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I think you missed the larger, more structural things that can make a conference better: programmed slack time. More than just the "decompression" time that Alberto mentioned, but time (at least 30-45 min.) in the program for people to talk about what they've heard and not feel like they have to rush to the next session, or (to combat regret and loss aversion) feel like they're missing out if they're not attending a session. I also think for conferences that have the luxury of lots of submissions: have submissions be on video, but also work/coach people on how to be better presenters. I see that the Lean Startup conference is doing this and I think it's great. We're not going to get more and better talks until we help people learn how to present better.
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So let's take this further with a hypothetical situation: Alice takes a story card (feature "Omega") and in 2 days implements a feature by writing very little code and doing some great refactoring work. Turns out, Bob took the same story card and took 5 days to implement it. Charlie takes another story (feature "Epsilon") and takes 4 days to implement it. Turns out, however, that feature "Omega" (Alice's version, because Bob's missed the rollout train) caused dollar sales of product "O" to drop 12% over a 1 week period, whereas "Epsilon" ended up increasing product "E" dollar sales by 12% in the same week. (Yes, I'm suspending belief a bit here, as Matt says, we can't -- necessarily, or perhaps easily -- attribute sales to an individual implemented story, even if they're for different products.) So, which developer was most productive? Charlie, because his feature increased business value, or Alice, because she finished the feature in time for the rollout? Answer: it doesn't matter, because the question makes no sense. The problem is: what are we trying to measure, and _why_ are we measuring it? Are we trying to objectively evaluate how well Alice, Bob, and Charlie are doing so we can reward (or fire) them? Or are we trying to figure out if the company is getting a good ROI for the team? If it's individual productivity, how could we possibly say that the business value is what matters, after all, is it Alice's fault that the feature (which worked as the product manager wanted) caused sales to drop? Is it even the product manager's fault, who did lots of analysis and user testing? And what about Bob, is it his fault the story tracking system allowed him to pick up the same story as Alice? This isn't to say that all developers are equal, but it's very dangerous to try to use metrics -- whether it's features implemented or business value gained -- to evaluate or compare individuals in a system. ;ted
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The community is evaluating (as well as the volunteers). How does one really get potential attendees involved and invested in the "conference" (for lack of a better term)? To use SF Agile as an example, there are probably almost as many proposals as there are comments and discussions. That is, there's a very low-level of interaction (other than by a few volunteers). From that angle, the problems are similar to community building, which is hard.
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This is what SF Agile 2012 is trying to do, but it's hard when the people behind the conference are volunteers. The hardest part is evaluating sessions based only on a few paragraphs of text and some back and forth comments. I very much agree that "open space" is not the answer, for the reasons you mention, but also because there can be a lack of focus. As you say, there needs to be someone who's prepared to talk about it (the one who would normally present), and then you can have great interactivity. Otherwise it can turn into a group therapy session, but without the psychiatrist leading the way and guiding the conversation. I'm all for interactive workshops, but sometimes I just want to learn from someone who's been there and can tell me what to do and what not to do. Obviously, though, it depends on what the topic is: for technical skills, I want an expert who can dump some of their knowledge, but for softer skills, a guided workshop might be better. What about LAWST style conferences? I'm very interested in having people prepare, but then leaving it open for discussion.
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Mar 21, 2012