Monday, October 30, 2023

Rethinking "code-adjacent" talks

I've been thinking about the talks people give at technology conferences and user groups.

Not the ones that explain, "Here's a specific technology," or "Here's how to use a certain API," or even "Here's how to create an API."

I'm thinking more about the ones about less specific subjects. Topics like choosing between design patterns, thoughts about ways of working, project organization, communication, prioritization of tasks, who should do what, and the like.

I'm not sure of a universally understood term for these things, but let's use "code-adjacent" to talk about things related to the code (and the way we write it) rather than the code itself.

These topics are never purely objective but are highly influenced by context and subjective opinion.

And now we get to the idea of giving talks on these subjects.

I recently attended a conference with many such talks, and it struck me how popular these types of talks have become and how easy it is for presenters to accidentally treat opinions as fact or their experiences as universally true.

[I waited a few weeks after the conference before posting this to try and avoid direct criticism of individuals.]

I suspect many people listening to these talks didn't know or notice where the speaker was doing this.

At the conference where I started thinking about this, I heard:

  • Questionable opinions being passed off as absolute facts.
  • "Facts" that were demonstrably false.
  • Broad dismissal of topics that the presenter acknowledged they didn't enjoy or understand in detail.
  • Things that are true in the speaker's limited and highly specialized experience being taught as always true in all circumstances.
  • A detailed discussion of scenarios that may have been relevant 10 years ago but which modern tooling, techniques, and best practices make redundant. 

 I wonder how many attendees (especially less experienced ones--there were many students in attendance) left, not realizing there was a lack of nuance expressed in what they were told.

These talks are often also shorter, so have less time for questions or clarification. The talk ended when it got to the end of the time allocated, and then everyone filtered off to other rooms for subsequent talks.

As an attendee, I want the best, most up-to-date, fact-checked information from experts.  Or, I want people to share their opinions and experiences while clearly justifying and explaining these.

As a (sometimes) organizer, I want speakers who have thought out, planned, checked, and verified what they will say. I don't want speakers who will do the bad practices mentioned above. I want the best for the attendees. I don't want them to say, "That was a bad speaker," because that quickly becomes, "That event doesn't get good speakers," or "I was given bad advice or incorrect information at that event--and so won't go back." 

As a speaker, I know it's all about the audience and giving them the best information in ways that will help them remember and be able to apply the knowledge I'm sharing. I get the impression from some speakers that they think they are the experts and must be right as they are the ones talking from the front, and so no one else matters. (Basically, they make it about themselves rather than the audience.)

What if these talks were done differently?

What if talks of this nature had (at least?) two different speakers. Ideally, with very different experiences and opinions.
Maybe they do the talk together.
Maybe they do shorter talks back to back.
Maybe one gives a talk, and the other has time at the end for rebuttal or clarification or to give counterpoints or counterexamples.
Or, maybe you can't get more than one expert on a subject, so you get a small group of senior, experienced, and broadly knowledgeable people to lead questions and clarifications at the end.

Will this be more work? Possibly.

But wouldn't that give a much better experience to attendees?

But what if the presenter is worried about being contradicted or having their errors pointed out?

Well, do you want speakers who have that attitude?

Do you want the audience to be given bad or incorrect advice?

As a (sometimes) speaker and presenter, I want to know if the information I'm giving is incorrect, outdated, easily misunderstood, or otherwise wrong. I want to know for myself, and I want to know for the people who will hear what I say.

I'm currently planning and preparing a talk on the importance and value of documentation and testing for software developers. It's potentially challenging (to hear) and will contain much that is highly subjective, but I think it's very important, and I have valuable advice to share on the subject.

I'm not yet at the point where I'll welcome criticism and objections to what I have to say, but I know that there are people with different opinions, and I want to know and acknowledge these.

A talk that's just "These are my thoughts on this subject." is far less valuable than "Based on these experiences, I have these thoughts about this subject, and this is why it could be useful for you to know."