Why I love BoFs at DrupalCon

birds of a feather

Attribution Some rights reserved by wildxplorer

Wanna come to a BoF about BoFs?

Birds of a Feather, has such a nice ring to it. This way of self-organizing allows people of like minds to flock together in their motley way spontaneously sprung from the confines of the well architected schedule which didn’t quite fit their needs.

It’s a testament to the efforts of conference organizers at DrupalCon that they can field submissions from such a large number of presenters striving to satisfy the needs of thousands of people with wildly popular sessions. In Copenhagen, rooms were filled to the brim with eager listeners, and even afterwards people seek out the recordings of the sessions they missed. It’s an ideal opportunity to broadcast the latest and greatest in Drupal.

But then there’s the fringe. And the DrupalCons provide for that too. Many computing conferences allow for physical spaces for BoFs: Birds of a Feather sessions. A whiteboard is used to mark the available time slots and locations, where people put in their suggestions and find their niche.

Not seeing anything on the official schedule that suits? Head on over to the BoF board! There's now a forum on the DrupalCon website where people are chatting about BoFs already! I really love BoFs, and I think we can even make them better and get more out of them.

BoF board at DrupalCon

Attribution Some rights reserved by ellyjonez

Making a better BoF

At DrupalCon San Francisco, I had an epiphany, OK, not a huge one. BoFs kinda suck when you spend 20 mins going around and introducing one another, and then you get into the meaty bits and it’s already over. There’s an alternative: Open Space Technology.

I have used Open Space before, but never in such a *short* timeframe. 40 mins? Can we do it? Yes we can. I facilitated the session, and get this, I had lost my voice due to some kind of cold so I had to distribute the directions on index cards, voiced by collaborators.

All 50+ of us stood in a circle as the volunteers read the four principles and one law:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people ...
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time ...
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have ...
  4. When it's over, it's over ...

The "Law of Two Feet" or "The Law of Mobility", as follows: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. From Open Space Technology article on Wikipedia

Starting from there, people briefly put forward thing they want to talk about, and the facilitators (in this case, myself and Barry Madore from Advantage Labs) organize the common threads into discussion groups, and divide the groups. If time allowes, day long sessions usually have concurrent streams, and multiple sessions throughout.

As sick as I was, I met so many people, made many friends with whom I’m even working with today. And I learned more in that BoF, because I was listening. (Loss of voice aside!)

My failure at public speaking

I did a session at DrupalCon Copenhagen on something I know very little about. I didn’t purport to be an expert, but I wanted to use the time to gather knowledge from the group, and in my estimation I failed.

Maybe I just don’t get it... I can prepare, practice and memorize a public speech. I can spend hours and hours working to make an engaging lecture. Even with my teaching, lecture and public speaking under my belt, I’m still quite skeptical of the format. How can you tell if people are actually engaged in the topics? What are they thinking? Maybe there’s more collective knowledge in the audience than there is at the podium. Maybe? I always suspect so.

I wanted something more out of my Copenhagen presentation. I wanted people to talk and do stuff. I arrived with my bag full of colored pencils, but the listeners weren’t there to color. I appreciate that people did give the activity part of my session a good old college try, but I feel I was trying to trick them. At minimum, I learned, that theatre style seating isn’t conducive to turning around for group work, you really need tables to draw and you surely shouldn’t bait and switch on people.

For the next DrupalCon, I’m really keen to facilitate a BoF. I want to work with people and do stuff together. Specifically, around making community learning materials.

Because we’ve always done it this way?

The lecture format makes sense to us. We know it from church, from school, from other conferences. It’s what we expect. And in many cases it makes sense. Let’s all sit down and listen for a moment to someone else because, hey, this person has something important to say. And in many cases it works. Just not for me. I’m disruptive. I’m that jerk in the corner who keeps asking questions.

Recently I went to Mozilla’s Drumbeat Festival. I had a mad cap time built around great conversations. The event was organized by Aspiration Tech http://www.aspirationtech.org/ I didn’t know anything about them before the conference, except that my friend Chacha Sikes said something like “OMG! This is organized by GUNNER of Aspiration Tech, this is going to be totally awesome” ;)

And I see now what Chacha meant. It was a totally different kind of event. People sitting in many smaller groups, talking, working together in flexible re-configurable spaces. Punctuated by a few well prepared keynotes to echo the tone of the event. You can read Chacha’s blog for more details of that event.

Aspiration Tech specializes in organizing tech events like sprints and “convergences”, of which the Drumbeat Festival is one. Drumbeat is Mozilla’s plan to give people a first hand experience of the open web, to help keep it open.

Convergences and sprints differ significantly from conferences and other more traditional event formats. Our events de-emphasize lectures, panels and presentations, and instead encourage facilitated dialog in small-groups to drive peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Just to be clear: The Drumbeat Festival was not one gigantic BoF. There was planning before hand, organizing, vetting, approval and preparation. Even at their festival, they had additional BoF spaces. There were so many niches to tuck into, it was literally a honeycomb of activity.

So, inspired by Open Space technology and Aspiration Tech’s convergence, I’m keen to see how I can create an opportunity for kindred spirits to sit together, talk about teaching Drupal and work together on some big plans together.

And the good thing is, DrupalCon provides opportunities for that too, because we will have spaces to gather in a BoF together.