Education lessons from the AWS Pop-up Loft

As the AWS Pop-up Loft closes after its most recent two-week stint, I thought I would catch up with Ian Massingham, AWS Technical Evangelist, to see how it had gone. To explain, the ‘loft’ is the ground floor of Eagle House, a converted office block on City Road which runs up towards Kings Cross from the heart of London’s tech start-up scene, Old Street and the Silicon Roundabout.

The aim of the Loft — the clue’s in the term ‘pop-up’ — is to offer a temporary space to run an educational programme, aimed at organisations looking to use AWS technologies in anger. “It was never meant to be a long-term thing,” explains Ian. “We thought that by coming back periodically, we’d be able to connect with different cohorts of customers, at different points in their development.”

There’s an “Ask the Architect” (think: Genius) bar, a co-working space and a room for sessions. Booths for support teams and training partners, who are on call to ask questions. The single-track timetable has been filled with back-to-back sessions on a wide range of topics, from IoT to Machine Learning, from introductory to deep dive technical, from shorter to longer formats, aimed at a variety of audiences.

So, what were my take-away thoughts? Interestingly, these were less about the topics themselves, and more about how they were delivered. The model is simple: you register, you come, you learn, you have the opportunity to ask questions and participate in workshops, chalk and talk sessions and hackathons. It’s been intense, but that was the plan, says Ian. “We’ve learned a lot from previous pop-ups, on how to make the best use of people’s time.” Not least that the content — educational content, that is — is king.

While this may appear self-evident, less clear is the importance that should be attached to providing a diverse range of materials. “You need to create the right interaction channels for different types of customers. While a large base of our customers expect to self-serve, others will want full support. And similarly some like to read documents, others like videos, others like classroom training, it’s up to us to be ubiquitous, so people won’t get unhappy even if the majority of content is not directly appropriate to their needs.”

Secondary plus points concerned the location (“Yes, sure, the location is important, we’re right in centre of startup community”), the food (“Developers run on beer and pizza”) and so on but these were seen as hygiene factors for the pop-up.

Formal feedback has not been collated but the signs are good that the key goal of the event, to “get people productive on the platform,” was achieved. As, if not more importantly was that people got what they wanted and more. “I was just told, ‘This is great, I love it, it’s so convenient to engage with your architects.’ ”

The message, as I read it, was one that events of any size and scale could take away: whatever the format, make delivery of a range of excellent content, to fit a diverse audience, the primary goal. So, yes, context is important: nobody wants to travel to the back of beyond to attend an event of any form. But head and shoulders above this is the range and applicability of the content.

If this appears obvious, it begs a question — why do so many events, held in far more glitzy and dare I say, exotic locations (sorry, Shoreditch) tend to forget this simple, yet important truth? Like the software developed without regard for its users, so should events focus first and foremost on meeting the needs of their attendees. If Amazon Web Services, purveyors of online platforms that depend heavily on the self-service model recognise this, then so should everybody else.