Leeds Digital Festival '17 - a review.

Wow ...whisper it quietly, but I think they might actually have done it...

I think Leeds might actually have a proper, grown-up, outward looking, progressive and downright fun and celebratory digital festival! Amazing!

In case you missed it, last week was Digital Festival week and there were stacks and stacks and stacks of events all over Leeds highlighting much of the awesome stuff that's happening in the city.

It was impossible to get to everything of course but I did my best to get out and see as much as I could. Here's what I did and some of the takeaways I picked up along the way.

Monday morning: How to have Difficult Conversations.

Easily the least 'digital' thing I attended all week but interesting non-the-less.

The event was hosted at the brilliant Futurelabs by Emma Cheshire and was a panel discussion (there was a lot of that) featuring a couple of - surprising friendly - employment law specialists from 3volution and Ruth Richards - an independent HR professional. 

The event's aim was to give advice on those conversations that none of us likes to have but that are sometimes necessary. We all hope that every hire we make turns out well, sometimes they don't though so knowing how best to deal with those situations is a great tool to have.

What we got from all the panellists was practical advice on how to make sure you're the right side of the law if/when you do have a show someone the door. Better than that though, they also shared sensible, common sense advice on how and when to deliver that type of news and the steps you can take along the way to make sure it really is a last resort.

The next time I'm having a 'difficult conversation' with one of my clients I definitely won't be afraid to point them towards Ruth or 3volution if I think they could use some help.

Monday morning: A Creative's Guide to Earning a Living from the Work you Love.

I reckon Matt Essam might be a bit of a rising star on the creative/motivational speaking circuit - his talk on finding out what really makes you tick was one of the most confidently delivered of the week and - in stark contrast to the previous event - was a bit of a rally cry to creatives to make a difference in the world.

Matt told us how he embarked on the career that he thought he wanted - laptops, beaches and far-flung places - but when he got there it left him feeling empty inside. He shared the methodology that helped him understand how to fix it and now he runs courses to help others get there too.

Check him out over at; creative-life.co.uk.

Tuesday morning: Closing the North's Digital Skills Gap.

A self-explanatory title for another of those panel discussions, this was a super interesting event held at the offices of DAC: Beachcroft.

They'd commissioned IPPR North to produce a report on the problem and identify some possible solutions from other schemes running across the world.

Grace Blakely (from IPPR North) delivered the report's finding, sitting alongside Michael Peeters (DAC: Beachcroft) but for me, the most interesting contribution came from Carol Whitworth of Manchester College. They've developed a partnership with Amaze to deliver industry-focused digital courses and it seems to be working. It sounds like properly ground-breaking stuff and a complete no-brainer if we're looking at how to get learning and industry better connected.

Tuesday afternoon: Goal's Digital Review of Football

Owned by Perform Group, Goal.com is the most shared website in the world! They've reporters on every contintent, but their head office is here in Leeds. How cool is that??

Sam and Rob dazzled us with some extraordinary stats and we learnt loads about what does and doesn't drive traffic - Messi and Ronaldo for sure. Man City and Guardiola, not so much - much to their annoyance, apparently.

Check out Goal's short film on Ronaldo here.

Tuesday evening: Bolser's UX Panel/Creative Engagement in Mobile.

Another panel event that in truth turned into a series of presentations. Presenters from NHS Digital, EE, Perform Group and Bolser talked to us about the importance of being 'mobile first' and the unseen challenges involved in getting projects over the line. Oh, and we learnt a bit on the benefit of paying more attention to release notes - interesting stuff.

Wednesday evening: Glug: The Tech Off!

This night was bonkers. Hosted by 'The Beyonce of Tech' - The Tech Off is sort of rap battle for nerds where, on this occasion, creatives faced off against coders. Six contestants (??) had five minutes a piece to extol the virtues of their own profession and trash talk the shortcomings of their rival's.

The crowd was worked up into a frenzy by 'Beyonce' and it was great seeing two or three of the presenters really throwing themselves into it. Those that didn't, bore the brunt of the baying mob!

The event, which started down in Shoreditch (of course it did), has showcased at SXSW in Austin, TX and DMX in Dublin so it's awesome to see it land in Leeds - despite the North vs South trash talk nearly backfiring on the host at the start of the night!

This might well be a marmite event for some but I think we need to be getting more of this into the city - stuff that already exists and has a following further and wider than the borders of Yorkshire. Hat's off the guys at Glug for bringing it up here.

Thursday day: Tech North's Digital Jobs Action Summit.


I spent all day over at Canal Mills for this one - nursing quite a sore head from the night before - it was well worth it though!

The morning was a barrage of talks and (more) panel discussions on why there's a talent shortage, what the barriers to entry are, building the right culture and what the consequences of not solving the problem are. It was a heavy morning but it served to set up an afternoon all about action through workshops and learning about a whole bunch of initiatives that are already in place to help move things forward.

Neil Barnby told us about CODE:4000 - a pilot scheme to help train prisoners coding. Dan Sofer talked about Founders and Coders - an amazing *free* school for aspiring developers in London and just opening in Nazareth, Isreal. Alexa Shoen absolutely killed it when she told us about #ENTRYLEVELBOSS - her groundbreaking career development program. Not to mention North Coders, Geek Talent and Solution Path. It sure was a busy day!

For me, the most interesting talk of them all came from, Lauren Anderson - over from NYC to tell us about the New York City Tech Pipeline. Now there's an example of how an industry and government can come together to solve a problem! And again, wonderful to see someone from outside the region coming along to broaden our horizons. It's also another sign post to say how far this festival is starting to reach. Great stuff.

Thursday evening: The Work/Life Talkshow.

Probably my favourite event of the whole week. Laid back, candid conversations with three really successful business people about what makes them tick - both in and out of the office.

Hosted by the incredibly likeable Dan Akers of LightStart over at the ace Duke Studios, Craig Burton, Achille Traore and Sarah Khan-Bashir answered the questions and we got to hear a bit about what gets them out bed in the morning and how they try to get their work/life balance right.

Keep your eye on the LightStart events page to see if there are any more in the pipeline. I'm definitely up for another one and I might even make it along to one of their Digital Coffee Mornings too.

Thursday evening: Code in the Dark.

I was flagging by now but just time for another trip up to Belgrave Music Hall (the 2nd night running) for Code in the Dark - an event hosted by Epiphany Search.

25 developers are split into five heats of five with the winner of each making it through to the final. Their task, to build the homepage of a famous site, from scratch, in 15 minutes, live in front of a couple of hundred people - all with a banging DJ ramping up the atmosphere and laser beam lighting dancing across the walls! It was a cracking night and a boat load more fun than I was expecting!

Big kudos to the eventual winner - Simon Williams of Engage Interactive.

Friday afternoon: Leeds Digital Job Fair 3.0

Now in third outing, Amy De Balsi (of Herd Careers) has done an amazing job of setting this careers fair up.

All of the city's major employer's are there - SKYBet, ASDA, Morrisons, NHS Digital, Jet2 ...the list goes on - making it a must-see event for anyone looking at breaking in or advancing their career in digital/tech.

Friday afternoon: Moving Content

A series of talks delivered by Creative Race on the power of moving image/animation.

Awe inspiring animation is all well and good but you make it even more powerful when you marry it with a powerful idea and compelling storytelling.

The line of the session; "In design, less is more. In animation, more is more!"

Friday evening: CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

A running theme of the week - at least the events I attended - was the skills/talent gap and the gap is even more acute when it comes to females entering the tech space. That was the theme of this independent documentary shot in Silicon Valley.

Hosted at SKYBet's mega fancy new offices in Wellington Place, we heard from (another) panel that featured Zoe Hebblethwaite of SKYBet and Annie Moss-Quate from She Does Digital before settling down to watch the film.

The film was loaded with female icons working for the likes of Pixar, Pinterest, Strava and GitHub but they're still vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

By this stage of the week, I was on my last legs but I'm so pleased I stuck around for this. As a 30-something-year-old white male, it's easy to overlook the challenges women and minorities face. I know it's there but the solution isn't obvious and it's difficult to know how/where to help.

With films like this and movements like, She does Digital, it feels like now more than ever, there's an appetite to get things done.


So a long but altogether cracking week of events. I don't say that lightly either. it's been one hell of a slog getting the festival to where it is now with more than a couple of false dawns along the way so I was both surprised and delighted to see it making a mark this year.

Well played to the chaps behind it; Stuart Clarke and Tim Brazier and let's hope it becomes a permanent fixture in the diary for years to come - there's no doubt there's plenty for the city to be shouting about!