Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Can you have an “agile” conference when the talks are decided by committee?

I was reading Jurgen Appelo’s excellent blog on What If We Started Organizing *Real* Conferences? which chimed with me. I’ve been to, and spoken at,  several conferences where the talks were selected by a mysterious elite committee which just seems wrong. It’s probably because big conferences cost a lot of money and so are sponsored or run by vendors/big companies who want to ensure that people stay “on message”. The alternative is something a bit unstructured that people aren’t sure they want to spend their time on…

I was once involved with a conference at a large customer site a few years ago, the conference organisers put out the usual call for papers and got a bunch of ideas back from people. Those ideas were then all published for the wider community to see, comment and crucially vote up or down. This led to popular topics being pushed high up the list and an prospective audience buying into the topics and therefore the implied value before the event. Commenting meant people could seek clarification and argue the value of things before the event setting up contentious questions.

I recall two particular topics that got into a bit of a debate in the voting round, one ended up in a detailed discussion and eventually a resolution in the the comments and then no one wanted to rehash the discussion at the event. In the other discussion someone said something along the lines of “all of this chatter about the problem means we should have it at the event”. In both cases the community got value from the discussions and their different resolutions.

Importantly, the community self-organised it’s conference. It’s not a perfect model but it was transparent, honest and got people talking to each other which are all good things from where I’m standing :)

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