Lightning Talks At Polar

October 28, 2016

Polar’s Engineering team hosts a monthly series of lightning talks. The format is simple and the impact on our team and culture has been incredibly positive.

lightning-talks

We use an internal wiki page that serves as both a speaker sign-up sheet, and an instruction manual (communicated in FAQ form). Here’s the entirety of the instructions from that wiki page:

What sorts of talks are acceptable?

Anything goes. Talks will generally be skewed towards software and related pursuits (these are Engineering Lightning Talks, after all), but that doesn’t mean that every talk needs to be “on topic”. For example, you can share something about one of your hobbies.

How long can my talk be?

Talks typically range from 5 to 10 minutes in length. When you sign up for a slot, indicate how much time you need. You’ll be (politely) cut off if you start to go over time.

How do I sign up?

Just edit this wiki page, and add your name to the list.

Should I sign up?

Yes.

How often do we have Lightning Talks?

Every month, on the last Friday.

Interestingly enough, one of the most important benefits we’ve found is that these talks often provide the initial spark for making the types of code, tooling, infrastructure, and/or process changes that have wide-sweeping effects across our platform and team.

A formula that we’ve seen work time-and-time again is: someone goes off and tries something new, then builds excitement by sharing what they’ve learned with the team via a lightning talk (often including a prototype or live demo), thus building momentum and ultimately encouraging some form of additional investment.

One of the most powerful examples of successfully evolving our underlying platform architecture was upgrading our primary (customer-facing) management UI from a Django web app that relied on a soup of spaghetti front-end JavaScript, to a Django web app that now has front-end JavaScript that is a joy to develop with (including React, as well as a modern JS tooling and build system, and excellent unit test coverage). This upgrade process was navigated carefully and deliberately and iteratively over time, without needing to throw any of the existing codebase away or otherwise start from scratch. This change has delivered a tremendous improvement, reducing the time taken to add new features and the footprint for bugs to hide — and it all started with a single lightning talk, which turned into a chain of additional lightning talks, and ultimately a much improved product. (We plan on publishing a follow-up blog post with more specific details on this transition.)

Of course, I’m completely confident that we could have accomplished this sort of wide-sweeping change without our lightning talks series. However, there’s incredible value in providing a recurring venue for team members to get up in front of their peers and excitedly share details about what they’ve built and what they’ve learned.

November marks the 3 year anniversary of hosting monthly engineering lightning talks here at Polar. (Special thanks to JP Rosevear for instituting the practice!)

If your company or team is not regularly hosting lightning talks, I highly encourage you to give the format a try. The benefits will surprise you.

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