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Jonathan Fielding
Jonathan Fielding

Posted on • Originally published at javascript.plainenglish.io

Starting a tech meet-up during a global pandemic

My 2020 started like most peoples; I was going to work on the weekdays and enjoying my weekends with my family. Sometimes I would attend tech meetups after work. I even managed to host a couple in my workplace, first London Web Performance, and then on the last week before we entered lockdown, we hosted a JS Monthly London International Women’s Day event.

Then came lockdown, and with it came a sudden break in tech events, with conferences and meetups all being cancelled.

Shortly into this, I got talking to Natalie, an associate engineer I work with at RVU, and we came up with the idea of starting a meetup ourselves, we then found our another colleague Ricardo had similar ideas, so we combined forces.

Figuring out what we wanted to create a meetup about

Having had the idea we wanted to create a meetup we decided to put a session in so we could ideate what we wanted our meetup to focus on.

These discussions focused on two things, the topics that we wanted to cover and the audience we wanted to reach. When it came to topics we wanted to be fairly web-focused, with a focus on product development in particular. When it came to the audience we wanted to appeal to a broad spectrum, from associate engineer right through to lead.

In our discussions, we decided that as we were all product engineers the meetup should focus loosely on product engineering, with talks around the area of building great products.

Naming our meetup

Having decided to start our meetup, the first priority was to give it a name. We created a slack channel called #an-unnamed-meetup and started to throw name ideas back and forth.

After some thinking, we came up with a wide variety of names, and then we shared them in a poll with the rest of the RVU engineering team, the choices being:

  • Product Engineering People

  • Programmed in Pencil

  • Build Right, Scale Fast

  • Core Red

  • London Product Engineering

  • Product Engineering Monthly

  • Ventures in Engineering

  • Shipping Code

With a total of 13 votes, we settled on the name Programmed in Pencil which we had come up with based on our company belief that β€œEverything is written in pencil”.

Creating the website

Having named our meetup, the next step was to register the domain name and create a website.

For the website, I cheekily forked a website I built for a conference called Web Progressions back in 2016. The primary reason for this was the site was open-source, and this would save me time as it already had everything I needed from a template point of view. It also was already set up in a way that Jekyll could compile the Sass when deployed to GitHub pages.

After spending some time skinning the template to have a unique look and feel to this meetup, I then sent a screenshot across to my colleague Rob Newport who is a designer in my team. He then did an amazing job of tweaking the design to the lovely site design you see today, and then we paired on implementing the changes.

We then pushed the page up to GitHub, the cloud team at RVU kindly bought the domain name and then we pointed it at the site.

Finding Speakers

So we had a name, a potential date to run our meetup and a website ready to go, we now needed to find some people who would like to speak at the meetup.

Early on in discussing the meetup, we agreed that it was essential to ensure that the speaker lineup wasn’t just those from RVU. This wasn’t to be a marketing event for our business but instead to be an event that would help share knowledge and be an opportunity for us to give back to the tech community.

That said, for our first speaker, we actually were fortunate enough that one of our colleagues had already recently prepared a talk for a conference which unfortunately been postponed due to Coronavirus. He, therefore, was happy to give the talk at our meetup.

Fortunately having been attending meetups for a good number of years and spoke at them myself I have made many friends in the tech community so for the other two talks I reached out to my friends Jo Franchetti and Katie Fenn, both of which were happy to talk.

Promoting the meetup

With everything in place, the next step was to promote the meetup.

As a self-confessed Twitter addict, this was the primary place I promoted the event. I regularly tweeted about it to my followers to encourage them to attend. I also reached out to other meetups, JS Monthly London and Frontend London and asked them to also tweet out to their followers.

Besides Twitter, I also promoted the event on various slack groups I am in focused on engineering including FEL slack and Codebar.

The night of the event

When it came to the night, we were all ready; we had agreed among, Natalie, Ricardo and I, who would introduce each speaker.

At the beginning of the event, I introduced the event along with myself and my co-hosts Ricardo and Natalie. Then for each speaker, a different host would introduce them. The talks were all really good, and I was really proud to have been part of organising this great event.

After the event, we regrouped and discussed what went well, and we summarised it into the following:

What went well

  • Amazing talks with live demos that worked well

  • We had about 40 people attend

  • Zoom webinars worked well for both registrations and people joining the meetup

What didn’t go so well:

  • One of the speakers had connection problems which lead to us having to do some quick shuffling of the order of the talks

  • We were awful at keeping on time, with this being remote some people dialled in for specific talks however by being

While there is little we can do regarding connection issues of speakers or attendees, we did think about how we could resolve the second issue. What we came up with was tweaking the format to better take into account keeping on time. We inserted β€œInterviews” in between each of the talks, which would be an opportunity for us and the audience to ask questions.

This served a dual purpose where it provided buffer time in between each talk, if a talk ran short we could ask more questions, and if it ran longer, we would simply have less time for questions.

In Summary

Running Programmed in Pencil with my work colleagues has been a great experience and allowed me to finally live my dream of running my own tech event.

Would I recommend others give it a try, definitely, I think diversity of thought is incredibly important so I would love to see more remote tech meet-ups to pop up all with their own focus to give people lots of different places to learn about things in different ways.

A few people have asked why I haven’t yet spoken at Programmed in Pencil myself, to be honest, I wanted to provide a stage for others to share their knowledge, I always felt that if I were to talk it would be if we were short of a speaker one month, but I wouldn’t be aiming to speak at the event.

Our next meetup is on the evening of Wednesday 26th May, and we welcome those from all over the world to join us. Register at www.programmedinpencil.com.

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