It’s Time For A Change

Where I discuss the disconnect between how ideas are shared and taking that discussion further.

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Yesterday, a tweet by @leaverou popped up in my stream.

There are several layers to this tweet, which Lea may not have realised.

Workshops

As someone who had paid for workshops in the past and also attended conferences that sit alongside them, when I attend a workshop I would expect to be paying a premium for hands on one-to-one time with an expert. I understand this is not the same thing as consultancy, you may only get 5 minutes here and there, but still some time speaking to the individual running the workshop would be expected. I would also hope to learn more around whatever subject the workshop is based, and learn a new insight or way of working I hadn’t considered before. At the very least, I would expect to solidify my current knowledge on that topic and spend some time working with others.

I wouldn’t expect to spend time debating the talk that had happened the previous day (as Lea is suggesting here). Workshops are expensive, very expensive. Attendees to a workshop are expecting a knowledge exchange for their money and time. You teach, they listen and can ask questions, this is certainly a good format for small discussions, but not a focal point of the day. It can become frustrating when attending a workshop that gets side-tracked or one person monopolizes the teacher’s time, you literally sit there thinking how much money all the wasted time is costing you, and leave upset or frustrated.

Further Debate

So workshops are not the way to handle further debate, but Lea is right. When you attend a conference, many new ideas can be raised or radical approaches to current ideas can be offered. Often we wish to discuss these ideas with our peers and take them to the next step.

Currently our industry is terrible at this. We have conferences, which are great for voicing ideas and getting them out in the open, workshops and hackathons for teaching and working together, but nothing to take ideas further or develop them. What we do is the same silly approach to developing ideas that mathematicians or physicists do, disappear in to a room and try to work it out on your own.

Polymath is a project started as an effort for mathematicians to stop working individually on problems and come together to share their knowledge on previously unsolved equations. It’s already solved many equations previously deemed unsolvable and is a fantastic example of coming together using group knowledge to achieve the previously unachievable.

Stop Being Dumb

As an industry, we advocate rapid prototyping, agile methodologies and teamwork. But we don’t practice what we preach at all, in an effort to be “The First” often ego’s get in the way of solving problems and working together.

Let’s piece together how we work as an industry, and look at it from a productive point of view.

  • New ideas are voiced on blogs and at conferences.
  • Workshops help teach others about approaches and techniques
  • Hackathons aim to produce products in a small time frame and develop skill-sets.

When we lay it out like this, the missing part is quite clear. We don’t have a forum to develop ideas, we all spend time generating ideas and then hope someone will be able to take it to the next step, we sit and wait for the next magical blog post or talk to tell us how we proceed.

Work Smarter

What’s needed is a lightning rod to draw people together and discuss ideas after a conference, to raise problems we all have and work smarter to solve them. You see, humans work better together when they can have meaningful conversation face to face. We are more industrious and iterate faster.

In February, at Hey! Stac I presented my vision for how this type of event (I am calling Summit) could work.

The Pitch

What I am proposing in the slides is a 2 part idea, comprised of a site and day event. It works as follows:

The site

The site would be a mechanism for people to raise questions and ideas that warrant further discussion. These are categorised and up voted to show demand.

Think of it as a mash-up between Stack Overflow and Sony Share. What we are doing here is peer reviewing the suggestions and making sure the most needed, desired and valid ideas float to the top.

Summit

Summit events are run following a standard format, whereby they select a skill type to base the event on. For instance, they would only tackle CSS based questions. This both allows the attendees to understand if they would be able to contribute (a die hard Ruby developer may have little interest in attending a CSS based event) and ensure we are focusing our skill in one area at a time.

The organiser can pick a list of questions from the Summit site to tackle for the day.

When attendees arrive they are arranged in to small groups at random 1 The organiser will then set the groups the (same) first question to solve.

Groups are then assigned a fixed tight time schedule to deal with this, say 30 minutes. Once the 30 minutes are up, a spokesperson for a couple of the groups will do a quick show and tell, on what they have achieved so far. After the quick presentations, people return to their groups and tackle the problem again for another 30 minute sprint.

There are many nuanced ways as to why I have devised this format, let me break them down:

  • We should be practising what we preach, and learning by rapid prototyping. So we should be utilising a clever try and throw-away approach to reach a suitable solution as quickly as possible.
  • Enforcing the strict timings ensures no group can spend too long going in the wrong direction before getting feedback or seeing what others have done.
  • We are building a feedback mechanism in to a rapid design approach
  • We are staging many meaningful conversations at one time. It is easy to have a meaningful conversation when there are fewer people involved at one time (hence the groups). This means we try out many different approaches all at once. Rather than one after the other, thereby shortening the time it takes to reach a viable solution.
  • Sharing with others that you have failed in the last 30 minute sprint and what you did wrong still helps others avoid pitfalls or exclude another possible approaches that a group may be considering. So no time is ever wasted.
  • When a group begins to hone in on a good solution others are peer testing this approach as they go.
  • Everyone is involved all the time.

At the end of the day, all the problems solved or part-solutions devised are uploaded to the site, with all attendees names attached. This way we are allowing unsolved questions and progress to be fed back to the site and help others who may be working individually on the solution as well.

In essence, what we are doing is creating a smart, productive, feedback loop, with peer review built-in, we raise questions on the site, filter them and disseminate them to the events taking place (worldwide). The events then feedback to the site with answers and development for all to see. Anyone can get involved and dedicate as much or as little time as they have but nothing should be lost, or contribution should be undervalued, because it’s inherently a positive productive format focused on problem solving.

Taking Summit To It’s Conclusion

Taking the idea further and my ultimate aim for the idea would be to build the site as an open source project. Anyone could download the code and modify it for their problem type, and upload it to their server. It could be any industry, not just web standards, imagine if this was how we decided political policies, or made decisions in any industry. The site then allows events to take place and filter results back to it. If you ran a large worldwide company, you could even run your own Summit events and site internally to raise problems with the company or fix existing issues in a positive format.

We work smarter, when we work together. That’s why I am not arrogant to believe what I have proposed being the perfect solution, or indeed think I can make this work better all on my own. I am in the process of writing the site specification and event format. Once I have the general format, I will put it out on my GitHub for general feedback and suggestion ideas.

Summit, its site code and format is intended to always be open source and open for all to hack and use as they see fit. If you are interested in learning more you can ask me yourself on Twitter @vipickering or follow @summit_event for updates on our progress, there should also be a site soon!

Let’s make the future great together.

References

  1. I have a reliable method to combine making friends and creating groups that will be revealed when the documentation is complete.