This is a transcript of episode 294 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Open Space in action from CITCON organiser, our own Jeffrey Fredrick.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you have something exciting coming up, and it’s not only something our listeners might want to go to, but our listeners might want to emulate, and I thought I’d ask you a few questions about it. First of all, what the heck is CITCON?

Jeffrey: Well, CITCON is a conference that I organize along with my co organizer, PJ - Paul Julius. And it stands for the Continuous Integration Testing Conference.

Squirrel: But it hasn’t been about that for a very long time.

Jeffrey: No, it’s not. It’s not. The conference started in 2006, and if we cast ourselves way back when to almost, almost 20 years ago, this is just bizarre to me. But 17 years ago, what happened is that PJ and I knew each other from working on the project, Cruise Control, the open source continuous integration tool. So we were very, very early in the world of CI. I think the project started in 2001. Paul was one of the founders of that project and I started using it later that year, became a committer to the project, and then PJ approached me in 2005 and says, “I want to hold a birthday party for Cruise Control.” But then he got advice from someone saying, “Well, why limit it to Cruise Control? Why not make it broader and invite the whole CI world?” And that’s what we did.

Squirrel: And some listeners might not know what CI or continuous integration is. You actually don’t need to know. So the brief version is it’s one of those tools that you can use to make sure your software works and that you can release it frequently. But as you’ll see in the story, you actually don’t need to know much about that. And nobody knows about Cruise Control anymore. So-

Jeffrey: That’s true.

Squirrel: -Keep going. Tell us the history.

Jeffrey: Well, I think what’s interesting is how the, as you mentioned, the conference has really changed and the industry has changed because at the time we started in 2006, CI - continuous integration - was kind of a new thing and people were still figuring out how to make it work. In the intervening years, we’ve done a lot more than that. We figured out how to make it work. We’ve had to apply it in different environments. In fact, one of the early debates was discussing how integration wasn’t really a tool based practice. It was a way that people behaved. Then over time, it spawned other terms that people might be more familiar with, such as continuous deployment or continuous delivery - very well known book on that topic.

DevOps and Open Space/Unconference

Listen to this section at 02:40

Jeffrey: And then, actually, the whole movement of DevOps, I really look as a continuation of continuous integration, which was basically how do we do this stuff that we think is important more frequently? And how do we collaborate more? How do we bring down the silos across different specialties? And so it was a very interesting conference because it brought in people from different disciplines, not just developer conference and not just a testing conference, but developers and testers and product managers and project managers and ops people and security people and this really big cross section of people getting together to talk about what it was that they had in common.

Jeffrey: And the thing about this conference is it’s run in a different format than most people are familiar with conferences. It’s run in what’s called an ‘open space’ or ‘unconference style’. What that means, it’s great for us as an organizer, because we don’t have predefined talks.

Squirrel: So there’s no keynotes, there’s no featured speakers. There’s no workshops.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: I can see why you call it an unconference, because that doesn’t sound like a conference.

Jeffrey: Right. Well, it’s funny because there’s actually something funny about the name and what happens in most big conferences. It’s right there in the name. Conferences should be about conferring and talking to other people. And that’s what this quote unquote unconference has in spades. It’s all of actually conferring with other people all the time, whereas the big conferences tend to be structured around not conferring with each other, but sitting down and listening to someone talk at you.

Squirrel: And then all the interesting stuff happens in the hallways.

Jeffrey: Exactly, and I love that phrase that people use. They say, “Oh, I really enjoyed the hallway track at this conference,” meaning I liked all the conversations I had in the hallway. And that’s kind of what CITCON is as a structure is it’s all hallway track all the time, people talking. But there is some structure to it. It’s not completely unstructured. I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting about it is it’s not just something that you can go to once in a while as a conference that we run a couple, three times a year. But it’s also something that people can apply internally, because the structure and the magic of CITCON is while we don’t have predefined speakers in advance, what we do instead is we create the agenda on the spot. The conference runs on Friday night and Saturday and basically Friday night we’re deciding what we’re going to talk about on Saturday. And the fantastic thing is the agenda is set by the people who are there, and it’s set by determined by what it is people are most interested to discuss. And as a result, people are in sessions all day long on topics that they’ve already decided interest them.

Squirrel: And what you get is this fascinating combination in this conversation between these groups who you happen to be bringing together because they were interested in continuous integration and testing. But then that’s led to the evolution we talked about before. I want to ask you more about how this works and how people might use it for their conferences or off sites or something like that. But before we go there, just tell me what’s CITCON about today. I’m interested. I’ve never asked you this question so I know what I think because I go to almost every one. But I wonder what do you think it’s about? Because it’s definitely not continuous integration anymore. I don’t think I’ve had any conversation about that in the past for 4 or 5 years.

Jeffrey: Although that’s some self-selection on your part, which is kind of hits the point. There are definitely people who still come and talk about continuous integration, but if that’s not the topic of most interest to you, and which probably was very interesting to you 12 years ago.

Squirrel: Oh, it certainly was. It was the thing I was fascinated by and needed to learn about, but now it’s kind of industry standard, so it’s not a topic I need a lot of information about. But when you’re describing it to people like our listeners, what do you tell them that they’ll get from it?

Jeffrey: Yeah, well, what I say is this. I said the important thing about CITCON is the other attendees. What you have is this amazing selection criteria where you get people who’ve decided they care enough about the ideas around software development that they’re willing to give up their own time, that they’re willing to show up on a Friday night and a Saturday. And that was a very deliberate choice. We actually, when we started it, the intention was to make sure that people had no barrier to attending, meaning you didn’t need to get permission to take time off work to attend, was the idea. If we were in your city, we’re going to be in Berlin this year, October 13th and 14th, and you can make your way to Berlin. Then, you don’t really need permission from your company or support from your company.

Squirrel: We should also say this doesn’t cost anything so-

Jeffrey: Yeah, it’s a free conference.

Squirrel: -you can support it with donations, and many people do. And I’m sure Jeff would be very happy if people did more of that. But it doesn’t also, as you’ll see from when we talk about the structure, it doesn’t cost that much to put on. So there’s not sound and lights and dancing bears and, you know, trays full of fancy caviar. But it is well run and efficient and effective for the people who come. So, there’s really I didn’t know about this no barrier idea because you’re right, it doesn’t cost you anything. You don’t need permission from your boss. And if you are the kind of person who’s interested in spending a Saturday talking about software development, you’re in the right place and you can come without anybody’s permission. That’s a very powerful selection criteria.

CITCON: For People Who Take Ideas Seriously

Listen to this section at 08:21

Jeffrey: Yep, and so I like the phrase, that I’ve come across recently, that I like is it’s a conference for people who take ideas seriously. And I think this is a phrase that will resonate with the right kind of person, because what I often would experience among CITCON attendees is they would they leave completely energized, completely charged up, and they’re so excited! They’ve just spent this whole day talking to people all day Saturday and they leave and they’re so excited. And you ask them why? And they’re like, I’m so happy to know it’s not just me. I’m so happy to find other people who care about these topics like I do. And it’s really a session of people finding each other. People have common interests and often it’s very rewarding for people who otherwise felt isolated. Like don’t other people see that there’s these problems or opportunities? Why don’t other people want to discuss this? And so you get these people.

Squirrel: My God! I’m so bored in this standup and I can’t believe it. And everyone else seems happy. Why is that? And you go to a meeting of people who were bored in their standups and did something different, or who were frustrated that their engineering teams weren’t creating a profit and did something about it.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: And I see that a lot also. New folks coming have that epiphany.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And I think and that’s what you have is people coming back again and again year after year. You’ve made it to almost all of the 17 or, you know, that we, or 16 we’ve had so far in Europe.

Squirrel: Indeed. Except for the one you forgot to tell me about.

Jeffrey: Yeah, well, we’re fixing it this time. You know about it well in advance.

Squirrel: I definitely know about it now. You’ve definitely taken care of that.

Jeffrey: And so you have people who are there for their third or fifth or eighth or 10th time, and it’s sort of what defines the conference then is the people who attend and the people who come back. And usually the thing that’s weird about the conference is we cap registration at 150 people, with the idea that about 30% will drop out, because it is a free conference, and something will come up, life happens and they’re like, “Oh, sorry, I can’t make it.” So we end up with around 100 people, maybe fewer, maybe, maybe as few as 50, maybe as many as 100. But about a third to a half of those people will be returnees. And then those people come back because they’ve gotten so much value and energy and excitement out of the past conversations. And that’s been really infectious for everyone else.

Squirrel: CITCON is an infection. You heard it here.

The Stone Soup Parable

Listen to this section at 10:49

Jeffrey: But a good one! But a positive one! But it has this other aspect I think it’s worth, and this is the part I think when you mentioned earlier that, it might be relevant inside companies is it has this sort of stone soup quality. And stone soup is a parable. It’s a children’s book that I read to my kids when they were small.

Squirrel: One of my favorite stories, I tell clients about it all the time.

Jeffrey: Oh, do you? Okay, well, maybe why don’t you tell us? Squirrel, how do you tell the stone soup story?

Squirrel: Absolutely. And I’m usually telling it in the context of building material and documentation, but equally applicable to building knowledge, which happens at CITCON. So, and it’s all about soup, which doesn’t seem relevant to knowledge, but it will become evident. So two travelers in medieval fairy tale times are walking along a road and they come to a village and they’re tired and hungry and they start knocking on doors in the village and they say to the villagers, “Could you help us out here? We’re two tired, hungry travelers. Do you have any extra food?” And the villagers said, “No, go away. We don’t know you and we have our own troubles. Get out of here.”

Squirrel: And then they go to the village green. And I never quite understand how this happens, but you can imagine this teeny little village and it has a common in the middle with a sheep grazing on it. And on the green, they set up a little camp and they put up a little campfire for themselves. And on the campfire they put a pot, and the pot starts bubbling. And the villagers are curious. “Why are you camping here and what are you doing?” And they’re thinking of booting off the the poor travelers, but they get fascinated by what’s in the pot because all that’s in there is a stone and some water. And they say, “Ahy on earth are you boiling a stone?” They said,

Squirrel: “Oh, no, no, we’re making stone soup. Stone soup is a really delicious item. You know, you all didn’t want to share food with us, so we thought we’d make our own stone soup. And of course, it’s easy to transport these, the stone. You just carry it along with you.” And they said, “But how does stone soup work?” And they say, “It’s a delicious soup. We’re going to feed you some. Then you’ll understand. It’s a little better with carrot.” And somebody says, “Well, I have a carrot.” It goes back to his house and comes back with a carrot. “And it’s also even better with some garlic” And somebody else goes, “Oh, I’m going to go get some garlic.” And they come back and eventually they get through the entire village and everybody brings some small piece of vegetables or meat or something, and it all goes into the pot.

Squirrel: And eventually when nobody’s looking, they take out the stone and then they ladle out the soup to everyone to have some. And everyone has a lovely supper together, including the two travelers. And we laugh because we recognize that they’ve hoodwinked the village, but they’ve also shown the village something interesting. The village has learned something about what resources it actually has, which the individuals did not think they had. Now, how is this relevant to CITCON?

Open Space in Companies

Listen to this section at 13:40

Jeffrey: Well, what happens at CITCON ends up being stone soup. What we make together is more than any one person could have envisioned in advance, because it’s determined by what people show up and what they bring to it. And it’s often surprising what people have. And that’s what I wanted to connect that to. This is not something that just has to happen to conferences among people who don’t know each other. You can actually use the same process inside a company, and having this type of of open space conference is something I’ve done with companies I’ve been part of, and also I’ve done it as a consultant at various companies, to bring people together and run their own internal open space. In fact, when I had first learned about open space, I learned about it first in the context of some large European company that ran it for like 2000 people. And then so I’d had that. I’d never experienced it, though, until PJ said, “Oh, I’ve experienced it at Bruce Eccles’ conference,” and he’d had this prior experience. And so he knew that we wanted that that format.

Jeffrey: When we run it inside companies, people are often really surprised because it turns out, much like the story of the medieval travelers, the fellow villagers, the other employees in the company have a lot of hidden resources or resources that they didn’t know each other had, you know, shared concerns, ideas about how to solve it. And we’ll put together the same kind of thing, put together an agenda based on suggestions from the people in the room. People will vote on the topics most of interest. They’ll break up and have the discussions with the people who are interested, and they leave really excited and ideas that they want to go back and start applying right away. And you have this wonderful creative experience that really brings people closer together. And again, the key idea is that the people are discussing things that they care about with other people who care about the same topic. And there’s just really a magic in that.

Squirrel: There certainly is. And Jeffrey, I’ve got about 200 questions about that, and I bet our listeners do too, especially about how you go about making this work. But I’m also looking at the time when we don’t like to take more than maybe a single subway ride for our for our listeners. So I’m wondering, could we come back next week, leave our listeners hanging for a bit? And if they really want to know more, they can follow the links in the show notes to information about open spaces and lean coffee and so on. But why don’t we come back next week and get into the nuts and bolts of how this works and how you run it at CITCON and where it goes wrong. How about that?

Jeffrey: That sounds fantastic.

Squirrel: Excellent. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.