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Conferences - Does Size Matter?

The Agile2006 conference welcomed over 1100 participants from 29 countries, and included over 200 presentations - some offered more than once.  The conference had excellent logistics and seemed to run quite smoothly, with sessions running from 10 to 200 or more participants.  The exhilaration of meeting in such a large crowd is undisputable.  Now that it's over, in the spirit of inspect-and-adapt, it's important to look at the feedback in preparation for next year.

Many enjoyed the conference, including Ron Jeffries, who blogged about it under the title "Conference Thoughts".  But a nagging doubt remains: did participants get what they came for?  Not all participants received conference feedback sheets, perhaps due to last-minute higher-than-expected registration.  However, there's still time to tell the Agile Alliance what the conference experience was for you: Jeffries has made an open invitation for feedback:
The Agile 2006 conference was very good, and the reviews from the attendees are mostly favorable. I've got some concerns and issues, and I'm soliciting feedback, input, ideas from people who have them. As an Agile Alliance board member, I might be able to get some things done. Tell me what to do.
Other places to leave interactive conference feedback include the conference wiki and James Shore's experimental "Card Meeting" site (look for the "Agile2006 Retrospective" link at the left of the page).

There are other examples of large conferences in the Agile sphere.  The SD Best Practices 2006 conference in September, now in its 19th year, will also offer about 200 presentations, with roughly 40% of the presenters coming from the Agile software community.  Some, like Bob Martin, Robert Walsh, Scott Ambler and Neil Harrison, will present four or five different topics during the four-day conference.

Still, there's an ongoing appetite for different events, too: smaller events continue to thrive and new ones are cropping up.  XPday events in Europe (UK, France, Germany, Benelux, etc.) and North America are typically local or regional, and hence smaller.  Joe Rainsberger, creator of XPday North America events in various cities since 2005, sees his events filling an important niche that the large conferences simply cannot.  He told InfoQ: "We want to provide local sofware communities with an easy opportunity to learn about XP and to give local experts a platform to advertise their expertise."  Feeling that big conferences all present the same big name headliners, he wants to "make room for the next wave of leaders, in these smaller arenas".  Rainsberger conjectures that to maintain the kind of quality experience he wants to offer, 150 may be the ceiling for registration.

Others are tackling this issue by changing the nature of their conferences. Open Space is becoming more popular, of late, being made more visible by some of the BarCamp events using Open Space, like RecentChangesCamp - last year's BarCamp for the Wiki community.  Open Space has been a component of the Agile Alliance conferences for many years, though this year it was pretty much hidden away behind the vendor stalls, and almost invisible in the conference schedule.  But attendees speak warmly of vibrant Open Space events in past years, and those who convened and attended this year's Open Space events found them passionate and interesting.  Open Space can maintain the "connected" feeling of even a rather large conference, when implemented with care.  This year saw the second AgileOpen conference held in Belgium, and there are currently rumours of North American Agile Open Space events in the works.  The ScrumAlliance's "Gatherings" are partially held in Open Space, and registration is restricted, presumably to enhance the quality of the event for participants.

Another conference pattern is the "travelling road show", which describes events like XPday North America and No Fluff, Just Stuff, which has added Agile tracks in many cities.  NoFluffJustStuff's organizer Jay Zimmerman did a podcast interview with Bob Payne,discussing creation and growth of this conference.  One his main goals: "I wanted to be inclusive, affordable, and make it easy for a manager to say 'yes' ".  To do this they plan their events on weekends, to allow entire teams of developers as well as consultants to attend.

The ScrumExchange conference, coming up September 7th in Palo Alto is another variant: a Scrum Gathering which has self-organized to provide an alternative, more hands-on experience for participants, and which also has a relatively low cap on registration.  Tobias Mayer, one of the organizers, says that he doesn't feel this event competes with, but rather complements, other Scrum events.  For him, the event is " ... to build up a Scrum community, but with the added goal of creating a learning environment to move the education of Scrum forward.  We want to challenge conventional ways of teaching Agile and Scrum and explore new ideas for making Agile concepts known to people."   They plan to do more than talk and listen: "we shall do: we shall play, we shall act, we shall experience."  A new teaching event, to discover new ways to teach.  The OOPSLA2006 "Killer Patterns" workshop will do something similar.  Maybe they're onto something.

So, are the conferences meeting the community's needs? For a community committed to the idea of feedback, there are several ways to influence future events: use the feedback mechanisms mentioned here to offer praise or constructive criticism, or simply register and support the kind of conference you want to endorse, or better yet - create one!

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