A Personal Retrospective on the Agile 2009 Conference

Last week was the Agile 2009 Conference. It was great. The stage producers and their teams had selected a phenomenal program, Elastic Communications outdid themselves as the event planners, and the volunteers helped everything proceed smoothly. Alistair Cockburn and Jared Spo0l delivered fabulous keynotes. Here's my personal retrospective:

  1. What stood out for me: the sheer quantity of decisions I had to make and the time involved. As is normal with many projects, the decisions I made early on were not always right (:-))) and caused problems later. I also noticed the time involved. I spend most of last September working on the budget, the rest of the fall getting the stage producers and assistants lined up, and preparing for the submission system opening. I spent the winter and into the spring on the hotel issues and putting a marketing plan together. Summer was for more decisions and dealing with the last-minute-Annies, the people who wanted a favor after the deadlines. I spent zero time on my business in August–all my time in August was spent on the conference.
  2. What were my reflections? I loved that many of the stage producers worked as pairs. I should have changed the budgeting to give the assistants an honorarium too. However, my budget was in trouble and I didn't do that. I was frustrated that some stage review teams did not use the submission system for their reviews. I found that working with Ahmed Sidky and Jessica and Yvonne from Elastic and Phil (the AA managing director) was a blast. I was frustrated that it didn't matter how much time I spent on the conference there was always more to do. I'm delighted that Jean Tabaka facilitated our retrospective. Jim should have plenty of data to work with based on that output.
  3. I learned that marketing has to be congruent with what you are marketing. That's why I sent the emails to the agile2009 list. I learned that if you have a scarce commodity (rooms to have sessions in), you force people to make difficult decisions. That's why we had a great program. I learned that you can still game a submission system, no matter how hard you try to remove the gaming. I discovered that even when I thought I had managed the risks, they kept popping up, especially where the hotel was concerned. I learned that Elastic was more than capable of managing the speaker interactions. (thank goodness!) I don't understand why speakers did not read their emails 🙂 (I'm sure they did, but the information didn't penetrate.)
  4. My decisions: I will take my learnings back to the AA board and to next year's chair, Jim Newkirk. I will choose people in key positions more carefully–some people did not have the time to devote to the job they volunteered to do (a common problem with volunteers). I thought I'd asked enough questions when I asked for commitment, but I did not. I had too many stages; I've already suggested to Jim that he combine stages (if he uses that metaphor). Having fewer simultaneous sessions (over 2008) was a great idea. I wonder if even fewer simultaneous sessions next year is the right idea? I'm glad we gave the speakers checks onsite, and their feedback forms within hours of their sessions. I wish we had explained that more thoroughly.

I learned a lot in my project portfolio session. I had reworked the simulation from the previous week, and had a typo in the handout. The typo created an underfunded set of projects. We all learned the value of “should we do this project at all” when discussing the project portfolio.

I enjoyed my time chairing the conference. I learned a lot and am glad it's over! (I've been sleeping 10 hours a day since I returned, even crashing on the couch at 9pm, and then going upstairs to bed at 11.) To all my colleagues: thank you for your time and passion. You made a difference.

10 thoughts on “A Personal Retrospective on the Agile 2009 Conference”

  1. “I thought I’d asked enough questions when I asked for commitment, but I did not.”

    I wonder how much information you obtain, though? Consciously or not, I’m not sure many people would tell things as they are. Also, their situation may change between September and August.

  2. Johanna, I doubt that it’s visible to most people how much effort you put into the Agile 2009 conference. That’s the nature of competence–it doesn’t show as much as when things go wrong.

    I never doubted that you would do an excellent job. I did doubt that you would be able to earn a living at the same time. You amazed me by not only doing so, but also writing a book. Incredible!

    Johanna, I appreciate you for leading a truly wonderful conference, and for doing so with so much openness, transparency, and accessibility. Sure there were problems and complaints–that will always be true. But your leadership avoided the serious problems that often beset such a large endeavor. Thank you.

  3. Johanna,

    I join George Dinwiddie in appreciating you and your leadership. As I told you in Chicago, it was evident you not only made a bunch of great decisions about Agile2009, but that you built/led/herded or otherwise collaborated with a great team.

    I had an absolute blast in Chicago. The energy of the conference was great. I also enjoyed the review process both as a proposer and a reviewer. As a speaker I felt 100% supported by your event team, speaker service area (Natalia and team were amazing), and in-room volunteers. And I didn’t think any of the problems with wifi, cell reception, or distance between meeting rooms was that bad. I quite enjoyed getting to pass through the hotel lobby frequently enough to see the light of day.

    From my vantage the community has much to appreciate about the organization and execution of Agile2009. Thank you.

  4. Johanna, I attended the project portfolio session and wish to thank you again for what was probably my highlight of Agile2009. I took out many valuable lessons that are already being used with my team.

    Thanks again!

  5. Congratulations, Johanna! It sounds as if you did the main things right. Site selections, programming simultaneous tracks, getting people (speakers and attendees) to show up at the right time and the right place, are the main things. Getting the participants’ feedback into the speakers’ hands in minutes or hours is a small thing for most event managers, but it is really important. Simplifying the registration process and payment, and getting it all done on time. It requires a great project team and it sounds like you had one. A synthesis of committee members, speakers, and service companies that all came together. Great news!

  6. Johanna, I appreciate all of the time you put into Agile2009. You did a fabulous job and made many tough but sensible decisions (such as no conference CD, no printing presenter handouts, no presenter supplies).
    I was chair for Agile2008 and I did try to track time spent but after April I didn’t have time to keep tracking it 🙂

  7. First of all thanks for all the hard work and effort you put into the conference. It was a great success.

    You remark it was frustrating that stage reviewers didn’t use the review system. Personally I only made limited use because I found the system awkward when trying to deal with 80+ sessions on our stage. I needed a way of seeing all the sessions at once – to appreciate the tradeoffs we were making. 80+ tabs in firefox doesn’t help. In the end we used a spreadsheet since it makes a bit easier. See: http://www.notesfromatooluser.com/2009/03/reviewing-the-review-process-for-agile-2009.html for more details.

    1. Mark, there are two parts to the submission system: reviewing each submission, and decision-making. I agree that using a spreadsheet for decision-making is a good idea. I was referring to the lack of comments on each submission. Not getting feedback doesn’t help proposers know what to do to help a session be accepted.

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