April 08, 2011

Impressions of Pittsburgh Geek Out Day

Pittsburgh Geek Out Day on Saturday morning was very stimulating. It's an open spaces conference, which essentially means the sessions, and content within a session, are determined on the fly by the participants. I think this was a little disconcerting at first for some people but wound up working well.

I'd guess about two dozen people attended, which IMO is pretty good for a first-time, Saturday-at-8:30-AM meeting. About 25% of the attendees were from Summa, though they didn't explicitly mention that. In fact, they took pains to separate their presence from the event, not wanting people to assume this was some sort of recruiting/advertising exercise. It certainly didn't feel that way to me -- even the 'thanks' for the free bagels/juice/coffee came at the very end.

The day started with an intro to the process, then people briefly announced their discussion ideas before sticking them up on a wall, proposing a time/room for it -- there were three timeslots and three rooms, so only nine discussions. (The room distinction was mostly irrelevant.)

I proposed three ideas with the intent that only one of them would probably go in because lots of other people would chime in. But the number of sessions wasn't as overwhelming as I thought, and it turned out all three were on the schedule. This was okay, but had the downside of missing other good discussions. That's a normal side-effect of getting a number of engaged and bright people together, but being a facilitator means you can't use the "law of two feet" to explore another one.

The law of two feet is a simple thing -- if you're not getting anything out of a discussion, nor are contributing to it, then you have not only the option, but the responsibility to move elsewhere. But its implications are much deeper. There's no second-guessing about whether a topic is interesting or useful; if not, people will change it or leave.

It's exhausting for me to determine whether people are into a topic, or whether I'm talking too much, or not enough -- my social antennae are stunted or something. So I found this a wonderful constraint. It also strikes me as very adult, as in you're treating your discussion colleagues as adults by allowing them to make their own decisions.

The topics I attended weren't earth shattering, but wandered into pretty meaty areas. The first was on managing distributed teams, ostensibly with agile but we wound up discussing communication and management problems in general, how different personalities affect what you need to do, and a topic ('Cognitive Systems Engineering') that I want to learn more about. There were only three people in this one, but I felt like we could have talked for another hour or two, easily. (More with beer.)

The second was on 'continuous deployment', a topic I'd proposed. We spent a good bit of time on a couple of concrete problems, which was excellent because it grounded the discussion. One of the conclusions I had reinforced was that, even if you cannot do continuous deployment, the act of trying to create the process (lots of automation and streamlining) has good results. Only four people in this one.

The last was on sharing technical and domain knowledge with your team, though it really focused on the former. About 12 people in this one, a lot of it around getting people up to speed (code reviews/desk checks seemed to be the most mentioned method).

Overall, the day was just great. It was exhilarating talking with people having the combination of: experience, useful reflection on that experience, lack of ego, and the desire to learn more. I look forward to more.

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