Agile Open California 2008 was yesterday and today; like last year, it was a wonderful experience. I’m a bit too tired to post much now, but the bare-bones report:

It started off a bit slow: in a corporate building (which was perhaps more functionally laid out than last year’s, but sorely lacking in sailboats and the Golden Gate Bridge), with a main room that was badly shaped (long and narrow) for all the participants to be all sitting in a circle together. And then came the call for sessions, and a lot of people seemed to have actual presentations that they wanted to give, instead of conversations that they wanted to have. (In retrospect, such people were probably overrepresented among those who were first to nominate their sessions, since they clearly came prepared.)

But then, the magic of open space begins: just like last year, I had no intention at all of leading a session when I showed up, but then I found myself thinking “hmm, we’re about linking principles with practices, and I just saw a very interesting set of principles recently”, and the next thing you know I was up there suggesting a session on Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order. And, showing my lack of imagination, I then remembered another book that I’d read recently, and decided to propose a session on code generation. (Which really was a bit half-baked; once I’d thought about it for a bit more, I decided that what I really wanted was a session on Refactoring Writ Large. Fortunately, I’d scheduled it for the second day, so I was able to explain the changed title during the evening news.)

I started by going to a discussion on distributed teams, which is certainly relevant to me at work right now; I decided to experiment a bit with wandering around, so I left halfway through and stuck my head in the other sessions, but decided that none of them suited my taste (and in particular the one other I was interested in seemed to be more of a presentation than a conversation), and I ended up back in the distributed teams conversation. In another time slot, I started with one on tools because the person running it seemed like the sort of person who had interesting things to say, but I quickly decided that I wasn’t interested in getting the sorts of things out of it that she was, so I went to one about performance reviews in an agile context, which turned into a lovely discussion among four or five of us. A third session I attended was on TDD and emergent design: the person running it wanted to have a chat related somehow to the topic, had no idea how it was going to work in detail, so it took a few minutes to get going; but 15 minutes into the session we were having a great conversation, and probably a more interesting one than if the convener had had a stronger agenda at the start! And, being a sucker for lean, I couldn’t skip the one on lean and TOC; the convener had a presentation available, which he was willing to either use or not use; I actually asked him to run through some of it, because the one slide he had up got me curious, and then he ran into a rather, um, aggressive crowd. I felt sorry for the poor guy, but I guess that’s the way these things work: the people in open space conferences have their points of view they want to express and their ways that they’d like the conversation to flow, and the mere fact that you’re convening a session doesn’t give you any particular privilege to get the crowd to play along with you!

The second day was a really wonderful example of what can happen at conferences like this, where you can find a small group of people to explore any topic you’re curious about: I started my day discussing agile and adaptive parenting with three others, and my Christopher Alexander topic was also quite far out on the fringe of the conference. (And I’m very grateful to the other people who attended that session for being willing to go along with me and help me try to figure that out. I’ll definitely put up a longer blog post about that one.) I also went to one on pride, which was interesting because, having just listened to Bob Martin talk about craftsmanship on the drive up, I’d assumed it was about pride as a good thing; but the convener had intended it to be about how pride could cause problems on an agile team! This lead to a great discussion, going in all sorts of directions. And I had my Refactoring Writ Large session, again a pleasant discussion.

I was surprised at how few repeat participants there were—Rob Myers, where were you?—but there were several faces that I was happy to see again, several people in my Twitter feed that I was happy to meet in person, and several people whom I met for the first time whom I’ll look forward to interacting with in the future. In general, the “gathering of the tribes” feeling was a welcome reminder: I’ve spent a lot of time recently in video game communities at the expense of, among other things, blogging about agile, and this was an important reminder to me that agile is important to me and that I don’t want to neglect that part of my life.

Going back to my misgivings at the start of the conference: for all I know, there might have been many sessions that were more presentations than discussions. (Just comparing the number of participants, the number of simultaneous sessions, and the number of people in the sessions that I attended suggests that I spent more time in the fringes of the conference than in the popular bits.) But I wasn’t in them, so even if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter to me: I got out of the conference what I wanted to, and if other people wanted something different and got that different thing out of the conference, that’s wonderful! I left the conference feeling energized, and judging from the atmosphere in the room, I was far from the only one.

And I will stick with my opinion from last year: open space works remarkably well, to the extent that I’m not sure I want to go to conferences run any other way any more. (Well, I guess that’s not completely true, given that I am very much looking forward to AYE next month, but I bet that conference has its own idiosyncrasies in its organization.) It’s amazing how well it works to gather together people who are interested in a topic and let them run free.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.