Wondering whether I was just becoming jaded with things or not it was with some trepidation that I decided to attend the inaugural GOTO London conference next month to test whether it really was just me or whether it was something more in the industry.
Could I learn enough things that would be valuable to the journey I’m going on with the Antifragile Software book?
GOTO London felt like a good bet as, according to the “Why this conference” page there seemed to be an earnest desire to up the game for conferences.
I was also keen to see the new Skills Matter Code Node facility up and running in all its glory and since this is the location of GOTO London this was the perfect excuse for that too.
I then got a call to have a chat with Adrian Colyer, a member of the original programme committee responsible for making the conference what it is.
I’ve known Adrian for some years and he is one of the smartest and most interesting people in our industry, so I didn’t need much convincing that this chat was a good one to have.
Meeting Adrian in the beautiful offices of Accel Partners where he works currently as a Venture Partner after successfully helping to guide as CTO SpringSource to its acquisition by VMWare and then the transition to Pivotal, we had a great chat that happily traversed the topics of motorbikes (Adrian has two), the tech industry and its future and, of course, the forthcoming GOTO conference in London.
I had a blast chatting to Adrian and so here I’d like to share the facets that touched on the GOTO conference.
Especially why this conference is an exciting experiment in upping-the-game for conferences generally!
Russ: "What’s most exciting about the conference for attendees? What are people hoping to grab from it in particular?"
Adrian: "The thing that is unique is that this is a highly curated conference.
Instead of a general call for papers and then just seeing what themes turn up, Adrian Cockroft from the start has been very involved and collectively we started with a singular question:
What’s interesting and happening in the world right now in software development and delivery?
Then we dug into:
What’s the story arc for that? What journey do people need to go on to understand things? Can we construct a conference that tells that story?
For this reason the talks are much more carefully selected and invited than usual.
We went for a single track rather than having the normal conference approach of, say, 8 tracks and you always feel like you’re missing out; wishing that you’d chosen the other talks; having almost too much choice!
With multiple tracks, nobody’s conference is the same conference and this severely hinders things.
We thought we’d go for a different and interesting approach: A single track, very curated story. The hope being that because everyone has been in the same session and that they move through them together you can have more of a conversation about that shared story than just the random hallway chats that usually occur.
If we’re all having the same journey together it should foster more interaction and discussion.
To me that’s an angle and a new emphasis and really caught my imagination.
If we can construct a good over-arching story arc and we can take everyone together as part of the same conversation that’s really interesting.
Russ: "So in many respects you’ve designed a conference to confer at?"
Adrian: "Exactly! If I want to see a potpourri of different talks from everyone else I have the videos, right? In that sense there is something special about this conference.
Jumbled threads hinder conversation, so we’ve disentangled the conference concept to enable better conversations and hopefully better journeys.
This to me is a really, really interesting experiment both in terms of taking an audience through this shared journey and the three themes involved: Lean, Agile and Rugged”.
Russ: “That’s a complaint I’ve heard, that this conference on the surface doesn’t look like it’s going to be really technical and, therefore, not valuable? Is that a fair criticism?"
Adrian: “I can see how people have got there from the terms, but in this case Lean and Agile really don't mean the methodology.
Instead the emphasis here is on what does it mean to have an Agile system? As in one that can respond to continual change? And adapt?
What does it mean to be the appropriate weight? Efficient resources? Be Lean?"
Russ: "The newer strand is the rugged one, and I admit when I too was making the mistake of assuming the titles of lean and agile were methodology-focussed Rugged confused me a bit! What’s Rugged all about?"
Adrian: "Rugged in our case means 2 things. Firstly it means systems that are resilient, in the face of unexpected, hostile change. Can it keep up and running, what are the best practices there?
In addition there is of course the security element too.
The three themes represent the attributes we would like a modern system to have and they inform the core flow of this curated, conversation-enabling, conference.
Russ: "That’s a nice point that may have been slightly missed when you glance at the conference page. It isn’t obvious. You see Agile and Lean and assume methodology. Then you see Rugged and you are surprised, but with the emphasis on desirable attributes that you’d want from a modern system, it all makes more sense and actively forces the conference into highly technical areas?"
Adrian: "Yes, Lean in this case doesn’t mean Kanban. This is more like ‘How do I build systems that are lean, agile and rugged. what do we have to do?'
Our challenge in designing the conference was to figure out how do we get these qualities, how do we get this story arc? We hope we’ve got that in GOTO London."
Russ: "What you’ve just described is a highly technical conference, and its being misinterpreted by the titles?"
Adrian: Yes, these are the higher-value, why-centric topics. While listing out the next release of the various technology buzz-words might seem more technical, these topics are essentially technical but tracked back to the ‘why we want them’ qualities in the first place.
Russ: "So you’re framing this conference journey with ‘why?’ This is something most conferences don’t do, there’s usually a lot of ‘how' and ‘what' instead. But once again, this isn’t really obvious from the conference overview?"
Adrian: "There are a few other things also added into the framework of the conference to support this.
There’s an introduction before every arc in the single conference journey that sets the stage, with different speakers then speaking on different perspectives on that quality, and then a retrospective panel session.
Now normally I’m not a big fan of panel sessions but in this case the aim is to bring back the speakers that have just spoken along with the person who has tee’d things up and now we can have a discussion with them and the audience that is really reflecting on the topic within the immediate context of ‘why’ we want those system qualities.
Russ: "It’s a great way to bring some additional reinforcement to the shared journey?"
Adrian: Precisely; to analyse it in different ways. Then hopefully to take that into the breaks and the lunch to enable those all important conversations.
Russ: "On the final day you seem to break from the single journey into three tracks. How does that fit into the curation of the conference?"
Adrian: "Yes at that point it does break into a more regular conference format. The talks touch on the themes and they are related but not necessarily part of the core conference story arc."
Russ: "So is it the case that during the first two days you’ll have built up, though the shared conference story arc, a shared understanding and comprehension of these qualities and the different perspectives on how they can be supported and achieved to then navigate this choice on day 3?"
Adrian: Yes, there’s now that shared context to, on the final day, begin to apply that thinking and context to evaluate current developments.
Russ: "If I was in a team and I’d seen the conference how would I convince others that I should go?"
Adrian: "Unlike a lot of conferences, this one has that answer there already: Hark back to the why’s, the three topic threads.
What is long-lasting value and will pay you back many times over will be thinking about these high-level issues, understanding the ‘whys’ having a way of evaluating what something is doing for you and whether it aligns with your goals or not."
Russ: "Giving you the tools to really think for yourself?"
Adrian: "Yes, precisely. A framework for thinking for yourself that will pay back many times over, beyond the details of release 1.7 of a particular project you might pick, for example."
If I’m the business I really don’t care about which particular projects or components have been used to build a system, but I do care about its amenability to change, is it resilient, is it cost-effective. Those high-level attributes that this conference has been built around.
Russ: "Sounds like the conference represents a compelling argument for any budget-holder?"
Adrian: "Precisely, that was the plan."
Russ: "Ok, so finally let’s talk about what you’re going to be talking about at the conference. Can you give us a sneak preview of what you have planned?"
Adrian: "I’ve got a really fun one actually! An evening keynote with the highly entertaining and smart Ines Sombra. She runs the "Papers we Love" SF chapter and has done some fantastic talks in the past.
Of course I regularly put out the Morning Paper where I go over the details of some academic IT paper that is perhaps extremely relevant to a number of current interests but has been somewhat swept under the carpet by the deluge of papers that are actually published in any given year.
So our keynote is going to be a Papers-centric talk that is about why papers could be more interesting and relevant than you could ever realise and how they should be a part of the toolbox of the thinking persons IT.
We’re going to pick a few selected papers inline with the conference’s themes that have really stunned us with their interesting and relevant research.
Ideally can we find one foundational, lean/agile/rugged, and then one frontiers paper to talk about where things are going to give the attendees to the conference a real glimpse of the possible futures.
We’re just debating what papers to pick and how to pull that off right now.
Honestly though I'm mainly looking forward to this talk because Ines is a ton of fun! Her talks are super-polished and deep. I’ve been doing keynotes for 10-15 years but Ines really ups the bar and so for me it’s fun to have myself pushed and my game upped too.
GOTO London is happening on the 16th to 18th of September, with workshops happening on the 14th and 15th September, and a few tickets are still remaining so get in quick and I hope to see you there and have some of those great conversations that Adrian was talking about.