DrupalCamp London CxO day

This year is the fifth DrupalCamp London, and today was my first time attending the CxO day. The CxO day is a single track event aimed at business leaders who provide Drupal services. I reckon there were about 100 people there, and more will come over the weekend.

It’s great that DrupalCamps cater for a wide audience, but I can’t help wonder if a separate CxO day leads to a bit of a divide between business and technical. I’d love to hear more talks that cross this divide. There must be many people who could share and learn from each other but don’t get to meet.

The day kicked off with breakfast, followed by a talk by Andre Spicer on the stupidity paradox, a pitfall for many companies. Companies often start off well, wanting to appear smart, and hire the “brightest and best”. But smart people think independently, and this is inconvenient. Sadly companies sometimes revert to managing that stupidity, through bureaucracy, copying each other and taking the safe option. This can lead to an action-oriented or results-oriented culture with an overemphasis on leadership. Workers realise that it doesn’t pay to be smart or get in the way, and are rewarded by climbing the corporate ladder.

Andre shared the example of the VW emissions scandal as one such example of this that brought short term gains but a much larger long term repercussion.

So what can we do about this? Teams need people that ask questions, that play devil’s advocate. People that ask “why?”, and don’t accept “because I said so?” or “because we’ve always done it this way” in response.

Next talk was Paul Reeves, Drupal and I. Paul followed on from the first talk by sharing his journey with Drupal beginning with Drupal 4, candidly sharing his mistakes along the way. Initially hating Drupal, he preferred writing his own code, but reached a turning point at DrupalCon 2008. It was the community behind Drupal, with solutions to problems that other people had already found. He discovered work he’d been involved in for a client was able to be incorporated into and improve Drupal 5.

Paul advised avoiding a monolithic architecture where you need to learn the entire system to get things done. You don’t need to (and can’t) do that with Drupal. Instead, use it wisely and people can be productive on different levels.

Next was Benn Finn. Ben is one of the co-founders of Sibelius, and shared some insights into how ideas new features for Sibelius were prioritised.

Functionality isn’t the only thing that can be deemed a new feature. Rather, anything that’s a marketable benefit to a customer should be considered. That could be an improved interface, compatibility, better speed etc. There are always more ideas than it’s possible to implement, so we need to choose carefully.

Ideas can come from yourself, your customers or developers. Often these people alone don’t have a big enough picture of what you’re doing to suggesting solutions, nor can they tell you how to prioritise your features.

Companies often choose features by gut feel, but gut feel is a really unreliable method to choose what to prioritise. People tend to choose features that excite them personally, there is a bias towards bigger features. Instead we need to do a cost benefit analysis: feature priority = benefit / cost. It’s hard to predict these values, but we can start by identifying the proportion of users who will use a feature, multiplied by how much they will pay, and divide by the development time. Then review your estimates later to see how accurate they were. Ben went into detail about how they did this at Sibelius.

After lunch Alex Elkins spoke (at short notice!) on problems not solutions. Alex advised caution in focusing on solutions too early on. Identifying a problem is the key to having a successful product or service, and this must happen first before before we try to come up with a solution. Many unsuccessful products are a result of not solving a real problem. So what makes a problem a good candidate to try to solve? It needs to be valid, important, well defined, actionable and not already have a solution.

To finish, Sarah Wood, founder of Unruly, gave a keynote interview. Sarah shared her story of how she came to found Unruly, after working in academia and wanting to have more time with family and make a bigger impact. Unruly’s’ work includes the We’re the Superhumans video promoting the Paralympics.

Successful video content needs two things in order for it to be shared. Firstly, it must solicit an emotion. Make someone laugh or cry, surprise, shock, or inspire. Secondly, invoke a social motivation to do something with that feeling.

Sarah wouldn’t do anything differently if she did it all again. She advised not to focus too much on what you would have done, instead look at what you’re doing now, and what you want to do differently both now and in future.

It was a great day, I learnt a lot and had some great conversations. I’m looking forward to the rest of the weekend.