What I learned from Velocity Barcelona 2014: Reflections on Human Factors, Safety and WebOps

I went to Velocity EU 2014 in Barcelona this week – the conference for web operations/WebOps people (around 2000 participants in the US, around half that in Europe). Velocity is a great conference. The schedule is here. I went to talk about life after ‘human error‘, but went into various sessions throughout the day thinking it would all be over my head. Some of it was, but some resonated a lot.

I made a few observations which might be interesting to anyone into safety and human factors/ergonomics (HF/E), especially with regard to HF/E and safety in WebOps and with regard to our own conferences.

Human Factors/Ergonomics in Web Operations (WebOps)

1. WebOps is critically important. WebOps is, from my understanding, about building, maintaining and improving the web, with a focus on speed, availability, capacity, and resilience. WebOps is about socio-technical systems. It is obviously critical to society in many ways, not just for commerce and personal communication but also for safety and security, since many safety- and security-related organisations rely on web performance for information exchange.

2. WebOps has nearly no professional human factors/ergonomics capability. The HF/E issues for WebOps are similar to those for many other organisations that we pay a lot of attention to. Despite the fact that this field is critical for society, and growing fast, WebOps is hardly touched by the discipline or profession of HF/E. There are significant opportunities for human factors specialists to help here with respect to design, engineering, culture, safety and security. The systems perspective of human factors is critical here.

3. The WebOps community is doing it for themselves. What is encouraging is that there are a number of people within the WebOps community who are not only curious and very smart, but are developing, applying and generating knowledge on HF/E and safety. These people include John Allspaw (@allspaw, Etsy), Morgan Evans (@NeonMorgan, Etsy), Lindsay Holmwood (@auxesis, Flapjack), Mathias Meyer (@roidrage, Travis CI), Daniel Schauenberg (@mrtazzEtsy), Jonathan Klein (@jonathankleinEtsy) and others. Hat tip goes to John Allspaw here for leading the way on human factors and safety in WebOps (looks like we got ourselves some readers…; Ashgate publishers [@ashgatehf] is doing very well out of these WebOps folk). They are talking about it. They are trying it out. They are learning and communicating based on what they find. Examples include the use of progressive safety thinking in ‘post-mortems’ (discussions of outages or major incidents). (Check out John here giving a tutorial [for Etsy in 2011] about Outages, Post Mortems, and Human Error 101 [50 mins]). Jonathan Klein did a brilliant story-based talk on cognitive biases in engineering integrating multiple perspectives. Vanessa Hurst (@DBNessco-founder of  and ) did a great keynote on cultures of continuous learning (more later on this). Alois Reitbauer (Ruxit) talked in his keynote about monitoring without alerts, and why it might make more sense than you think. Some of the talks were a crossover between web performance and UX. Speedcurve’s Creative Director Mark Zeman (@MarkZeman) did an excellent keynote on better performance through better design.

Human Factors/Ergonomics conferences – What can we learn from WebOps?

1. Make it fun and informal. Velocity is a fun conference. Several of the speakers were really funny and this helps a lot. The conference opened – before anyone went on stage – with a brilliant music video which fit the conference vibe. People were dressed however they wanted. The chairs opened Velocity in an informal and friendly way. This year’s is not on youtube yet but last year’s is; see here for a Velocity US 2013 opener.

2. Focus more on practice. Velocity is a practitioner conference. HF/E conferences tend to be dominated by researchers for various reasons. Publishing research is part of the reward structure in academia. This does not seem to be the case for practitioners, but I (and many others) think this is misguided. We need more practice-oriented and practitioner-client focused conferences. Thankfully, we do have some of these, where HF/E practitioners, clients and other stakeholders get together to discuss applied HF/E in an accessible way, such as Human & Organisational Factors in the Oil, Gas & Chemical Industry and Human Factors: Improving Quality & Safety in Healthcare. But generally, we need to more focus on practice, and on communicating in a practice-friendly way. For this, practitioners must be prepared to share what they know and what they do, and they must have space to share this in a way that connects with other practitioners.

3. Encourage multiple streams of communication. I think 99% of the participants were professionally active on social media. People were sharing their thoughts on various social media platforms all the way through. Check out the twitter stream. OK, so these people work on the web for the web, but still…we in HF/E need to work harder at this.

4. Include important yet neglected professional topics. There were several talks on generally important yet neglected practice issues such as diversity and gender. Check out the straight-talking and funny Laine Campbell (@LaineVCampbell, Chief Unicorn at Pythian) on ‘Recruiting for diversity in tech’. We rarely seem to have such presentations in human factors or safety conferences. We need them.

Another great presentation was that of Marni Cohen from Puppet Labs. I wondered how we might promote more reflective practice-oriented sessions in our conferences. In a feat of high-geekery which might as well have been magic to me, she used GitLab. To quote from Marni’s about file:

The purpose of this is to provide resources about feminism. It isn‘t the endall-source, it doesn‘t automatically make you a good person for downloading, it‘s just another tool for learning. The commands ‘conf‘, ‘ugh‘, and ‘adviceall pull random quotes from a questionaire. The questionaire was aimed at women and gender minorities in the tech industry, to provide an outlet for their stories. By the time the survey was done, I had recieved more stories than I had time to share in my talk, so I created this program to help share experiences. Seventy-five women and gender minorities responded to the survey with a broad range of experiences.

Marni typed commands to present her material on mansplaining, micro-aggressions and other experiences. You can find the ‘retro-slides’ here and some audiovisual material here. Most interesting on the day for me were the experiences that Marni related from the questionnaire respondents.

Also relevant here is – again – Vanessa Hurst’s (@DBNessco-founder of  and ) talk on cultures of continuous learning. Vanessa, like Marni, spoke for instance about stereotype threatimposter syndrome and Dunning-Kruger effect. See Vanessa here:

Velocity was informal and fun, with a lot of networking and a focus on practice. And yes, it was geeky. But then again, when I met John Allspaw the night before the conference, he said he wanted to talk about (and I quote) “nerdy stuff“. What he meant was human factors. It’s all about (multiple) perspectives.


About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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