Stephen Thair (Seriti Consulting)
6 Dec 2012
At Velocity EU, Joshua met up with Stephen Thair, director of Seriti Consulting, head of the Web Performance Meetup Group in London, member of the Velocity program committee, and organizer of the inaugural London WebPerfDays unconference that followed Velocity EU this year. They talked about what exactly an "unconference" is, how to craft a successful conference pitch, and the most memorable slides of Velocity.
Joshua Bixby: Hello everyone, welcome back to the next installment in the Web Performance Today podcast series. I am Joshua Bixby, President of Strangeloop Networks and blogger at webperformancetoday.com. This podcast series is intended to sit down with some of the most interesting people in our industry and have one-on-one conversations to talk about what is hot, what is on people’s minds, what’s important, what’s interesting. I was recently at the Velocity EU conference in London, where I met up with Stephen Thair, Stephen is the Director of Seriti Consulting, it’s an independent consulting group in the UK. Many of you will know him as the organizer of the Web Performance Meetup Group in London, which I have spoken at and which is an amazing event for anyone who drops into London or it is somewhere in the UK or European region, you can get there, it’s a great time, good food, good drinks.
He also sat on the Velocity Program Committee and he organized a very interesting event at the end of Velocity this year, which was the London WebPerf Days, the Unconference that was at a gorgeous venue at Facebook that I had a chance to speak at. We talked about what exactly an unconference is, how to craft a successful conference pitch and the most memorable slides of Velocity, I hope you enjoy.
Welcome again this is Joshua here we are at Velocity Europe, I am here with Stephen Thair, it is nice to see you my friend. I haven’t seen you since Velocity US or before London Perf – Meetup.
Stephen Thair: Yeah the London Web Performance Meetup where we -.
Joshua Bixby: Has that been that long?
Stephen Thair: Well, London Web has been going for nearly two years now so -.
Joshua Bixby: I was there what a year ago?
Stephen Thair: Yeah over a year ago, so it’s been fantastic.
Joshua Bixby: Wow that is a great event by the way.
Stephen Thair: Thank you.
Joshua Bixby: You guys do it, I mean I have been to, they are all great events, I have done four or five of them now, but you guys, there is something special about doing it in London having good beer at the same time, you guys know how do it.
Stephen Thair: There is definitely something to be said having your web performance event in a pub, with a private bar.
Joshua Bixby: I know, so for anyone who is listening to this and has not been, it is well worth it, it’s what every –.
Stephen Thair: Basically once a month, so they are normally about the third Wednesday of every month, it’s normally at the place called the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Markets which is a very historic London location if you have never been there and yeah we get together to talk about a topic and have pizzas and beers.
Joshua Bixby: That’s a good deal. We are here at Velocity and you are a busy man. Tell me about, we were just talking off-air about the fact you haven’t seen much. Tell us about what you have been spending your time doing?
Stephen Thair: Yeah, well basically my time this week has been getting together the final details for WebPerfDays, which is a community lead unconference event to follow immediately after Velocity. The first one was actually organized by Aaron Kulick in San Francisco after the US Velocity event, they had the Google campus, we are very lucky to have the Facebook campus in London to support us.
Joshua Bixby: It’s great, I am very excited, I am going to be joining you guys. I am very excited about it. For those who don’t know about this type of event contrast that to a more formal conference. Give us, give people an idea for what the differences are?
Stephen Thair: I think the key thing about that sort of the unconference format is it really came out of that sense for many people that when they go to the conference they said; ha you know the sessions were good, but the best thing I had was that conversation in the corridor or the conversation with lunch and you know I was really enjoying talking to this guy from this company or this girl from that company and people wanting to have that conversation, the problem with more formal presentation based conferences is it’s a presentation, it’s a one way conversation with five minutes of conversation to ask your questions at the end.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Stephen Thair: The idea of the unconference format is that you ask as many questions as you want you know the whole ethos is about asking questions, it’s about making it a conversation not just a one way presentation. So that’s what we’re hoping is going to happen.
Joshua Bixby: What made you decide to organize it? Did you attend the one in San Francisco?
Stephen Thair: No, I didn’t get to Velocity US this year. Basically I was on the Velocity Program Committee for Velocity EU this year and Steve knew I ran the London Web Performance Group and he reached out and said, oh look you know we had this fantastic event you know it was community led, we had a great turnout you know, do you think you can get something together in time for London and I said okay and it kind of snowballed from there, I mean Facebook reached out to us very early on, they have just recently opened their new office in London so the biggest problem that we had was finding a venue and that kind of went away really quickly. So and then it was just a matter of finding a few sponsors to cover the food and things.
Joshua Bixby: It’s brilliant, I am really excited, I get a chance, how long am I speaking for thirty minutes, forty minutes?
Stephen Thair: Thirty to 40 minutes yeah.
Joshua Bixby: So I have been working on the deck, I am excited about this. I am, well it’s a different, it’s a bit of a different venue right, it’s a, I wanted to be less formal, I wanted to be slightly less of the same so I have been trying to think about what the best approach is in this less formal sort of environment. A lot of the presentations I do are very much conference based right where I sit down and I preach from the pulpit and you know -.
Stephen Thair: Hallelujah.
Joshua Bixby: Fire and brimstone and then I leave, you know and a few people, few of the brave ones crowd around at the end and ask some questions but what I really like about the idea of this is as you say it’s even for those of us that live in web performance everyday is giving a chance for me to ask Steve questions and ask you questions and you know like it’s going to be a dialogue which we rarely get, we often spend our time preaching.
Stephen Thair: Yeah and I think I mean again don’t tell the presenters, some of the people who have already said they are going to present, but I have already lined up some of my volunteers to go around to each session and in their first five minutes they are going to put their hand up and ask a question just to see that environment -.
Joshua Bixby: Break that ice.
Stephen Thair: Exactly to get people talking and so even with the London Web Performance Meetup, you know some of the best bits is that once you have got the engaged audience I mean nominally we do sort of seven to eight for the presentation and you know like thirty people are still asking questions and nobody leaves. You know it’s very rare for this kind of meet up events where normally the speaker thinks that everybody goes, I mean eighty percent of our people stay behind for another hour, hour and a half because they want to keep chatting and that’s the environment that we want to promote tomorrow for WebPerf Days.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah that’s cool, I was just talking to Buddy Brewer of LogNormal.
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: Who you probably know who met Cliff Coker at a Web Performance Meetup events, that was acquired by Soasta, I was thinking in the conversation that I had with them, that could be the first acquisition through a WebPerf Meetup ever.
Stephen Thair: Really.
Joshua Bixby: I mean this could, I don’t know I am trying to think of other examples of guys that would have sort of met their business partner, founded a business, had it acquired in the web performance culture, I was thinking that we need to broadcast that around somehow. What do you think? I mean are there any London examples that you can think of?
Stephen Thair: I think that there are certainly a few people they have kind of got jobs and they went you know and we are definitely going to push in that aspect of it to have those conversations, but yeah I mean from when sort of Phil Tellis released boomerang
Joshua Bixby: It’s a pretty small timeline
Stephen Thair: Yeah I mean you know.
Joshua Bixby: You know Buddy was telling me when I was interviewing, he said you know we started the business in July and I am thinking you know I knew that they were a young company, but I wasn’t thinking July 2011 right?
Stephen Thair: Is it really that fast?
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, yeah.
Stephen Thair: Wow.
Joshua Bixby: I know, isn’t amazing they are like a year old?
Stephen Thair: I know that’s, you know the, well one of your competitors obviously you know in New Zealand got you know -.
Joshua Bixby: Oh absolutely but there were at least two and half years, two years by then.
Stephen Thair: Yeah, I think even more if you started the original route out of Microsoft.
Joshua Bixby: I can look at you know my friends at Aptimize by the way for those who don’t know. Yeah they were relatively young, but 13 months I mean that’s like gestation for an elephant.
Stephen Thair: Perhaps…
Joshua Bixby: They were quick.
Stephen Thair: They were quick as well I mean I think there were any eighteen months to two years in their period of time, although for me I think with BrowsersMob that was slightly outside of, slightly earlier than where, then when the real WPO thing is taking off in the last two, three years.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah absolutely. Tell me about behind the scenes organizing this Velocity because you are on the committee.
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: What’s the, what’s it like seeing all the submissions being a part of those conference calls, give us a bit of a behind the scenes look, what does it feel like?
Stephen Thair: It’s a – I mean this is my first time this year, so it was really an interesting process to me having sort of presented at Velocity Berlin where I was one of the people chosen and coming in the second year to see what it was like, it’s fascinating. Basically there was a lot of Google hangouts, so we would get together on a Google hangout so you know the guys US early in the morning asked whether it was a, you know, early evening, the O’Reilly has a like a backend system where everybody can rate the presentations. So we all went through and rated all of the talks in the perf or opstream and then there was that initial call of if everybody gave you the five you know fantastic you know let’s say, that was a no-brainer we love that talk, we love, we know that at presenter is dynamic and then there were some which you know maybe really little bit vendor centric that were fairly easy to dismiss pretty quickly and then there was just a few on there that were on the cusp, Frank and Oliver from Telefonica was one with I wanted to talk about, more about the process of how they have done their real users monitoring. But we so said look everybody kind of knows how to do the real users monitoring stuff, everybody knows things like Boomerang and Frameworks, so we steered them to tell more about, it talks more about stats, talks more about what you found.
Joshua Bixby: I heard that was a great presentation, I wasn’t able to attend it but I heard that was really interesting.
Stephen Thair: Yeah they take us really with the looks and some nice real world statistics and how they then took it to the next level to investigate stuff. So I mean obviously we are trying to address the balance of European verses US presenters and get more case studies so if anybody is listening to this you have got twelve months until the next Velocity.
Joshua Bixby: I was just going to ask, so what’s your advice. I mean I get calls all the time, who do I have to pay, who do I have to take out for dinner, who do I, I mean literally calls like that, why do you get to talk at Velocity all the time, I have submitted for three years in a row, I don’t get to do it. I don’t have a good answer for them. So what’s your answer, how would one craft with what you have learned going through the hangouts in seeing the process, how would you change for the next time a presentation you might submit to a conference or for something like Velocity, what peaks the interest?
Stephen Thair: Well first of all I think you know as on a personnel level hone your own presentation skills, you know one of the reasons that we at London Web Performance like Josh coming along to present because he always gives us a high energy, really fun presentation.
Joshua Bixby: You are very kind.
Stephen Thair: No it’s true and so you know getting out there come and go and present to your local web performance and take the opportunity to brush up your presentation skills and be energetic, be part of the community and get your name known, blog, tweet, comment so that’s the first thing just to get your profile up. I think you know have something interesting to say is the obvious thing. If it’s grounded in reality, if it’s grounded in you know case study or an experiment that’s the stuff that I personally look for because I want to make it real for people. I think if you are more on the developer side of things and you have come up with a cool new tool or a way of taking some of the open source stuff that’s out there and changing it, people are always interested in that and don’t be afraid you know to sort of pitch for a lightening demo slot, you know you rather that necessarily pitching for a long talk, you know you can take baby steps it doesn’t hurt.
Joshua Bixby: The vendor side, so this is one of the things that I am proud of how our company deals with this and I think there are other companies that do this really well. But when they get vendor time they don’t talk about their product right. They talk about data or a solution. I still attend this conference and many others where I have product demos that I didn’t ask for, I don’t want to see a product demo if I want to see a product demo I would go to your site and watch a video. How do you feel when you see a company walk up there and just blatantly flog a product?
Stephen Thair: On a personnel level it actually really makes me really angry particularly because I am an organizer as well. You know I give pretty strict guidelines, I mean you know we had the conversation before you presented to London Web Performance and where we sort of said you know I don’t mind you mentioning your product and you know and of course you are going to mention your product but mention it as an example of class. If you are afraid to mention your competitors or the open-source alternative to me that just says well if you don’t think it stacks up compared to the competitors then you know clearly you shouldn’t be mentioning it at all.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Stephen Thair: So you know I like this idea of people saying well he is the entire space, the entire market space so this is where we position ourselves and putting the stuff in context but the real thing about the vendors is that as a person who is inside the company I could only know one way of doing things, I can only know how my company does it.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Stephen Thair: As a vendor you can mix and match from the worse companies to the best companies and you can take all the information, analyze it, synthesize it and give it back to the community in a really well easy to digest format and that’s why I support vendors presenting with that strict thing as you know make it meaningful, you know and if there is one slide at the end and say if you want to come and see you know a new open-source tool or a free product tool or whatever you know.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, yeah I still see too much of it and I, I just shake my head because I just turn off, I open my iPhone or and I start doing something else. It was amazing there was a talk yesterday, I am not going to point anyone out. There was a talk yesterday where I was just looking at the audience and it was one of the ten minute talks in the intro and every single person in the row that I was on picked up their phone or their laptop and started working.
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: As soon as the talk was done they dropped it and stared back up the screen. I mean it was just, it was amazing to see.
Stephen Thair: I think that, I think it’s an interesting, we are going to have a tweetwall tomorrow and it will be slightly after the side of the main stage, somebody tweets about the conference it will appear on the wall.
Joshua Bixby: Nice.
Stephen Thair: And -.
Joshua Bixby: So I am just going to spam it.
Stephen Thair: Yeah exactly, if you automatically scheduled your tweets to come up.
Joshua Bixby: I will go, oh yeah, yeah maybe like thirty tonight.
Stephen Thair: It’s a very good idea, but you know there are part of me sometimes in this conference as I would like to see that well going up and say you know as Velocity, you know here it’s another terrible window spam session you know name and shame, you know -.
Joshua Bixby: Just write up next, write up next to the PowerPoint right like -.
Stephen Thair: And this seems, this comes directly back to what we are talking about being in conversation. You know how can we make these big events be a little bit more two way and social media and twitter in particular starts to give you mechanisms to do that but at the same time, there are economic realities that one doesn’t want to embarrass your vendor partners.
Joshua Bixby: There are, when one is asked for a hundred thousand dollars to dime and sponsor a conference you know there is a balance between shame and I can do whatever I want, right there is that balance, it’s interesting because in my presentation here for Velocity for the first time and I am pissed you didn’t attend mine by the way. I know you were doing intro, but still no forgiveness. I for the first time as you know in my presentations I always talk about why speed matters, speed equals revenue, user productivity and for the first time I had a totally blank section. I said, I said you should know this already like we are at a point where we are at Velocity and the culture has evolved to a point where you should know this. So put up your hand if you have seen the stats, every single person will put up their hand, I said okay now you can give me a big applaud for the fact I am not going to spend five minutes of your time doing this. But I did put up -.
Stephen Thair: Well okay that’s a really good idea.
Joshua Bixby: But I did put up two, well tomorrow I think I am going to go through some stats so I don’t know if I am going to -. Yeah I put two tweets that has, have been set about me both negative. One is that you know Josh presents incredibly dull and useful content and then the other one was, which was in the middle of my Berlin talk last year. It’s at the wall of shame related, hearing thirty minutes about why speed improves user productivity isn’t helpful we all know that.
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: And so it is, but I think that’s great feedback and as you say to get that feedback in real time hard for people to think on their feet and change what they are doing but I am excited because tomorrow is really about that, it’s about if somebody is preaching about stuff that no one else cares about, I hope somebody puts up their hands and says like I get that, we are past that, let’s go here, let’s direct the conversation there and there definitely should be more of that.
Stephen Thair: I am just trying to think whether it was Jesse or who did that sort of choosing an adventure talk at Velocity last year, where kind of like you know put 16 numbers up on the board and the audience picked the number and then you kind of like talked on -.
Joshua Bixby: I didn’t see that.
Stephen Thair: Oh it’s great, I mean you sort of, you pick a number and you talk on that topic and then you sort of, he just, you randomly the talk you got was dynamically generated by what kind of lay audience wanted you know like jeopardy sort of thing but.
Joshua Bixby: I don’t have enough, I have got dinner and a meeting tonight but otherwise that could be in for tomorrow. Tell me about your business because I have, you know you do some fascinating consulting; you get a view into performance that’s unique. Tell, for people who don’t know give us a bit of background on your business and then tell us how you are seeing the world change from the perspective of somebody who goes into help companies with these types of problems?
Stephen Thair: Well, I mean I run my own you know sort of little consultancy group, Seriti Consulting. We, I do a lot of work with a company that I used to work for called Site Confidence, now called NCC group. We did a lot of web performance health checks where we go into companies and we use a tool, well we probably actually get around to demo tomorrow that I was the Product Manager on performance analysis tool. I guess it’s a bit frustrating in the UK at the moment. One of the things that I found is that we haven’t yet got that killer web performance case study in one of the big major retailers. So we are still I think a bit in the evangelical stage, we are still trying to go out there, there are still a lot of websites in the UK who don’t even have gzip turned on you know everything is cased for twenty four hours you know regardless of the class of the kind of stuff.
I was struck by something that Steve Souders said that other day, he said he gave the beginners you know a WebPerf on a one presentation inside Google the other day where he talked about the basic rules from his first book and he said you know it was really strange for me because I hadn’t presented on these things in two or three years because he just assumed that everybody knew them, but where a lot of the people that we speak to this is like you know light bulbs going off.
Joshua Bixby: This is new stuff.
Joshua Bixby: That’s funny.
Stephen Thair: You know there was a little bit sense of what we still having to preach at the moment rather than necessarily being able to come from the point of actually this is obvious and here is the, here is your business partner, your opposition who have done it better.
Joshua Bixby: So that must be frustrating for you because you see this culture is evolving well pass that I mean I am seeing in presentations another, I am not even talking about this correlation anymore or I didn’t hear because I expect this audience to know it and yet and I agree in certain environments it’s years away or certainly something that they don’t know, which is one of the challenges I actually see and we had some customers that went to the Velocity at Santa Clara and they said one of the most frustrating things for them was that they didn’t have any of the technologies that were being presented and the technologies were being presented in such an off handed way, sort of like well of course you have this and of course you have that and they felt not an inferiority but just a real frustration that there was sort of this offhanded well I mean of course you have RUM.
Stephen Thair: Yeah, doesn’t everybody have stats to -.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah exactly like we all have a hundred and fifty clusters.
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: I mean of course like it was just sort of that that very offhanded way of thinking about the stuff that maybe certain people take for granted but it’s certainly not a norm in the enterprise or the e-commerce space for that matter.
Stephen Thair: I think one of the biggest culture shocks for me when I went to the Velocity US was probably around cloud. For them, everybody, everybody who is based in their entire infrastructure in the cloud, everybody was using tools like puppet and shift and doing you know orchestration and over here cloud was still just more of a theory you know if somebody made a great point yesterday that you know in the UK presentations on cloud attained to be aimed at the CTO and the CEO and the CIO where over there it’s you know some guy telling you exactly how we did it and the tools that he was doing it with.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Stephen Thair: It is very interesting to watch the diffusion of ideas, I don’t know if you have remember Etsys presentation on metrics that was out about two years ago you know awesome presentation talking about stats deal and graphs stuff well that inspired the guys here at Lonely Planet to do exactly that.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah.
Stephen Thair: They end up writing their own ruby gem together the stuff they open-source that and they then came to the London Web Performance Group to -.
Joshua Bixby: They did some awesome stuff I love those guys.
Stephen Thair: Yeah, it gives some stats and a presentation which is then sort of expire, you know inspiring the next generation here. But yeah I mean obviously you have got a Betfair, they are a great supporter of ours. Really interesting if you get the opportunities, search just Google for you know Betfair performance charter. There are not many companies that I know of that have a charter to our customers specifying you know at the ninety fifth percentile you will get an initial page loading under three seconds you know and just really putting it out there and we are going to give you metrics that we are going to put this answer, there are you know some say there are, some people trying obviously a Seatwave, a ticketing, or stub hub I think the equivalent of in the US, they are sort of doing some of their performance stuff here as well so it’s frustrating.
Joshua Bixby: One slide, I know you haven’t attended a lot of the sessions, one of two slides that have stuck with you, things that you will take home, preach about, defuse, anything so far that’s really caught your attention?
Stephen Thair: I think that many of you have seen, mention seeing about three slides and -.
Joshua Bixby: Any of the three?
Stephen Thair: Funnily enough the one slide that’s actually stuck in my head was from the joint ignite and the strata other day and it was talking about the amount of data processed per nobel prize and it was this fantastic graph showing that you know back in the 1800’s you know you didn’t even process a megabyte, up to now with like sort of DNA analysis and or you know analysis of globular classes, this is to say you know we are in the gigabytes, we haven’t yet had a petabytes to nobel. You made the point about you know who did cluster and this kind of stuff I mean just some of this technology is now becoming so commoditized that people can do some amazing stuff and even the, you know the Telefonica guys talking about the RUM stuff, you know people are now well we could sample or we could just collect it all, let’s just collect it all, you know because and then we can, there was a really good talk by Rajiv from Qualcomm doing a visualization of how page resource loads and it was very similar to a social network diagram if you mention how -.
Joshua Bixby: I have heard about that, I was attending another session at the time but I heard that was really cool.
Stephen Thair: Yeah I mean it was -.
Joshua Bixby: Sort of like a map or like you see in terms or words that sort of gave, that gave you a sense for the waterfalls, you know I was intrigued I wanted to get that deck.
Stephen Thair: Yeah and again you know this again gives me, you know I am fascinated by this visualizations, it’s about that one image how you can, that one image can say and it just make it really obvious you know about different kinds of ways visualizing, I mean Google kind of did it with the critical politics where that they launched in Google Chrome tools or Ilya Grigorik’s presentation on all the stuff you didn’t know about Chrome.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, the second one who had mentioned that?
Stephen Thair: Well I mean I didn’t know that there was that you know can type in something like chrome DNS histogram or something and it will give you a histogram of the DNS resolution times for all the pages you have visited during that session. So if you want to know about the performance impact of DNS on webpage load time -.
Joshua Bixby: That is cool I didn’t know that.
Stephen Thair: They did, so yeah I mean Ilya’s session was amazing, I obviously -.
Joshua Bixby: He is brilliant.
Stephen Thair: I had to cut him off short.
Joshua Bixby: Did you?
Stephen Thair: Yeah because he was still go at like 55 minutes like that and I need to get the other speaker up but yeah it’s a, you know it’s a shame with like a company WebPerf Days Tomorrow because he is going to the Vanish User Group group but so -.
Joshua Bixby: Yes I know that’s schedule at the same time isn’t it?
Stephen Thair: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: Good luck, I am excited about tomorrow, I will bring back to the podcast some stories from there.
Stephen Thair: Great.
Joshua Bixby: And thank you for taking your time.
Stephen Thair: Well thanks for having you supporting the whole webpage community movement, I really appreciate it.
Joshua Bixby: Of course, of course take care.
Stephen Thair: Okay.
Joshua Bixby: Okay.
Joshua Bixby: Thanks for listening and thanks again to Stephen for taking the time from his very busy schedule and I did get a chance to go to the unconference and I don’t think you can key note an unconference but got a chance to have a one way discussion at the unconference. Now it seems like we unconference you to be honest, but I got a chance to speak for forty five minutes to introduce some of the topics and the fact that Stephen did take time the day before that was quite amazing, it was a great event very well attended, good food, beautiful venue as I said. All the links and slides that Stephen mentioned are available on the site webperformancetoday.com and I will speak to you soon, I hope you have a great day, take care.