Editor’s note: We’re sharing the stories of the apps and developers who were chosen to receive early access to the Layer service.
Today’s Q&A is with Web Summit CTO Tony Ennis. Web Summit is the tech event to attend in Europe and it’s growing more than 100 percent year over year. This year was the first that the Web Summit team built its own app to enable communications at the event. We chose Web Summit’s to be among the first apps with access to Layer because of the opportunity it has to connect a global, growing community of like-minded people. Not just at the annual event, but leading up to it and afterward. Get to know Tony or any of the Web Summit people and, like us, you’ll think the sky’s the limit for what this team can do.
Layer: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you join Web Summit and what did you do prior?
TE: I joined Web Summit 18 months ago, before the 2012 event. I’d always built software. Before joining the Web Summit team I built a social competition platform which we still use quite a bit in here. We were based in an Irish incubator called NDRC Launchpad before Paddy convinced me to join the team.
Layer: You guys are on fire. Last year’s event more than doubled, and this year’s did, too, right?
TE: Correct. Last year’s event went from 2,000 to more than 5,000 attendees but I think we hit a tipping point with 2013. The most unprecedented part, and the part we’re most excited about, is that at year’s event over 80% of our attendees were international. That’s 8,000 people from more than 90 countries visiting our little island.
Layer: Why do you think Web Summit has been so successful?
TE: We’ve got a great team that puts on a fantastic event. Our speakers team convinces the highest quality people to come and speak, our marketing team brings in great new attendees and our production team brings it all together and executes an amazing experience. Existing attendees then tell others what a great time they had and the cycle begins again. Frankly it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride – we just keep getting bigger and bigger and hearing that the event gets better and better. Next year’s event will be our best yet.
Layer: This was the first year you built your own app. What led you to the conclusion that you should?
TE: The longer our attendee list gets, the more difficult it becomes for our attendees to network and to separate the signal from the noise. Previously the numbers were small enough that this wasn’t a problem, but as I mentioned, we hit a tipping point this year. The event will (hopefully) continue to grow, and providing a meaningful networking experience for our attendees is something that we see as our responsibility and something that will be core to our success as we scale. There are lots of third party companies who provide tools to do this, but we put a lot of thought into it and ultimately decided that in order to provide a consistent, cross platform experience the best option was to build it ourselves.
Layer: How did it work out?
TE: We viewed this year as an experiment. We started by allowing anyone who bought a ticket to log in to thesummit.me, where they could edit their profile, update their details, connect their LinkedIn/Twitter accounts, and search through other attendees. We then built an API and released iOS, Android, and Windows apps which allowed people to search our entire attendee database by name, profession, industry, or country. People could then create lists of prospects, connect on LinkedIn, and chat in real time with anyone else attending the event. Because this was all powered by one API it was consistent across all of our mobile apps and online. Of course they also had the usual features such as viewing the agenda and venue map, favoriting time slots and getting more info on the event and side events.
Layer: And then you need to build the infrastructure. How did building the infrastructure go?
TE: Well, I’ll start by saying that the infrastructure was tricky because it wasn’t something we’d ever built before. Our main API consists of a simple rails app which stores attendees, companies, timeslots and other resources in a Postgres database. This part wasn’t too challenging, but we figured that building a chat API for several thousand concurrent users might be a little trickier. We decided the best option was to use Node.js as it could easily handle the type of concurrency we were looking for. We used MongoDB to store messages and conversations, and redis to interface between our main API and our chat API, allowing us to check certain user permissions without touching our main Postgres database. We then used Pusher to allow our mobile apps to send and receive messages in real time, and hosted everything on EngineYard. Our first line of code was written 7 weeks before the event, so as you can imagine it was an intense few weeks.
It was complicated, which shows you why using Layer makes a hell of a lot of sense. And this was just for simple messaging.
Layer: What’s the vision for the app going forward?
TE: Now that we’ve successfully built the basic features, we’re going to spend the next few months refining them, talking to attendees and improving. There’s a lot more stuff we want to build that we think will enhance the attendee experience, and the beauty of the nature of our events is that we have a full year to do it. We’re also considering opening up the API to allow others to build their own features.
For more information visit the 2014 Web Summit conference.