I have been to a number of conferences. Design conferences, tech conferences, media conferences. And to be honest they have all become... the same. Similar formats, similar venues, similar topics, similar people. When I saw Alptitude pop up in my Twitter feed, I was intrigued. It was not like other conferences: its goal was to learn from the good bits around the edges of a traditional event, and build a conference around them in an amazing location.
At most conferences, there are usually 1-2 talks that are the highlights for me. The real gems tend to be the conversations that come in between sessions, or at evening events. What if you could mix some interesting talks, activities to promote camaraderie and conversation, wellness, and a small number of people into a wonderful location?
At its core, that is what Alptitude was about. Twenty five of us, from all over the world, met (mostly) for the first time in Morillon, France. We all have different backgrounds and work in different industries, yet face similar challenges. How do you scale a team? How do you create a healthy, happy, productive environment for your teammates? What are alternate ways to approach problem solving? How do you climb a mountain?
- Ice Breaker — hey stranger — what challenges do you need help with? We held a time boxed session to talk about things we needed help with or topics that interested us. Each person wrote a few areas of need/interest on post its and placed on a board, then we marked the ones we wanted to discuss further and tallied the marks. The top 3 were the ones we discussed. This gave us all a chance to think about what we wanted to get out of the week, along with a chance to understand what other folks were looking for.
- lego - Wiro Kuipers led us in a session where we played with legos. There were a series of scenarios that we needed to use legos to solve and create a narrative. This session was a great reminder that there are many different ways to solve the same problem.
- learning 3.0 - Alexandre Mango talked to us about Prescriptive vs. Emergent learning and what that can mean for your team.
- Lightning hike - going for a walk can open up conversation after short talks — group hugs are weird when chanting begins, mountains are pretty, and cold water is cold. We spent a day hiking in talking and it was pretty damn sweet. A couple of 10 minute talks around challenges that folks were facing were sprinkled into the hike. There was some quick group Q&A, then we were back hiking. During the hike, almost everyone took the time to collect and share their thoughts with the speakers.
- Unconference day - unscripted talks can be amazing, unscripted talks on trampolines are even better. I had the opportunity to talk about how Vox Media grew from one baseball blog to what we are today and how we have approached scaling the organization. We discussed how community was the foundation that we built our platform and company on. I also had the chance to talk about how we approach our most important product (no, not Chorus): our team. There were some awesome talks that I got to listen to as well. The one that struck me the most is below.
- How to avoid a PR disaster - an awesome talk from Haje Jan Kamps about a blown kickstarter campaign and how he and his team overcame this challenge. I encourage you all to read his post, it is a great piece about managing projects, people, expectations, and failure.
- Impact DNA: How to build balanced teams and understanding what your role is. Richard Alderson led this session where we talked about the necessary roles to create a balanced team and understanding what role we should have on our team.
- These sessions were really great, and drove the conversations that happened after the presentations and during the activities, dinner, or drinks. The event’s open schedule deliberately gave us space to process what we’d learned.
Some unexpected highlights
- Easing friction: how to simplify your product experience. This was an impromptu session with three of us, where I was asked to assess the user experience of 2 products. While the products were different, the solutions we came up with were essentially the same: simplify for ease of use/adoption.
- Ropes Course (oh god, my back) I am old, tweaked my the herniated disc in my back, and had to tap out midway through, but this course was an interesting mental and physical challenge. It also forced us to rely on one another – the course was difficult at points and there was no shame in asking for advice on how to solve some of the games.
- The power of doing nothing - A simple chat at dinner led to the idea of taking a step back to let your brain rest as a powerful tool for problem solving. Too often we feel the need to fill every moment with doing something, when doing nothing might open up a better answer.
- Sunlight until almost 10pm is super weird and tricks your brain about what time it is.
- I can't run and talk worth a damn.
- Rainbow sunsets are rad, this also gave me an idea for the next children's book that my wife and I write. (once we finish the 2 we have in process)
- I had time to read some books, Product Design for the Web and Let My People Go Surfing. One to think about process, the other to think about organizations and people.
- Location is everything. If we took the same set of people and held the conference in a city setting, this would have been a radically different experience, and not for the better. The beauty, space, and activities could really only be offered in a place that is closer to nature than most conferences. These elements were what created the environment for conversations and connections that went beyond sitting in a talk together.
- A handpicked group is fantastic. To attend Alptitude, I had to apply, as there were only 25 spots available. Once I made it through the written application there was a google hangout interview as the final step. With this process a group with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds was selected.
I was unsure what to expect when I stepped off the plane. I had committed to spending a week with strangers, in a beautiful, yet unfamiliar place — away from my family and work. To be honest, I was out of my comfort zone, and that was a good thing. I had not been to any kind of mountains in years, most folks were not in design, tech, or media — and I had a stranger for a roommate. These were the exact reasons that the I applied for the conference (maybe minus the roommate part, but even that worked out well!). I was curious as to what I could bring to the conversations and what I could learn from everyone. What I found was a group of amazing people that were open to sharing their experiences, asking questions, and learning from one another. Returning home, I brought a few things with me: an experience that was amazing and energizing, some new friends, and learnings I can apply to my life, my team, and my job.
In addition to all that, I experienced community building at the atomic level. Connections and conversations, both in groups and on a 1-1 level were the engine that drove this conference. We all have experience we can share, what many of us lack is the opportunity/platform to share these learnings. The team from The Happy Startup School and Jack from propellernet have done an outstanding job making Alptitude into a welcoming environment to share, learn, and build community.