As an engineering leader, it can sometimes be a real struggle to make the work of your teams visible, especially in a problem space that doesn’t reside in traditional customer-facing areas. Without that visibility, it can be hard for team members to feel really great about what they've accomplished.
To combat this problem, Wayfair's Supply Chain Engineering (SCE) team recently tried out something new – "The SCE Fair". We invited the rest of our greater Engineering organization to learn about the challenges we’re facing and how we’re cultivating a creative mindset when applying high-level, technical solutions. In this post, I'll explain what we were looking to achieve, why we thought a fair might help, and how we went about setting up and learning from the entire experience.
I joined Wayfair over a year ago, jumping head first into the software responsible for our Warehouse Management System. Gradually, over my first six months, I came to realize two things: First, the teams within Supply Chain Engineering were working on an incredible variety of fascinating problems; second, no one knew almost anything about the work of the teams around them. Each group worked with their product team and their operational counterparts, but there wasn't much in the way of cross-team visibility. Without that, it felt like we were missing a solid chance for the team to feel a sense of common identity and purpose.
We were faced with the following challenge: How do we highlight the value creation being facilitated in SCE for engineers not privy to the Supply Chain problem space?
Organizing a Fair: The Basics
Department-wide fairs aren’t a novel concept; they’re used to increase visibility and boost morale, meaning they’re essential to a company’s growth and an investment in shared knowledge. Another plus is networking: Across a department of more than 1,000 engineers, meeting fellow colleagues on the other side of your company’s Engineering world can be rather enlightening.
Organizing a fair can be a knotty endeavor, especially without previous experience. Having run events of this scale in the past, I’ve been able to develop a checklist that keeps all bases covered when it comes to logistics, project management, the involvement of your teams, and overall event success.
But first thing’s first: What does an internal fair look like?
What you’re trying to do is create a space that is inviting, compelling, and educational. Think about the layout of a trade show or conference – booths laid out displaying their preferred messaging and products, with enthusiastic reps eager for your attention. I wanted to ensure that as visitors walked through the door, they’d be met with an array of different things to see, do, and pick apart.
Logistics and Planning
Two months out from the fair, you’ll want to be booking your venue and getting invitations ready. If it’s being held internally, these tasks should be relatively straightforward. You’ll also want to clearly communicate how you expect visitors to participate in the fair: We planned the SCE Fair over four hours, stipulating it was a “walk in and out at any time” experience. Scheduling is also important here – lunch hours work best.
In tandem to your planning, you’ll also be working with different technical team leads to create a list of booths that’ll showcase your latest work. Every major project should get a cut of the limelight – think of clever ways to share knowledge and educate. Interactive booths won’t need as much magic to get visitors engaged, so you’ll want to equip other booths with diagrams, flow charts, graphs, or even memes to pique the interest of your potential audience.
Next step: Create a floor plan. What’s your vision? Mix up the graph-wielding trivia booths with the gadget-friendly projects. Think about your ideal walk-through experience and create that potential journey for each attendee. You might also need to consider how a non-technical audience will disseminate the wealth of information they’ll be receiving – be prepared to discuss the business impact your project provides.
Presenters and Projects
The foundations are now set – time to fill it with your most prized possession: Your people! An area showcasing 10-12 different projects means stalls attended by at least 2-3 people per booth. It’s crucial that multiple reps are organized, as the nature of showcasing a project to attendees for 10 minutes or so gets repetitive and tiring, really quickly. Keep them hydrated and fed, too. This is another way to increase overall interest from your audience – freebies sell.
Coordinating how each booth is set up needs to happen at multiple levels: For the small project teams looking after each booth, for the organizing team overall, and for the entire group involved in the fair. Depending on your internal communication preferences, this can be conducted in a variety of ways, but we opted for Slack channels to keep everyone connected.
For individual presenters, this can’t be stressed enough: Practice your pitch! How are you keeping visitors engaged? How compelling are you among your peers? You want your work to reflect the quality you’re already proud of – having a lacklustre offering doesn’t do your hard work justice.
A week prior to the event you should be setting up a dry run, a literal dress rehearsal. Get everyone at the proposed venue, together with team leads and a few chosen observers to deliver feedback and offer input on content. What you’re aiming for is consistency and character. Keep in mind that teams can critique each other’s booths in order to maintain that educational and inspirational quality you’re hoping to draw out.
And you’re just about there – the morning of the event, send out a reminder to your fellow calendar invitees and make sure you have clear signage about. Repetition isn’t frowned upon here: Highlight the nature of your walk-in event and start giving out refreshments as soon as they’re through the doors.
Mission Accomplished: That Was a Blast!
Congratulations! You’ve successfully shared the joys, challenges, and achievements of your team while fostering new-found interest in your projects. You’ve gained the respect of your fellow departments via this educational approach, all the while fostering new partnerships and connections. What comes next?
An internal fair doesn’t guarantee greater visibility of your products and problem-space going forward, but it does give it a well-deserved boost. It’ll be vital to keep the conversations going and find supplementary ways to offer information for newly interested engineers. A retrospective after-the-fact could begin to shed some light on exactly how your team is thinking about future communications and overall project visibility. For us, an invitation to a broader, non-technical audience is a future TODO to encourage even greater knowledge sharing and ideation. Think product people, operations colleagues, and a larger stake of our senior leadership at the company.
Our SCE group were incredibly happy with the outcome of this initiative, both from an attendee and presenter perspective; fortifying greater engineering relationships and improving the morale of our team paid off. The feedback was concrete and actionable, with the event inspiring other areas of our tech organization to present their work in a similar way. With the above article, hopefully you’ll be able to put on a fair for your own colleagues that showcases the dedication and hard work of your developers and product managers. Let us know in the comments if you do!