I spent Monday and Tuesday at the first Agile Open California. I learned several things there, which I hope I’ll find time to blog about over the next couple of days, but I want to start by talking about the format.

Actually before getting into the format, I want to talk about the setting. It was at Fort Mason, which is right on the northern edge of San Francisco, and took place during what must have been the two most delightful days of weather in S.F. that entire year: sunny and right around 80 degrees both days, either of which is a rather improbable event. The conference started with me sitting in a large room with half of my attention out the window looking at the sailboats in the marina and the Golden Gate bridge behind them. On the second day, I discovered the delights of spending free time on an outside stairs/fire escape on the northern side of the building: nice and warm, with a bit of a breeze, and while I couldn’t see the bridge and the marina from there, I could look straight across the bay to the northern shore.

So: hard to beat the setting. As to the format: it was the first time I’d gone to an all-open space conference. No talks prepared in advance: we spent the first thirty minutes or so coming up with the schedule, with people just writing a topic on a piece of paper, standing up and explaining it, and putting it on a schedule grid on the wall. Much to my surprise—I had zero plans of doing this going in—I turned out to be one of those people, because I had something on my mind after last week’s team meeting. (My topic being “I Don’t Like Pair Programming”; I’ll leave that to another blog post, other than to say that the title isn’t really accurate.) At the end of this, we had a schedule that averaged around three sessions at any given time, with me always at least somewhat interested in one of the sessions in any given slot and, as often as not, interested enough in two of them to wish I could be in two places at once. Basically, while hardly a stunning revelation, it was about as good a conference schedule as I’ve seen.

Which brings us to another aspect of open space: while you can’t actually be in two places at once, you are explicitly given your blessing to flit from session to session to follow your interest. I really didn’t do this, though: I stayed in a session from start to finish (except one time when I left early and went out to the aforementioned stairs to hang out and read a book), and pretty much everybody else seemed to do the same. (There may have been a contingent of people who didn’t really go to the sessions at all and just hung out and chatted; I’m not sure.) Part of this was that I was enjoying the sessions, part of this was that the sessions led to intricate enough conversations that I’m not sure I would have gotten a lot out of jumping into the middle of them, and part of this was that there weren’t any times where there were two sessions that both looked really interesting and where the one I went to first proved to be uninteresting.

So: the format doesn’t provide a miracle solution to the “be in two places at once” problem. Which is too bad, but what took me until the second day to realize was that it does provide a solution to another problem. Namely: at some point during grad school, I developed an allergy to lectures. I like learning about things by listening to other people, but I want a chance to talk back, to express all the thoughts that they spark, and to do this with more than one person at once. Which I got to do that for a couple of days, and it was great! Sure, some of the discussions were sort of meh, but some of them were completely fascinating, and I found myself having sudden revelations out of the blue, which I could express immediately, get feedback on, and refine in real time.

Honestly, I might now be spoiled for normal conferences. I won’t propose this as the miracle solution for everything: for one thing, not everybody is as allergic to lectures or likes talking as much as I do, and for another thing it probably works better in a setting where intermediate or advanced practitioners are trying to refine knowledge than, say, a setting where people novice practitioners are trying to acquire knowledge. (At least, that’s what I’d guess, but who knows.) And, while I generally prefer to get my canned knowledge in book or other written form, I’ve been to some wonderful talks in my time. But I tentatively think that this is now my new default best practice for running conferences, and any other format has to justify itself.

One other unusual thing about the conference: the makeup of the audience was rather different from what I’m used to in a setting discussing a technical topic. (Which makes sense, actually: agile focuses a lot on interpersonal matters, and open space probably draws more eccentrics than the norm.) In the closing session, I counted 17 men and 13 women; not all the attendees stayed through that session, but I don’t think the gender ration of the stragglers was particularly different from the rest of the conference. Also, I felt like a minority in either my role as a programmer or my role as a person manager: in particular, there were both more consultants and more product/project managers than I’m used to spending time with. Which is great: always good to be exposed to new viewpoints, they certainly had interesting things to say, and the consultants were people who clearly had a lot of valuable knowledge/experience and whom I would be happy to bring into a project that I was working on.

So: sign me up for next year! (Even if the conference can’t guarantee the same weather again.) Who knows, maybe I’ll even gather up a bit of foolhardiness and volunteer to help organize.

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