“So wait, let me get this straight. We are three weeks behind on our biggest project, we have two other deadlines on the near horizon, and you want me to send you two up to San Francisco for three days to attend a conference?”
That quote is very close to what I said to two of my developers standing in my office in 2005. Two of my developers were standing in front of me with a copy of php architect magazine pointing to an ad for a new conference named ZendCon that they wanted to attend.
I told them to give me a day to think it over and I’d get back with them. Of course the day got away from me because we did seriously have late projects, looming deadlines, and of course we were understaffed for the jobs that needed to be done.
That night however, as I was replaying the day, I remembered the conversation. I pulled the ZendCon website up and took a look. Yes, there were a couple of big downsides to letting two of my best developers take three days off.
In the end, there were three overriding factors that weighed my decision towards sending them to ZendCon.
Burnout is a real problem in our industry. This team had already had occasional weekends taken away from them, long nights filled with coffee, pizza, and code, and all the other bad side effects of having too much to do in too little time. The two developers who were asking for this had never complained about the conditions, but I could see it was taking it’s toll on them and their work. Yes, I was doing everything I could to minimize these long nights, but maybe what they needed was a chance to just get away, blow off some steam, and rest a little. The conference looked like a great chance for them to do that. Since there were two of them, I expected they would spend their evenings ranting to each other and anyone within earshot about what a hardass and lousy boss I was for making them work so hard. My hope was that this time together to start discussing their common enemy (me) would start bringing them together. The friendship they formed would help the whole team function better.
I’m not naïve enough to think that someone sitting in a 60 minute class is going to learn something so significant that it will change how they code. The right class however, might inspire an idea or a new way of thinking about an existing problem. Lord knows we had our share of roadblocks to overcome. If one of them could come back with a new idea to overcome just one of these roadblocks, the entire cost of the conference would be worth it.
Did I mention that we were understaffed? I had open jobs to be filled and an endless line of applicants from Craig’s List that wanted to work with us. The problem was finding qualified candidates. I am a firm believe in hiring juniors and raising them up, but you have to had a solid base of seniors for them to lean on. Finding those seniors was proving difficult. Sending two of my best to a conference of hundreds of other PHP developers might just payoff in relationships that could turn into either contracts or full time hires. Nothing else was working so it was worth a shot.
So I did it.
The money wasn’t ever the issue. My CEO and I had agreed during budget negotiations that I could set aside enough money to train our developers. He understood the ‘sharp knife’ theory. The gamble was in the lost productivity.
In the end, it was a mixed bag. No, they didn’t make any contacts that we hired. I still believe that conferences are a great place to find and woo good developers, but it just didn’t happen that year. They did come back rejuvenated. I don’t know if it was the sitting around griping about me, or the fact that they probably got a lot more sleep at the conference than they were getting while working on the projects. Either way, they came back refreshed and ready to go.
Oh and yes, they did come back with a new perspective on a couple of our problems. However, the contacts that they made in the wider PHP community allowed us to tap community resources for help and ideas. That had a much larger impact on the team and the projects overall than the short-term benefits.
Rejuvenate, inspire, and connect your team.
Send your developers to ZendCon 2017 and see the difference that it makes.