Michał’s conference war chest

It’s not unusual for conferences to cost an arm and a leg. At €1,000 or more for just the entry, on top of which come travel and accommodation, and I often attend two or three events a year. That’s a pile of money in need of justification spending, and I can only do so if I bring back lots of valuable information. Here’s what I do nowadays—the tools and tricks I worked out for surviving and thriving as a conference attendee.

Preparation

During a conference I want to focus strictly on acquiring information and connecting with other attendees, so to free up time I prepare a lot upfront.

Session selection comes first. Conference schedules usually appear piece by piece, so a week or two before the event I go through all sessions and plan my agenda. The last thing I want is to make haphazard, effectively random decisions at the venue.

  • If I’m attending with any colleagues, we sit down together to split up the sessions and cover more ground.
  • If there’s more than one interesting session in a given time slot, I write down all of them and prioritize. This way I have more options when my first choice turns out to be a flop or suddenly gets canceled.

I add selected sessions into Google Calendar, synchronized across all of my devices. Some conferences have dedicated apps to store one’s schedule, but these may or may not work to my liking or could have issues on shaky Wi-Fi. Plus I quickly would’ve acquired a pile of useless apps and accounts.

GOTO Berlin schedule in Calendar

I’m really big on notes. Before the conference I setup a fresh Google Doc, since I’ll be taking notes on a tablet, with pre-entered:

  • sections for each chosen session, ordered chronologically,
  • names and
  • Twitter handles of speakers.

GOTO Berlin conference notes

Using Google Docs has a number of advantages:

  • I can share the document with colleagues, both at the venue or back at the office, where they can follow me in real-time,
  • Google Docs’ context-aware spellchecker is pretty decent, which helps a lot when (mis)typing on a tablet,
  • the chronological order lets me get ready quickly by opening the document and scrolling down to the next empty section,
  • speakers’ Twitter handles make live tweeting easier.

I’ll often write the Twitter handles with the conference hashtags, ie.:

 @mpaluchowski #craftconf

Note the leading space. This snippet I can easily copy and paste after every quote I tweet during a session.

D-Day(s)

The conference days are always intense, both physically as well as mentally, so my focus here is to stay light and fit.

I carry my own shoulder bag, currently the excellent Camel Active Dakar, which contains my tablet, wallet, business cards and a pen or two.

Camel Active Dakar shoulder bag

Conferences usually hand out their own bags, but most of these aren’t convenient to carry around for a full day. I carefully selected a good bag, that:

  • keeps my hands free all day—especially beneficial at standing lunches,
  • doesn’t bite into my shoulder(s),
  • doesn’t bump around my hip thanks to its vertical orientation,
  • easily fits into my lap during a session, when space is tight,
  • carries everything I need—the Camel one can easily carry a 12″ laptop or A4-sized documents.

Michal taking notes at CraftConf 2015

My device for note taking is currently the iPad Air 2. A laptop wouldn’t do because the vast majority won’t last a full day on batteries and I sure as hell don’t want to waste time on recharging.

Typing on a tablet is pretty cumbersome, but gets better with practice, plus Google Docs’ spellchecker helps a lot, and anyway I won’t be publishing raw notes anywhere without post-processing. A colleague is happy doing notes on an iPad Mini so the smaller form factor could work as well.

iOS 9’s Peek function was a real blessing, since I tweet a lot during sessions, on top of taking notes. Earlier I had to keep switching between the Google Docs and Twitter apps, whereas now I can just slide in Twitter on the side for a quick tweet and return to notes. Thanks, Apple!

A conference day is really hard for the body since I spend a lot of time sitting still in sessions, while my brain keeps working in high gear, burning lots of fuel and not getting nearly enough oxygen to clean up the trash from metabolism. This means unless I pay attention to my body, by the end of day I’ll likely develop a headache and won’t see much from the conference party. So I:

  • drink a lot of water, either carry my own bottle and keep sipping during sessions, or drink a glass at each break. The side effect is having to visit the bathroom often, but there’s a trick to that too.
  • move a lot in between sessions—no sitting, lots of walking, gesticulation, even leaving the venue when possible.
  • eat light, opting for complex fuel sources, like protein or complex carbohydrates. No pastry or sweets of any kind—these would burn up quickly leaving me hungry and distracted.

Finally, I try to sit near convenient exit rows, so that I can easily leave the session if I don’t like it, or reach the toilet before the crowd does. Trust me, this is a real problem during male-dominated software events.

Post-processing

There’s little value in all the information I acquire at a conference if it stays inside my head. Sharing it with others and turning it into action is where the payoff starts.

Conferences are often followed by a weekend, which is super convenient since I can focus on something completely different and then go back to my notes with a fresh look on Monday morning.

It takes me a day or so to process notes, where I rearrange them to:

  • group into common themes, ie. microservices, DDD, Agile etc.,
  • reorder into something that makes sense in the context, rather than whatever the speaker(s) thought would,
  • list out tools, books, blog posts and other resources I saw mentioned,
  • later add links to talk recordings, once they were posted.

Finally, I produce a brief summary from the pile of information, adding my own judgment of where I see the industry right now, or how it changed compared with previous conferences. This usually turns into a blog post, richly decorated with photos and tweets from the event.

We take a look at all materials with my colleagues to decide what is most relevant to us and what we’d like to try out now or later. These go into our regular planning and I get back to everyday work, counting down to the next great conference.

Seventy percent of the time Swiss

Boarding an airplane on Monday morning, coffee in hand, yawning, flying to Zürich for a week of alternating between the customer’s office and hotel, then back in the air on Friday evening to reach base—my home in Warsaw for the weekend. That was the offer I was given a while ago, good money, challenging work. I replied “no, thank you“.

Mind you, I am by no means bound to where I’m living currently, even though I love it here. There are many other extraordinary spots around the world where I could see myself moving. It’s just this particular arrangement that wouldn’t suit me—torn Schrödinger-style between two locations, neither really here nor there.

It would’ve uprooted me from all the current affiliations I had here, in Warsaw—the TEDx people, startup communities, Toastmasters and personal relationships. On the other hand, my temporary Zürich tenure (or anywhere else for that matter) wouldn’t have let me get engaged in anything meaningful there, since these relationships take time to develop and produce results.

There would be also practical consequences to consider. Since I would’ve been spending only weekends here in Warsaw, I’d want to maximize my enjoyment of them, so I’d have to pay somebody to clean my apartment, do laundry and arrange for all the other chores to be done, so that I can rest, catch up with family and friends. And I likely would’ve been spending vacation at home, sick of all the traveling.

There are times in life when that sort of work mode could be acceptable, perhaps even exciting. Usually that’s when one is younger, has no spouse, little experience. With time one learns that things of value require time and commitment to build, often related to one’s personal presence somewhere for an extended period of time. We might be living in a digital age, but we’re still very much physical creatures.

The unconference experience of SoCraTes 2014

Flip-flops, sandals, occasionally a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and some people walking barefoot. It’s the definition of the laid-back spirit at SoCraTes 2014, an unconference I joined last week, made for and by software craftsmen. It was my first ever unconference experience and while I found the format unsuited for my personality, the energizing power of that community was exceptional.

SoCraTes logo

SoCraTes stands for Software Craftsmanship and Testing – an all-in-one statement embodying the aspiration to become better at creating software tomorrow than we were today. That’s all there was available before the event to describe its contents. No calls for papers, no formal agendas, speaker profiles or anything one would expect from a regular conference. All sessions for the day were announced each morning, often sparked by the previous night’s conversations. One literally comes there without knowing what to expect.

Pitching sessions

For two days, first thing after breakfast, all 150 of us met to fill in the agenda, by pitching sessions and sticking them somewhere onto the grid of available times and spaces – a morning conference-room lecture on micro-services, or perhaps an afternoon debate on freelancing strategies in a garden setting? Anything was possible, because in Open Space Technology:

  • Whoever comes is the right people.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • Wherever it is, is the right place.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • When it’s over, it’s over.

and perhaps most importantly:

Law of two feet
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

SoCraTes attendees spent days strolling between sessions, then evenings and nights playing board games, learning to juggle, explaining complex software architectures with beer glasses, or mob-programming in Cobol.

So, how was it for me? Mixed.

There are consequences to participating in an unconference. On the positive side, there’s the flourishing creativity. Every single person I met at SoCraTes was passionate about their work to the point of making me ashamed that I didn’t know enough about the field and probably didn’t work hard enough to learn. I actually had to get some work done in-between, just to improve my morale, like finishing a blog post and publishing a microscopic framework for content websites.

On the negative side, however, was a certain level of disorganization and common lack of substance. With no information on sessions published beforehand, there was no way to make a reasonably informed decision about which ones to attend. I had to decide on the spot, at 9 o’clock in the morning of the day, based on titles and 30-second pitches. A few people came with prepared sessions, but many just improvised them.

The result is that most sessions ended up being discussions. A session owner may have introduced the topic and then some of the people present talked through its selected areas. While that’s a useful form for a meeting of peers trying to fill in their gaps in knowledge, it doesn’t work well for the less experienced who would like to learn in a more structured fashion.

In theory, the law of two feet removes the burden of having to sit through a bad session, but in practice leaving one session makes you arrive at another one mid-way, which often makes it difficult to join in and follow the flow of information.

After the two days I didn’t feel I took away much, despite the amazing variety of sessions and the astonishing scope of knowledge of all their attendees.

In Philip Zimbardo’s classification of time perspectives, I’m clearly a future-positive-oriented type. I like to prepare ahead and anticipate what’s coming. I also like concise conference sessions where presenters share the experience of their past work, like describing a specific project, a piece of software they built, and the lessons they took away from it. Concrete, credible, and structured.

Unconferences are great because of the people who attend them. Competent and passionate to the boundaries of craze. That’s what keeps those who enjoyed SoCraTes coming back. They seek renewed inspiration and energy coming from others like them. It’s perhaps the most social gathering of geeks.

For the future I will likely stick to more traditional conference formats, with curated agendas. SoCraTes 2014 was a very well organized event and for anyone who feels comfortable with the format, the upcoming editions will be thoroughly enjoyable.

Living with WordPress

Posterous is likely gone by the time you’re reading this. Acquired by Twitter in 2012, closed down in the end of April 2013. I checked my options and considering:

  • existing URLs need to work for SEO reasons,
  • I’m not willing to pay much for hosting this blog, writing being a minor side activity that I do,
  • I want to avoid moving this elsewhere again in a few months if another Posterous-like service goes down.

In the end I went for a self-hosted WordPress instance. It’s just the easiest way to go – actively maintained platform, huge community, really easy to set-up and I could both configure URLs as well as redirections where needed. My bottom line is: I just need a place to write and publish.

If you find anything broken, please be so kind and let me know. I might have missed it.

Later I will likely take some time to design my own theme – simple, minimalist, content first. For the moment enjoy the visually excellent design by SiteOrigin.

Starting out with Posterous

Ten or so may be the number of times I landed on the Posterous home page and “almost” clicked the “register” button. I have a blog already, I have a Twitter account. Why have another? Now I gave in, I’m here.

Posterous is a quick place to express a thought before it vanishes. It’s perfect for a moment of enlightenment, when time’s too scarce to produce anything more than a crude summary. There’s more space, however, than the 140 characters Twitter offers and thus I can hopefully express myself better.

Happy reading!