unConference: The Future of Software & the Internet

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council held an unconference on Sun’s Burlington campus last Friday, titled The Future of Software & the Internet. I attended because I was both interested in the topic and also curious about the logistics and effectiveness of unconferences.

I was surprised when the moderator asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves by stating their name and either their company or their location. C’mon! There were well over 200 people in the room and we were not sitting in neat rows. And yet it worked somehow. I of course didn’t remember any names, but I got a good sense of the companies represented–the usual suspects (Sun, IBM, HP, Microsoft, Google, CISCO, etc) as well as many (MANY) small companies, venture capitalists, and several attendees with undisclosed affiliations. In addition, there was probably some benefit in having everyone actually make a vocalization at the outset — something about participating rather than just observing. In any case, it didn’t take long and it was a good ice breaker. And it perhaps helped everyone feel the next step was achievable as well: creating an agenda for the rest of the day, based on everyone’s input. And doing so in a finite time. πŸ™‚

An unconference is an unconference at least in part because the agenda is not defined beforehand by a conference committee–it is created on the fly by participants at the start of the event with the help of a skilled moderator. At the start of the day, our agenda had four hour-long discussion sessions blocked out, but no content at all. Content was identified this way:

  1. Anyone who was interested in hosting a discussion wrote their name and discussion title on a sheet of paper. Proposers would be responsible for running their session, but not for having any answers necessarily.
  2. Proposers then lined up and each gave a short (SHORT) description of their discussion idea. We had two mikes and therefore two lines that alternated, which helped this part run a little faster.
  3. After announcing their discussion idea, each proposer placed their paper onto a matrix posted on the wall. Our matrix had four rows — one for each of the day’s four one-hour sessions. The matrix had 15 columns, one for each conference room or area designated for discussion, each of which was labeled with a letter from A to O. Proposers could place their discussion in any cell, though there was some encouragement from the moderator to ensure that the last session of the day had a good number of discussions scheduled. Each column was also labeled with the approximate size of each discussion area as input to the heuristic placement procedure. Cloud discussions went into big rooms while the “making parallel programming easier” discussion area had just a couch and a few chairs.

I’m guessing there is some rule of thumb that helps to organizers decide how many concurrent sessions will be needed based on the number of attendees. However it was done, the number of proposed topics mapped nicely to the 4 x 15 = 60 available discussion slots.

Once the agenda was complete, the moderator helped everyone get to their first discussion by reading aloud the titles and locations of the first set of concurrent topics. The entire agenda matrix was then moved to a wall in a central location so attendees could easily visit it between sessions to pick their next discussion topic.

All of the above — from opening, through introductions and agenda forming — took less than an hour. The resulting agenda cast a wide net over the theme of the unconference. There were discussions on business models, specific technical issues, models of innovation, development and testing processes, open source, cloud computing, etc. I participated in the following four discussions:

  • Simplified Parallel Computing
  • How to Start Your Idea [with Almost No Money]
  • The Future of Software Testing
  • From Data to Answers

I learned something in each discussion, though in the parallel computing case it was merely that talk of SIMD, MIMD, OpenMP, parallel spreadsheets, M language processing, and streaming parallelism is a sure way to keep your discussion group small. They were dropping like flies. πŸ™‚

Kidding aside, I was interested to talk to testing practitioners about the 2nd class role played by QA in the engineering hierarchy and how Agile methods might perhaps mitigate that problem by making quality an explicitly shared goal of all team members.

I approached the “data to answers” session wondering if HPC techniques for turning large amounts of data into insights would be applicable in a broader business context and learned that many businesses have a sad lack of experience with even the simplest of analytical methods, including a lack of understanding of even relatively simple data displays.

The “ideas” discussion presented a model for thinking about “intention” as being different from “invention” in the innovation process and how confusing the two can lead to problems in start-up situations. Intention is a statement about who you want to help or what you want to improve, while invention is how one chooses to satisfy the intention. Bill Warner, who lead the session, used the Wildfire voice system as an example to show how confusing these two concepts can lead to problems.

The Innovation unConference, MassTLC’s next such event, will be held on the Sun Burlington campus on October 1, 2009. I plan to attend.


One Response to “unConference: The Future of Software & the Internet”

  1. Narconon Arrowhead Says:

    I was on a conference with about 1000 other people! Wow! It was bad because we had to introduce ourselves too! It took a minute lol

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