A recent Agile conference experience got me thinking about the people who were there, as well as the people who were not there. I also got to thinking about the “why” for both groups of folks.
The People Who Were There
“Whoever comes are the right people” is one of the rules of Harrison Owen’s “Open Space Technology.” It’s meant to assuage any concerns that open space session conveners might have about who does (or doesn’t) show up for their session.
I have my own history with Open Space. I’ve attended numerous Agile Coach Camps, where Open Space is the de facto operating model. I’ve also facilitated an Open Space event for a previous employer.
Open Space is a great way to run an event where attendees all have some commonality — “we all work at the same company” or “we’re all Agile Coaches.” But without that commonality, Open Space might fall flat pretty quickly.
So who did I meet at the conference I attended?
I met folks who were programmers, Scrum Masters, Project Managers, consultants, internal people, long-timers, first-timers, etc. The conference was a welcome cornucopia of people and roles.
Most Valuable Conference Content
My assumption with conference attendees is that everyone wants to make the best use of their time. Whether they’re taking one day away from work, or multiple days; whether their company paid for them to go, or they’re paying out of pocket — attendees want something tangible to show for it. They want to be exposed to something new that they can take back to the workplace with them. They’re shopping for epiphanies.
This may sound controversial, but I think there’s a case to be made that podium-style lectures (“talks”) are no longer the best use of people’s time at Agile conferences. I remember the first few conferences I attended — I loved hearing all of my Agile heroes pontificate on topics from their podiums. But as I did more watched more videos and read more books to fill in the long gaps between conferences, I quickly lost interest in the “lecture” type sessions. Why do I want to travel hundreds of miles to see a talk that will eventually end up on YouTube? (Or might already be on YouTube!)
Individuals and Interactions
Anything that promotes connection and interaction between speakers and audiences (“individuals and interactions”) is the king of high-value conference content. And that comes from things like workshops, where attendees are working with their instructor (and each other) to go deep on a given topic. People crave these types of interactions — particularly after many years of very limited conference opportunities. There interactions make an impression that’s hard to shake. And they’ll gladly pay the price of a conference ticket if they know they’re going to get it.
Let’s take the “individuals and interactions” piece a little further with an example. Imagine sitting in a workshop at a conference that’s being taught by one of your Agile heroes, and you get the opportunity to share some of your real-life experiences and questions with the presenter. And because of the structure of the workshop, you get to spend 10 minutes in deep conversation with the instructor, who provides you some ideas of things to try… and even some bona fide coaching. Better still, after the session adjourns, you’re able to snag the presenter for 20 more minutes of conversation. You even bump into the presenter at lunch and are able to pick their brain for a few more minutes. All told, you’re able to chat with this person 1:1 for about an hour. In the “real world,” this kind of consultation would be costly. In the conference world, it’s part of the price of admission.
The People Who Were Not There
Now that we’ve explored the people who were there, their motives for attending, and what conference presenters can do to provide paramount value to them, let’s give some thought to who wasn’t there.
As Agile — and specifically Scrum — has grown over the past 20 years, roles like Scrum Master, Product Owner, Release Train Engineer, Agile Coach, etc. have become instantiated in organizational charts. I don’t know where we are on the Agile “bell curve” — but I feel pretty comfortable saying we aren’t in the “Early Adopter” phase. And if we somehow are in the “Early Adopter” phase, then we definitely aren’t at the start.
Roles like the ones I’ve mentioned are no longer niche. Most folks with any run time in the software industry have at least heard of these roles — whether or not the firm they’re working for is using some flavor of Agile. There’s also a burgeoning movement of folks who’ve transitioned from “the old way of working” (Waterfall-style Project Managers, for example), to Agile.
I’m specifically struck by the quantity of people that have become Scrum Masters. It’s the role that I gravitated to more than a decade ago, and it’s still a role I love. It’s made a profound impact on my life and professional career. And I’m clearly not the only one. I see people show up on my LinkedIn feed all the time with the job title. And they want to connect with me whether or not we’ve ever met. When I posted job openings in my group over the last year, I saw plenty of resumes. So why didn’t I see an army of Scrum Masters at the conference I recently attended? I have some thoughts on this…
“They Do Agile Conferences?”
This is the most obvious answer — folks just didn’t ever hear about the conference. Or the date or location didn’t work for them. Let’s move on.
“Been There, Done That”
There’s some segment of conference attendees who go to one conference… and that’s enough. Whether they got value out of the experience or not, they make the call that one time is enough. Time and money are likely factors in this decision.
“There’s Nothing There for Me”
There’s also some segment of potential conference attendees who screen the list of speakers and talks and decide that there’s not enough compelling content to get them to buy a ticket and attend. In my experience, this can be a major challenge for conferences. If all of the content is geared towards the process people, then the technical people won’t bother coming. And vice versa. To say nothing of trying to get the “big names” in the Agile community — whether it’s for a keynote or some other featured speaker type slot.
The Vast Majority Weren’t There
I’m confident that the vast majority of people doing the aforementioned roles weren’t at the conference I attended. Regardless of the reason, I’m cognizant that they have something to offer the Agile community (and vice versa). What do they know that we don’t? Do they struggle with the same challenges? Have they found novel solutions for those challenges? Or are they having success with solutions they’ve heard about from others? I have so many questions… and so few answers.
The Speaker Perspective
I’m writing this piece with clear, undeniable bias — I was a speaker at the aforementioned conference. I’ve been a conference speaker a few times in the past, but this time around I pitched a workshop session with a colleague of mine. Yes, we incorporated some lecture into our session, but the centerpiece of the session was time for attendees to do activities to reinforce concepts; and then interact with each other (and us) about the results.
The feedback we received was very positive. And that served to solidify my opinion about workshops being the highest-value pieces of conference content.
But there are undoubtedly implications to the shift from lecture-style to workshop-style content for presenters. First and foremost, the burden is on presenters to put together something impactful. Speaking from experience, designing a brand new workshop took way more time than putting together a collection of slides to present. The time commitment is a major thing, particularly because I’ve been to plenty of conferences where I’ve seen presenters feverishly throwing together slides the night before they’re going to present — sometimes at the pre-conference happy hour. That kind of thing can’t happen in this workshop-style paradigm. It’s just too complex and complicated and favors those who spend time designing something thoughtful. But in my experience, the impact was well worth the time spent.
Conferences are fantastic ways to learn and build connections with the wider Agile community. But the onus is on the Agile community to keep providing valuable conference content for people that are new to the space. Attendees — either actual or prospective — favor content that keeps them engaged. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to present workshops. While there will always be a place for lecture-style content, workshops are where the value lies.