An Open Space on Management

Part of the Reflections on That Conference 2013 series.

One thing That Conf has consistently offered its attendees is a dizzyingly large array of talks to choose from. Every hour, there are between 7 and 10 speakers sharing their expertise and passion, and you can only pick one! The organizers do a great job of ensuring each speaker is covering something different – open source, Microsoft, Web, cloud, desktop, mobile, frontend, backend, soft talks, tech talks, the list goes on. And still, I was torn between multiple talks every hour.

Given that, you can understand my initial doubt that an Open Space room would ever work.

If you’re not familiar with Open Spaces (I’ve heard it called “Birds of a Feather” sessions elsewhere), it’s a “conference-within-a-conference” where attendees lead ad-hoc sessions inside a communal space. A large white board maintains a grid of time slots and locations, and attendees are free to write their topic on a Post-It and use it to claim their slot.

You never know how many people will attend your open space, nor how many of them will actually stay. The “two feet” principle encourages attendees to get up and leave if they are not getting or giving value in the group they are in. Between the 10 scheduled sessions, 4 open spaces sessions, a hallway full of vendors hocking merch and a room dedicated for games of Artemis… well, there’s a lot of competition for an attendee’s attention.

Last year I wanted to help Microsofty guys get up and running with Node.js and figured this was a good format for it. I slapped my Post-It note on the board and figured a couple people would be interested. Sure enough, 3 people came by and I helped them get a “hello world” up on their PCs (an experience which warrants its own article).

Shifting Gears

This year my mind was in a different place. Having shifted into an engineering manager role at Groupon at the beginning of the year, I’m still actively trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing. Figuring there were managers at the conference with a wealth of experience, I selfishly scheduled an Open Spaces discussion called “Engineering Management: How can we do better?”.

I expected 2 or 3 people again, so you can imagine my surprise as I fetched more chairs for the 20+ people that showed up! Everyone that attended was an engineering manager with a wide variety of experience. One guy had been promoted to manager just days before the conference, others had been doing this for years and years. As if that weren’t great enough, author and Lean Software Development guru Mary Poppendieck joined the discussion as well.

I got the discussion started and then promptly shut up as I tried to get all the group’s ideas up on the enormous PostIt note pad in front of me. We talked about the challenges of transitioning from developer to manager, and the forces (both from other people and ourselves) that pushed us back towards our developer ways. We talked about coaching our direct reports, and how many of us spent so little time doing it. We talked about the difficulties of setting project goals and timelines, of maintaining agile practices amidst waterfall expectations.

Common Themes

To be honest, much of what was discussed has already faded from memory, but a few ideas stuck with me:

  1. Many of us are unsure of what we’re supposed to be doing and suffer from having little to no direction, but we’re trying our best.

  2. Many of us constantly feel a gravitational pull yanking us back towards doing development work, and we’re not sure what’s best to do.

  3. Many of us feel like we’re missing a community, that we have to figure out our problems by ourselves.

  4. We’re all on the hunt for resources that can give us both ideas and feedback about how we approach management.

I’m going to write more about each of these themes, but for now I’ll just admit that I was thrilled to not be alone in these concerns! Each of these has plagued me, and here I am, not saying a word, but hearing thoughts akin to my own being shared by this group of people.

As our hour came to a close (though the conversation had not) I walked away knowing that I was not alone, but also that these conversations don’t just start by themselves. That has been my impetus for sitting back down and blogging again, to do what I can to stir up the conversations I long to be a part of.

I have very few answers, but I never intended to give you answers. Let’s get the questions out there, all out in the open. The questions we’re ashamed of, the questions that make us doubt ourselves, the questions that we silently and shamefully share without even knowing it.

Let’s start there and work out the answers together.

About Me

Chris Powers

Chris Powers has been leading software development teams for the last twelve years, and he loves sharing his passion for building teams and software with audiences nationwide. As a Clean Coders author, Chris is producing an educational video series entitled "Clean Code in the Browser". Chris is a Director of Engineering at Sprout Social and lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. In his free time he enjoys drumming and tabletop gaming.

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Twitter: @chrisjpowers