I realized recently that I never wrote a reflection on the last GitLab Summit 2018 in Cape Town, so I thought I’d combine it with GitLab Contribute 2019 (the new name for Summit).
A bit of context or background for those that don’t know. GitLab Summit is meant to get together all the employees of GitLab into one place for a week to spend time together. Since GitLab is 100% remote, the event is a great way to meet people who you might not normally talk to through work, meet people you know in person, get to know people (better) allowing attendees to create and deepen bonds, and have a shared experience.
In more recent instances, the events have included people from the community who are not employees, such as core contributors, board members, and customers.
The thing I love most about GitLab Summit/Contribute is that the focus isn’t work. Work does happen, and obviously we’ll talk about work, but unlike many all staff like events, it’s not all “work, work, work” with a packed scheduled towards that goal.
We have a schedule which includes opening and closing keynotes, but everything else is technically optional. Aside from the keynotes, everything is fairly casual (not unorganized though) and social.
For me, I thought it was really nice how all attendees including significant others (SOs) were welcome to participate in everything. I don’t know of any other company where an all staff event allows non-employees in at all, and even if asked, will usually say something like that non-employees haven’t signed a NDA or confidentiality agreement. And even though most of our sessions were GitLab or company focused, many were not, including cocktail making, collaborative games, taking new profile pictures, and talking about burnout.
Seeing the city
As part of the less-work focus, we have excursions. I am always flabbergasted when companies fly all their employees to an amazing location but don’t give them any time to appreciate the location.
For Summit/Contribute, you still have to choose a limited number of things to see, but we at least get a taste of the culture and city. One or more dinners will also include local foods. On travel days, we also get to choose where we eat, so we have a chance to enjoy local eats that way as well.
Keynotes and talks
While there were some of the expected talks on a bit of the history, where we’re going as a company/product/community, and such, I really like how we bring in people from outside the company on stage.
At both Summit and Contribute, there were panels or interviews with many of the community members, ranging from broad viewed board members to detailed looking core contributors.
This year, we also had a couple of very interesting guest speakers: Ariel Waldman on how she got into contributing to science without needing to be an astronaut,
and Matt Mullenweg (former board member) who spoke about distributed (remote) work with our CEO, interview style.
What perhaps I appreciate the most is that everyone on stage including our executive team are open to answering questions,
and the majority are highly approachable.
Workshops and unconference sessions
At Summit, all the other sessions were named “user generated content” sessions or UGC for short. One of the difficulties was knowing what you might get out of it when only considering the title.
A major improvement with this year’s event is that the sessions were separated into workshops and unconference sessions. While the unconference sessions still only had a title, workshops had outlines of what would be covered and the slides were meant to be finalized before the event began.
I wish there had been more advanced sessions of some topics, but one that we did have was a Kubernetes 102, which was a great hands-on workshop helping us to get a sense of the basics of how to create and see our clusters, pods, and nodes. We covered little in terms of details mostly because it would have taken too long to get into the weeds around setup, but the best part for me was just becoming familiar with some of the commands and the method for seeing what’s there since our team does a lot of troubleshooting for Kubernetes integrations.
The unconference sessions were an interesting mix of topics. I think the highlight for me was the STEM gems session where we interviewed another woman and wrote down the answers to a few questions. It was a great way to get to know another woman at Summit.
Working at the event
One of the biggest improvements at Contribute (compared to Summit) was the fact that our team got its own work room. For most teams, work is paused though usually answering anything urgent and often with those not going to the event as backup. However, Support has SLAs (service level agreements) that the team has to adhere to which ranges from 4 hours to 24 hours for regular tickets and 30 minutes for emergencies. To ensure coverage, we have a schedule and even outside of that, many check that there’s nothing urgent and pitch in for emergencies.
The problem we had during Summit was that without a dedicated work space, not everyone that was working could sit together and even when we found space, we’d have to move chairs and tables around. The worst was when we’d get kicked out of rooms for whatever reason. Having our own room meant we could work together and stay focused.
It’s in the details
Not only was Contribute better organized in general, there were lots of detail-y things that the organizers thought of that made it that much better. Just a few examples:
- added yoghurt & granola at breakfast part way through (based on feedback via the app)
- had ponchos ready on every bus in case of significant amounts of rain during the excursions
- dedicated space for board games night
- having a dedicated Support wifi just in case the Contribute one couldn’t handle the 500+ users with multiple devices
- more relaxed schedule
- signage to help us find our way
- decorations to make it feel the space was ours
Bringing everyone together
It’s hard to grow. For me, one of the growing pains is that I sometimes can’t find the people I’m looking for (and want to see in person), and it gets harder to know what’s happening. On the flip side, it’s also amazing to see how we’re meeting our goals and finding great ways to keep our culture too.
More than anything I think it’s the social time and the excursions that give us a shared experience and opportunities to bond outside of “work” that has made me feel like I’m really part of a team.
The previous Summit was my first, and having only been at GitLab for 2 months, I barely knew anyone or even recognized my team members, yet they knew me and grabbed me for pictures with the rest of the team while on excursions and at the hotel.
I had a couple of team members introduce themselves to me, one of them even said “I’ve been wanting to meet you!” It was a very unusual experience for me to have people know me and not the other way around.
After the trip, I also realized that Summit and Contribute are the only times I have ever taken pictures with a whole work team, and I certainly had more pictures with work people at the end of one week than all my previous work places combined.
Many people wonder and have asked me whether it’s harder to work remote. In some ways it can be, but the way we work at GitLab means we build relationships in a way that I have never experienced before and it’s inspiring.