I recently attended my first fully open-space conference, CITCON Europe, which conveniently happened in Cluj-Napoca (where I live) this year.
I had experienced a bit the open-space format at European Testing Conference earlier this year, in Bucharest, so I had some expectations set: I knew everyone would be able to propose topics, I saw how the “marketplace” would work, and I had used the law of 2 feet before.
However, some things surprised me about how the conference turned out, and I’d like to share them with you.
First of all, it felt great to see that many familiar faces at an international event, when the total number of participants was, I think, around 120.
A key idea of open conferences, from my understanding, is that participants make the conference content and decide on what sessions get held. To see this unfolding during a whole day of conference led to some insights for me:
The duality of building a conference which is tailored to the participants and also limited to what the participants bring on the table
If the content depends so much on the participants, it means the topics covered are more likely to be of interest to a large portion of the attendees. It also means that the outcome depends on session drivers which propose topics and facilitate the sessions they proposed, or contribute significantly to the sessions.
So from my experience the quality of the session depends on having in the session people:
who have something insightful to contribute on a subject
who do contribute actively
who are skilled at facilitating discussions between participants
I think that although the emphasis is put a lot on the fact that all attendees contribute to the conference and make it what it is, in the sessions that I attended, the organizers and the few people who were already at their x-th CITCON(x >1) had a lot of valuable input and guided the conversations in a significant way. That could also be because they proposed most of the topics and had studied them before, and talked about them before.
So my conclusion is that quality sessions at this type of conference don’t just happen because the participants are self-organized, but because there are some key people contributing to the content and flow of communication during the sessions. They help create an environment in which other participants can learn. I’ll have this in mind when attending or organizing events like this in the future: pay attention who is participating and what they can bring to the table. Also, is there a critical mass of drivers attending? Because one may not be enough.
The gender balance as a surprise
I was slightly amused when PJ remarked that he is amazed by the gender balance we had in terms of participants. I work in place where I have more women around than men. I also am part of a testing community where a lot of women are active and vocal. I’m used to seeing a lot of women at events. I realized I might be very lucky to be part of such an environment in tech. So yay for the women who do show up at events like these, and yay for the women in tech from Cluj for making this sort of participants diversity seem normal to me.
Maybe next time we can even get more sessions proposed and facilitated by women.
The focus on sharing and learning
I assume the main benefit that the organizers get from this conference is a learning experience (since this is non-profit event, as far as I understand). It’s reassuring to see that these people get enough motivation to organize a conference from wanting to share and learn (and probably to travel around the world). That’s what has been happening at the Tabara De Testare’s Autumn Camp events as well, so for me this is an affirmation that it can be a sustainable endeavour, and if those people do put time and energy into this kind of thing, it might not be such a weird idea to do that (or we just happen to be a bunch of hippies, that’s also an option).
If it feels safe, I have no problem openly addressing my challenges
I contributed to 2 sessions with challenges I faced or still face. That meant presenting my context and acknowledging in front of everyone that I didn’t know how to handle some situations. And you know what? I’m still alive!
I probably wouldn’t have done that within any group. Based on how I saw the facilitators handling different situations during previous sessions, I decided it would be ok to do that. And I think it was a good decision for me. I was comfortable doing that, I got some very useful ideas and even briefly practiced with them.
Frustrated? Not anymore
During Jeff’s Frustrated? session I talked about having expectations from others in my team and becoming frustrated when I didn’t know how to help them fulfill my, and what I thought were also their, expectations. An idea I had already tested was to try to find out why they didn’t fulfill them. I asked them “Why didn’t you accomplish this?” and “How can I help?”, but for some reason that didn’t give me a lot to work with. I encountered what I perceived as passivity and excuses.
During the CITCON session, the discussion had quite strange dynamics. The initial session set-up was to present my frustration, and then get questions from Jeff until I would go “Aha…”. However, the other participants quickly jumped into the conversation and offered solutions that worked for them or thought would work for me. So I ended up getting a lot of solutions when I had provided very limited information on my challenge. That’s interesting, don’t you think? We tend to offer solutions to people before we understand very well what the problem is. I might have done the same with my team! Now I work on getting more information about the problem instead.
Based on what I had picked up from the session, I tried a new approach. I was much more open about how I felt about the situation, what I was thinking about it, how I perceived their outcomes. And they opened up. So I listened to them. I learned that one person interpreted my feedback as quite harsh and that he couldn’t clearly see the benefits of doing what I asked. I learned that another person gets discouraged when she doesn’t see she’s progressing. This helps me focus on addressing the challenges and impediments the people in my team are actually facing. I think I have a much better starting point now.
During that session, I learned to look at my situation from a new perspective and I heard some questions which I want to ask more when working with people to help them improve their skills:
- How would an observer know the difference?
- When this happens, what would you do?
- Is this helpful?
- How have you tested your theory?
- What are you expecting to happen?
And some others inspired by the ladder of inference model (picture below)
Although opening up about my challenge put me in what could be seen as a vulnerable position, and I could have felt misunderstood and “attacked” with questions, and fed with others’ solutions for what might have been completely different problems, it didn’t feel like that to me. I was calm, I was consciously paying attention to the questions Jeff and others were asking (so that I could “steal” them for later), and I was focused on creating a dialogue which I could continue with my team.
Our collective knowledge is important
Since I’ve read Tacit and explicit knowledge, I’ve started to grow aware of the importance of our collective knowledge. After this event, this aspect was reinforced for me. It seems to me like the focus was not on what I know or on what someone else knows. It was on what we, as a group can learn, and how we can facilitate the sharing of knowledge within the group. Because I think the testing field and, more generally, the software development field, will not improve with one individual who is a genius and solves all our problems. From what I see, it improves as the collective knowledge of the practitioners expands and deepens. So we need not only to enhance our own knowledge, but to share it and spread it around. Environments where this cross-pollination of knowledge happens seem to be non-trivial to create. And is seems to me that this open space format, and in particular CITCON, is an experiment with a way of creating such an environment.
A friend told me he is very happy that many people from Cluj saw how this format can work. I think that striving for more communities diverse enough and skilled enough to self-organize this kind of events is an important step forward. Having local communities is convenient, because there are no travelling costs involved. I really hope we go in that direction in Cluj, and also more widely.
We’ll see what comes out of experiments like these on the long run.
So, see you at more events like this, hopefully!
PS: Thanks to everyone involved in making the conference happen.