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Caffeinated Coder A Grande, Triple Shot, Non-Fat Core Dump by Russell Ball

[NOTE: First of many posts on the ALT.NET conference in Austin that I attended this weekend]

Initial Doubts - Before I left for the ALT.NET conference, one of my co-workers mentioned that he had visited the conference site and was a little "under-whelmed" by the agenda. I must admit that his comment caused me to suddenly doubt the wisdom of my decision to attend the event.

I was used to large, well-organized conferences like Tech Ed and VSLive where you had hundreds of detailed abstracts to choose from. By contrast, the open space "self-organization" approach, which relies upon the participants to set the agenda during the opening of the conference, seemed hopelessly idealistic and destined to produce lots of unproductive time haggling over unimportant details or discussing tangents.

I was stilled very excited about the chance to interact with so many notable technical leaders in a small group environment (the list of attendees included Martin Fowler, Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman, Roy Osherove, Jeremy Miller, David Laribee, Jamie Newkirk, and many more), but my expectations for the open spaces format were pretty low.

What Actually Happened – The process of creating an agenda was informative and painless. After some opening introductions and discussions around the purpose of the conference (the meaning and appropriateness of the name ALT.NET led to quite a few lively debates), everyone was given a chance to write their ideas for sessions on sticky notes and then briefly present them to the group before placing them in a time slot on a large white board.

It worked well to have the participants do this one at a time and share their thoughts with the group before submitting them, because you could tangibly see how each idea inspired other ideas since people would often jump up after listening to someone in order to quickly scribble their own thoughts for session.

Once the momentum for session brainstorming subsided, participants put their initials on the sessions they were interested in attending and then let the organizers go off by themselves to renegotiate the final schedule and assign rooms based on topic commonalities and the amount of interest in certain topics.

The sessions themselves also went a lot smoother than I expected. Although the person who suggested the idea often started each session by elaborating on their original idea, every session I was in quickly took on a life of their own so that an outsider wouldn't have been able to discern who the original facilitator was.

If I was new to a topic, I had a chance to guide the discussion by asking questions targeted at exactly what I didn't understand. If I was knowledgeable on the topic, then I could help solidify my understanding by trying to articulate my own experiences and insights or else toss out more advanced questions for the other experienced people in the group.

Regardless of the experience level, everyone in the group did an amazing job at critically evaluating every tool, concept, and assumption that was discussed. I think I learned more about the process of how to critically evaluate a tool or technology in order to truly grok its strengths and weaknesses than I did anything about any particular technology.

Conclusions  - During the closing comments, everyone got in a circle and shared their impressions of the conference. As I was waiting for the germ-infested, squishy stress ball to be passed to me, I realized that I actually liked this conference a lot more than I did TechEd or VSLive.

Although conferences are a good way to remove the distractions of home and work and switch you into a learning mode, I find the passive, one-way communication format of traditional conference sessions to be one of the least efficient ways of learning. When I am reading a book, watching a web cast, or even listening to a pod cast, I have control over the pace and can fast forward/skim over non-relevant content, pause it if I am craving some hands-on experience to solidify the knowledge, or rewind if I am just not groking the material. However, at traditional conferences I have no control over the learning and find that I either learn a lot less or else totally tune out because the pace of the presentation rarely matches my own needs.

By contrast, the more socratic approach of an open spaces conference allowed me to take a much more active role in negotiating the pace and also exposed me to a level of critical thinking that I have never seen during a presentation. I think this is mostly because traditional presentation formats do not encourage participants to express their questions when they are naturally appropriate and relevant, so conversations rarely occur. If they do, discussions rarely build up enough momentum to get at the core of an issue.

In summary, I think that my days of going to large conferences to do anything other than speak myself are over. Although I find the act of preparing and delivering a presentation is a great way for me to learn and the conversations you have technical leaders and developers who are passionate about their craft are invaluable, I just don't like being on the receiving end of a one way communication stream that I can't control. I much prefer this open space format and sincerely hope that this type of conference becomes more common in the future.

Posted on Monday, October 8, 2007 8:14 AM Reviews | Back to top


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