Last weekend I attended PearConf, an awesome conference about pair programming! It was my second tech conference and my first unconference.

I previously wrote about why I wanted to attend. Now, here are my thoughts on how it went. I’ll start with a summary of the conference, which will give you an idea of how unconferences work if you’ve never attended one before. Then I’ll share my thoughts, both about PearConf specifically and about unconferences in general.

PearConf summary

Basically, the conference was made up of group discussions about topics proposed by attendees, bookended by two prepared keynote talks.

It kicked off with breakfast, during which we gathered ideas for the breakout sessions. Everybody wrote their ideas on Post-it notes and we laid them all out on a table for everyone to see, grouping similar ideas together. After breakfast, we voted on topics with stickers, each person getting three votes.

After the voting, we gathered for conference organizer Marlena Compton’s opening remarks followed by Neha Batra’s keynote talk. After the keynote Marlena presented a schedule of the chosen topics, which she must have sneakily made while Neha was speaking—the former teacher in me was impressed by this clever scheduling. 😆

We had two sessions before lunch. The number of participants varied but it was generally around ten. The sessions before lunch were 40 minutes and the ones after it were 30 minutes. To keep the discussions on track, four roles were established: Facilitator, Gatekeeper, Timekeeper, and Note-taker.

After lunch there was a mini-retrospective, where people gave feedback on what was working, made suggestions, and asked questions about the conference.

Finally, there were three more sessions before Sarah Mei’s closing keynote, followed by dinner and Paint Night.

The sessions I participated in were:

  • Giving feedback
  • Pairing & introversion
  • Empathy evangelism/converting skeptics
  • Pairing & CS education
  • Pairing across disciplines

Thoughts on PearConf

Everything specific about PearConf was fabulous. Marlena did an awesome job organizing it. The keynote talks were excellent, the food was great, and the paint night was a lot of fun. Most importantly, she did a great job facilitating the unconference sessions and attracting a bunch of smart, kind, diverse attendees.

Doing the mini-retro in the middle of the day rather than the end of it was a great idea, since it meant we were able to incorporate some of the suggestions during the second half of the day.

Thoughts on unconferences

As for the unconference format itself, I liked it a lot. Compared to a traditional conference where you sit and listen to talks, it’s obviously much more participatory, which is fun and good for meeting people. You’re able to learn from a wider variety of people than at a traditional conference where you only hear from a handful of speakers. I loved that I was able to suggest topics for sessions.

On the other hand, the format has its drawbacks. For one, it’s exhausting—at least it was for me! Participating in discussions all day takes a lot more energy than listening to talks, and I felt more tired after one day at PearConf than I did after 3 days at RailsConf.

Marlena did set up a quiet room and encouraged us to use it to recharge, but I didn’t take advantage of it because I didn’t want to miss any discussions. This was fine, but only because I didn’t have to do anything the next day except fly back to San Diego. If you’re going to an unconference and need to be productive the next day, watch your energy levels so you don’t wear yourself out.

Also, I found the conversations in the sessions a little hard to follow at times because they tended to bounce from topic to topic. Some sessions felt like 30 minutes of brainstorming, where we brought up a lot of different topics but didn’t develop any of them very much.

This came from a good place: everyone was trying not to monopolize the conversation and make sure everybody got a chance to speak. This is obviously a good thing but I felt it disrupted the natural flow of the conversation a bit. I wish we had stuck to fewer topics and developed them further.

Nevertheless, I am a big fan of unconferences now! I’ve even been daydreaming about organizing one. Still, I like the polish and structure of prepared talks. I think my ideal conference would be a day of prepared talks followed by a day of unconferencing.

A suggestion for next time

The next time I attend an unconference I will suggest one thing that I think will help make discussions a bit more focused: each session should start with everybody briefly introducing themselves by answering the question, “Why did you pick this session?”

In the sessions I was a part of, we mostly didn’t do introductions, and when we did, we either just answered a silly question that didn’t relate to the conference, or spoke generally about our experience with pairing.

Here’s why I think this question would be a good starting point:

  1. It would help us identify some common themes that people are interested in and approach the discussion in a more structured way. We could even write a mini-agenda for the session.

  2. I noticed that Facilitator was usually the last role anybody volunteered for, so it seems people don’t know what a facilitator is supposed to do or don’t feel confident that they would do a good job. I think if we start with this question, the facilitator will have a better idea of how to keep the discussion on track.

  3. If we decide to split up a large group, doing this would allow us to split up based on which topics we’re most interested in.