Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Booster Conference 2023 - Changing Perspectives

A new conference to experience, a new community to engage with, and a new country to explore - Booster Conference offered me a great time in Bergen, Norway. I've overheard lots of people share great things about this conference, so I was very happy I got accepted. Did not regret it one bit! This was another conference to help change perspectives in lots of different ways.

The Day Before

Whenever possible, I try to arrive in time to meet other people already ahead of the conference. More often than not, we can go for dinner or drinks together and these initial conversations provide the first insights already. It also eases me into the conference and allows me to brace myself upfront of meeting so many people. This time, Elizabeth Zagroba and Joep Schuurkes were already there, and we had a lovely dinner together. As a nice surprise, João Proença made it to Bergen as well in time and joined us. Lots of catching up to do with these familiar folks! Speaking about new roles, new companies, and new challenges. Such a good start into this conference and the conference season for 2023.

The First Conference Day

Entering the venue for the first time, I saw so many people I haven't met yet - perfect condition for making new connections! That most conversations I overheard were in Norwegian, however, was of little help. I had to put in active effort to break into existing circles and start getting to know people. Required more energy, yet it worked and people responded very friendly. I've also met Micha Kutz and Markus Tacker again! Lovely to catch up and exchange news.

The conference kicked off and a few things already made a good impression in the first hours. Great venue for people to have proper space and nice equipment. The schedule contained sufficiently long and frequent breaks. Such a relief not to have to rush from session to session and hope to cater to biological needs in between, yet also have proper time to have an actual conversation with people. Organizers also had a chillout area reserved for everyone who needed a private break. And last but not least: Booster offered both a barista and a tea afficionado who provided wonderful high-quality drinks. Adding great food and snacks to it, and you have a great foundation to make this work. 

The speakers didn't disappoint either. Here are the sessions I joined on this day. By the way, all talks had been recorded and you can find the videos next to the session description in the program, linked in the following.

  • Keynote "Why breed faster horses when you can make cars?" by Anne Landro. Great talk demonstrating us how much we are missing when only talking to our users, especially if these are not our actual users. Even then, it's hard for people to share very openly, without omitting information that's obvious to them yet might not be known to us. And what they ask for is not always (or rather usually) what they actually need. So we need further methods to dig deeper and find out the real problem so we can figure out a real solution. Very insightful keynote!      
  • Lightning talk "Have no fear, the security guild is here!" by Karina Øverland Haugen. A security guild is often formed by representatives of all teams. It's there to help everyone focus on security. Yet how to do that? Karina shared what they tried at their company, like granting dedicated time for security champions, and where they are now with the guild. One thing is clear for them, the endeavor already paid off and knowledge got spread across teams.
  • Lightning talk "Recovering from technical bankruptcy - ensemble style" by Kjersti Berg. I loved Kjersti's story of her team finding their way to working together as a whole team. Yet they needed to feel the pain first: they experienced not only technical debt, yet technical bankruptcy. Huge maintenance load and context loss basically hindered them from getting any further product change out of the door. To get out of this situation, they started working as an ensemble, everyone together on the same thing, same place, same time, same computer. This fostered system understanding, knowledge sharing and decision making, and enabled them to get out of their situation - with a way happier team. Loved that Kjersti also pointed out all the other ensemble related sessions at the conference, like mine!
  • Lightning talk "A brief history of Simula" by Morten Nygaard Åsnes. This was a nicely condensed history lesson on the background of Simula, a simulation language created by Kristen Nygaard. With the first version gaining popularity in academia, he wondered if they could make this a generic purpose language - and it worked. Although Simula didn't evolve further in the end, it still influenced lots of languages and was fundamental for object-oriented languages.
  • Lightning talk "Internal tech talks: How to motivate everyone to share their knowledge" by Stig Nielsen. Do you relate with this topic as much as I do? Stig figured that in order to make internal knowledge sharing a success, you need a dedicated person taking care and setting the environment. It also didn't go without constant nudging! One big factor that keeps people from sharing is the belief that you needed to be an expert to share knowledge, and hence people lacked confidence. In the end, offering different formats, building in preparation time and feedback, as well as appreciation and praise all went a long way.      
  • Lightning talk "Looking ahead to WCAG 2.2 … and 3.0?" by Vegard Haugstvedt. The lightning talk format doesn't grant much time for this run-through to cover the latest changes in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) international standard. Still, we got a first impression of what's new and what to look into further. A curious one to me was the requirement "focus not obscured": when a component is visible it should not be hidden - I assumed this goes without saying, yet this is only required by the AAA standard, for AA it could still be partially hidden. And it was good to see the requirement "accessible authentication" suggesting to use magic links, allow password managers, and allow copy and paste for authentication related fields. Big win for security for everyone! Because if security practices are not accessible or too inconvenient, they can be as recommended as they want, people just won't adopt them.
  • In the afternoon it was time for my own workshop, "Ensemble Exploratory Testing". I've given this workshop many times already, and yet the experience and outcome differs with every group. The session concept is kept quite simple in order to give people the opportunity to experience both working in an ensemble as well as exploration, and practice together hands-on. I always aim to showcase how much you can learn in short time, while it differs what everybody learns in specific. This time I had another great bunch of folks, split in four ensembles, and each of them quickly evolving their own style. This session quickly uncovers all the different perspectives and experiences people bring and fosters finding common ground. I had a great time observing and encouraging, nudging and supporting. Seems participants enjoyed it as well, based on the positive feedback received. As a bonus, I received some lovely Norwegian chocolate as speaker gift! What a great gesture.
  • Time for a fishbowl session. This format is basically a panel with changing participants. It starts with having a few people on stage, getting a topic kicked off. If at any time any person in the audience wants to contribute, they are welcome to come on stage and take a seat, while another one leaves so there is always a free spot to take. This creates an interesting dynamic and great conversations can pan out. For this specific fishbowl, organizers had collected a bunch of controversial opinions and statements from the audience upfront - in an actual fishbowl to draw from! In the beginning, the conversation started light-heartedly yet then turned towards deeper topics like psychological safety that unveiled great insights into what people understand and misunderstand when it comes to this concept.

In the early evening, it was time for the next part of the program: an official conference dinner and party for everyone. Such a lovely idea! More chances to network, make new connections and strengthen old ones. This was just the first day, though, so after heading back to the hotel and enjoying one more long conversation with João on all the things, it was time to end the day.

Day Two in Full Swing

Booster offered lots of hands-on sessions, really loved it. As non-Norwegian speaker I had less to choose from, and still plenty of interesting topics were available.

  • Workshop "Refaktorama - Refactoring under constraints" by Siv Midtun Hollup and Karoline Skylstad. This was just perfect. Siv and Karoline gave a short and just enough introduction to refactoring, including why this is a good thing to do and should not be neglected, as well as common challenges and coping strategies. Then the majority of the time available we could use to work in groups on refactoring a small program. I especially liked that the situation was framed quite realistically. We received a small program that obviously showed flaws, yet served its purpose well so far. Now the needs changed, so each group received a new feature to implement and hence to prepare for. We also received a constraint under which to operate - very much like in everyday work. The refactoring results clearly differed depending on the focus the group had. And in general, lots of great conversions took place, sharing approaches and ideas, and ending up in a different place than any of us would have when working on our own.
  • After lunch, we had two open space slots. I really like this structure where people bring their own topics, build their own agenda and contribute in ways they prefer. Usually a great place to gain new insights, get advice, practice hands-on, and more. I opted for a session on how to say no - we exchanged lots of experience and thoughts on what to try. For the second slot I decided to join the discussion on what hinders people from using TDD. Yet again a very fruitful conversation, triggering new perspectives and thoughts!
  • Experience report "Free time feature frenzy" by Elisabeth Whiteley. This was a great talk, loved the story, its presentation and its lessons. Elisabeth started out on an ambitious hobby project - yet how to do this without making it feel like more work and risk burning out? How could this be fun? After trying various approaches, she found a way for herself, based on her own needs. I really related to her advice to plan for low brain power days and leave tasks for those, as well as to (not aim for perfection and instead be okay to) write bad code - it might work for your purpose. She encouraged everyone who's picking up a free time project to at least try to have fun. As someone doing a lot of work-like learning initiatives myself in my free time, this talk hit close to home and offered great food for thought.

Time for speakers dinner! One of the great benefits of being a speaker is that this way it's a lot easier to get to know fellow speakers - and hence people who have a lot of valuable experience to share. The speakers dinner is one of these opportunities to get to know each other over some nice food and drinks. And what a fabulous location the organizers chose! They invited us all up on the Ulriken, the highest of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen. The restaurant there indulged us with lots of courses of fabulous dishes covering a variety of tastes. All that while enjoying a stunning view. The true Norwegian weather, cloudy and gray, didn't make it any less stunning. Huge thanks to the organizers! This dinner also allowed me to meet Andrew Harmel Law and talk - we've both been to DDD Europe in 2020 without having met there yet, so this was a great chance to share stories. Really enjoyed our conversations.

One Last Conference Day

I've never been a morning person, and the further a conference progresses, the harder my mornings become. Still, I'm glad I made it just in time for starting another day with a workshop. 

  • Workshop "From bricks to circles: learn the onion architecture" by Lars Lønne. Lars presented an alternative to the well-known layered architecture: the onion architecture. That intrigued me, as I've already seen the hexagonal architecture, another well-known approach, yet not this one. Through a series of exercises we got a better feeling of how an existing small application built in the layered way could be transformed to the onion architecture - and hence massively increase its testability without needing to mock out too many things. Basically anything not interacting with the outside world is pushed inside of the onion, hence reducing dependencies and encapsulating domain logic. I liked that we also had time to try this transformation ourselves and get a first feeling how this could be like.
  • Experience report "A Commune in the Ivory Tower: A New Approach to Architecture" by Andrew Harmel Law. Brilliant talk, I related heavily! Seen this a lot and discussed this a lot in my last company with my fellow principal engineers there. Andrew shared his experience when he felt like an anchor, slowing things down; and this didn't stop when moving into architecture. For any decision needed, each team came to him, which was not only making things slow yet also stressing him out. Sitting in the (architecture) ivory tower simply set things up for failure. Instead, they found a decentralized way of making decisions, enabling everyone to make decisions while offering non-blocking advice on demand. To always know what's happening, they used lightweight architecture decision records (ADRs). To optimize, they included conversations at an architectural advice forum. There were a few failure modes to look out for, with the worst being no trust (as is the case with so many other topics as well). This "anybody" approach to architecture really spoke to me. Probably as I'm talking a lot about resilience and autonomy in my teams. If you want to dive deeper, Andrew wrote an amazing, detailed blog post about the topic: "Scaling the Practice of Architecture, Conversationally".
  • Keynote "The nature of code storytelling." by Daan van Berkel. Daan shared his journey from discovering programming to creating programs throughout his life. He realized they had one thing in common: he programmed to express and process his emotions, and make connections with people. This for him is the nature of code and storytelling. An entertaining and encouraging closing keynote!
People were happy. Organizers tired, yet also happy. All the volunteers and other helpers were celebrated. The conference ended. Well, officially at least. Those people who were still there had a small informal after-party at one of the local offices. I spent a really relaxed evening with Elizabeth, Joep, Micha and others before ending up again in the hotel bar for final conversations before having to say our goodbyes.

Follow-up, Sightseeing, Conclusion

As usual when speaking at conferences, there's not only the preparation phase and the actual session, yet there are also things to be done after the conference to close the loop. For me that includes publishing my sketchnotes, writing this blog post, sending documents to the organizers for reimbursement, and more. Yet that didn't stop me from enjoying an additional day in Bergen - another benefit of speaking at conferences, you have a good chance to check out a new location while you're there. If you'd like to get an impression on what I saw during my tour through Bergen, follow me on Instagram. Really enjoyed a calm day in the city before going home.

Overall, I can definitely recommend Booster Conference. I liked the variety of topics offered, including lots of technical hands-on sessions. Great organization, great people. The most difficult part was probably the language, though. Sometimes the session tracks showed a mixture of Norwegian and English sessions, so that I had to be careful not to pick a combination that would leave me in a spot where I would not understand the next session. This was especially true for lightning talks and shorter workshops. That being said, it's a great thing for the local community that sessions are offered not only in English. Language is important and can raise or tear down lots of barriers and hinder or provide safety. Needs can be accommodated, like with a well-structured program or tools like using language tags to make it easier to include people into groups.

I had a great time. The conference offered changing lots of perspectives, from understanding the problems of our users to different architectures, from varying role conceptions to psychological safety - and even the view from the top of a mountain. So if you have the chance, check out Booster Conference!

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