netmagInterview

Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks

Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks are going on the road next week to present evenings of informal discussions with prominent web folk around the UK. Oliver Lindberg catches up with them to find out what's different about Insites

If you want to join Keir and Elliot on the Insites tour, use the code NETMAG and get £5 off when you buy a ticket.

.net: How did you come up with the idea for the Insites tour?
Elliot Jay Stocks: It was your idea, wasn’t it?
Keir Whitaker: Yes, having worked at web events for two or three years, I started with the premise that the best bits were the conversations afterwards, the less technical and the more insightful chats with the speakers. It's less about how to do rounded corners and HTML5 elements and more about ‘oh, I had a real problem with that client’ or ‘I accidentally came across this and it’s an interesting way of working’.

You get talking to people and find out how they got started. It’s very much about the stories or journeys. And we thought it would be fun to do something that was really informal and loose, based around short interviews and Q&As with interesting people in the UK. We go to different cities and try, where possible, to get people from that local area. We'll talk about the things that don’t really get talked about at technical web events and probe a little bit as well as find out the secrets of how people got where they got, why they’re successful and also what they haven't done great and what they’ve learned from it.

.net: How did you team up together?
EJS: We knew each other from when we worked at Carsonified. I spoke at Brooklyn Beta last year and they did that thing of presenting the back stories and the stuff behind it very well. I thought it would be really interesting to do something like that in the UK, a behind-the-scenes look at things. I think we both just loved the idea straight away. Rather than do a traditional event, we thought we'd split it into a tour, which means different cities get a taste of the same thing and we still get to have local speakers.

.net: So, it’s quite informal?
EJS: Very informal. We have no slides and no presentations. It’s more just us having conversations with the people who are there, getting questions from the audience. We’re collecting questions from people via Twitter. So, if you're reading this, tweet questions that you want the speakers to answer to @insitestour.

.net: Do you see yourselves as competing with other web conferences?
KW: There are a lot of web events now and they’re more formal stage presentations. We really wanted to get away from that. We won’t necessarily talk about the tools and techniques but some of the people that we have on the tour have been working in the industry for 10 to 15 years. Like Dan Rubin who is speaking in Manchester. He’s been at it since the mid-90s, he’s grown up as the industry has changed and he’s made his way through it. It’s more about that than how does he approach design or UX. It’s definitely different and also a hell of a lot cheaper.

EJS: We also have quite a few speakers that are constantly transitioning. Sarah Parmenter is transitioning from web to more iOS-based stuff. Aral [Balkan] has come from the Flash world to iOS development and a bunch of us, myself included, have moved from the web to print. It’s also interesting to get those stories. Although our speakers are known for being web people, pretty much all of them have their fingers in lots of different pies. And it’s interesting to see how people balance their time between these other side projects.

.net: How did you come up with the programming? A lot of the speakers are friends…
EJS: We shouldn’t say that. But I think it’s inevitable, just because we're involved in the speaker circuit. It’s just inevitable that we know a lot of those speakers.
KW: Also pretty much anybody we approached said yes, simply because they liked the format. They asked us what they should prepare and we said we’d maybe have a five-minute phone chat a week before and they were really surprised.

.net: Why do you always get the same kind of speakers at such events? Is it because big names sell tickets, as Ryan Carson argued in our recent interview with him?
EJS: That comes into it to a degree. But our main aim with this is to reveal the secrets, for people to tell the stories that they wouldn’t usually tell on stage. And part of that is having a lot of the big name speakers because our audience has probably seen them talk before at various other conferences but they perhaps haven’t seen them speak about things which we are going to be talking to them about, the behind-the-scenes stuff. That’s the main reason that we wanted to get well-known people.

.net: How did you approach the gender split?
KW: We do have female speakers, only Bristol and Manchester don’t. We have Denise Wilton, Natalie Downe and Sarah Parmenter. You’re mindful of the issue but also they’re interesting people. Natalie will be there with Simon (Willison) to talk about Lanyrd and we got them to do it together because there are a lot of interesting stories, like working with your partner.

Denise has been working in the web for 10 years and Sarah is, as Elliot said, transitioning from a very local niche, a web designer in Essex, to taking the stage at An Event Apart and doing iOS stuff. You’re mindful of the issue but it’s all about the stories really.

.net: Is there positive discrimination on the speaker circuit?
EJS: I was talking to an organiser recently and he was saying that he was mindful of having female speakers there because it was such a male-dominated crowd. At the same time where do you draw the line? Do you want to get someone to speak because they’re female or do you want to get them to speak because they happen to be a fantastic speaker with lots of talent and a lot of experience?

I think all of the female speakers that we have are there because they’re great speakers and interesting people and we want to tell their stories, not because they’re fulfilling a quota. It is a bit of a touchy subject for people and you have to be careful but I think that fortunately there are enough very, very interesting women working in the industry to choose from. We’re certainly not in the situation where we felt compromised and thought "We’d better have a girl". It’s about them, rather than their gender. Hopefully, we’ve struck a balance.

KW: It is hard. Having worked at Carsonified and putting on two-track conferences, it’s one of those hardly perennial topics that come up.

.net: What are some of the highlights?
KW: I’m looking forward to chatting with Jeremy Keith. I find him very interesting and I only very recently have met him at DIBI, so I’m looking forward to talking to him about his journey and the things that interest him. I think it will also be interesting to chat with people who work in the industry in other parts of the country that we’re not really familiar with. Obviously I’m more familiar with London and the West Country but I’ve only dipped with toe into Brighton and there’s a good crowd of people doing some interesting stuff in Manchester, too.

EJS: And in Manchester we’re holding it in the Magnetic North offices, which look very, very cool. It’s just such an amazing looking venue and that was one of our goals for this as well. As well as the content we really wanted to have interesting venues, so Manchester in particular is going to be interesting.

KW: We’re going to do announcements as well. Anybody who’s coming and wants us to do a shout-out about something interesting let us know. Hopefully we’ll learn about cool new projects, meet interesting people and have a really good night.

EJS: We should also mention that every night has food and beer supplied for people.

.net: If it’s successful, are you going to expand it next year?
EJS: We had a lot of people interested in other cities.
KW: Yes, the initial feedback was "Why aren’t you coming to Birmingham and Ipswich?". Birmingham would be an obvious one.
EJS: Possibly one in Scotland as well. Or even have two tours, with one doing one half of the country while the other one does another bit.

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