Doing peer conferences right

peer conferencesSoftware testers do peer conferences right! (They even call them a peer conference, rather than unconference, a term I don’t like.) As evidence of software tester conference awesomeness, I offer three examples below. But first…

…a short history of the peer conference

I first designed and convened what I called a “peer conference” in 1992 for a group of IT managers at small schools that eventually became known as edACCESS.

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and software developer, I got to know a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works. After I talked about my meeting design work with pioneer tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, the testing community somehow adopted the term peer conference for their get-togethers.

My code development days are long gone. I miss hanging out with the folks I got to know at these events. (Though I’m still in touch with some of them.) Regardless, peer conferences in the world of software testing are still alive and thriving!

And now…

Three examples of how software testers do peer conferences right

1. The 2022 SoCraTes peer conference

Lisi Hocke wrote a long detailed post about her first-timer experience at the 2022 SoCraTes (Software Craft and Testing) peer conference held in Soltau, Germany.

For a quick visual impression of the event, watch this!


Here are some illustrative extracts from Lisi’s post.

Keeping participants safe

Feeling safe is an important psychological requirement for people in any situation, and conferences are no exception (1, 2, 3). Lisi shares another participant’s experience:

Providing a welcoming and supportive environment for first-time participants

SoCraTes 2022 included a Foundation Day “with less people and hence a smaller crowd to get used to. A day covered with fundamental topics without them being too basic, so I learned a lot even with topics I knew about. A day where we had a schedule set in advance, which took away the uncertainty of what would happen. A day to get to know people a bit already.”

Notice how this optional first day used more conventional session formats to make it easier for first-time attendees to integrate into the existing community.

“Over dinner, I realized I was not the only one joining this conference for the first time. Later on, we realized lots of people were new joiners indeed, based on recommendations they chose to give this conference a try. Was really great to see.

In the beginning, things were still a bit new, strange and even stiff; as it often is for me these days when suddenly seeing lots of people in real life. Within a short period of time I could loosen up, though. The more people I got to know, the more I relaxed and felt at ease.”

A participation-rich session format — World Café — was introduced at the end of Foundation Day

The World Café supplied an appropriate introduction and transition to the Open Space format used during the rest of the conference.

“To set the scene, a World Café was hosted by the wonderful Juke, getting all of us connected to SoCraTes and each other. How it worked? We had three rounds, a new question each round. For each group, one stays at the same place while all others look for a new group to join. The one who stays welcomes the new people and shares what the previous group had talked about. Usually this is supported by taking notes and drawing on flip charts or similar means.”

Open Space

SoCraTes 2022 used the participant-driven Open Space format to determine what sessions participants wanted to hold. Though Open Space is just one of the formats you can use to create participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, it’s probably the most well known and is often an appropriate process to use.

“In short: we build the agenda we want to see! And that’s what happened. It’s fascinating how you can really trust in the system. The queues to briefly present the proposed topics were really long, and the emerging schedule looked amazing. So many awesome topics…”

Session leaders used a wide variety of participative formats

Check out Lisi’s post for descriptions of many appropriate innovative session formats, including ask me anything, brainstorming, blind ensemble programming, the pipeline game, exploring feelings while reading code, a Code Retreat, and a retrospective.

Some closing insights

About listening and learning…

“The entire conference felt like a version of the world that could exist. Many small and large customs help people to get along better with each other. It starts with the name tags alone: ​​take off the name tag if you’re too introverted to talk to people right now. A red tape means you don’t want to be photographed. The name tags are magnetic and hold the creative badges that people use to announce their pronouns – with a lot of artistic flair if you like.”
—Eric, SoCraTes 2022 — a conference report [translated from German]

Compare the innovation and excitement at SoCraTes 2022 with just about any other conference you’ve attended. Can you see why software testers like Lisi think that peer conferences rock?!

2. The Unexpo Experiment

Here’s another example from a software testing peer conference, TestBash Brighton 2018. The conference designers invented a way to create “highly engaging, interactive and fun” poster sessions. Check out my post that describes this “excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats”.

3. A free guide to creating peer conferences

Want to create a peer conference, but don’t want to buy any of my excellent books on this topic? (Hey, you can buy all three for just $29.99, but that’s OK 😀.) No problem, the Association for Software Testing published an excellent free introductory guide to creating peer conferences. Learn more about it, and download it here.

Final thoughts

I love and respect the software testing community because its practitioners think carefully and seriously about how to design their conferences. And then they implement and test their innovative designs, discovering what works and what doesn’t while also being open to the joy and excitement of the unexpected. A beautiful mixture of serious exploration, learning, and fun.

That’s the way to improve meetings!

Image attribution: #SoCraTes2022 peer conference photo by Markus Tacker

A class is a meeting

Though I don’t teach college anymore, I’m interested in educational class design because a class is a meeting. And much of what we can do to design great meetings is applicable to college classes too.

So I had high hopes for a September 7 2022, City University of New York webinar introducing Cathy Davidson‘s and Christina Katopodis’ book The New College Classroom, which is “about inspiring, effective, and inclusive teaching at the college level.”

Sadly, I was disappointed. Not so much by the information presented but more by the way it was done. Talking about incorporating active learning, interaction, and participation into college classes is great. But talking does little to change the behavior of those listening. The speakers didn’t model what they were preaching during their talk!

Read the rest of this entry »

Engagement beats technical difficulties

technical difficultiesEarlier this year, I designed and facilitated an online workshop that was marred by technical difficulties. The workshop was several hours long, and some (but not all) of the participants reported that my video feed froze at times. Luckily, my audio feed was fine.

Shortly afterward, I talked to a client who had participated in the workshop. I asked them about their workshop experience.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stop networking at meetings

networking at meetingsIt’s time to stop networking at meetings. No, I’m not saying we should only listen to lectures at meetings. Rather, I’m going to explain why using the term “networking” for all occasions when attendees get to talk with one another subtly directs attention away from can be the most valuable outcome of well-designed meetings: connecting with others.

This post was inspired when Victoria Matey shared the following thought about networking at meetings:

Random thought.

We talk about virtual networking not working as if the in-person networking has been fixed.

I agree with Victoria’s observation, but think it’s important to consider a wider perspective. Here’s an expanded version of my brief comment on the ensuing LinkedIn conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nervous excitement is back!

nervous excitement

After two years of only designing and facilitating online meetings, I’m suddenly immersed in preparing for in-person meetings again. And that strange emotion nervous excitement is coming back!

Two multi-day events, 2,000 miles apart, in the space of a week.

Even an in-person pre-con, just like the old days.

I find it tough preparing for meetings. Creating designs, turning them into implementations, trying hard to not miss any important details, making sure everyone involved knows what they need to know and do, negotiating compromises, contingency planning, etc. Frankly, I feel just plain nervous before the event. It’s stressful. Preparation seems to have no limits — except I know it must end as soon as the meeting starts.

At that moment, nervous excitement takes over.

Nervous excitement

Many meeting professionals, speakers, and performers will know what I mean by nervous excitement. If you don’t, here’s how I described it at the start of my book The Power of Participation:

“When I got on my feet to dance in public for the first time in 32 years I felt a strange mixture of emotions, best described as nervous excitement. I had given up the idea that I had control over what might happen and was all too aware of the scary possibility that I might feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Simultaneously, there was a part of me that was tremendously curious and excited about what I was about to do.”
—Adrian Segar, The Power of Participation, Chapter 1

I feel nervous excitement when I:

  • have the responsibility for making something happen for many people;
  • am aware that what I do matters in the moment;
  • am giving up the illusion of control;
  • feel excited by and open to the possibilities of what might happen.

And then a funny thing happens…

…Usually, these days, I don’t feel nervous excitement that long!

It disappears. To be precise, the “nervous” piece goes away, and I’m left with excitement.

Which is pretty nice.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started standing up in front of meetings, I felt scared of making mistakes, losing control, or failing somehow.

Eventually, I learned that I never had control to begin with, just the myth of control.

And decades of practice showed me that I survive (so far) whatever happens. This emotional learning somehow changed how I felt once I got going. I’ve become brave. And I quickly move into what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called flow, “characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.”

I’ve noticed however that if I feel rushed — like at a workshop I gave recently — the nervous component persists. And that’s OK. As a lifelong learner, I continue to accept opportunities to improve my work. Nervous excitement is a vast improvement over the fear I felt when I dared to present and facilitate long ago. Oh, I gotta go, time to step up to the front of the room…

Image by Neil Cummings, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Lessons I learned from an online workshop

lessons learned online workshopI recently ran a workshop, hosted by the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Professionals (CSAE), on the design of participation-rich events. Here are the lessons I learned from this online workshop.

[Note: This event was a workshop, not a presentation. Sessions are often advertised as “workshops” that aren’t. If you want to know the difference, read this.]

Allocate enough time for workshops so you don’t have to rush

I think my biggest regret about this workshop is that it felt rushed. Why? The quick answer is that I tried to include too much for the time available. But it’s more complicated than that.

Don Presant asked me to offer a CSAE session of up to an hour in length. I asked for the maximum. In retrospect, I should have asked for more time. (I might not have got it, but it never hurts to ask.) After the workshop, Don asked me how long a time I would have preferred. “Two hours,” I replied immediately.

Over the years I’ve become good at keeping to the time allocated for sessions. My approach is simple; I practice what I plan to do with a stopwatch running and keep paring down what I’d thought to include until it fits. I note the elapsed time at the start of each new segment and check how I’m doing during the session, adjusting accordingly.

This workshop didn’t work out so well. I cover the logistical reasons below. But being rushed is never good. I had never tried to run a one-hour online workshop before. And one lesson I learned is that I’m not going to try to run one in just one hour again.

Additional concerns when a workshop is online

My workshop was designed to include two chunks of content and two participative exercises. As is usually the case in my workshops, I work at two levels. I try to make the workshop personally useful for the participants by allowing them to learn about each other. Simultaneously, participants experience and get familiar with how the formats I use work.

This workshop would have been better in person. I probably could have done it in an hour. What made it rushed online was the time taken to switch between content and participative segments, and the toll this took on the flow of the session.

If I’d run this workshop in person, I could have easily run it by myself. Online, I needed two assistants — thank you, Don and Carrie Fischer! Don did the intro and close, monitored the chat, and fed me questions. Carrie hosted the meeting on Zoom, set up multiple breakout rooms, and messaged instructions while the breakouts were in session. There’s no way I could have run this workshop without them. Yet I now realize that having one of them or a third person manage the context switches between the interactive and content portions of the workshop would have helped me a lot!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve run multiple successful two-hour or longer online workshops. Looking back at the run of shows, these workshops had a similar or fewer number of context switches between interactive and content segments. Consequently, I’m going to allocate longer times for workshops than an hour from now on.

Logistical concerns that made this workshop rushed

One unexpected logistical concern occurred just before the workshop started. Instead of using CSAE’s Professional Zoom account, we had to use mine. Fortunately, my Zoom settings were set as I needed them to be, but I did worry that this would require me to take over some of Carrie’s work. Luckily, with Don and her as co-hosts, Carrie was able to handle the usual Zoom support.

Unfortunately, I was responsible for the context switches between Zoom Gallery mode and sharing my keynote presentation slides. That was a mistake; at least the way I tried to implement it.

Using Keynote in Zoom

There are several ways to share a Keynote presentation in Zoom. My favorite is to share my Keynote presentation as a virtual background in Zoom. Zoom has described this functionality as “beta” for a while, but I’ve not had any problem with it to date except for the minor bug I found this time, as described below. My “talking head” is superimposed on my slide at the size and position I choose. Here’s an example (this is my view as the presenter):

lessons learned online workshop

This works well for a one-off presentation in a Zoom meeting. However, it turns out to be painful to implement when you need to switch in and out of Keynote during a workshop. Here’s why:

  • When you switch to displaying a Keynote deck via this method in Zoom, there’s a short delay while Zoom loads the deck. We tested this during our tech rehearsal and the delay was acceptable (a few seconds) with the setup and bandwidths we had. This is not a big deal, though it’s not what a professional production team would do.
  • More seriously, if you stop sharing your deck and then want to share it again, you can’t continue from the last slide you displayed. Zoom reloads the entire deck from scratch. My workshop involved three shares of my master deck, interspersed with participative portions in Gallery view. To avoid having to step through previously viewed slides, I split my workshop presentation into three Keynote decks. And that’s when I found a Zoom/Keynote bug…
  • The Zoom/Keynote bug. After splitting my presentation into three separate decks, I began a rehearsal. I ran through the first deck, stopped sharing it, and then selected the second deck. Zoom picked the wrong deck to display! (At first, I thought I’d clicked on the wrong deck, but it quickly became clear that Zoom+Keynote was to blame.) This was not acceptable! I realized that each of the three decks had the same long filename with a number appended to the end. I guessed that Zoom was not reading the entire filename, and that’s why it was picking the wrong deck. Sure enough, when I renamed the three decks with a number at the beginning of the filename, Zoom reliably picked the deck I had chosen. Phew!

Better ways to manage context switching

During the hour workshop, I had to perform six context switches while facilitating: Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery. I found it distracted my mental flow, especially the several steps involved in starting up a different Keynote deck each time.

In Gallery view, I used breakout rooms and a camera off/on technique for simple human spectrograms and fishbowl discussion during the last segment of the workshop. This was complicated to manage in the short time available, and I felt the quality of the workshop suffered.

I mentioned these problems to my friend and event production expert Brandt Krueger, who sympathized. He pointed out that I had encountered limitations of software-based solutions to what are essentially production issues. For example, I could run Keynote on a second machine (I have three in my office) and use a switcher to instantly switch video between the Zoom and presentation computers. (Brandt loves the ATEM Mini switcher, and I have come close to buying one on several occasions.)

Consequences

I had assumed that what I’d rehearsed might take a little longer when I went live. And I expected to spend some time answering impromptu questions during the first three segments of the workshop. But I had reserved what I thought was enough time for the open-ended final discussion so I could still end on schedule.

As it turned out, I underestimated the slowdown from context switching. Answering a couple of questions brought me to the final segment about ten minutes later than I’d planned. The time for the concluding discussion was shorter than I would have liked. We went over a few minutes, and I cut a final “lessons learned” pair share I had planned to include.

Although I covered everything I’d planned, the workshop felt rushed to me, and I don’t do my best work under the circumstances.

Well, that’s how you learn. I’ll do better (and allow longer to do it) next time.

Conclusion

There are some of the lessons I learned from this online workshop. I hope they help you avoid my mistakes. If you have other suggestions for improving the challenging exercise of running an ambitious online workshop, please share them in the comments below.