2019 was the first year the think about! Conference took place in Cologne and it was meant to be a conference to build bridges between design and tech while raising awareness for the impact of technology.
The introduction was the first clue that this conference was going to be a bit different than most tech conferences: Not only did the first session introduce the awareness team and make it very clear that the conference was meant to be a place where everyone should feel safe and included. The organizers also opened with a mission statement for the next two days, presenting the values and goals of the conference. This is something I have never seen done before and it really made the experience stand out from the first minute.
After the introduction, the stage was taken over by Linda Rising. Her opening keynote was truly mind-blowing and not at all what I had expected judging from the title (“The agile mindset”).
As a good keynote should, it set the tone for the following talks and shaped the whole atmosphere. Linda managed to create a feeling of hope, despite the risks and dangers she made us very aware of. But by showing us the power of the growth mindset, she gave everyone in the room a tool to have a positive impact on the people around them.
The growth mindset means that we should always believe in people’s ability to improve and learn. We just have to take small, incremental steps towards where we want to go. It means that we should face a challenge even if we might fail because we can still learn from it.
There seemed to be a few overarching topics that were touched in many of the talks that followed.
One of these topics was diversity which was also one of the core values of the conference organizers and thus very present in every aspect of the event:
It started with the catering where vegetarian and vegan options were available for every meal.
But there was also diversity in the selection of the speakers which included a wide range of genders and ages. The opening keynote itself was a very bold statement in that regard because Linda Rising gave it at the age of 77 where others enjoy the peace of retirement. In addition, some talks were held in German (most were in English) which I found to be a nice touch. This gave people a chance to speak who might not be comfortable giving a talk in English. Not many tech conferences make it possible for people to share their ideas if they cannot express them in English.
Finally, the talks themselves covered a variety of topics, mirrored by the diverse backgrounds and occupations of the speakers. Many were working in design or development, but the line-up also included a psychologist and a political activist.
It was a unique mixture of very technical topics - like the one about the microservice journey by Susanne Kaiser, design-focused talks and presentations about the social impact of technology and the tech industry.
To me, it was fascinating to notice how many of the best practices of other disciplines like design can be translated directly to something relevant to my work as a developer. We should probably be more aware that we have the same goal as designers and product people, we are just using different tools.
The other big themes were privacy and security, especially the issue of private communication. The question of how to protect people’s private conversations from any third-party surveillance was raised multiple times. How can we create communication tools that can be a true alternative to Facebook? There was, unfortunately, no concrete solution yet, but many interesting discussions. And at least a consensus seemed to emerge that it is crucial to include as many different viewpoints as possible when creating such tools.
We need designers to help make new software as attractive to use as the existing commercial ones. We also need to include the people we want to serve with new tools to make sure we can truly meet their needs.
The conference was organized by three people from Cologne, who had the idea about a year ago and managed to turn it into a reality in such a short amount of time.
Not just for a first-time conference it was exceptionally well planned and executed: The attention to detail in everything was incredible and was praised by speakers and attendees. One big influence on the amazing atmosphere was certainly the venue: a cinema. This meant very comfortable seating with an easy way to store your drinks. And obviously, there was almost unlimited popcorn available!
There was also a very nice outdoor area to eat and chat and a quiet space in a small trailer for everybody who needed to get away from the crowd for a while.
For people who wanted to connect with others, there was a Conference Buddy booth and the option to sign up for dinner with some of the speakers on Thursday.
For the next time, there is mainly one aspect that could have been improved and that is a bigger focus on accessibility. That is true for the program as well as the event itself. I believe an event is only really inclusive and open to everybody when it is also accessible for everyone.
The closing keynote by Vimla Appadoo was a perfect ending to two days filled with thought-provoking and informative talks, charming conversations and overall amazing people. Similar to the opening keynote, Vim shared some very concrete steps that every one of us can take to make the world around us a little better and a little more inclusive.
The final words were again from the organizers who not only thanked everyone involved but also presented a collection of words to describe the conference they had gathered from attendees. The responses were overwhelmingly positive.
One of the organizers, Jakob, told me that his word would be “emotional”. It moved him a lot to see everything come to live and to get so much positive feedback after all the work and energy they put into the organization. He was also humbled by the trust people put in them by giving them money even though they did not have any track record yet.
My personal final word would be “inspiring” and I am really happy to know that this great conference will be back for a second edition in 2020!