This is a transcript of episode 127 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Jeffrey and Squirrel had very different experiences at recent tech conferences including DOES London/Virtual. We describe what worked and what didn’t for us, and how listeners can apply the lessons to their own remote attendance at conferences and meetings.
Alistair Cockburn, People and Methodologies in Software Development
DOES London Virtual conference Slack archive
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.
Squirrel: So we’re done with the book! Hallelujah! We’ve actually done seven episodes, maybe eight, I think actually.
Squirrel: And we covered from start to finish how we got to write Agile Conversations, bits about each chapter, something to enrich all of them. So we hope listeners are enjoying the book. If you haven’t, you can find it at ConversationalTransformation.com. You could even buy it from us, or of course, from your favourite bookseller. And when you do that, if you get the audio book Jeffrey, you were telling me that you’re particularly excited about the audio companion, the text that comes along with the book. Why is that?
Jeffrey: Well, first off, if you’re getting the audio book I think it’s necessary. The audio book companion has all of the graphics from the book. So, you’l want that while you listen or for reference later. It also has all the dialogues. Now, the thing is, this was designed as a companion to the audio book, but I actually recommend it to everyone as a handy reference, especially for people who are interested in introducing other people to the techniques. It could be a really nice shared artefact for people who are, for example, doing a book club reading or are going to do a conversational dojo or something like that. But if they want to do a practise session, a study group, having all of the dialogues there, and, for example, having people try to score them, the before and after and to compare that to our scores would be one way to work. So there’s a lot of material there for people to work with. The audio book companion is actually 82 pages long by itself. So this really is a tremendous amount of information. It’s available for free from the I.T. Revolution site. So I do recommend people go take a look at that.
Squirrel: Absolutely. And we’ll have a link in the show notes, as we always do. We had somebody recently saying it would be really nice if you could kind of look up the dialogues that were relevant to you. Sounds like this would be shorter and faster than trying to flip through the book. Or fast forward to the right part of the audio book. So it sounds very useful. And one of the things that we were doing to talk about the book, of course, is to go to the DevOps London Enterprise Conference, which, was that right? What is it called? I never get the name right. DevOps Enterprise Summit London, which was only nominally in London because anybody could come from anywhere. We invited some folks from North Carolina who I think got up early so they could participate. And because it was virtual, it was very interesting. And I think we picked up a lot of interesting ideas there. Jeffrey, did you want to describe some that you got?
Interactivity and Affordances
Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. First, a bit about DevOps Enterprise Summit London Virtual–or ‘DOES’ as people would refer to it, I think that’s the way that people would normally shorten that-
Jeffrey: Kind of a mouthfull otherwise. I was actually very impressed by the work that the I.T. Revolution crew and Gene Kim did in presenting this conference. They really had done a lot of work to see how much could they do to try to have a conference experience for people who were virtual? Now, we’ve talked before a bit about the trade-offs and affordances between being in person and remote, and a conference sort of takes all of that and just blows it up tremendously. And really, you saw a lot of this at play at DOES. On the positive side, there were people from all over the world. There were people from Tokyo to California. And I was very pleased that it was actually centred in London in the sense that the time zones were all based on British Summer Time, so that I was very grateful for, that I could attend for the weekend. And I actually found it to be a very good and energising experience, although it was not the same as going to a normal conference. So I think that’s what we want to talk about here, some of the trade offs that we saw and in part to see if there’s any lessons learned for people in our audience, and how they might apply this to their own sort of everyday experience of remote working. So I think there are some some useful takeaways there.
Squirrel: Absolutely. And I know I found it very difficult to get engaged, but I also did not have as much time. I hadn’t took time off in the way that you did, Jeffrey, but I found in this one and other conferences I’ve gone to recently that are virtual, I found it very tough. But I think you found it energising, which is great. I’m really curious. What did you get from it that I didn’t? What was working for you that I missed?
Jeffrey: Yeah, well, I think let me just describe a little bit for our audience about how this was run, which is different from some other conferences I’ve seen. I’m going to focus on really two elements, and one is as speakers, we were asked to record our presentations in advance. And that was a new thing for me. I’ve certainly recorded different presentations before, webinars and things of that nature. But I’ve never had it for a conference to go ahead and put together a recorded presentation.
Squirrel: And I was quite confused by what we were going to do while the recording was playing. It turned out very well. That part did work for me, but it seemed odd to me. Here we were gonna record it. Are we just going to watch ourselves?
Jeffrey: Exactly! Exactly! And I think that’s the first part. And then the second part was this, which is that they had a Slack channel for the conference track. Each conference track was on its own Slack channel. And so what we did while our presentation was playing was go to that Slack channel and we could interact with other people, with the people who were choosing to watch our session at that time. And it wasn’t just us. All of the presentations had the speakers there available for interaction during the talk.
Squirrel: So it was almost like you could ask a question while the talk was going on, which is not kind of a normal conference behaviour. You don’t normally stand up in the twelfth row and say, ‘but wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense’ and get a response from the speaker because it would stop the other 100 people or 200 people in the room or whatever it is from hearing.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And so this is a very interesting sort of opt-in interactivity. If you wanted to just be there and be in the audience, you could immerse yourself in what they were describing as a cinematic experience. I thought this is a very interesting interaction that I want to come back to. A live conference is a theatrical experience, and a virtual conference is a cinematic one. It was a very interesting point in really there describing the difference in affordances that you have in your presentation. Though we did try to blur the two, and I thought in a way that I really enjoyed. So particularly one of things that you and I did in our presentation, we really enjoy interacting with the audience. So people from row 12 don’t necessarily stand up and shout out answers unless, of course, we ask them to. And we do often ask people to interact in some way or other when we’re speaking. So we had in our recording told people, ‘all right, get ready to type, get your hands on the keyboard, make sure you’re ‘in the Slack channel, because we’re going to ask you a question. We want you to go there.’ And that was quite fun to have that embedded into the presentation of the recording and then being in a position to receive it on the other side.
Squirrel: And I had fun being a bit of a ham and I said, ‘I can predict what you’re going to type.’ Many of our listeners will have heard us do this one where we say, ‘how do you make a decision, and what would be the best way to make a consequential decision.’ And we can always predict what people will say because they always espouse the transparency and curiosity that they don’t then exhibit. That made the point very nicely that I could say I’m telepathic. A week before you’re doing this, I can predict what you’re going to say. And of course, I did.
DOES in Person vs DOES Virtual
Jeffrey: Right. So that’s I think enough of a background. I think what we can do here is you and I can compare and contrast our experiences in two dimensions. One is we were at DOES, Las Vegas last October. And so we can say, how did the virtual experience compare to the in-person one? And then we can also compare DOES to other virtual conferences we’ve been part of because, you and I have been part of actually a few this year, CITCON, DOES and then a couple others. And say from all of that, what do we think that might mean for lessons learned that we can apply to to other remote work?
Jeffrey: So let’s let’s maybe start with you Squirrel, DOES Las Vegas, in a sense, was a bit of a trial for you.
Squirrel: Oh, gosh! I actually got physically ill and considered leaving Las Vegas because it was just so difficult to be in the casino and with the funny smells and the loud music. And I couldn’t find the exit. That was actually the most difficult part, I couldn’t get out of the casino. But once I got out of the casino and got to the actual conference, I found being in person with others was very exciting and energising, there were people to talk to about our book, we could sign our book for people in person. They wanted to take pictures with us! You know, it felt very energising and interesting to be able to give a message to people in person and connect with them. I got none of that from any of the virtual conferences, not specific to DOES, I just felt like I was existing in a vacuum. And I think part of it was that I wasn’t putting forth as much effort as you did Jeffrey, so I definitely felt the difference in amount of energy that was required., and I just, for whatever reason, couldn’t summon it for these. And so in several cases, including the talk we just talked about, where I was really excited about seeing people in the Slack channel and was really interested in what was happening…I felt like I was done. And then all the oxygen went away. I’d done a bunch of interesting stuff, It had happened onlin,e and I was still in my kitchen. And that just didn’t get me as much connexion with others, opportunities to learn more, those weren’t really working for me. But I gather you had a very different experience. Things worked a lot better for you. What did you do differently?
Jeffrey: I did. I think there’s a couple of things. And one thing for me is I blocked out the time. I treated the time and space as though it were a physical conference. So I booked the time off work and cleared my calendar, and was available to be involved the whole time. And so that meant starting with the first opening remarks at 8:30 every day, and then it would go, and there was a happy hour that started, I think, at 5:30 in the evening. And then it turned out there was also Q&A and various sort of Zoom type things happening after that even! So this was a full-day-each-day experience. And so some of the good and bad from a normal conference for me happened. I often at some point feel quite tired and drained from a conference–in a good way. And that happened for me in DOES because I was involved the entire time. And for me, actually, there were some elements I enjoyed more about it virtually than in Las Vegas. So the, for example, networking for me felt a lot easier. There was a channel called Happy Hour and I would go there, I could interact, and people were sort of opt-in interact. If they said hi, if they were online, they were choosing to interact, and that made it very easy to find those people who were up for a conversation. Whereas at a normal conference with thousands of people–DOES is a massive conference in Las Vegas–I would be there and could go and grab my food and go down to the buffet and be around with other people at, you know, 8:00 in the morning. But it wasn’t clear who was really up for a conversation. And I found it a bit more difficult to find people. Now, I tried, I would go to a table and try to strike up conversations. I would talk to people in the speaker’s lounge or there was a pre-conference drink. So I tried to reach out, but I found that in-person conversations were actually a bit more difficult for me in some ways than the than the virtual ones, because I felt like it was much clearer who was opting in and who was approachable. In a sense, the lurkers were invisible. So it was almost like you had a room and the only people you could see where other people who were up for talking about the same topic that I was interested in. So there’s a trade-off there. Definitely probably lost some things from serendipity, but also gained some ease of interaction for me in some ways.
Jeffrey: It was different, though, than the other conferences. CITCON, of course, is very different because it’s very interactive. Every session is interactive. You don’t have the separation between speaker and audience.
Squirrel: But what I found there–and also even more so at DOES and the others that we’ve been to–is that what I really like to do is to go to a talk and then continue a conversation saying, ‘oh, you made an interesting point in the questions. Oh, I really disagreed with this. And what do you think?’ That’s my entree. And it may be that I just didn’t put forth enough effort to find the locations for it because all of the conferences did have some kind of happy hour-ish kind of thing of some variety.
Squirrel: But it was hard for me to find the right person. You know, I always make notes to myself at a conference. ‘Guy in Blue Shirt has a really interesting idea,’ the ‘person in yellow trousers has something interesting I want to talk to them about’ and I’ll go find them.
Squirrel: I just found that online much more unnatural. That may just be me.
Jeffrey: Yeah. That is an interesting point, it is fair point. And certainly at a smaller conference like CITCON, I’ve done that. Even at large confrences like DOES in Las Vegas, I might stalk one of the speakers or even an audience member who asked an interesting question. As you said, I might follow them in the hallway, and that’s very nice. I actually did get some of that at DOES Virtual in part because if people were asking questions, there was often threads that would continue, and people might go and post on a thread from a talk later in the day or even the next day, and people were sharing resources. In fact, one of the things that we’ll link to in the show notes is a document of links from DOES London Virtual. These are mostly links that I contributed, but some people have added some other ones as well. And I just came away with just a gigantic reading list. Sometimes from the authors, from the speakers. Some of the speakers were sharing material related to their talks in the channel, but a lot of times it was other listeners. People would say, ‘oh, this reminds me of this or that,’ or ‘have you seen this other item?’ And I was just scarfing up all of these links. In fact, the links that are in this document–and there’s lots, I don’t know, maybe 50 links–those are only the ones I didn’t actually read during the conference because I was maniacally reading at the breaks and things like that. Quite a lot of content, while the conference was going on. So it was really, for me, it was very interactive, and I could actually appreciate it: talking to the speakers, as you say, during their conference, to say, you know, ‘how did you get started in this? What led you to this? What did you see that made you think of this theory that you’re talking about?’ I really enjoyed that.
Squirrel: Yeah. And I can absolutely see that. Reflecting on it a bit now, I think possibly my general overwhelmedness with Slack may have contributed. I have, as listeners may know, five or six or seven clients at a time, each of whom has about 50 Slack channels. So I usually tell them ‘Don’t try to get me on slack, use the phone. It works a lot better.’ And I do have a kind of a Slack overwhelm, so I wouldn’t be naturally going and looking in the threads, for example. I wouldn’t be naturally coming and finding those, and I think I might have missed out by not putting forth that extra effort to overcome my aversion or overwhelmedness, to go and find some of these opportunities. In a physical conference they found me or I could walk up to someone.
Jeffrey: Right. I think it’s relevant that the personal history here is probably different. I have been doing online interaction with people since about 1992. That’s when I was at my first job out of university. I worked at Borland, some people remember that company. I worked in technical support and back then online support meant CompuServe, Bix, and GEnie. And I really enjoyed it. I became the online service manager first for languages support, and eventually for all of the technical support for Borland across all the products in about ‘93. So for, you know, nigh on 30 years, is that right? Can that possibly be true?
Squirrel: Your maths is correct.
Jeffrey: Oh, my gosh! I’ve had sort of significant online interactions with people, and that extended into open source spaces, into mailing lists. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in online games, virtual worlds like EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft. And so I’m quite used to interacting with people virtually. And I think that personal history made it easier, and I can see how other people who aren’t as familiar with online events, or who didn’t dedicate the bandwidth to it, wouldn’t have had the same experience I did.
Squirrel: Mm hmm. And just contrasting with that, it occurs to me that I’ve done a fair amount of that as well for at least as long, if not longer. Remember having an email account in the late 1980S, and that was a very strange experience to encounter e-mail for the first time. But what’s different for me is that although, for example, I don’t play online games–I would be likely to become very addicted–I do watch them a lot, so I’m on Twitch fairly often and participate a lot. There’s a lot of people who I would consider friends who I’ve never met or even heard, who I interact with that way. The difference, I think, for me was that with that kind of interaction, there’s an ongoing relationship. So I would be in Usenet forums. This is from a very long time ago.
Squirrel: And I would see the same people over and over again. Some of them were nuts! And it was more entertaining to read their posts than informative, but I got to know the personalities. I think the greater difficulty for me is when there are people that I don’t know. It’s harder for me to break in and get started. And that’s the initial barrier, I imagine some of our more introverted listeners have that challenge as well.
Jeffrey: And I think that also may have been a difference, ‘cause I was able there to, in part, key in with people like Patrick Debois and John Willis and Jon Smart. People who I’ve spoken to them at previous conferences, which is kind of interesting,
Squirrel: You have the ongoing relationship.
Jeffrey: I have the ongoing relationship. John Willis. He and I’ve seen each other at every DevOps Days I’ve been to, which is three or four, and then at DOES last year. So I think that’s a good point. I probably did leverage to some extent and get some comfort from the fact that, even if I wasn’t talking to them directly, that they were involved and they were about. And then if I posted, you know, pictures of my bread–and by the way, that was one of the things for me was to bake bread during a conference–
Squirrel: Yes! And it gives you a conversation point. That’s actually a very helpful thing I do similar kinds of things in the online communities I’m in. It may not be related to the activity that’s going on, but having something that helps you stand out and be a little different. ‘He’s the bread guy. What was his name? Started with a J.’
Squirrel: That’s a helpful thing to be able to have because it gives you a way in.
Building Beyond Acquaintances
Jeffrey: Exactly. And so other people reciprocated, then they became kind of a mini community. And in fact, we had one person who’s now joined the Conversational Transformation or the Agile Conversations Slack channel–which we’ve talked about in the past–from the conference, he was another bread-breaker! So here’s another person who bakes bread and is interested in conversations like, clearly, this is my kind of people that I was able to find.
Squirrel: Well, speaking of things being old, this is an old concept, right? So this whole idea goes back at least 30 years if not more, for both of us, and our good friend Alistair Cockburn analysed this back in his dissertation. I can’t remember when it was, but we’ll put the link in, and we take a chart from that in the book to illustrate how much more communication is eased by being in person in certain ways, and how much the intimacy drops off as you move farther and farther from in person.
Jeffrey: Right. So our theory here is that if we contrast or experiences, we can say, all right, if you’re going to have remote meetings, you’re doing remote work in your company, what lessons can we take from what we’re just describing? And I think there’s many. Maybe I’ll start with this last point we just made, the idea that if you have a connection with someone, even if it’s not on the same topic, it makes it easier to have a conversation. So this is, I think, a good reason to invest in allowing people to develop the kind of non-work knowledge of each other that they would gain naturally from being co-located. So people in the water cooler chat, typically, you might learn a little bit that someone’s day, their life, their weekend outside of the work. In the virtual world, it’s too easy for people to fall in the trap that you only ever talk to in meetings, and the meetings are only ever about work, and so you never build that other kind of connection.
Squirrel: It’s certainly very difficult. Some of my clients have bots in Slack that connect people for a weekly doughnut or something similar. There’s lots of these opportunities and things like this are available, but you do have to invest in them. It’s not something that you just get for free by sticking people in the same room.
Jeffrey: That’s right. In fact, and just having the bot isn’t enough. We’ve got a coffee bot at TIM and we’ve been using it for several years. But we also took some time to promote it to people, to say this is worth spending time on–and it’s worth spending work time on. You know, you’re expected to do your coffee meeting during work hours. This is not something that you need to go and cut into your personal time to do.
Squirrel: Makes lots of sense. Any other lessons that you picked up? That’s kind of the main one that I took away, that if I’m going to go to another these, I should be ready to invest more. And it’d be great if the conference organisers did similar sorts of things, as those folks did, to try to create those opportunities. Any other lessons you’ve picked up?
Jeffrey: Yeah, I think there is something, which is the ability to have follow-on conversations. It’s very difficult to have side conversations in a virtual meeting. There’s typically only one speaker at a time. Whereas if you were in a physical space, it can be quite common to have a couple different conversations. You know, hopefully not in the meeting, but you can grab someone and chat with them afterwards. What I’ve experienced myself and seen for other people is their days now are back-to-back-to-back virtual meetings, with no time to say, you know, ‘oh, hey, Squirrel, do you have a minute? Can we can we follow up on that point you just made?’ So this is purely topical. The same way in conferences I might want to follow a speaker or an audience member out to follow up about something I heard them say, that certainly happens to me in meetings in real space also. It might be something very relevant, not to the point of the meeting, but to something other work related. You know, ‘you told me about this client visit. Can you can you tell me more? I’d like to hear what else you learnt from that client.’
Squirrel: Or even, ‘Hey, you mentioned that you you were baking bread at the weekend. Can you give me your recipe?’
Squirrel: And it can be a non-work thing that helps you to improve the relationship.
Jeffrey: Yeah. The other thing I think is the dual-channel nature. There’s something that’s happened in audio and video, but also to have something in writing. In the case of DOES this was in the Slack channel, which gave us a somewhat persistent record. Now, because this is Slack and these are free accounts for all the attendees, the history doesn’t go back further than, you know, Wednesday at this point, I just checked, but there were shared artefacts. There were places to share links to bring in relevant material, that’s taking advantage of the medium, of the affordances of the medium in a way that if you just tried to replicate your in-person meeting virtually, you lose something! Right? By having it virtually, you have the ability to add in other material, to add in links and whatnot, and to capture it, you know. Are you recording the conversation? Are you recording the meeting and making the recording available later? Is there a clear chat channel or a backchannel where people can be sharing links for supporting the conversation and following up? One of things that we’ve done that works very well is we will have someone with a shared note document, so that multiple people can be writing notes at the same time. So things like that. I think these are all elements that worked well at DOES and that apply very well to the virtual world of work that we find ourselves in.
Squirrel: That makes lots of sense. Well, I hope listeners have got a lot of interesting ideas there. If they’re going to attend a conference, maybe some of them are going to organise a conference, but certainly I think we’re all participating much more in the virtual world, whether we want to or not, and are going to be for the foreseeable future. So lots of interesting suggestions there about overcoming the resistance and the difficulties that you have. Did want to remind folks again that the audio book companion for the Agile Conversations book is available. It’s linked in the show notes. We were surprised by how many people found that helpful, whether or not they have bought the audio book, whether or not they bought the book! It’s freely available. So it’s got a lot of material in there that you’re certainly welcome to look at. We also like it when we hear from people about the topics we’ve been discussing. So if you are struggling with online meetings, if you’re headed to a conference and you’re looking for some tips, do get in touch, you can find us at ConversationalTransformation.com, where you also find links to all kinds of other things that we’re doing and exploring, and resources that you can get for free, and talk with us further about any of them. And of course, we like it when you subscribe to the podcast. So if you’re in iTunes or Spotify or one of those, all of them have some kind of subscribe button. And we’ve been coming every week for Wednesday for two years. So no intention of stopping. So, come back and see us again next week. Super. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.