Reflecting on Turing Fest 2023
I’ve just returned from an incredible 2 day conference in Edinburgh called Turing Fest. Now in its 8th year, Turing Fest has evidently become one of the go-to tech conferences and is billed as a cross-functional tech event with subject areas including digital products, marketing, growth and leadership. It was my first time at the event after it was recommended to me by more than one other fellow agency owner, so back in January it was firmly added to the calendar.
And it did not disappoint.
There was a stellar line up of speakers and of course the opportunity to grow my network of contacts, as well as share experiences and learn from others along the way. As a multi-track conference the chance of there being clashes between speaker slots was inevitable, but with all the talks recorded, there’ll be the opportunity to revisit them in my own time.
Overall I found several of the talks and exhibitors were weighted towards digital products which weren't directly relevant to our work at A Digital; our work tends to be more project based, building websites and online stores. That’s to say we don’t have a digital product of our own (a Saas type service) that we’re trying to grow and scale, but that aside, there were still plenty of learning points that were useful to hear from a slightly different perspective. Plus, our capabilities extend to building digital products, so hearing the challenges of growing a digital product could come in useful (hint, hint in case you're looking for a partner and want to get in touch!).
The end-to-end experience can’t really be captured in a single blog post, but as a way to distil some of my own thoughts and actions from the event, writing up a summary of my notes and highlights from the last couple of days was a good place to start.
After the opening welcome to the conference April Dunford gave her keynote on market and brand positioning. I’ve known about April from her book Obviously Awesome which perhaps meant some of what she shared wasn’t entirely new to me, but her talk was well illustrated with examples of how simple language changes around how you describe what you do can literally make or break a product. The application of this to any business is obvious; being unable to clearly resonate with your target audience places additional demands on your marketing and sales processes to cut through the noise. It’s also a key part of planning a website; understanding your audience and knowing how to make your pitch to them, as well as the action you want them to take off the back of it.
Following April’s talk the tracks split and I really enjoyed Joanna Wiebe from Copyhackers which was an appropriate follow up to what we’d just heard about positioning. Joanna’s talk was structured around money making and money losing words and showed just how important your website and marketing copy is in the age of minimal attention spans. She also talked about the voice of customer (VOC); the language your customers use when looking to solve a problem - something that AI isn’t set to repeat anytime soon (hopefully). It’s a great reminder that ChatGPT is neither a shortcut nor a substitute for powerful and effective sales and marketing copy.
My third talk of the day was one that had particularly caught my eye while scanning the agenda. Mark MacLeod was formerly the CFO at Shopify and Freshbooks and opened by telling a story about someone who was burnt out from work having lost their perspective on life. Of course, it soon emerged that he was talking about himself and I always admire those who openly share their personal stories and vulnerabilities. Burn out is something that I’ve experienced myself from time to time, but as a business owner, the recovery process isn’t always that obvious or easy. Daniel Priestly summed it up perfectly in his tweet about Lewis Capaldi this week. He’s someone who has the luxury of being able to step back from performing after his Glastonbury set culminated in him losing his voice. Business owners and leaders rarely have the same luxury. Mark framed work as little more than a chapter in your life and his talk was a welcome reminder to reframe your perspective, set expectations among those around you and agree the boundaries in your Wheel of Life.
A tech conference wouldn’t be a tech conference without much talk about AI. In an apparent first for Turing Fest, a panel debate showed some differing views around the opportunities and risks with AI; always good to have some disagreement! Having spoken about it with other delegates, the feeling I’ve left with is the ‘cat is well and truly out of the bag’ and we’re past the point of no return. AI is here to stay, but what regulation looks like is akin to the climate challenge. In short, everyone recognises the need for action around regulation, but it’s simply too big a problem to achieve collective agreement on control, targets or legislation. Where that takes us is a big unknown and with potentially worrying consequences. The debate around AI would easily be a blog post in itself but this was intended to be a round up of the entire event, so I’m not going to allow it to dominate as there were lots of other important discussions.
Closing day 1 was John Cutler, Product Enablement Director at Toast. He talked about the 5 Essential Product Habits that every team should learn and do. My takeaway from this talk was when he asked everyone to open up their calendars and challenge themselves on what it would tell someone else about how you prioritise working on the business against meetings and all the other things that occupy our time. He spoke about all those frameworks that are built but then lie abandoned on a Google Sheet somewhere in the cloud (don’t know what he means) and those zombie habits; things that just happen in your business for no obvious reason, but have become routine. Definitely some housekeeping for me to do there.
After an early morning run to the top of Arthur’s Seat in glorious sunshine, it was back to the EICC for day 2.
The opening keynote was all about procrastination; something I suspect we’re all guilty of to a greater or lesser extent. Psychologist Dr Suzanne Brown gave us an emotional fitness class in an engaging and interactive talk that covered anxiety and perfectionism, giving us all permission not to be too hard on ourselves. I learned a few things about myself in this talk, notably around how I prepare for an event or deadline. There's nothing like the pressure of a deadline to 'get the job done', but for me I've often used deadlines as a mental marker of when to start a task, as well as when to finish it. This adds to heightened anxiety and deeper procrastination while I think about it, but then once you actually start the said job, it's rarely as bad as we think it is, and we might even enjoy doing it.
Designer Pete Lacey from Pleo talked about putting soul into design and shared his model which I thought was spot on. For me design is so important for users to not only achieve what they need to do, but also enjoy doing it. Many people argue good design is invisible, but if that’s so, how is it possible to create a connection with it? People expect things to be well designed as standard, but adding detail (nice typography and micro interactions), followed by connection (personalisation and use context) and finally surprises all add to the overall user and brand experience. Pete also won my award for 'favourite slide' as he illustrated how we might feel if were sent a gas bill without much thought to its design.
Following another enjoyable talk on the rise of AI, packed with strategies and tips to drive growth, a talk on product led growth, and another on planning and repurposing content, it was time for the closing keynote.
Bob Moesta is well known for his Jobs to be Done framework which I feel embarrassed to say I’d heard of but wasn’t familiar with. Clearly this will be one to learn more about in his book Demand Side Sales 101. Using his JTBD framework he shared some research for a product he’s working on exploring why people leave their jobs. Bob explained a shift he’d observed over the years where people now hire companies far more than companies hire employees. After our own recruitment efforts this year this felt obvious, but underlines the importance of ‘always be recruiting’ and building an employer brand. Bob added that from 1,000 people surveys, money was never one of the push or pull factors when people weighed up a job move. It was however often a consequence of some other factor behind the motivation to change jobs.
After another networking happy hour it was back to the station for me to head home, sadly missing out on the closing party and pizza, but my head has been filled with new perspectives, ideas and actions to take forward.
This post could easily have been twice as long as there were plenty more takeaways and speakers I could mention. Everyone was very friendly and approachable, and the fact that so many people were returners to the conference spoke volumes about its reputation which I can now fully endorse myself.
I often think events like this demand another couple of days in isolation to fully decompress and decide on prioritising actions and following up with new connections. Writing this post is step 1 for me, gathering my thoughts and working back through the haze of the last couple of days.
It also has to be said the organisation around the conference was first class. From the venue, to the volunteer students (also a nice touch in itself) helping to get people to the right place at the right time, the round tables and the networking - there was a real emphasis on building connections which for such a large event is a key part of making it worthwhile. It was also a carefully curated list of speakers that clearly showed the importance of diversity which in the tech world has for far too long been very male dominated.
Thank you to Brian Corcoran and the rest of the team behind the event for making it well worth the time and investment to be there. And if you couldn’t tell by now, I’d highly recommend the event and Turing Fest will be back next year, so get yourself on their mailing list at https://turingfest.com.