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Kent McDonald on Agile 2013
Recorded at:

Interview with Kent McDonald by Craig Smith on Nov 18, 2013 |
16:08

Bio Kent McDonald helps organizations understand and solve the problems that they face. He is active in the business analysis and Agile software development communities helping people share stories about what does and does not work. Kent has been on the organizing committee for numerous Agile Alliance conferences and was the Agile 2013 Conference Chair.

Each year Agile Alliance brings together attendees, speakers, authors, luminaries, and industry analysts from around the world in a one-of-a-kind conference. The Conference is considered the premier Agile event of the year, and provides a week-long opportunity to engage in wide-open interaction, collaboration and sharing of ideas with peers and colleagues within the global Agile community.

   

1. [...]Here at Agile 2013 you are the Conference Chair. So tell us a little bit about the conference, how did you come into taking such a prestigious job?

Craig's full question: Hi there my name is Craig Smith, I’m an Agile editor for InfoQ, and we are here at Agile 2013 in Nashville in Tennessee. It is my great pleasure to have with us the guy who made this whole thing possible I guess, or at least was a large part of it, Kent McDonald, how are you doing Kent? So outside of the conference you’re an Agile Practice Lead I believe for B2T Training, but more importantly what we’re really here talk about is this fantastic conference that we’ve been enjoying over the last few days and a couple of more days to come. Here at Agile 2013 you are the Conference Chair. So tell us a little bit about the conference, how did you come into taking such a prestigious job?

So I’ve actually been attending the Agile conferences back since 2004 and had the opportunity to get involved fairly quickly after that, so I’ve held a lot of different positions in it and in 2011 I was one of the two Program Chairs and then the opportunity came up this year to be Conference Chair, so I obviously jumped at that opportunity. It’s been great and had a blast, had a fantastic team to work with which was I think a big part in making the event as successful as it was, certainly wasn’t all me.

   

2. I mean obviously the Conference Chair role is extremely important but obviously there is a team of people that go behind that, I’m sure to make the whole thing tick?

I had a trio of Program Chairs that I worked with; Lisa Shoop, Peter Provost and Erik Willeke that was a nice mix of perspectives and we did some challenging of each other but we worked well together and we were able to always kind of come to a landing on what was best for the community and for the conferences, so I think having that variety and that difference of perspective was very important, so as we were working through things and trying a lot of different things out, so for this conference we did a lot of small little experiments and having their different perspectives was great. And then in addition to that we had a set of Track Chairs for the various tracks that did a fantastic job working with the reviewers that they each had to kind of come up with a recommended slate of sessions, if you will, for each of their tracks that we could then pull together into an overall program.

   

3. So I guess something like this just doesn’t come together over night, how long has the preparation been going , I mean what sort of numbers are we are talking about at this conference and when did it all start?

So we actually or I started really working on it after last year’s conference and the first part was, and as Tim said in our keynote yesterday, one of the big things is getting the team together, so I spent a bit of the fall trying to get the team put together and then once we did that it was all about figuring out what kind of process are we going to use, obviously borrowing a lot from previous years for accepting submissions and working through that and picking the ones that we wanted to use. So we got started actually accepting submissions in December and through the course of the next three months, actually two months, through the end of January we accepted, or we had 1,100 submissions come in and then we had an extended period it was more focussed on reviews so that we could come down and basically get to 207 sessions selected, so one in five of those submissions actually was selected for the conference.

   

4. That’s got to be a tough job I assume with so many talented folks out there putting forward submissions and then trying to find the best of the best to bring forward for a conference?

It was very tough and we had some things really we were looking for in the sessions so we wanted things to be practical as much as possible, we also wanted to get an understanding of the people that were giving the talks, what experience they had and how they were at presenting as well, so one of the things we did is ask for was if people had videos of them presenting, so hey submit that so we can take a look at them as well. But we were also looking for a nice mix so we didn’t want to focus on any one particular approach but wanted to have a nice spread of things and we had a couple of tracks, like the Learning track and the DevOps track, both which were new this year to kind of bring in some new information that maybe hadn’t been at the conference before.

   

5. So this is probably a silly question to ask but I am going to ask it anyway, how happy are you about the conference and how it’s all come together?

I’m quite pleased.

Craig: I wasn’t expecting you to say that you’d be disappointed!

One of the things that as someone that has kind of run several events, you are the one that has a lot of background knowledge that you know all the things, and you tend to notice some of the stuff that you see that isn’t going well but a lot of people that are here at the conference don’t see, so of course there were some of those things. But overall I think the conference went very well, there’s always places that we can improve next year and certainly I’m going to be working with the folks, talking with the folks next year, giving my thoughts about now that I’ve seen it happen here some things that had I a chance to do differently I’d certainly do those. But walking through like the lobby outside of Delta and seeing all the conversations going on and some of the conversations that occured after sessions in the evenings, those are the things that tell me we’ve had a good conference because people are making those connections and that is really what this conference is all about. In fact Tim Lister in his keynote yesterday said a great line: “This conference is all about getting ideas from one thick skull into another” and I think we’ve been successful because that is happening.

   

6. So what sort of number of attendees have you had at the conference?

So we started out the week with about 1,725 and we actually had some walkins throughout the week so we ended up being around 1,780. We looked at some statistics around how that kind of spread across and we have people from 45 of the 50 states in the US, 7 different provinces in Canada and 39 different countries, so it’s a nice, broad, diverse set of people coming here to the conference which again is another great thing because it’s a great time for people to meet folks that they wouldn’t run across normally and share some of those ideas that are really good.

   

7. What is the proportion of people, is it just all experts talking to each other or beginners?

It’s actually fairly well spread, when we took a look at those numbers as well and I’d shared this with the audience at the opening session, it’s actually we have about 15% of the people identified themselves as beginners, 50% of the audience identifies themselves as practitioners and the rest, 35%, consider themselves experts, so it’s a nice mix but it’s also a little bit of a challenge to make sure that you are putting together a program that gives each one of those folks something that they can go home with the next week and be able to use.

Craig: And do you think you’ve met that mark?

I like to think that we have and in some cases it’s about helping the folks that are new to the conference figure out how to kind of navigate the 15 concurrent sessions, to figure out what’s the best one that they could go to or is it that we need to go out to Open Jam and just get involved in a conversation.

   

8. So you mentioned that you’ve tried some new experiments here at the conference this year, what are some of things you’ve tried and the things that have worked and some of the things that haven’t quite worked?

Some of the experiments are kind of more on the planning side of things which aren’t so obvious to the attendees, other things, one of things we did is in years past there’s been different length of sessions so sometimes we had 180 minute sessions and sometimes 90 and 60. This year we pretty much standardized everything on 75 minutes so that is one of the things and I think it’s certainly eased the planning process and one of things that we are going to do after the conference is go out and get some feedback from attendees and find out if they felt it was worthwhile, and the thought there was that it’s about a right length to have some workshops and some talks and that if people wanted to further discuss it, the Open Jamis a great place to do that.

We also kind of changed the schedule up a little bit and we used to have the first keynote on a Tuesday and the two keynotes on a Friday, so what we did this year is opened up the entire conference on Monday morning with a keynote, we had one Wednesday afternoon and we are going to have one on Friday. We also took a different approach to selecting our lightning talks, so we did that entirely crowd sourced leading up to the conference and we also did a little bit of a Crowd Source track for the first session tomorrow morning, first time slot where we had some sessions listed throughout the conference that people could vote on and basically slotted those with just these are the top vote getters.

   

9. Excellent, and what is the general feel as you walk around the conference floor, what sort of feedback are you getting from attendees?

The interesting trend in the feedback I received is that it has, it’s one of those things that people can really put their finger on it, quantify, but, I’ve heard a lot people saying it has a good vibe. And as I mentioned kind of with all of those conversations, that is a good thing to hear.

   

10. So sort of taking I guess your hat off, I guess as someone who has been involved in this, do you think that the conference this year has captured the stage of Agile as we are in right now and maybe what sort of things should we be talking about in conferences to come?

I think it has because another little statistic here, exactly half of the attendees come from organizations that are 1,000 people or more and what that tells me is that Agile has moved, has crossed the chasm, it’s really moved into the mainstream and you are seeing larger organizations taking it on which means that there is a lot of interest in things like Enterprise Agile, Program Management, things of those sorts.

One of the reasons we kind of inserted the Learning Track into it was that there is always need to kind of start introducing new ideas and new thoughts from a little bit different place, so this year that was kind of an experiment to say this is an area that we might want to talk about more. The other thing and this is probably a little bit more from a personal bias I have is that I’m involved a lot from a business analysis stand point, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that there is a lot more discussions about, we’re starting to get better at building the thing right, now we really need to start looking at are we building the right thing, and should we be building anything at all, and I think or at least I hope that that conversation continues moving forward.

   

11. So one of the other things about the conference is that you’ve had a wide variety of keynotes. Keynotes quite often set the scene and some very different keynotes, can you tell us a little bit about the keynotes that you selected for the Conference and maybe some of the reasons why you chose those people?

The three keynotes were Abhi Nemani who is the Chief of Staff for Code for America and he was our opening keynote on Monday and what we like to do there is get someone that is going to start some conversation, and so he spoke about how fellows from his organization, it’s a non profitthat gets fellows attached with local governments, are making a difference in local governments by using Agile and Lean approaches. It also just as a happenstance happen to match up with one of our three kind of thematic ways we grouped our tracks together, so we had Process at Scale which is dealing with larger organizations and the challenges there and government and everything like that technology and people, and so his talk really did kind of nicely tie in with that Process at Scale.

Wednesday’s keynote was Tim Lister and one of the main reasons that we brought him in is because he has been involved with the Agile Community, he had keynoted at the first one I attended in 2004 and he always brings a lot of great stories, in fact his keynote was all about a bunch of stories that he used and how he applied that back to information that he thought would be helpful for the audience. He really talks about the people side of things and then our Friday keynote is Gene Kim and he plays a lot in looking at where the DevOps type thinking and Agile kind of crossover and so because we introduced the new DevOps track and to give things from a more technical stand point we really thought that he would be a good kind of fit in there as well, so that was kind of the thinking and bringing in, we wanted to have a variety of different perspectives, all three of them talked about either their experiences or things that they’ve seen in different organizations so it’s still kind of a bit of that pragmatic practical perspective.

   

12. There is sometimes a criticism and I’ve certainly heard that, and I heard it over numerous years, is that we’re moving away from the software development angle and far more into the process and the like. [...] So do you have any thoughts on how it has worked out this year?

Craig's full question: There is sometimes a criticism and I’ve certainly heard that, and I heard it over numerous years, is that we’re moving away from the software development angle and far more into the process and the like. I feel in two ways about that: one I do suspect there is probably not enough software development talked about here, or although I’m not sure whether it is the right place anyway, but on the same token everything else is important and we are only here for four and a half days. So do you have any thoughts on how it has worked out this year?

One of the interesting things when we were putting the tracks together and figuring out who we wanted to kind of help kind of shepherd those things and where we wanted to focus and even deciding how many sessions were in each track, was a big thing about, we want to always encourage to bring more technology stuff in, but at the same time we have to look at where our audience skews toward and frankly in the last few years and you could argue chicken or egg as far as why that is, but the percentage of developers has been around 16 – 17 percent.

So we certainly want to have meaty, helpful great stuff from a technology stand point, but like you said there is all these other places that we want to focus on as well, so it is trying to get that good mix. So it’s a combination of we want to drive content to where we want to make sure we are getting peoples needs served, and one of our goals was, is that one: everybody had a very tough decision in each time slot to figure out where they wanted to go to, and two: that they took something back with them that they can use the next week. So we had to look at our audience and say where are most of our attendees coming from and we’ve got to make sure we have content for them.

   

13. And what is your hope for conferences forward, taking your conference hat off and somebody who is going to be an attendee probably, still a part in some way, but what is your hope if we are looking forward to say Agile 2015 what are you hoping, where do we move to?

I’m really hoping that we can continue to set it up so that we are bringing in a lot of different perspectives. This conference is large for Agile conferences, as far as I know it’s the largest. That has certain advantages because you can have a wide breadth of different things to talk about that every individual will not want to go to every all 200 sessions which is good, because they can’t, but they always should have a couple in each session or in each time slot that they’re going to be interested in, so keeping that wide perspective, keeping it practically focused because we are seeing as a lot of people attending it are from organizations that they may have been doing it for a couple of years but they are just trying to figure out how can we do it forward, and they are looking for some small little nuggets of practical information and come to conference, they can figure that stuff out and say: “Oh, I get it, I’m going to take that back and work”.

So I’m hoping that going forward the conference continues to do that at the same time, want to make sure that for the people that have been involved with the conference for a while there is a way of providing some new interesting information and it may be different topics from one year to the next, that they can come back and talk to the people they’ve known and hear about some new things going on so they can go out and keep exploring from that perspective.

Craig: So I’ll say as an attendee, it’s been an awesome conference, you’ve captured all the buzz in the corridors and the sessions has been outstanding, you’ve captured Nashville, we are looking forward to the party, we got the country music feel, so it’s been an awesome Conference, so on behalf of all the attendees I’d like to thank you for all your work.

Thank you, I’m glad that you found it very enjoyable.

   

14. So where do we move to next, where is the conference headed next year?

So next year it’s in Orlando at the, I believe it is the Gaylord Palms, it’s July 28th to August 1st I believe are the dates, and Mitch Lacey is the Chair for next year.
Craig: So people should look out for the Agile Alliance website to get more details.

The splash page is already up and I suspect that will be a lot more information coming out soon and start looking for those of you that are interested in sharing your ideas, look for the submission system to open up sometime later this year.

Craig: Thanks very much for a great conference Kent and thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us!

Thank you!

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