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Experience Report: Beginners and Experts Using Open Space

Agile conferences are receiving an influx of novice teams and managers - the Agile2006 conference saw an increase of 50% from the prior year.  Perhaps out of concern over conference size, some have suggested that new conferences should be organized for these beginners, however an interesting session at a recent Open Space event suggests that mixing up expertise levels creates a valuable conference experience for all.

The event was this autumn's XPday Montreal 2006, a lively bilingual Open Space event on the subject of: "They Do Things Differently There - Customers, Developers, Testers  Learning Each Others’ Languages."  Laurent Bossavit introduced the subject, the simple rules of Open Space were explained, and then the day was left entirely to the participants.  Lively sessions ensued, and this article relates the reflections of both junior and senior participants in one particular session called "Help! How does testing with Mock Objects work?"

The session was initiated by a university student, preparing for his first permanent software job, and was attended by one of the creators of NMock.  Despite this large gap in expertise, afterwards only good comments were heard about that session.  Perhaps because of the theme of the day's event, the whole group was very heterogeneous, and yet people were very animated, the Open Space room was a busy place filled with intense conversations, and many positive reflections were heard at the end of the day. 

This article relates to questions under discussion Agile leadership circles: How can we improve our conferences so that all benefit?  Despite larger crowds, more intimate sessions are preferred for intensive, focused learning.  Already organisation, usually done by voluteers, is time consuming - adding more small sessions would increase both administrative overhead and the need for teachers.  How can we keep our "people and interactions" focus while still welcoming and serving as many people as want to attend?  Should we have separate conference tracks  (or even separate conferences?) for experienced and novice attendees?  This report suggests that Open Space could provide an interesting event for people of all levels, with negligible increase in administrative effort.

Open Space isn't the only way to learn... but for tackling key questions not answered by lectures, or when creative discourse is preferred, or when relationship building is important, it provides a simple structure within which these needs can be met.  It also can help a large conference retain the feel of a smaller conference, without heavy planning up front.  It will be interesting to follow the 2007 and 2008 conferences, to see what happens to the trend toward Open Space:

  • AgileOpen Northwest will be a fully Open Space Agile conference, taking place in Portland in January 2007,
  • Qcon in London in March will include both tutorial-style and Open Space Agile tracks,
  • Open Space will play a higher profile at Agile2007 in Washington, DC in July, under the name "Conference-within-a-Conference". 
  • The original AgileOpen has not yet announced the date of their 2007 event,
  • Next year's XPday North America events, including an Open Space track, are planned for Austin TX, Portland OR, NYC and Toronto, 
  • RecentChangesCamp, for wiki fans, will take place in Open Space in Portland OR and Montreal,
  • and there will be other Open Space conferences, hopefully including CitConf 2007.

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