Maria Keenan

Developer Conferences & How to Get Them Right | Sandra Persing

Sandra works (almost) all the time. 

She has three job titles, has created engagement programs for 18 million developers, and somehow made time to answer five questions for me.

Sandra Persing (pictured below) is a global strategist for Mozilla, specifically focusing on developer events and sponsorship outreach. She's also the co-founder of the DevRel Summit Group, and an advisory board member for Women Who Code. (Told you, three job titles.)

Sandra Persing

In the build up to Admission, I took some time to uncover the ins and outs of how one person can host a conference, let alone a global series of them, and ensure each one is as remarkable as the last. Here's what I learned:

1) You’ve previously spent ten months on the road collaborating with global partners. What are the up- and down-sides of being on the move for that long as part of your job in events?

"Prior to the 2017 Mozilla Developer Roadshows, I spent years creating and producing tent pole events for Mozilla & Women Who Code with a specific emphasis on the developer relations community. Even in my past career working in international publishing, I worked on massive trade shows all around the world.

With these capstone, large scale events the benefits, or upsides, are that you create this incredible energy through gathering communities together. What can be missed, though, are those “shared moments” that only happen during one-on-one chats and hallway conversations over coffee.

developer roadshow asia

Artwork for  the Mozilla Developer Roadshow in Asia.

"Because of this, we chose to have many roadshows with smaller, local groups. These were designed to be catalysts for those smaller-scale, shared moments between the Mozilla team and developers at events. Another format we created was bringing together local speakers as well as collaborating with meetups and pre-existing communities.

Instead of displacing those people who were accustomed to regional events, we worked with them to bring added value to everyone. And because we had so much support, we avoided having the usual burnout from extensive travelling (especially international travelling) and having that affect our team.

I definitely had moments of being tired – who wouldn’t? – but it was so exciting for me personally to leave my desk and meet developers where they were. Any exhaustion quickly went away as a result.

"It took a lot of expectation management – with my work team as well as with my family – about my schedule and time availability. And having an end date also helped everyone to understand that there was a cadence to this seemingly “crazy” travel schedule; those periods would always come to a close.

"Overall, the amount of information and insight that we gathered from so many of these events were priceless. And our next roadshow evolution is to actually help elevate local leaders so that they are enabled to continue creating these moments, and to be ambassadors who can represent their community insights."

For context, here is a list of the cities where the Roadshow took place last year. 

2) What’s it like to work with developers all the time?

"Developers are people. Specifically, they are incredibly curious human beings. The 'developer' comes from all backgrounds – traditional and non-traditional – and it’s really important to keep that perspective in mind, always. There’s no one way to work with developers. I learned from the roadshows that culture heavily affects how developers work. A holistic approach is definitely paramount.

There should be no one developer mold anyone has to fit into. When I create a conference, or produce a roadshow, or review sponsorship support, I think about how our work benefits the people who will be in attendance.

The tech and code are only the tools, and those tools are constantly evolving and shifting, so why would the developers who create them be homogeneous?

"When people ask me what’s it like to work in developer relations or outreach, I like to make sure that the work is really about supporting people, rather than making them fit into a box."

Here you can see the introduction to the Ho Chi Minh incarnation of the Mozilla Roadshow from 2017:

 Video courtesy of the Mozilla Hacks YouTube channel

3) What’s the most fulfilling part about working at a company like Mozilla?

"Mozilla is one of the most unique companies – tech and otherwise –that exists! As a not for profit, open source, mission-driven company, it honestly feels like we, as a team, are all in this together to make a better world. Over 40% of our teammates are distributed, globally.

"I'm part of a task force created by our Emerging Technologies group at Mozilla, dedicated to review and improve how we can work well with team members who are based all around the world. And although nothing is perfect at Mozilla, I truly believe the company is doing its best to support everyone who is creating and making the web, and the world, a better place."

4) (Though it seems intuitive to us!) Why do you require that every event you sponsor provides a Code of Conduct? Are there any specifics that you must see in those Codes of Conduct to make it acceptable to you?

"As we all know, the Code of Conduct exists to make sure everyone explicitly understands the how to behave and interact with one another to make everyone safe, comfortable, and achieve the goals of the event. I believe that it mostly helps women and underrepresented groups feel that there’s recourse for when things do go awry. It also helps those with the authority and power to help to understand how to act properly to help those in need. So, having not only how to conduct oneself outlined, but also what will be done, step by step, to address issues is important. Making assumptions and hoping everything will go well is not remotely acceptable.

"I am very proud to say that Mozilla was one of the few companies to take sponsorship requests, and its review process, seriously. What I mean by that is that for developer events, we have developers in our cross-functional team review all requests. When I started with Mozilla, there was an initial discussion on what requirements each request must fulfill to be even considered for review – admittedly this was also smart operational practice to help the team manage the inbound load.

"And, because I also identify as a woman, I had several women engineers approach me individually to give me real insight as to what was happening at events, and what they would like to see improve. I also attend various events myself that we sponsored to get informed about what happens on the ground.

"I am very happy to say that many developer conference organizers and attendees are taking the Code of Conduct as critical to produce successful events."

5) Do you prefer organising large scale conferences or smaller scale events? Why?

"When I start producing a conference, I always like to ask 'why another conference?'

'What’s it’s purpose? What value would it add for our developer community?'

'Are there opportunities to collaborate with an event or community that already exists to amplify its impact?'

"This is where my business school training background really helps me. And yes, I will actually do a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunity, threats/risks) analysis. Each event and sponsorship endeavor is considered an investment opportunity in our portfolio. And unless it increases the overall valuation,  it won’t make it past the ideation stage."

And finally, tell us a bit about what you'll be presenting at Admission.

"I am really excited to share my learnings, and my 'investment portfolio' approach towards developer event and conference production. We are all looking at better methods of developer engagement with the best investment strategies. Hopefully, some of my own learnings will shed insight and ignite even more conversations!"

For more details on Sandra's upcoming presentation at Admission, our conference for organizers, and full details of the speaker line-up, go here:

Admission, a conference by Tito