Thursday, May 15, 2014

Of conferences and things

by Richard Vowles

Planning boards from Illegal Argument Conference
I am notorious about how I feel about Conferences. In fact, I have gotten into trouble with people over being outspoken particularly about face-forward conferences, and with the recent Code Mania, I thought I would take the time to explain my point of view.

Now don't get me wrong - people who organise tech conferences are showing the best side of humanity in my opinion, they almost never get rewarded for the effort they put in and there are always critics, like me, who complain, so they do a a job that few people, except those who have organised tech conferences understand.

What prompted me to post this is that I was listening to a podcast of In Beta on the way home - now that they have stopped talking about Twitter they actually have some interesting topics, but I asked myself - would I rather listen to a  podcast on the way home, or would I rather have an person experienced in a topic I was interested in in the car with me on the way home. Would I rather have a dialog or passively listen?

I asked the same question of my wife who loves Science oriented podcasts - would you prefer the to listen to the Naked Scientists or would you prefer to have them in your vehicle as you drive so you could have discussions with them?

Face forward conferences - where the speaker is up front sharing slides and/or code and talking to them, these to me are like podcasts you can't fast forward through. Sometimes that works when someone is an expert about a topic you know nothing about, but want to (e.g. distributed logging). however, isn't a video a better use of your time? You can fast forward through the rhetoric, through the justification and get to the meat. Take a post from +Michael Mahemoff - who shared a link to what appears to be a face-forward presentation from Open World Forum on a particular open source monitoring stack (or combination of tools is probably a better phrase) based on Logstash and a few others. Now in itself, this to me is a five minute presentation - less the rhetoric.

Sometimes however, you want the justifications - they help with convincing those in charge of purse strings that something is worth doing.

Given the "watch a video" delivery vs attending "someone delivering a video to you in real life", who goes to these kind of conferences? There appear to be two types (obviously a generalization) - the corporate employee who has an allocated training budget and the socialiser who primarily goes for the hall-way conversations. We could say all sorts of people who chose to spend their training budgets on conferences at least 50% filled with content they can not apply to their jobs, but really, isn't the second type of person really better served by a conference where all you actually do is talk in the hallway? Wouldn't a mechanism to allow people who want to talk in the hallway about some particular topic work better with a little better organisation? Oh, that would be an Unconference.

Unconferences tend to allow groups of people who want to talk about similar kinds of topics to get together and talk about those topics. They tend to work well when they are wildly generic around a certain area and well-known solutions to the problems are not well known. How vague is that? Lets go to where they don't tend to work - or they work, but not for a certain kind of person. Unconferences tend to focus on sharing of experiences and showing tidbits of work - this is good for people who haven't solved those problems or on the way to solve those problems, but it is terribly dull for those who have solved those problems. Experts in a more most fields tend not to attend a session in an unconference on a topic they are expert in because they aren't learning anything, so you get the almost solved or generally interested attending such sessions. Sometimes you have people who don't perceive themselves as experts but have a wealth of background and are passionate (e.g. when talking about testing or CI) still attend and there are many unexperienced people, and those are often gold

Unconferences can work, but they don't when people are just trying to bolster numbers vs actually focus on a topic or set of topics where people haven't solved those problems yet. The best unconferences actually decide their topics up front based on who is attending (such as Citcon - thats pronounced Kitkon) so they get focus, and that lets people bail if they aren't interested in those topics rather than wasting a day. It also lets people who are interested in those topics really get value out of it. However when the topic is fairly narrow (Citcon is continuous integration and testing, a topic that largely hasn't changed in the last five years) then going to more than two of these conferences can get pretty dull.

But hold on? Aren't those the only two models?

No, not really, you have code camps (1+ days), micro code camps (like the Code Lounge that I run) which usually last half a day to a day, there are all sorts of tech focused events.

I run the Code Lounge like I do because it allows me to suggest topics that I am interested in, list them, garner interest and then schedule them. They are focused, short and to the point. And the only people to attend are those that actually are interested in the topic.

If I were to run a conference again (and I ran two, a face forward and then an unconference), what would it look like? I've talked quite a bit about that with +Mark Derricutt and +Greg Amer on +Illegal Argument when I was still on that podcast. For me it would go something like this:

  • Organiser(s) determine general topics and call for suggested papers
  • People vote on papers and others offer to present based on remuneration, etc
  • Papers once agreed on by Organiser(s) are put out as a schedule - if its free, people just vote, otherwise they have to stump up some cash - or the supporting companies have to for the people producing papers to create videos of their content
  • Rounds happen where Organisers help coach presenters on how best to present their content, material is uploaded and conference attendees are able to see.
  • People are allowed to post questions for discussion during conference, they can be voted on
  • On the day, the presenter gives a 5 minute overview of their presentation and starts going through the questions from top to bottom discussing and taking points from the attendees
  • Ample free corridor and work-together time is to be had

Organisers can always sell on (with a cut to the presenters) the video and Q&A session of the conference.

Thats possibly a lot more work, but it would be really interesting to go to such a blended conference.

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