Last year I presented the idea of Test-Driven development (TDD) at STAREAST. The audience didn't really get the opportunity to experience the benefits of test driven development. They didn't get to design software APIs by using TDD, or know when software development was done because all the tests pass, which brings on that wonderful feeling of confidence after a Refactoring session. Instead, they just heard about it. The talk was. . .OK. Instead of talking about TDD, we could have had a longer session where the participants actually did it. That's the basic idea behind a workshop: learn by doing. Workshops create a larger framework than open spaces--a formal instructor, a classroom setting, some lecture at the beginning--and it allows participants to learn in the direction they want to learn.
The university-lecture model is ancient, and lots of people know what to expect from conferences. Oh, and people hate change. So we need a nice, safe middle ground that offers Agile principles without discomfort. Enter lightning talks. Lightning talks are ten five-minute talks in a one-hour period or sixteen talks in a 90-minute period. Instead of one speaker, you get ten. If the speaker is boring, it'll be over soon; if the speaker is interesting, he'll probably be available for you to take the discussion where you want it to go after the talk. With more speakers, they are more approachable, and they have time to actually discuss. Finally, lightning talks get the audience engaged in the conference--a pre-requisite for a lot of these other methods.
Social Networking Software
Remember how our Agile Movement was emergent and self-organized? Many conferences have "in-between" time, often called, "networking" time, when participants "network"--whatever that is. In our strongly introverted, Star Wars and Star Trek software development culture (And some real wierdos like American Idol. What, you like American idol? Let me guess; you're a manager.), getting people to talk is like getting the middle school boys to ask the girls to dance. They'd rather stand around the punch bowl.
Social Networking Software is designed make human connections easier. Wikis, developed by Ward Cunningham, allow any member of a group to edit a web page, thus enabling online collaboration-or just "If you are interested in automated testing of web forms, let's meet a 12:00 by the big coconut tree." Jambo is new software (which we will have at STAREAST) that connects people by interest wirelessly--"Here are the people in your area who are interested in the same kinds of things as you are"--combined with a chat client. All this software enables collaboration and interaction, but it cannot replace it.
The Problem with Change
As I quoted from PeopleWare earlier, people hate change. They really, really, really hate change. Danny Faught once commented that trying out Agile Presentation techniques at a conference introduces the risk that your audience will rebel not because of the content, but because the environment didn't meet their expectations For example, if you try to free-wheel from your PowerPoint slides to meet the audience interest and need, someone is bound to complain on his evaluation form that you were "disorganized" or "unprepared."
So the question of what techniques to use might not be one of right or wrong, but better or worse for your audience and time. From lightning talks to open spaces and a hundred other ideas, options exist. The question is which ones, and when, and who.
What to Do Tomorrow
If you're an Agile proponent who's been to a few conferences, hopefully I've started some wheels turning. The next step, is up to us.