Four Kitchens

Trip report: Operations Camp — Seattle

4 Min. ReadEvents

Last week I attended Bureau of Digital‘s fourth Operations Camp in Seattle.

What was it?

Operations Camp is organized less like a traditional conference and more like a round-table workshop. Sessions are decided on beforehand with a nominate-and-vote system for topics, spanning the whole range of operations. Each of the three days begins with main sessions, with everyone at the same table, talking about whichever topic is set for that session. Then, after the first day, the main sessions in the morning are followed by smaller break-out sessions in the afternoon. In the evening, we were divided into even smaller six-person cohorts for dinner at different local restaurants, where we could continue our conversations in a more informal way.

“Operations” can mean a lot of different things depending on your company. It can cover everything from human resources to payroll and finance to helping shape the culture of an organization. I have always learned a lot at typical lecture-style conferences, but getting a chance to learn directly from peers in operations and share transparently about our organization’s struggles and processes is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Ops Camp.

Who was there?

Attendance at Operations Camp is kept small; this year there were only 24 of us, which I think really allowed us to jell as a group very quickly.

When you work in operations, your job can feel isolated. Operations isn’t like design or management where you work together in a team, bouncing ideas and frustrations off of each other; in operations your work is done by yourself. Although there were many different kinds of agencies represented—from small consultancies like Four Kitchens to product companies three times our size—this feeling of work isolation is a common thread. Attending Operations Camp (this was my third year!) has been a great way feel invigorated in my work, to be around people who speak my language, to share my expertise and to get ideas, and to just nerd-out with people who already understand what you do.

But while Operations Camp is definitely socially rewarding, the main reason I go is to learn. For example, this year Joe Ryan, the COO at Skookum, shared their process to “Celebrate Failures”— a team stand-up to talk about things that weren’t successful that week at Skookum and what they’ve learned from it. I also really enjoyed listening to Steven Knapp, from AgencyAgile Inc., cutting to the bone with some real talk on why retros don’t work the way we think they do—long story short: retros are good for airing project gripes, but don’t do much for effecting change; if you want real change you need iterative communication along the entire lifespan of a project.

How’d it go?

I’ve known (or known of) the Bureau of Digital and their camps for a while now; our co-founders Todd and Aaron have been to a few of their Owner Camps and Owner Summits, and I’ve helped on the ground at the Summits as well. And, like I said, this is my third time going to Operations Camp.

One critique I’ve had of the Bureau of Digital’s camps is that the moderators have tended to be only men. Even though a variety of voices and perspectives are solicited around the session table, the act of moderation is always an act of focusing the conversation through the lens of the moderator’s perspective—by not having women moderators, the camps were missing out on the unique perspectives women can bring to the discussion. So I was especially pleased this year to have been asked to moderate one of the main sessions and two breakouts.

During my Distributed Workforces breakout, I got to begin a really thoughtful conversation with Krista Van Veen, the Manager of People & Culture at ThinkShout. ThinkShout is a company very much like Four Kitchens, but while we’ve ditched the Austin office and gone fully distributed, they have traditionally been committed to remaining local to Portland and only hiring local talent. What started as a conversation about the merits and pitfall of distributed work carried over into a fantastic talk about self-care and fulfillment in an operations position. In ops, you’re often in the role of caring for someone else’s business, and you have to care a lot to feel invested, but often times people don’t remember to thank you. No one gives ‘kudos’ when all the things we do in operations run smoothly, but boy-howdy you’ll hear from everyone if they don’t!

Operations Camps is great because it provides that reward—we give each other feedback and tell each other that we’re doing great, not just at moderating table talk, but also with the ideas and workflows we’ve maintained at our different companies.

And, of course, Seattle…

And, yeah, I got to spend four days in Seattle, one of my favorite cities. On the more social side, I spent some time walking around downtown with Valérie Létourneau, Director of Operations at People Like Us in Montreal. And I even had a chance to meet-up with some other friends in operations at Lullabot—who were not at the Camp—that I’d not met in person before. Because Seattle is wonderful like that.