My experience organizing Serverless Days Helsinki 2019

The first edition of ServerlessDays Helsinki was hosted on the 25th of April 2019 in BioRex. This is my experience as one of the organizers of the event and what we learned during the process.

First some facts

ServerlessDays Helsinki (https://helsinki.serverlessdays.io/) is part of a series of global conferences called ServerlessDays (https://serverlessdays.io/), ex JeffConf. This idea was born a couple of years ago in London and it has become a massive phenomenon in the serverless world. The idea behind ServerlessDays confs is that they are one track, one-day conferences organized by the local community. This makes the tickets accessible and the talks agnostic of cloud providers or third-party products.

Now some history

The story starts one year ago when I was in a Serverless conference in Copenhagen (https://youtu.be/YBaldRVTyys) and I met many of the ServerlessDays organizers: Paul (https://twitter.com/PaulDJohnston), Ant (https://twitter.com/IamStan) and Soenke (https://twitter.com/s0enke). We started talking about that and by the end of the conference I was convinced that I have to run this event in Helsinki.

I returned to Helsinki with that purpose and started gathering some people I knew to organize this event. Luckily as an organizer of the AWS User Group in Helsinki (https://www.meetup.com/awsfin), I knew many AWS users and people that were willing to participate, but I also wanted some other clouds experts to be involved in the event, so I recruited a couple of experts in Azure and GCP.

By the end of the summer, we had the team ready and we hosted the first meeting. We were all very eager to get this started, we had a lot of plans and a lot of wishes for the event. Nothing really happened after that first encounter. After a month we hosted another meeting, and again nothing happened. And a third one… First, we wanted to host the event in October, then in December, then in February… and the date keeps on postponing.

The turning point was when one of the organizers talked to their company and got the first sponsorship. And also they committed to be the company that will help with the handling of the payments and bookings. In addition, as they were committing to this one of their experts in organizing events joined our organizing team. The moment that happened things started to move very fast!

A few days later as this happened the location was found and the date was set. From there we had a little over 2 months to get everything ready!

From there it was “easy”, we had had so many talks before about the type of event we were envisioning that we had quite a good team. We open the call for papers right away. Wishing that we have enough talks, it was only for a month open. That is a very short period of time for a call for papers to be open.

And then we started to hunt for some sponsors. By the next meeting when we had the first sponsor in, most of the companies of the other organizers have jumped in as they wanted to sponsor the event. So we decided not to look for any more sponsors.

We put the tickets to sell as soon as we have the website up. We had 2 months to sell 200 tickets. We decided that we didn’t want to host a massive conference the first time. Our venue allowed us to have 500 persons listening to the talks. But the logistics for a 500 person conference are quite different for a 200 person one. The first weeks the tickets were not selling very well. Later I spoke with other organizers of ServerlessDays conf and they told me that they usually sold out before the event and most of the tickets are sold on the two weeks previous to the event. Luckily that happened, we were quite worried at the beginning that we won’t have enough participants, but 3 days before the event we were sold out.

The call for papers was great, we received in one month over 70 proposals. However, most of the proposals were from people abroad and we wanted to have more than 50% of the talks from local talent. And also from the 70 proposals, only 4 were from women.

We had a few days to choose all the talks and to balance out all the topics. I knew that our community likes to hear about war stories, real stories of companies going serverless. But we couldn’t make a whole conference of that. So we mix it up with interesting more theoretical topics where people could get some inspiration.

The two months went very fast and the day of the conference approached. I was quite nervous that morning never organized a conference before. But as soon as I arrived at the venue I relaxed again, I saw people coming in and having a good time. Speakers were happy, sponsors were happy and we organizers were happy.

So, in the end, it was a great conference. I want to thank the sponsors for letting this happen: Accenture, Cybercom, Microsoft, Nitor, and Nordcloud. And to the organizers that make this happen.

Lessons learnt about organizing ServerlessDay Helsinki 2019

Now for those interested in organizing a conference here are some of my lessons learned.

  • Finding the first sponsor is hard. For a conference that is having its first edition sponsors don’t have any track record on how the conference will perform. But after the first sponsor is confirmed, the following sponsors are easier. If one trusts you then more will do as well.

  • Get someone in the team that can take care of the practicalities. In general when organizing a community-driven conference most of the organizers are developers and architects. We are excited about getting participants and finding speakers. But we are not excited about A/V setups, catering, and cloakroom. So it is important to clearly assign those boring tasks in your team. So they get done. They are vital for a conference to work.

  • One company should be a money handler. Either you fund a company or association for the conference or you convince one of the sponsors to be the money handler. When doing a conference there are a lot of expenses that will go before, during and after the event. You need to have a place where the accounting is centralized. If you get one of your sponsors to do that for you that is great, as you don’t need to worry about accounting. If you fund your own company/association you need to be careful with the accounting.

  • We found 5 sponsors and it was fine to create a basic conference. But we didn’t have money to fly over the speakers, or to give interesting swag to the participants or to have a very long happy hour or to have the talks recorded. We were very conservative with the costs. I think next year we need to bring a couple more sponsors just to have more nice perks.

  • We didn’t have any women speaking in our sessions. We had one lady in our panel, but not a session lead by a lady. That is something I took as an action point for next year. As we had so little time to run the Call For Papers we were too late to get the few female speakers in the area. I reach many personally asking for their participation but they were already booked for other commitments. Next time I will start asking them to participate 6 months before the conference.

  • One interesting feedback that we got was that the audience is interested in having some talk where serverless went wrong. They said that our talks were too positive, and that is true. So maybe that is something we need to look for the next event.

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