Geeks in the Woods — An internal developer retreat where TUNE takes the entire Product and Engineering organization into the woods and has a conference (yes, we literally mean into the woods, or some sort of nature oriented spot). As we enter the fourth year, it has nearly doubled in size, the content has reached new technical depth, the logistics are nailed down, and the element of surprise is intangible. Year after year there continues to be a highlighted focus on team building that is formed through connections and cohesiveness, and all in all, we come away as a stronger organization. Geeks in the Woods was created as an opportunity to dive deeper into the technical space, build new relationships and learn a great amount.
We sat down with TUNE CTO Dan Koch, and VP of Engineering, Steve McQuade to learn where the idea stemmed from, highlights from previous years, the impact on the attendees, and why TUNE continues to invest in this retreat year after year. Here’s what they had to say.
What is the purpose of the retreat?
Dan: Really, there are a handful of purposes, but the top three include:
- Internal Development: Build the skills of everyone in our Product and Engineering organization, and take the internal expertise that we have and make it more widespread.
- External Expertise: We bring in new expertise from the outside to get people thinking about new technologies, new ways of doing business and ways of which the market is going.
- Building social connections: We want people to have the chance to work together outside the normal confines of work to build new connections and new ways of communicating.
Where did this idea stem from?
Dan: The credit for this idea has to go back to the Founders, Lucas and Lee. They had this unique idea that we should have an internal developer conference, and if we’re going to do it, why not get people out of their comfort zones and out camping together as an opportunity to break down barriers, get out of our normal context and into a context where people are open to new experiences, new knowledge and more likely to work together.
Steve: It was also born from the fact that engineers often didn’t attend a lot of conferences, and Lee thought “we should do something… and create our own engineering conference.”
Who attends Geeks in the woods?
Steve: All of the geeks. Virtually everyone in a technology centered role is invited, all facets whether that be Engineering, Product, UX, and IT/Ops teams.
The planning of Geeks in the Woods
How much planning goes into the event?
Steve: We pretty much start in November on choosing our venues and our themes. The logistics element cannot be understated. Hillary, TUNE’s Community Engagement Coordinator and Sophie, TUNE’s Employee Development Program Manager pour so much energy into all of the details necessary to make the retreat happen in the first place. You don’t just have to get the geeks in the woods, you have to get all of the technology out there necessary to be geeks in the woods, which means strong internet connections, good presentation materials, screens, seating areas, breakout areas, and more.
Who is responsible for developing the content?
Dan: We have a content steering team with engineering leaders from TUNE, and a number of internal volunteers who take time to build presentations and share their expertise, whether it’s something they use at TUNE every day or something that’s relevant. We also bring in a few speakers from outside who can dive deeper into subjects we don’t deal with on a daily basis and who can give us fresh perspectives.
What can engineers expect this year as we enter year four?
Steve: A renewed focus on development, specifically personal, educational and professional development. We’re making a deeper focus on making sure everyone comes away with something new.
How has it evolved from year one?
Steve: Neither of us were here for year one, but it has doubled in size to the point we’ve outgrown venues, which makes it hard for us to actually find a venue that that fits the spirit of what we’re trying to build towards. The content has also improved, both in terms of quality and depth.
Dan: We’ve gotten better at the logistics, just in terms of what is necessary for the internal development to happen – making sure we have good internet, and that the actual site and schedule best encourages people to get the opportunity to focus.
What are some of the big things you look for when finding a site?
Steve: The basic elements of what we’ve looked for in the past have been things that are non-traditional. We don’t want a conference center, or a hotel – we want something that is really…different. In some ways that’s just TUNE, we’re always looking for some quirky way of doing something.
Unique highlights from past years?
Steve: When we were on Orcas Island we boated people right up to the shores of the event– it was a unique and different way of getting people to the venue.
Every year our kitchen team attends Geeks in the Woods, and it has become a tradition that the engineering leadership team will make breakfast for all of the attendees, because we want everyone to be able to experience the retreat, plus it’s just a fun gesture.
Dan: The presentations. It’s a tremendously eclectic mix of topics, both technically broad scale data processing, front-end development and all points in between, as well as things outside of the day-to-day development world.
The “Tree of Charge” has also always been a main stage of the whole experience. We wire up a tree on the property with as many extension cords and power strips as we can. Everyone has mobile devices that they are using a good chunk of the day, so when the battery gets worn down quickly, it’s an opportunity for people to juice up their devices while in different sessions.
Check out past retreats to see other highlights (think tree tents, coding challenges and more).
How do you find speakers?
Steve: Virtually every time it’s personal connections. We’ve show the speakers the spirit of previous Geeks in the Woods experiences and people want to be a part of it. We’ve avoided the pay circuit for the most part and we also don’t allow any vendors.
What’s the impact on attendees?
Dan: It gets folks out of their day-to-day routines and thinking more about the broader world of technology and how they can apply things to what we do here at TUNE. It’s also a chance to get a different perspective on everything.
How is this retreat indicative of TUNE’s culture?
Steve: It’s completely different and unexpected.
Dan: It’s one thing to throw a developer conference, it’s another to say “why throw a developer conference in some anonymous conference area or an anonymous hotel, when you can get everyone out in the woods and do something unique.” In that way, it’s very similar.
How does this event help engineers grow personally and professionally?
Steve: In some cases, engineers aren’t used to presenting information in front of large groups and this gets them thinking about how to talk in front of people and how to present complex technical information to a variety of audiences. It requires them to dial in on the essence of what they’re really explaining.
Dan: And by no means do they wing it — they practice a lot. It can be so easy to just slap it together, but they put a lot of time and energy into making their presentations up to the level they need to be. It’s been a big focus and we’ve definitely improved that in the last couple of years.
How does one become a speaker?
Steve: This year we did a call for presenters. We were inundated with people who wanted to talk, and we even had to turn people away. People want to do it, they want to talk about what they’re doing, what they’re working on and what’s interesting to them.
How do you choose the presenters with the high-level of interest from others?
Dan: Having too much content is a manageable problem. What we’ve done when people have overlapping talks or there are a number of talks that are of a similar theme, we find ways to accommodate them by playing with form a bit, whether that be potentially having people work together, making the talk into an entire track or workshop, or we’ll also combine things and bring people together if their topics are aligned.
What’s something you hope each engineer can take away from this retreat?
Dan: We want them to learn something new and meet somebody new.
Impact and why we continue
Why does TUNE continue to invest in this experience?
Dan: It’s really important. We want to continue to invest in our own people — that’s one way to have a great team, and we want to give everyone the opportunity to step away and get a fresh sense of perspective on what we do everyday and how we do it.
What are your plans for the future?
Dan: We want the content to get better, we want to get better at throwing the retreat, and we always want to have that element of surprise.
When engineers return back to the office, how are they feeling? Are they refreshed, tired, enlightened? All of the above?
Steve: Yep, all of the above. They are long days of learning and having fun. People are completely drained, but they generally feel pretty excited when they’re back, not because they learned something new, but because it was an invigorating experience. There is awareness around what other teams are doing, and the things you take away are the things you didn’t expect — like the hallway conversations, it’s unplanned and unscripted.
What could other companies learn from Geeks in the Woods?
Steve: It’s a non-traditional mechanism of investing in your people, and it’s important to have a non-traditional way of thinking about everything.
Dan: It’s a hell of a time
More info on Geeks in the Woods 2017 coming soon…
And there you have it. A complete 360 overview of Geeks in the Woods from our very own geeks themselves. Keep a look out for Part II, as we catch up with Dan and Steve after the big retreat and hear the stories from engineers who attended. Oh, and there also might be a pretty awesome video to accompany it. In the meantime, find out how you can become the next TUNE engineer and join us as we continue evolving and growing this internal developer retreat.
Becky is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at TUNE. Before TUNE, she led a variety of marketing and communications projects at San Francisco startups. Becky received her bachelor's degree in English from Wake Forest University. After living nearly a decade in San Francisco and Seattle, she has returned to her home of Charleston, SC, where you can find her enjoying the sun and salt water with her family.