Atomic Con 2014 – Building a Stronger, Smarter Molecule

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Just before Thanksgiving, the entire Atomic Object team (Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Detroit) ventured into the heart of Michigan’s wilderness to spend nearly two full days together. The first intra-AO technical conference, Atomic Con, had many objectives, the being for Atoms to teach, learn, connect, and share with one another.

Having lived through the first Atomic Con, I was most surprised by how many of my expectations about the conference were wrong. I now feel much closer to my Atomic family than I ever expected to.

Before I can talk about my expectations, it’s important to talk about how something like Atomic Con comes to be. The idea of having a company-wide conference isn’t new but every idea needs people to move the plan from thought into action.

Atomic Con’s Why & How

Jesse Hill, One of Atomic’s Grand Rapids developers, presented the idea of Atomic Con to the Atomic Board after participating in something similar at a previous workplace. The company that he had worked for was very large and, once a year, assembled all of the employees together for a week-long retreat.

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Atomic has been growing, and we span three cities now—hours apart from one another. While company growth can be a wonderful thing, it doesn’t come without challenges. How do you keep a single-team mind frame when some employees go months without seeing one another or, as in my case, had never met before? As part of the marketing team, I’d sent numerous e-mails to our Ann Arbor and Detroit offices but I’d only met a handful of the Atoms in person.

In true Atomic fashion, a group of do-ers banded together. Atomic Con was born.

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Expectations vs. Reality

As a Marketing Coordinator, my working life is outside the realm of what most of the Atomic Object team does. While I hope most people would say that it doesn’t make me less important, I’m not programming, testing, designing, or debugging like most other Atoms. Because of this, I had some assumptions about my peers and my Atomic Con experience:

What I expected to learn at Atomic Con

1. The talks would probably be mostly technical, as 90% of the office is technically minded. This would probably make for two long days.

2. Since pair-programming is a pretty big deal around Atomic, all of the makers are already close friends with all of the other makers because they’ve had to work together for hours and hours at some point in the past.

3. When reviewing the schedule for the first time, I was perplexed by why there was going to be a talk on running a Research, Design, & Planning (RDP) Session. Didn’t all of the other Atoms know the in’s and out’s of an RDP Session already?

4. There was going to be a session on Scratch, a program developed by MIT and aimed at young kids, teaching the basic concepts of programming. While I’m not a programmer, I find programming to be a special sort of magic. I was very excited about this lesson but believed that I would be far behind the development curve, especially behind the programmers who also decided to take the class. I assumed that most programmers are experts in Scratch. For the rare few that also happen to pick up the program for the first time at Atomic Con, they’ll probably have it mastered in about 5 minutes.

5. The Atomic Con employee photo was going to be beautiful. Atomic Object would finally have a group shot with everyone, ideally canopied by the beautiful fall trees outside.

6. I would probably be in bed before Jamie, my conference roommate. She might thrive on social interactions, but I was going to give her a run for her money. My 18-month daughter was at home with my husband. I was a free woman.

What I actually learned at Atomic Con

1. The planning committee thought of the 10% non-techs when developing the schedule. In addition to having a technical heavy track, there was a mostly non-technical track for people like me. There was so much for me to learn, everything from design processes and being a better writer to sketch noting, financial planning, and project management. All of the classes were helpful for me to understand Atomic Object, my job, and myself better.

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2. A lot of Atoms enjoyed the chance to get to know their peers better. I wasn’t alone:

“Spending more time with the GR folks was great. I see the East Side Atoms all of the time, but it’s rare that I get a chance to have in depth conversations with those on the west side of the state.” – Darrell Hawley

“Some coworkers that were kind of friends before became good friends of mine, which is really fun.” – Jeanette Head

“I very much enjoyed getting time to get to know other atoms better. Especially people that work at the other offices and others that I don’t usually interact with.” – Job Vranish

“My favorite part was getting to chat with some people from Ann Arbor/Detroit who I’d never really met.” – Drew Colthorp

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3. It was refreshing to see that all of my co-workers are still learning too. Running an RDP Session is a learned process. So is design. And marketing. And programming. There is always more to learn. With an RDP Session, it takes time to figure out how to ask the right questions and play the right games. Drew’s RDP talk was helpful to the whole Atomic crew.

“I really enjoyed the RDP talk by Drew and the talk on archiving projects made me think about how we are doing this in Detroit.” – Dan Santoscoy

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4. The Scratch session was just as amazing as I had hoped it would be. Anne was a fantastic teacher. And guess what? There were some very experienced programmers taking the class right alongside me. Their bunny wasn’t doing anything my bunny couldn’t do (at least within the 45 minute class-time).

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5. The AO Family Photo was plagued from the start by cold, wintery weather and interesting semi-cabin/resort decor. At least the people looked good.

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6. Jamie never stood a chance.

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All Kinds of Good Surprises

As with most planned events, not everything went quite as planned. The Internet, for example, was often spotty at best. When you’re with a group of computer savvy folks, who often spend the majority of their time connected to the Web, a lack of Internet access can prove something of a predicament. However, the team seemed to take it in stride. Dare I say, it might have been a good thing?

“Even though I would still have preferred working internet, it was kind of nice not to have it. I often use some of the down time at conferences to look into technical topics of interest to me (and related to the conference) via the internet. But foregoing that let me focus on the talks more and focus on socialization.” – Will Pleasant-Ryan

In the end, I wasn’t the only one to learn from the experience. There were a number of unexpected benefits from the conference:

“I now have a keen interest in learning more about Quantum Mechanics (Matt’s talk) that I didn’t expect to come away with.” – Justin Kulesza

“I enjoyed feeling like part of the team. I don’t work on project teams, so I feel like I’m outside the main stream of things. Atomic Con made me feel very connected to everyone, like a true part of Atomic.” – Lisa Tjapkes

“As a new employee, I’d say the social aspects were actually the most valuable—I’m now better equipped to work with these people, solicit their advice, etc.” – John Ruble

“More human pyramids, less snow, more outdoors (as long as there is no golfing).” – Chris Farber

Thanks to Atomic Con, I feel like I could ask any one of my co-workers on a pair lunch, and it wouldn’t be so weird. Anyone interested?

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Many thanks to Atom Bryan Elkus for his beautiful photos. You can see more of his amazing work here.