A field guide to attending the Agile conference (part 1)

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So you have decided to attend Agile2013. Fantastic! I'm looking forward to meeting you there! (If your mind is still not made up on that, do read on; this may help.)

I know the conference well by now; I have been attending and speaking since 2006, and have served as track chair multiple times. Over the years, I've often talked to people who confessed being bewildered at the wide range of sessions. I knew how they felt - I've often felt that way too; many "regulars" do, not just new attendees.

So many choices, such hard decisions - sometimes hard to the point of being paralyzing. Many will tell you "several interesting sessions scheduled at the same time is a good problem to have at a conference". I agree - provided you don't end up making choices you later regret.

This series is intended to help you make sense of what's on offer at Agile, and decide which sessions are the right ones for you. I hope that it will be helpful, particularly if you are new to the conference, and even if you aren't new to Agile. (To a large extent, it should also apply to other Agile conferences such as national, regional or user group events.)

Along the way, I'll discuss a few specific sessions - my unabashedly arbitrary "archivist's picks"; we will also hear from the Agile conference track chairs in guest posts, perhaps even some speakers or attendees - who knows, it depends on your feedback and suggestions!

A lifecycle of ideas

There are various ways to categorize conference sessions. Perhaps the most obvious is the "Tracks" - this is how the published program is structured. The tracks tend to reflect what the community thinks is worth talking about, in the broadest possible terms; I see in them a representation of the "tribes" meeting at the conference.

If you are new to the conference, however, it may be more useful to sort sessions differently. The conference serves various functions: it welcomes novices into the community, introducing them to Agile discourse and assumptions; it provides a meeting point for experts to gather and hash out ideas; it is also a marketplace where new ideas are proposed, either created from scratch or imported from other communities. Some of these ideas will be taken up enthusiastically enough to be tested in the workplace, where they might perform as expected... or not.

The conference is all about the life of ideas; ideas need different kinds of attentions at different phases of their lifecycle, and sessions tend to differ accordingly. Below, then, is my attempt at a run-down of what sessions do what, and why you might want to attend each type.

Keynotes: your conference experience will usually start with this type of session. As the name implies, a keynote sets the tone for the rest of the conference; it offers an overall perspective to make sense of the individual sessions you will attend. (Pollyanna - "Leadership" track co-chair - reminds me: "Keynotes often set a controversial topic out there for the conference to get the hallway chats going".) Some people say they prefer to skip these, viewing them as "window dressing" in contrast the really useful stuff. While Agile has on occasion invited an "inspirational speaker", I think we've been pretty good at keeping keynotes directly relevant.

Also, many sessions not explicitly labeled "keynotes" are of this type. For instance, Linda Rising's sessions often do this for me - they make me look at the whole of Agile in a way that I'd never considered before. In Nashville, Linda will build on her Agile Mindset talk which was a keynote at Agile2011.

Education sessions: an important function of the conference is to welcome people new to Agile, and give them a gentle introduction to a field which often feels like it goes out of its way to confuse with jargon (from sprints to kanban, from scrums to TDD and BDD and DDD and any number of acronyms, and so on).

The first few times I attended, I was surprised to hear people refer to sessions as "classes". As a consultant who had been helping teams move to Agile for some time, I had completely different expectations for the conference: "picking up new ideas" rather than "training". The conference tends to be put together by experienced Agilistas, so it's important to make sure newcomers are not overlooked.

The "Agile Boot Camp" track caters specifically to you if you are in that situation. I particularly appreciate that there is a session on "History and overview of Agile" - the historical perspective is important.

Beyond Boot Camp, it can be tricky to identify sessions that will maximize learning. Past conferences identified a session's "intended audience": novices, intermediate, experts (or sometimes by the more fanciful Shu-Ha-Ri triad). This had its limitation - speakers are understandably reluctant to restrict their potential audience to a particular segment, and "novice" is a relative term - some "novice" sessions were occasionally perceived as too advanced, and vice versa. At any rate, the Web program for Agile2013 doesn't provide these indications.

If you're looking for introductory material on a particular topic, don't rely too much on session titles; base your decision on the session description and how accessible you feel it is - if the abstract already overwhelms you with jargon, the session may not be as helpful as you'd wish. Look at the speaker's track record of past Agile sessions. (A great resource for doing so is the Agile Conference Archive, spanning over ten years!) Speakers with more experience are likely to have encountered audiences at various levels of mastery before. If you're still unsure what to pick, definitely make the Boot Camp sessions your first stop.

There are other types of session which can get you up to speed on various parts of Agile, such as Experience reports and Hands-on workshops. Stay tuned for part 2 and later posts, where I'll introduce these, and more from the many choices on offer at the conference!

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