What should happen at conferences

Last week, the Software Association of Oregon hosted a one-day Open Space conference.

Accompanied by Andrew Richards, Stephanie El-Hajj, and a cadre of SAO and Portland QASIG / DevSIG volunteers, Diana Larsen did a masterful job facilitating 160 people gathered (at first) in a huge circle of chairs.

An Open Space conference is one where the agenda and speakers are unknown. No one knows what will happen until they get there and start thinking about what they want to talk about. The theme was “Blurring the Line Between QA and Dev in an Agile Environment”, but that was the only structured idea to start with. People were about to shortly discover where their brain met their heart to figure out what to do next.

Diana asked anyone who wanted to solve a problem to write up a short title on a piece of paper and talk about it for 20 seconds or so in front of the huge circle. Then they’d tack it up to a huge bulletin board that had time slots and spaces to talk more deeply about it. Then people would decide what most resonated with them.

It just worked. It met a variety of explicit and implicit requirements to many degrees.

The energy was not too light or too strong. Discussions happened in parallel, allowing people to “vote with their feet” if a topic strayed into malaise for them. At the end, Diana hosted a short retrospective where everyone got a chance to talk (very briefly) about what happened for them. And everyone did, and it was useful.

It was hard to jump from that wonderful con-FER-ence to one where I thought it would be the opposite.

The next day I was scheduled to speak at the Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) Summit at Microsoft.

ALM Summit Organizer Keith Pleas had approached me back in July saying”We’re targeting the ALM practitioner / lead more than the journeyman developer, and we’re going to be doing sessions more on ‘best practices’ than product features.”

Uh oh.

“Best practices” around what Wikipedia labels “a continuous process of managing the life of an application through governance, development and maintenance… the marriage of business management tosoftware engineering made possible by tools that facilitate and integrate requirements management, architecture, coding, testing, tracking, and release management.”


Knowing that it was going to be held at Microsoft, and that staff from Visual Studio Team System were major players, I did not have high hopes that it was going to be very interesting for me. It looked like a Microsoft tool-driven conference with preachers preaching to those who already had the tools? I wasn’t sure. Just an impression.

I assumed it was going to be as opposite from that Open Space as I could imagine – a dry conference with lots of Information Technology or Enterprise Process Engineering executives wearing three-piece suits.

True to my assumptions, when I walked into building 33 on the Microsoft campus last Thursday, it wasn’t long before I heard many platitudes from speakers:

* “The sooner you fix a bug, the cheaper it is to fix”…

* “Get testing involved earlier in the process”…

* “Communication and management buy-in are very important”…

Attendees (about the same number as that Open Space in Portland) had no choice but to listen. There was one room, one track, all day… one speaker after another.

But to my surprise, the Twittersphere natives at the ALM conference – the ones using the #almsummit hashtag – were growing restless with this kind of talk.

cacharbe: Ok, we get it, everyone is using Agile. Can we move on to the content?

caffeinatedgeek:@erwillekeI was hoping we would be moving on to the”real world”; HOW and challenges, and not rehashing the WHAT and WHY!

arcs001: After three days of#almsummitwe are getting a little bit repetitive…

bsktcase: It’s 2010 and this is ALM Summit. WE don’t need to be sold on agility! We are ready for NEXT steps! Is this what we are saying?

shai_rai: All sessions on Agile Testing at #ALMSummit are using the same Demo and Scenario – Where is The Transparency???

learntfs: Few are showing what they actually DO on their team. Maybe fearing it looks too much like waterfall?#mindreading

ChadGreen: I love gated checkins and its saved my teams, but how many times do we need to hear about it at

AlexandreLobao: I believe #ALMSummit should have (at least) 2 tracks: 1 for starters, with basics, other focused on real-life problems and advanced topics.

@caffeinatedgeek:feeling like groundhog day at #almsummit. If you only have ONE track, the sessions should be unique.

chrislowndes:#almsummit now turning into TechEd, Season 2, Episode 5 [repeat]

As I monitored the stream of tweets, I saw that the guy next to me had Tweetdeck open, too. His name was Eric Willeke and not only was he tweeting, he was scheduled to be the next speaker (after lunch).

He tweeted the seed of an idea:

@erwilleke:I’m willing to facilitate roundtables rather than speak today w/ event organizer permission…#almsummit

When he leaned over to tell me his idea, I was sold as soon he had said “What if…?”

All I needed to know was that this guy was reacting to emerging information and was *doing* something novel about it. He was like a developer reacting to results from an exploratory test. How could I NOT like this guy?!?

Conference organizer Keith Pleas sat to his left. Eric leaned the other way and whispered to him the idea.

With this, Keith said, “Let me take the temperature of the room about it before lunch.”

And when the current speaker finished (to polite applause), Keith did exactly that. He went to the front of the auditorium and told everyone Eric’s idea. It got a rousing ovation.

And with that, the attendees and organizers of the 3-day ALM Summit were about to self-organize. They were responding to change over following a plan – not just words in slides or in a popular Manifesto, but actions. It was a beautiful, simple, organic thing – no politics, no hesitation, no fear. Just smart colleagues freeing themselves with a simple idea.

Eric was the right guy to lead this insurrection. Without dogma or drama, he took the lectern in the large ballroom where lunch was winding down an hour later. He got everyone’s attention and introduced the idea:

“Seekers”, anyone in the audience who had questions or problems to which they wanted answers, would seek counsel from “consultants”, any volunteer who had something constructive to say about it. They’d meet at tables and anyone else could sit in and listen. Simple as that.

He timed-boxed it and facilitated the 3 or 4 rules that went along with it. It was focused and energetic, and it ended right on time – just in time for me to speak next.


I had to follow *that*?!?

I had to follow the rave (and inevitable) success of a self-organizing team with a strong mission and a strong leader?

Uh oh…

Good thing I’m speaking about exploratory testing. There was no better segue to talk about a testing approach built on the idea of adapting to emerging information, coupled with notions of Agile Development.

I like to think I brought my A-game to my presentation. I did adapt my talk a bit – punched it up to emphasize (and honor) what had just happened in Eric’s impromptu dojo, but really… what speaker can rank against a group of smart, passionate people whohave just replaced a rigid structure that was not meeting expectations?

That, dear friends, is what makes me excited to stage CAST 2011 in Seattle next year.

As James and I plan CAST, we promise it will be built to embrace change. That is our theme, after all -Context-Driven Testing- where Q and A will be facilitated and great ideas will be honored (and tried) if there’s energy around them. If we need to, we will respond to change over following our plan, especially if it means people get to really CONFER at our conference like they did at the SAO’s Open Space and those few adaptive hours at the ALM Summit.

In the meantime, my three heroes this week are Keith Pleas, Eric Willeke, and Diana Larsen.

These three folks embody what it really means to agile and self-organizing, but with grace and simplicity. All three helped to remind me that the word *confer* is the root of the word “conference”, but also proved why *commune* is the root of the word “community”.

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