A different kind of tech conference

Last Wednesday, I received an unexpected text: “Would you like to do some volunteering work? It involves speaking online to some kids for one hour about IT”. It was a classmate from high school.

MariaDB Foundation employees work remotely. Sure, we all meet together in one place a number of times a year so we don’t forget each other’s faces, but in 99% of our logged time, we are distributed around the globe. We are also not required to have a strict working schedule and this offers us the opportunity to say yes easily to these sort of events.

Show initiative

This unusual conference happened on Friday; four speakers, a remote team lead for a US company, a researcher in cryptography, a senior dev at a social media analytics company and I, all graduates of the same high school.

It’s called “Unirea” National High School, from a small town in the eastern side of Romania, and it’s ahead of its time in a developing country still struggling to understand the potential of education as a long term investment.

CNU High School and the front park in the night, credits to Andra Hanţă

In normal times, this past week would have been part of a national program called (and translated with approximation) “A different kind of school”, where high schools around Romania suspend normal classes and do other educational activities for a week.

In these quarantine days, when schools are closed, the chemistry teacher thought that having students stuck and bored within their homes would be a great opportunity to inject useful real life information inside their minds. She launched a series of video conferences focused on career/domain orientation for final-year students who are supposed to pick a university at the end of this summer.

This series has produced eight episodes so far, lawyers, accountants, actors, musicians, architects (all graduates of the same institution) have spoken to high school students about their careers, their life choices, answered questions and had a great time together.

More episodes are pouring in even though Easter vacation officially started for students on Saturday. Vacation or not, those of us who are gifted with the chance to work or study from indoors, stay inside and try to find productive ways to fill our free time.

The target audience was final-year students. But given that communication and promotion happened through the high school’s social media page, there were former students joining in as well.

Our tech conference was supposed to last 1 hour, and it started with 42 attendees. We got so carried away that it lasted more than 2.5 hours, and at the end we still had 32 attendees.

The chemistry teacher doesn’t teach IT, computer programming or any sort of class that pushes her to be a computer geek. But she has a long track record of putting together some of the best events in this high school, and these days has moved them online

The great thing about today is that you don’t need to be a computer geek to move your educational activities online. There are tons of technologies we use everyday that makes this very easy; social media groups, video conferencing and document sharing come to mind.

Designing a structure

To prepare a bit for the session, the four of us opened a chat window and started sketching a structure. Here’s a list of the choices we made for structuring our content and interaction with the students.

  • Set up a real-time chat if your video conferencing tool doesn’t have one already.
  • Create a list of six fundamental questions that we plan to answer during the session. Share it with the audience beforehand so that they know what to expect content-wise, but also to trigger their minds to create their own list of questions.
  • Encourage students to use the real-time chat for writing down questions. Students who are shy or not used to talking in video conferences will have a good chance to share their questions here.
  • Also encourage them strongly to ask questions by voice as the session is not formal at all, it is just a friendly chat.
  • Create a Google doc and share it with the students. This list contains some myths to bust, prefill it with three to four items and encourage them to augment it with more before or during the session.
  • Go through the questions asked on the chat and through the myths on the GDoc and debate them.

Extra structure we didn’t expect: there were lots of valuable interventions from former students sharing stories and opinions about university life and their careers.

You can do it too

We felt amazing, the students were more relaxed than we expected, more communicative than we expected and it seems a lot more informed and smart than we were at that age. I was stunned when the chemistry teacher told us at the end of the planned 1-hour that most of the sessions so far had extended way past the scheduled time, so we proposed to let it go freestyle from there. We ended up exceeding 2.5 hours of valuable discussions.

We started with 42 attendees and it may not seem like much, but there are only around 100 to 120 final-year students in this high school and obviously not all of them are interested in technology careers.

We’ve had many online discussions with friends during these past weeks, even more than usual since time seems to have dilated with so much of it being spent indoors. There are lots of mentions of the stock market going bananas, lots about the latest Corona numbers in different countries, but little or no discussions about what happens to schools, what students do to keep their brains active and to keep their education alive. I hope in other circles of friends the situation is different; I hope it is different in other parts of the world.

We should not forget that there is life after this madness and even if, in the most pessimistic scenario, it takes months or years to get past it, there is no better future than an educated future.

Our call to action is still open for the MariaDB University Program. We invite universities from across the world to participate and help us expose more and more people to technology.