relationship when all your interactions (i.e. meetings) are preambled with an implicit “We’re going to have this necessary conversation and then we’ll go do other things”.

After 6-9 months of no unnecessary social contact, a person stops being a person and starts being email.

It’s true. I’ve been on both ends of the equation. You start to mischaracterise people, to question motives, and to ‘debug’ them when they do something you might see as unexpected.

Why in-person conferences are tiresome and costly

I guess append “If not chartered or run properly”.

Assuming Full Engagement

This especially applies to introverts - since time is usually at a premium, there’s the temptation to cram as much content in as possible. 9am starts, working lunches, late finishes, pre-arranged dinner, drinks, etc. It isn’t that half of us are secretly suffering inexorable internal torture or anything - it’s just really, really tiring and takes it out of you. If you’re combining that with expecting top quality synergies from people, it’s not always going to end well.

Getting the Content right is hard

It’s difficult to stay engaged if the content isn’t interesting or engaging. If things are in the wrong order, or the pacing is off, or it isn’t presented engagingly, it can end up being a place people don’t want to be. Obviously the art and science of running good meetings is an entire career unto itself, but try to get it right-ish, eh?

The Formal Persona

Meetings are pretty easy. They’re usually short, and for a particular purpose. It is pretty easy to have a conversation about a thing, end that conversation, and move on. When you put the same people into a much less formal situation, where they have to keep their ‘game face’ on for hours or days at a time, it can be emotionally jarring. Remember, people usually have the means to escape, mull over what’s happened, absorb, and respond. You’re removing that option for them, at least for this event.

Making things Bearable

Here’s where it gets specific. Remember, this is what has worked for me when organising, and what I’ve really appreciated when attending. YMMV, and this is by no means a complete list for all introverts.

The overarching goal for the preparation part is to allow people to build a mental picture of what the gathering is going to look like - who’ll be there, what will generally be discussed, what the format is, what degree of participation is needed from them.

Preparation and Planning

Determining the Agenda

On the Day

Making things Excellent

All the above might seem like introverts should be coddled, or need special treatment. This isn’t especially the case -- as noted before, we’re talking about half of all people, here.

Conferences should push people, to an extent. In many cases, you may be introducing people to concepts and conversations that challenge them. There should be a certain amount of discomfort, without it being enough that someone chooses to revert and disengage. This is difficult to get right -- hopefully some of the above tips will get you a lot of the way there.