Beyond brown bags: DevCon 2012 (and how to set one up yourself!)
Using the open-spaces format, the development team at Getty Images gathered for a day to focus on knowledge sharing, speculation and general geek-ery.
Of course, we mixed in a little schwag to keep the ‘conference’ label official, but this was a little more than a typical brown-bag or learning lunch writ large. The energy of the entire development community at Getty Images participating over the course of a day allowed each session to grow stronger, leaving a lasting impression.
An open-spaces conference is a little different if you haven’t participated in one before. It is, essentially, a participant-driven event. The organizers provide time and space and a little direction. The participants do the rest. They plan the available time together using a fairly quick process (more on that later) and then get to it. In a given session you may be a contributor (you know something of the subject and are helping to drive) or a learner (soaking up the knowledge and asking questions). As you attend sessions through out the day, your role in any particular session varies according to your interest and knowledge.
Our day had sessions ranging from 30 people attending a traditional PowerPoint lecture to two people pairing on a coding problem. Each represents an engaged community digging into what they were most interested in. Most of the topics were related directly to work we are currently doing here, but some were speculative.
We put no limit on topics, and though we called it a ‘developer’ conference, we used the term in the most inclusive sense – design, develop, deploy were all fair game. We had developers, testers, operations, designers and managers all participating to great effect on topics ranging from Hadoop to low-fi sketching in design to effective retrospectives.
The benefits of an internal conference of this sort are numerous, even in an organization that has brown-bag type learning opportunities. As a development group, we shared significant knowledge across team boundaries aiding current projects. Common affinities were revealed which will aid targeted training in the future. Most importantly, infectious enthusiasm was built up for an upcoming season of challenges.
How did we do it? A few core principles make things work:
Whoever comes are the right people
Don’t worry about having an expert. Don’t worry that one session has two people and one has 30. The right people showed up.
Whenever it starts is the right time
The schedule is a tool, not a master.
What happened is all that could’ve happened
Don’t get hung up on things going as planned. Enjoy what happens. Adjust and move on.
When it’s over, it’s over
Again, the schedule is a necessary tool but not a driver. The conversation in a session might last minutes or hours. If it is minutes and then the topic is exhausted, there is no need to continue. Move on guilt-free. The corollary, of course, is that a particularly valuable session might continue past its allotted time – that’s ok, too. It may have to move to accommodate a new session, but it can continue.
The Law of Two Feet
If you aren’t learning or contributing in a given session, exercise your feet to find a session in which you will. Your only commitment is to find a place where you can learn or contribute. For the organizers, we aren’t selling tickets, and we don’t judge a session’s value by attendance; encouraging attendees to take this seriously is key.
Roll Your Own Conference!
Our day was technology focused but, of course, the format allows for any range of topics as long as the participants are invested. Here’s how you might create your own:
It is critical that management understands the benefits and supports the goals of having an internal conference. The expense of putting the thing on (a few hundred bucks depending on who buys lunch) is insignificant next to the cost of a day of lost productivity, if that is the perception. As an organizer, be prepared to explain the benefits. Be pro-active about collecting feedback. Make sure that potential attendees know that they are encouraged to take part, not just begrudgingly allowed. Getty Images Application Development is agile. We reflect and experiment with our process to improve. Our leaders bought into experimenting with the conference as a continuation of that commitment.
Find a Day and the Space
Simple, I know, but probably the most challenging aspect of an internal conference of this nature is finding a day when people can attend. A good mix of people is critical to success. Likewise, finding the room to host can be challenging. Ideally, it’s a space that takes people out of their normal routine. We used an empty floor of our building which worked well, concrete dust aside. The number of concurrent sessions is determined by your ability to host those discussions – rooms or space available so the discussion area noise don’t compete against each other.
Layout the Schedule
Four or five blocks of about 45 minutes to an hour is typical. The layout of your physical space may determine how many concurrent sessions you can run – we had room for six. More sessions allow more topics but too many concurrent topics can be frustrating to those forced to choose. On the planning day, you’ll create a matrix on a wall (painter’s tape is the tool of choice) that is your schedule.
Fill the Slots
You have a schedule that needs to be filled. This is the challenge of the day but once it gets going, it’s a whole lot of fun. Have a table with Astrobrite paper (or similar) and sharpies. People write the topic they are interested in on the paper, and then very quickly present it to the group – think elevator pitch in a three-floor building. They are not saying “I am a genius in X and want to impress you all with it” but rather that they are interested in the subject and would show up to talk about it. “I want to talk about effective paired programming strategies.” Simple. Once the topics have all been presented, tape them to a wall. Give your group 10 minutes or so to put a mark on the topics they are interested in – they can mark as many topics as they are interested in but may only mark a topic once. Simply sum the ticks and the put the highest-interest topics into the matrix you taped on the wall. Your schedule is done! Well, sort of. Take a second look at your schedule. Did you schedule multiple sessions with the same key contributor at the same time? Did you provide related sessions with a logical progression a path for attendance? A quick check here can save a lot of problems.
Enjoy the rest of the day
The rest of the way it is just a matter of choosing a session and voting with your feet!