It's Time for Agile 200x to Cede to the Smaller Conferences
Last year's keynote speech by Alistair Cockburn at the annual Agile Alliance conference was called "I Come to Bury Agile, Not to Praise It". I too am here to bury the Agile so many of us know, the Agile paid for by hollow certifications and expensive conferences and phony marketing. I'd argue that the term "Agile" itself was a phrase coined for marketing purposes--but that's another story(*). This story is about how we need to reach out in support of the whole community, rather than spending our attention/resources on a select few. What do I mean by a select few? Well, there are over 50k CSMs, and only around 2k attendees at the Agile Alliance conference every year. That's 4% of CSMs (and less if you count the rest of the Agile community). Less than 4% is a select few. Why don't more people go? I'm not sure--but for most of the colleagues I've worked with, it's simple--they can't afford to "pay to play". Me neither--if I pay early-bird rates, get super-cheap airline tickets, pay for my hotel and food, this sums to a month's-worth of my take-home pay (I'm working for European wages). A full month. What about corporate expense accounts? Not for this--all my colleagues and I have worked for small companies that can't afford it either. It's time to find an affordable way for the typical developer to participate in Agile conferences.... and that's through small, free/low-cost, local conferences, like the XP Day series, the Simple Design and Test Conference, Bar Camp, Agile Tour, etc.
Where I'm Coming From
Throughout my 10 years of agile software development, I've been getting more and more into the Agile community. I love this community because it is so open-minded, so willing to apply ideas from other arenas, and so ready to share knowledge without claiming intellectual property rights. We've built strong local user groups, e-mail lists, open space conferences, code camps, and have given legitimacy to the idea of sustainable pace--all without spending much money out-of-pocket. This is the Agile I know.
Yet, there's a part of the community I don't know, a part maybe I don't even want to know: the big, expensive conferences and training classes. It seems like all my role models are a part of this, so I figure it's worth trying, at least. Yet, how do I pay for it? This year I was happy to discover that the Agile Alliance offers speaker compensation packages that cover registration fees, hotel, and a stipend big enough to cover food and taxi from the airport, leaving only the international flight for me to cover myself. I thought this was a comparably affordable way for me to go to a conference. So I decide to prepare a submission. A couple years ago one of my role models, Yves Hanoulle, said he only goes to sessions that are prepared by a pair of presenters. OK, so I find a co-presenter. It's bound to make my submission better. So I begin the submission process, and find out right away that the speaker compensation policies for Agile 2010 and XP 2010 only reward the 'first speaker'. What? Aren't we, in Agile, supposed to believe in rewarding the team, not individuals? Well, I promised my co-presenter that I'd split the booty equally. Hmmm... now I'm down a couple hotel nights, stipend money, and worst of all, half of the conference registration fee. Well, I can fix that--I'll do two talks. I find another topic, another co-presenter, and away we go. Time goes on, a few people make good recommendations, we improve our proposals. I start reviewing other people's sessions, and see a lot of good ones. I'm not feeling all that confident, having never been to a big conference before, so I do one more submission. It's so much work to write a submission, I decide I may as well post it for several conferences... and soon get accepted for XP 2010 and Agile France. Woo-hoo! Maybe people do think I have something interesting to say....
With all my submissions made, I start appreciating the peer-review functionality of the Agile 2010 system. I start reading and commenting on other people's submissions--and find that this system is the best I've ever participated in. Here's the real Agile community I was looking for--people collaborating, seeking the best in others, and supporting one another. I ended up leaving comments on 130 proposals--hoping to give back what I had gotten so far from the process. I know stage producers had to do a lot more, but I think I can appreciate what they have done during the selection process. Ultimately, none of my talks were picked for this year at Agile 2010. Still, I noticed that the submissions from people that had established reputations in the field got 5 times as many comments as newcomers. I really wondered how people that hadn't participated much in the community would get mentored if they weren't getting equal support through the comment system. As a result, I think the review process needs to go double-blind.
The Revolution is Afoot
Maybe the rejection from Agile 2010 is clouding my judgement right now. Or maybe it's making it so I see more clearly. I did get in to other conferences, and all along I've been frustrated with the costs of doing a presentation. In any case, this big up-front selection process, in which a few volunteers meet to judge which talks are best suited for the conference, is simply not Agile. It's too cold, it's too Taylorist, it's too micro-optimized. It's not consistent with the relational vision of the Agile Community. There are already several disruptive changes in our midst that will outreach this top-down model of a conference. One, for example, is the Agile Tour, which had more conference attendees last year than the Agile 2009 event, and which cost an order of magnitude less. It gave a stage to practically anyone who wanted to talk, and attendees voted with their feet, during the day, to show what was most valuable to them. Another sea change is the growth of groups like the Agile Skills Project, which has reached over 800 members in less than a year, and the Diversity In Agile Project, which shows that we are recognizing the problems that come from undervaluing the full community.
The Agile 200x series of conferences has struggled for years with their selection process. Why not give up, and go with the Agile Tour model? Keep the peer reviews, keep collaborative improvement of session proposals, and get rid of the high-cost of flying everyone in the world to one city. Send invited keynote speakers on a short tour, and let everyone else in the door for free. Corporations can sponsor the venue and food, and the events could happen twice or more per year.
(*) Note the company names of the best-known consultants in the field--do they have 'agile' in the title? No! Because the word Agile is a marketing gimmick.