CFUnited 2009 Part I – Big Picture Thoughts

Monday, August 24, 2009

You’ve already heard dozens of others say it: this year’s CFUnited was outstanding. The venue, the food, the quality of sessions, the organization… all were 5-star. So I won’t belabor those points except to say thank you to Liz, Nafisa, and the rest of the Stellr group.

For Managers

If this year’s CFUnited is an indication of where this conference is going, then I say put it back at the top of your “bang-for-the-buck” list when you’re allocating training money next year.

For Developers

One thing that set this year apart from previous years is the growing amount of Flex and Air content. Obviously, many of those sessions have a CF focus (Air + CF, Connecting Flex to CF, etc), though I attended at least one Flex session that was strictly Flex. I think it’s important for developers to seek out training which might not immediately apply to their day jobs but which just might be relevant in the future. That’s why, for example, I attended Jeff Tapper’s “How not to build a Flex App” session. I do not do Flex in my day job, but this session “smelled” like something that would be useful. I took copious notes, and I was not disappointed. Andy Powell said to me in the hallways: “Flex is hard to learn, and even harder to master”. The stuff that Jeff presented falls into the “here’s how to master Flex” category. Did it apply on Monday when I got back to work? Nope. But I trust that it will some  day.

I mention this because I think when you approach a conference with a mindset of “I want to learn at least a few things that I otherwise would not investigate on my own”, then you open doors for yourself. If you just stick to “what can I learn that’s useful on Monday”, you’re limiting yourself. And what’s great about CFUnited is that it now provides enough of those opportunities to explore new technological alleyways. Kudos to Andy for bringing in such top-notch Flex speakers.

What could Improve?

Time to get critical. As a speaker, I know how much energy most presenters put into what they do. It generally requires countless hours of preparation and practice to deliver an engaging, informative presentation that audience members can apply to their day jobs. And it is emotionally exhausting (at least, for me it is). However, as a former teacher, if I learned anything during my hears at college and the years I spent in the classroom, it’s this: the least effective way to learn is to listen to other people talk about it. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I bet the “retention rate” is pretty dismal for eyes-forward sessions.

Still, maybe that’s OK. Maybe the point of going to sessions isn’t so much to learn specific things but to be inspired enough to go back to work and pick the handful of things that you want to learn more about… and then go learn them. I suppose that is, in fact, the learning model on which most conferences are based. OK, I can buy that.


What if there’s a better way? What if we take what we know about teaching and learning and apply it to the way we run conferences. You always hear people say “I get more out of the hallway conversations than I do out of the sessions themselves”. Do you know why people say that? I do: it’s because we learn more when we collaborate. When people praise the value of hallway conversations, what they’re praising is the idea that 1+1 can equal 100. It’s the social learning, the fact that together, people can combine ideas, perhaps even come to new ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t have come to all by themselves. Does it happen all the time? Of course not. Are many of these “hallway conversations” just one blowhard holding court? Sure. But I bet more often than not, you get true idea sharing. What’s more, you’re building relationships, and you’re building community.

I think we should take this and apply it to the sessions themselves. Instead of 3 full days of eyes-forward, how about making more time for collaborative sessions. Roundtables, open-space sessions, sessions that have a topic and where the attendees simply talk about their experiences and work towards shared understandings. In this approach, presenters become more facilitators than yappers.

I’m not advocating a wholesale switch from an eyes-forward approach to a completely open space conference; however, I think that it’s time to challenge the assumption that conferences are about presentations. Conference organizers and presenters must challenge themselves to make sessions less about the person at the front and more about the people in the middle. 

For attendees: Take the best session you attended, and take the worst: and now, imagine if those sessions were structured differently. What if they started off with maybe a question, and for an hour, the people in the room tried to explore that question.  What would that have done to the quality of your best and worst session? Can you picture it? And can you think of one thing you could have done to make the conference even more meaningful for you?

For speakers and organizers: People learn best when they engage. How do we create even more opportunities for deeper engagement? How do we help attendees kick even more ass when they get back to work on Monday?


Jim Priest said...

Great write up and some great ideas.

I think we are going to have a few sessions like this at CFinNC - it's free and we're flexible enough to experiment a bit... We'll see how it works :)

Marc Esher said...

thanks Jim. Best of luck with CFinNC. Definitely let me know how the more collaborative sessions go.

webRat said...

One of the things I regret about CFUnited is the fact that I didn't have a laptop available to use. You don't need one, but to be fair there were times I wanted to follow along, if anything, to take notes or to look something up online that was said during the session.

chrisready said...

Great writeup and great suggestions, Mark! I've attended some hands-on sessions before and they're always the most memorable and influential. Of course, there are challenges with them (e.g., someone tries to dominate the conversation, etc.) but a good moderator can really make such a session run smooth.

Also, was great to see you again! Sorry I couldn't stay but my Mom appreciated the kind thoughts!

billy said...


I totally agree with the "What could Improve?" section. A couple things I too would like to see in general, would be more collaborative events (like you mention), not just traditional training sessions or presentations. I think, also, some dedicated one-on-one face time with the experts would be a big plus.