About Gene Kim

I've been researching high-performing technology organizations since 1999. I'm the multiple award-winning CTO, Tripwire founder, co-author of The DevOps Handbook, The Phoenix Project, and Visible Ops. I'm an DevOps Researcher, Theory of Constraints Jonah, a certified IS auditor and a rabid UX fan.

I am passionate about IT operations, security and compliance, and how IT organizations successfully transform from "good to great."

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How I Prepared For Moderating My SxSW Core Conversation: "Be Heard: How To Innovate At Large Companies #hackthemachine"

I had the pleasure of co-presenting with my buddy William Hertling (@hertling) at SxSW on the topic of "Be Heard: How To Innovate At Large Companies."  (Incidentally, William and I go way back -- we went to grad school together at the University of Arizona, and then we both moved to Portland in 1995 after graduating.  He was also our first Director of Engineering at Tripwire.)

I got a lot of positive comments afterwards about how I moderated the session.  When I asked, "Why?" here's what they mentioned.  (Forgive my paraphrasing...):

  • "I liked the way you reframed everyone's stories into a succinct problem statement.  I learned a lot."
  • "I liked the way you were able to politely cut people off when they started to ramble, or talk about theories."
  • "I liked the way you kept the conversation rolling and the energy level high."

As much as I appreciated the kind words, I must be honest. I am not an expert on the topic of innovation in large companies.  My only role was to facilitate the Core Conversation, which is a SxSW Interactive conference hallmark.  It's a format that's not a panel and it's not a presentation.  Instead, it's like a huge roundtable, where everyone is expected to share their expertise and experience.

The feedback on the session was fantastic.  It was standing room only, with people listening in on the session from the hallway.  Here's a picture of how the room is laid out:

CoreConversation photo

When people asked me how I did it, I told them that it boiled down to a couple of things:

  • Rehearsal: William and I wrote out the prepared parts of the presentation word-for-word, and we spent weeks going through it.  And we were rehearsing it late Friday night, trying to shrink and tighten up the speech.
  • Preparation:  William and I went through all the broad problem categories, and inventoried how it might be described.  And then we prepared some witty pre-canned repertoire of how I would reframe it into a known catory.

  • Nailing down the process:  My role was the keep the conversation flowing, time-boxing each topic to 6 minutes, with the option of expanding the time window to longer, if the audience wanted.  William's role was to tease out the specific tools and techniques from the people sharing their stories of how to address the given problem.

When people asked for more details, I told them I would share the entire "script" that I was referring to throughout the session.  I'm posting it below, so you can see how we did it.

The PDF file I was holding and reading from during the session is here.  Note the two-column layout, which allowed me to hold it like this:

script photo

The plaintext is quoted below.  (Argh, Can't figure out how to do indented bullets in MarsEdit! Sorry for ugliness!!)


Let me know what you think!



Gene objectives

Credibility introduction (4 sentences)

The rules (2 rules)

Problem elicitation (10 minutes)


Thanks, William.  My name is Gene Kim.  I help online services companies like Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL improve their ability to deploy features into production quickly and simultaneously increase their stability and reliability.  Before this, for 13 years, I was the founder and CTO of Tripwire, a $100M security software company that recently filed for its IPO. I’m writing my third book called “When IT Fails: The Novel.”

My role

But, today, my role is to solely to support William by helping facilitate the discussion.

I attended many other Core Conversation sessions and they were freaking awesome. I’m always amazed at the level of skill and experience of people in the room.

So my fundamental assumption is that all of you are as smart and intuitive as we are.  Knowing my buddy William, probably even more so.

So my only goal is to make sure that you can share your awesome kung fu on how you’ve successfully Hacked The Machine.

So, like in the move Fight Club, there are only two rules for this session:

Rule 1: Thou shalt never start your sentence with “you should [yadda yadda]...”.  This is not a session to share your theories of what you think will work.  Instead, please say, “I did X, Y and Z, and here’s what happened.”

As William stated, our goal is for you to leave with as many practical, usable and tested tools that you could use next week.  So, if necessary, we’ll try to tease what those tools and techniques out of your stories.

If there’s not enough time to do this for all the techniques in this session, talk to William, because he’ll definitely want to interview you.

And William will be writing these up on his blog, posted on the wall.

So, that’s Rule #1: Thou shalt not say “you should…”.  Instead, say, “here’s what I did, and here’s what happened.”

And Rule #2:  There is no Rule #2.

So, before we jump into tools and techniques, let’s take a moment to talk about the barriers to having your ideas Be Heard and Get Implemented.

For all of you who have had that great idea, who were sure that the idea would actually work, and somehow still got shot down, what was the barrier?  In William’s great story, it was the Plan of Record that couldn’t get changed, that all the food in the IT buffet table was already eaten.

What other barriers have you all run into?  (Like, capacity, fears, managers, processes, uncertainty…)

Selling the idea

Can’t get it in front of the right people?

Can’t get the meeting with the VP scheduled?

They always cancel the meeting?

Getting it implemented

Capacity issue?

Plan of Record issue?

Can’t the right team assigned?

Don’t have the needed expertise?

I just don’t have the time for this?

Have too many other projects?

You’re already working the Ferriss 4 hour work week, and they’ve all been spoken for?

Too many interruptions?

Finding the right collaborators

Get people who say, “I want to help,” and you think “I don’t want your help. Stay off my side!”

People who always talk to the wrong person, and gets the project shut down

Or they open their mouth, and you instantly have to distance yourself from the person?

Accidentally start a turf war?

Manager who says no

Are these the people who say, “You don’t even need to finish your sentence. I’m already saying, ‘No.’”

Is it because they’re freaked out about some other objective.  Like, “I need all eyes on screens, all hands on keyboards.  When I don’t see typie-typie, something is wrong.”  Is that it?

Okay, how about this one?  How many people here have had that great idea, and held themselves back because of a fear of what may happen?  Tell us about that!


I was too afraid

Tell me more.  What specifically were afraid of?

How many people have had this fear?



Let’s Begin

Awesome.  This is a great list of problem statements.  So, let’s

William, based on what we’ve heard, where should we start?

While time not elapsed, do {

William states the problem to work

Gene starts the clock for 6 minutes

Gene listens, and quips and provides color commentary

Gene says, “Who wants to start  by sharing, ‘I have a solution or tips for this problem.  Here’s what I saw, here’s what I did, and here’s what happened?”



Clarify  (e.g., “where did you find these people?”)


Confirm with question asker, “Do these feel like usable answers?”



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Reader Comments (1)

Gene, as someone who was in attendance during this session, I can say to those who weren't that you are being very modest. This session was one of the highlights of the entire week, not necessarily for the issues that were addressed, but for the manner in which they were addressed.

Thanks a ton for the preparation, and for sharing some insights into your methods. I really appreciate it.


March 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertonyfelice
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