miniConf: A Hidden Driver of Continual Learning

8th Light’s commitment to continual learning and sharing shows up in many different ways, but perhaps none are more celebrated than miniConf: a one-day, single-track conference that is run entirely for, and by, 8th Light employees. This conference has taken several different forms over the last 10 years, and moved to a Zoom-first program several years ago to accommodate our distributed team.

This year’s miniConf featured 21 presentations ranging from five-minute lightning talks to 20-minute presentations. Topics were even more varied, as our team shared inspiration in everything from dry stone walling to blockchains.

Hugh Sato speaks in front of a physical and virtual audience of 8th Light employees at a miniConf in 2020.
MiniConf talks can be on any topic, which pushes employees to learn new concepts and consider new ways of approaching their craft.

An initiative this large requires a ton of planning and coordination behind the scenes, and Nicole Carpenter has taken the lead in organizing the event for the last several years. She collaborates with a team of facilitators, tech supporters, mentors, and hosts who volunteer their time to help make sure everyone has a positive and rewarding experience.

MiniConf continues to reward these efforts by showcasing the best of 8th Light, and inspiring us to learn and grow as professionals, as colleagues, and as global citizens. Year after year, miniConf has continually been a rousing success because it brings our whole team together and exposes everyone to new, interesting topics.

New Speakers

The miniConf organizers go out of their way to encourage and support speakers who are new to the company, new to the industry, new to public speaking, and especially all three. They provide a slide deck template for those who don’t want to create their own, and organizers make themselves available to sit in on practice runs and provide feedback in the weeks leading up to the event. If requested, they also provide feedback after your talk, and help you prepare the content for new audiences.

New Talks

The internal audience is an ideal sounding board for an early draft. MiniConf simulates the same social dynamic as larger events, but adds the comfort of knowing everyone is rooting for you and will be forgiving of any rough edges.

Many of the excellent presentations you’ve seen from 8th Lighters at conferences, Meetups, or on a project team got their start at miniConf. These include recent 8th Light University presentations:

New Projects

Although many presentations go on to be shared widely, miniConf also provides a space for project teams to share more about their daily work than they may otherwise. We get to hear project retrospectives that go beyond case studies, as speakers turn vulnerable and talk about their personal experiences learning and delivering on client work. Whether it’s cutting-edge new technology or a legacy system that exposes new ways of working, our team is encouraged to speak honestly and openly, and reflect on how we can all build better software together.

Kyle Sparks presents a slide that references the Ancient Aliens TV show.
Was it aliens, or do we just underestimate ancient laborers? Kyle Sparks waded through the historical record and representations in pop culture to find the truth at a miniConf in early 2019.

New Topics

The only limit to miniConf talk topics is your imagination. This flexibility lowers the barrier to entry for new presenters who would rather talk about a familiar topic when dipping their toes in public speaking; and it also shines a light on the more obscure passions that drive our team. Here are a sample of the range of topics we heard at this year’s event:

  • Urbit Martian Computing
  • IIIF and Its Use in Cultural Institutions
  • Project Cybersyn and the Pursuit of Homeostasis
  • A Gardener in Winter: Things to Do, Watch, and Wonder About
  • Too School For Cool: What Going Back to Grad School Is Like When You Work Full-time
  • Counterculture in America in the 1950s to 1970s
  • Dry Stone Walling for the Software Engineer
  • Why IDEs Are Like that Scene in the Matrix When Neo Learns Kung Fu
  • How Dale Carnegie Helped Me Deal with a Difficult Colleague
  • In Defense Of Code Comments
  • Why a Wiki?
  • This Program Is Not a Puzzle (Or Is It?)
  • Dataframes Showdown
  • Why We Retro: A Retrospective on Retrospectives
  • Music League: The Party Side of 8th Light

We know that software is much more than simply code — it’s the fabric of modern society, and a reflection of the teams that craft it. The common thread through all of these topics is that they give us new perspectives, teach us new ways of appreciating the world around us, and encourage us to be thoughtful in how we approach new challenges in our work.

Not every company is in a position to host their own miniConf, but our experience has shown that these kinds of activities are contagious. Small and formal investments in learning and sharing will often lead to much larger networks and communities of practice that inform and inspire company culture.

If this sounds like the kind of company you’d like to work for, check out our open positions or sign up for our Talent Community to be notified when we begin hiring for our next apprenticeship cohort.

If you’d like someone from 8th Light to deliver a presentation or help instill a culture of learning at your business or community group, please reach out.

Kyle Sparks, Communications Manager

Kyle Sparks is a communications manager based in Chicago.

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