When I started working at Mendix a little over two years ago, the organization was already well passed its startup phase. We had over 150 employees spread out over three locations in three different countries. Even within our Dutch office alone, we are somewhat spread out, as we occupy two floors of our grand office building next to the Maas river. Nowadays, the numbers are even bigger (although the number of offices is still the same), with more than 150 people at the Rotterdam office alone. So how do you keep everyone up to date with what’s going on within the rest of the teams?
It’s not a trivial task to keep everyone’s efforts aligned. With so many people, it’s all too easy for people to interpret the goals differently and for knowledge to get lost. It takes a bit of effort to get people from different teams and departments to regularly meet up and share what they are working on. Much of this is solved using common tools like Slack, the proverbial coffee counter, and our Friday afternoon all-hands meeting (with beer and snacks afterwards, of course).
The Friday afternoon all-hands meeting is in fact one of the longest standing traditions within Mendix, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. We bring all of R&D together on Friday afternoon while we pour ourselves a well-deserved glass of beer or wine. These sessions are always different, but the main goal is to make sure that everyone knows ”what’s up”. Sometimes it’s an update on the product roadmap, other times it’s a demo of one of our latest features. They always end with a Q&A session with our CTO Johan den Haan and/or the development managers.
Company-Wide Knowledge Sharing
With an organization that’s spread out over multiple offices and departments, it’s crucial to sync the whole company regularly, not just R&D. Most of that happens informally, but there is one week each year that’s on everyone’s calendar: the Company Kick-Off. Right at the start of the year we bring everyone together for a few days at an inspiring location (theme park De Efteling, just to name one). These days are filled with workshops, brainstorm sessions, and presentations on previous year’s results and next year’s plans. It’s the perfect occasion and location to meet new colleagues (because there’s always quite a bunch of them) and catch up with the the ones you haven’t seen for a while.
Company Kick-Off at the Efteling
But there is only so much information you can transfer with everyone in one room. To remedy this, we created MxConference.
The idea for MxConference originates from my experience with organizing BarCamp style ProductCamp Amsterdam events. These are so-called unconferences, meaning that their format is very loosely defined. Everyone is free to propose topics, workshops, brainstorms, or other types of sessions, and at the start of the event, the final program is decided on collectively. This sets the bar very low for both hosting as well as attending sessions, and even during the event, ad-hoc sessions can spring up at any time.
Knowledge session about the latest documentation changes
We took this idea and turned it into a regular event at the Dutch Mendix office, now known as MxConference. It’s surprisingly simple to get something like this going. All you need is a big sheet of paper and some whiteboard markers for people to write down their ideas and requests for sessions, and an unrelenting ability to nag people into hosting one… I mean, make people enthusiastic for the idea! In fact, this is my entire todo list for the upcoming edition on March 15, just in case you want to set up something similar:
- Start of February: Set the date (check with the office manager)
- Mid February: Book rooms for the sessions
- By February 23: Write invitation
- By February 24: Send out invitation (invite to calendar event)
- By February 27: Finalize poster & sticker design
- By February 28: Order posters and stickers
- By March 2nd: Put up session sheets (see picture)
- By March 3rd: Order food and drinks
- Ongoing: Walk by people’s desks to request sessions
The first few editions of MxConference were very small, aimed only at R&D, and hosted but a handful of sessions. And that was fine, because the reality is that everyone is very busy, and they needed to warm up to the idea of such a time-consuming event that is essentially ”yet another knowledge sharing session”. But as it turns out, most people are very willing, eager even, to talk about their work.
MxConference signup sheet and dots for votes
The most important lesson we’ve learned is to have as little restrictions as possible, both in terms of topics as well as the format of the sessions. Everyone should feel free to present on any topic they like, and however they like. Topics that we’ve seen range from Specification by Example and our new documentation infrastructure, to a workshop on building a chat client with Go and what it means to be a Mendix evangelist. We generally plan multiple parallel tracks, so people have the freedom to pick the topics they like.
For the next edition, we’re bringing together the entire Dutch office. This should help us close the traditional gap between business-oriented teams like Marketing and Sales, and technology-driven teams like R&D and the Customer Success teams. We’re throwing pizzas into the mix as well, and we even have posters and stickers.
Host Your Own Conference
Here’s an easy checklist you can use to start a conference in your own company:
- Pitch your idea for the conference with the team
- Determine budget (for stickers, posters, pizza’s, etc.)
- Set a date and book rooms
- Design and order promotional materials (posters, stickers, etc.)
- Reach out to people and motivate them to suggest and host sessions
- Order food and drinks
- Determine the schedule
There are of course many other ways of sharing knowledge internally, and we will continue to adapt in order to keep everyone in the company up to date and engaged. We also like to share knowledge with our community, through the hackathons that we organize at our global Mendix World event, and the regular meetups that we host to share knowledge with our partners and community members.
While these ideas are far from original, they are key to a company culture that promotes collaboration, sharing, and helping each other out to create a cool product. I look forward to seeing your ideas for knowledge sharing in the comments, and if you have any question about knowledge sharing and company culture at Mendix, do let me know.