Few days ago I was at SoCraTes (Software Craftsmanship and Testing) conference in Soltau, Germany and it was an amazing experience. People say that all the time without elaborating further. I’m going to try explaining why I think so and why next SoCraTes could be the right conference for you.
This post is written in a mixture of anecdotal narrating and themed recollections. I’m sure there exists a better format. Oh well…
There is this one conference…
… I kept hearing about. Be it at meetups or over drinks, someone would mention SoCraTes. Naturally I was starting to get curious. DuckDuckGoing1 a bit I found the conference webpage, www.socrates-conference.de, welcoming me with this friendly logo:
Not getting scared by the ‘.de’ domain, I found out that @martinklose was previously one of the organisers. So next time over the beers I asked Martin to tell me a bit more. He had only good things to say about SoCraTes and enthusiastically suggested that I go and experience it for myself. Well, as far as recommendations go, that was more than enough for me.
I did the only sensible thing and started following @socrates_2014 to stay informed. After a few months the registrations finally opened. I booked a room and made an entry in the calendar.
Small talk2 in the vehicle
After exchanging a few mails on @swkBerlin mailing list, I’ve ended up in the car with @martinklose, @egga_de and holger-s, all of whom I knew from Berlin’s Software Craftsmanship meetup and accompanying drinking activities. I was mentally prepared for exhausting 5 hours in the car. It turned out to be nothing like what I was expecting.
Those 5 hours passed in a flash. Most of the time I was asking Martin just about anything I wanted to know. And you should know that I’m a curious guy. Martin would explain mechanics of consulting from all the possible angles I thought of asking, and a few more.
What were the typical problems he would encounter? How would he overcome initial dislike or even hostility for being a foreign element when he would first arrive? How long would an engagement last and how would that influence the execution? And much more.
All the while we would spiral out from consulting to a topic where we wouldn’t even be aware how we got there – only to slowly circle back from the digression to the original thought. It was, in a way, beautiful.
Before I knew it, we arrived in Soltau.
The conference site was well-chosen. It felt a bit remote, but was still close enough to Hamburg to be convenient for international attendees. It had a huge yard where people could meet to converse. The restaurant had more than a dozen of tables set outside to enjoy the weather. More than 10 rooms equipped with flipcharts and projectors were available. Later I find out that those were more-or-less exactly the requirements the organisers had in mind when selecting the site.
With some 140 attendees the place felt cosy and welcoming. It had a slight family feeling that only grew during the conference. @p_pugliese opened the conference emphasizing this aspect and challenging us all to get to know all the other attendees.
SoCraTes 2014 was off to a great start.
The first night
The opening ceremony felt more cozy than ceremonial, and the dinner was next. As the majority of participants attended previous SoCraTes, they were greeting the familiar faces. I only knew a handful of folks beforehand and so felt a bit awkward, but not more than expected. As the dinner was progressing, everybody was slowly starting to mingle.
At some point in the night, I went out for a smoke3. Some attendees were already there and we slowly engaged in a group discussion. It was simply great. There were many well-known figures of whom, embarrassingly, I could identify only a few. Martin would from time-to-time explain who was who.
Topic varied from discussion about the meaning of being a Software Craftsman and what it ment to each individual, to questions on how to transfer the values to new generations. This even ended up with polite-but-heated discussion about purpose and usefulness of university education. It was well after 2 AM when the group slowly started to disperse.
This was also the first time I met @sandromancuso and @mashooq whose company I particularly enjoyed throughout the conference. At some point I just happened to be next to Sandro when he was discussing with Martin the differences between London’s and Berlin’s Craftsmanship communities. This later spurred extremely interesting discussion about dilution of ideas with growth of communities built around them.
The following morning open space format was presented. This was the first time I participated at a conference that used open space format and I was a bit sceptical if it’s going to work. I was wondering whether there are going to be enough sessions and if they are going to be disproportional in size. The following 2 days proved my scepticism to be unfounded.
There were many great sessions. I particularly enjoyed @adibolb’s session on TDD as if you meant it. The session about emerging design was really great, and to be truthful, beyond my level. The sessions covered a broad range of topics: from microservices and reliability, a few different SW architectures, to different approaches to testing, mixed in with some soft-skill topics.
I always managed to find with ease an interesting session to attend. And the great thing about the format was that you would just move to some other session if the current one did not provide enough value for you.
… and skipping sessions
The best part during the day hours were not the sessions themselves. Don’t get me wrong – they were great. But some of the most valuable experiences started out just as accidental conversations whose origin I can’t even trace anymore. It happened quite a few times, but here I’m going to mention only the most vivid one.
It was lunch time and so I was walking around with @egga_de and looking for a place where to sit and eat something quickly. We sat at the table where one guy – Markus (@coderbyheart) – was quietly working on his laptop. So we started talking a bit while eating. It was mostly small talk and random tech topics. Then we asked Markus what is he working on.
It turns out that he’s the CTO of a small charity startup centered around ‘.hiv’ domains. I not capable of narrating the story properly, with all the passion and vibrancy he had, so I’m not even going to try. The crust of it is that he’s working for a great cause that is extremely important to him. All the while having challenging technical problems, decent lifestyle and work-life balance. It sounded like a perfect job.
It was depressingly inspirational. There are some causes that matter to me to, but my contribution isn’t even worth comparing. I also felt a bit sad knowing that in only a few moments all the rationalisation and self-preservation mechanisms would kick in and make it all less important and more bearable.
On the verge of collapsing
After the Saturday’s last session there was a closing ceremony and the regular part of the conference ended. Most participants would stay one more day to engage in different workshops or to participate in the Code Retreat.
Saturday was particularly hard on me as it was my third night in a row without enough sleep. After the closing ceremony I was so tired that I decided to just go to bed and I had a 45min power-nap. I value sleep and would have liked to sleep some more, but it would have been a waste not to enjoy the night and all it had to offer.
During the dinner I had a fun conversation with @AliAvecHat about the experience of music. At one point we were discussing if being able to understand music was comparable to being able to ‘see’ physics all around you. You can enjoy music without really understanding it as you can enjoy your surroundings without understanding the laws of nature. But there is so much more to enjoy if you understand the mechanisms underlying the phenomena.
Talking the night away
Somehow that last night few of us gathered outside and just enjoyed discussing different topics. After some time the group was slowly dwindling in numbers until only 4-5 people were left. From that point until 5:30 AM I was constantly enjoying Sandro’s company. Either I’d talk alone with him or someone would join us for a while.
It was the most valuable experience of the whole conference. I would just pick his brain about whatever topic I wanted. We talked about apprenticeship and how he is going about it in his company. About risk management and starting a company. About partnership as the alternative to competition in consulting space. About work-life balance and impact on the family. About life struggles and trade-offs involved.
It was truly an amazing experience. By the time we parted the sun was already rising.
Although the focus of the conference was on learning and sharing experiences, there were plenty opportunities for leisure activities. Some of those were: biking or running together, sauna or pool time, different kinds of board games, etc.
My default leisure activity consisted of enjoying conversing while holding a half-full glass, but I’ve participated in some other activities as well.
A few of us gathered one evening after the dinner and played beach volleyball for 2 or so hours. It was a bit clumsy, but otherwise relaxing and enjoyable time. Lots of jokes and a bit of trash-talking were included to spice up the game a bit. After the light become too sparse a resource, we went for some well-deserved beers.
Hm, this is a tricky one. How do you describe this game to someone who hasn’t played it before? I guess you don’t aside from telling that it’s one of the most fun social activities you can have and whole-heartedly recommend them to play it when they get a chance.
We played it on two different nights and it was great both times. We had enough players and quality ones to boot. There were a lot of fun, frustrating or just intense moment. And over the beers slowly some friendly rivalries were emerging.
I’ve met and connected with some great people during those games and can only recommend you to try it out next time.
Legacy Code Retreat
I’ve already written about this kind of event. This time it was a Legacy Code Retreat. As you can probably guess from the name, the focus was not on the Game of Life. Instead it was about working with legacy code. In every session the pair would start with the same legacy code and would try to add a new feature. To do so one would need to add some tests and refactor heavily.
This was my third Code Retreat, and the first one about legacy code. Unfortunately I did not use this opportunity to it’s maximum potential – I was simply too exhausted to even think properly. Non-the-less, I liked it and learned a lot. Amongst other things, this was the first time I’ve seen mob-programming in action. I have to admit it looked intriguing.
After the Code Retreat it was time to pack things and go home. We were all completely exhausted and so I expected tiresome 5 hours. I was wrong once more. Sure, all four of us were on the verge of collapsing, but we still talked the whole time and had a lots of fun. This time it was more about personal anecdotes/war-stories and a bit more opinionated topics. One discussion I found really interesting was about strategies for choosing the pairing partner when you don’t know anybody. Group dynamics and power-play anecdotes were a lot of fun as well.
Before I realised it, we were back in Berlin. This ment that SoCraTes 2014 was over and the real-life is about to follow.
SoCraTes 2014 was an amazing conference. The best conference I’ve ever been to. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of fun. And most importantly – I’ve met many amazing people. Some I’ve mentioned in this post. Some I haven’t – there was simply too much going on to fit in a blog post. I’m already past 2000 words, writing the longest post I’ve written so far. To those of you who were there: it was a pleasure to meet you all. See you at SoCraTes 2015 (hopefully before as well). Thanks for everything.
Appendix – more resources & mini galery
If you are not a SWK member, become one. :)
What follows is just a mini galery4 so you can get the feel for the conference. Such a shame nobody uploaded night photos so far…