So, Scale Summit has now been and gone. As the spiritual descendant of UK Scale Camp (which remains my unconference benchmark) I’d been looking forward to this one since I heard about it. An unconference, if you haven’t been to one, puts the content in the hands of the participants. The general idea is to gather a bunch of folks with a shared interest, keep them fed and watered, and give them space to talk. On the day, participants propose topics to discuss, set a schedule, then make it happen.
As you might expect, this is a bit of a gamble – sometimes magic happens, sometimes you get a damp squib.
What Was Good?
The venue was easy to get to, the catering was top notch, and wifi worked everywhere (which was just as well, as cellphone reception was abysmal). I also appreciated the wifi having a single password for all attendees.
I liked that the Chatham House rule applied by default, and that a code of conduct was circulated ahead of the event (and called out in the introduction). For that matter, communication ahead of the event did a good job explaining what to expect.
The event was about the right size (~130 people), if perhaps a little too large.
What Could Improve?
After Michael Brunton-Spall’s welcomed everyone to the conference, a microphone was passed around the room for everyone to introduce themselves in a “What’s your name? What do you want to learn? What are you good at?” format. Despite providing some moments of hilarity (eg, “I think I’m at the wrong conference, I came to learn about scaling mountains.”) this didn’t really work for me.
One benefit of introductions (beyond their value as a basic icebreaker) is to help foster conversations through the rest of the day – if I say I’m good at Chef, and you say you’re interested in learning about Chef, perhaps we’ll have a chat during the day. Perhaps I was insufficiently caffeinated, but with so many people in attendance (and poor visibility, as we remained seated for the introductions), I didn’t really manage to keep track of the folks I thought I might like to speak to.
I’m not sure how to improve this. One idea might be to do the introductions online ahead of the event – this would avoid putting people on the spot, and foster opportunities for people to connect in some way before they get into the room.
Another thought is to ask people to come up and introduce themselves on the morning, but only if they want to encourage other participants to start conversations with them during the day. This could be seen as an odd perversion of mst’s Hallway++ idea, and I haven’t particularly thought it through. Perhaps I really just want to see Hallway++ spread to more conferences.
Topics and Scheduling
The session board filled up fairly quickly, it wasn’t necessarily clear what folks had in mind for the proposed sessions, and there wasn’t any useful way to have conversations about it (due to lack of time, and lack of space around the board). It didn’t feel like the schedule was a collaborative effort of the participants, so much as a bunch of individuals throwing thoughts at a wall.
Funnily enough, the introductions segment I’ve just complained about was provides some input to the scheduling process – eg, if several people mention AWS CloudFormation in their introductions, it’s probably a good topic to propose a session around. (Several people did, and apparently the “Cloud Orchestration” session was an interesting one). On the flip side, the events schedule originally gave half an hour to “Collaboration over the sessions grid for the day”, so it would seem the time spent on introductions came at the expense of something more focused on producing a good schedule.
At London DevOpsDays, the open spaces schedule was built in several phases. First, folks proposing topics got up and told the rest of the participants what they had in mind. Second, participants noted which topics they were interested in. Finally, topics were assigned to rooms suitable for the level of interest. I’m unfamiliar with other approaches to solving this problem, though I daresay they exist. This is the area I’d most like to see improve for the next Scale Summit.
Room Sizes and Engagement
The available rooms were relatively large – 3 for 60 people and 2 for 30 people, although another small room (~8 people) was employed when splinter groups decided to talk in the lobby. This lead to some large sessions with half a dozen people speaking and ~40 listening, which didn’t feel ideal. Conversely, Scale Camp at the Guardian offices had a greater number (I seem to recall) of much smaller rooms, and one big one. This resulted in serious overcrowding in many of the sessions, which wasn’t ideal either.
I suspect that any arrangement of rooms will have some kind of drawback (particularly for an unconference), so perhaps the answer is a little more structure or facilitation of the sessions. Michael did suggest some techniques in the day’s introduction, though I didn’t witness any of them being used. I’d like to have heard from more voices during the day – even if the majority have come to a session to learn, they could still be asking questions or providing prompts for the folks bringing the experience; conversely, if more folks would like to participate, the structure of the session should facilitate that.
Dean Wilson has previous tweeted about using Ansible to provision AWS resources, but the lightbulb hadn’t turned on for me – I need to explore that idea as an alternative to CloudFormation.
On that note, I regret not joining the “Cloud Orchestration” session, but it was scheduled against a session I proposed on the subject of Scaling Config Management (testing, processes, teams, etc). The latter was well attended, so I hope people got some value out of it. I think I could have done a better job of introducing it, but I’ll reflect on that another time.
Another lightbulb moment came when Simon Croome gave me a sneak preview of the work he’ll be presenting at Puppet Camp London in his session “Increasing Agility By Understanding Risk”. I’ll be linking to that as soon as it’s online (and I plan to incorporate some of his ideas in my Chef CD pipeline).
I went into the day wanting some more suggestions for host monitoring in elastic environments, or at least reassurance that Sensu was the best thing to play with. Apparently it is. A few folks who had spent a little time with Riemann were enthusiastic about it too, so that’s now higher up my list than it was at the start of the day.
If you ever need to goad people into giving lightning talks, Jonty is remarkably effective at doing so.
I really enjoyed the day, got plenty of value out of it, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. There’s room for improvement but (for me, at least) that could only elevate the day from “really good” to “utterly awesome”.