Peers Exchanging Ideas: The AST Peer Conference Guide
Planning an Event
Number of People
Schedule and Status
So you’ve decided you want to run a peer conference? Well done! In our experience, getting together with fellow practitioners, in a comfortable and safe environment, with time to immerse yourselves in topics of mutual interest, is not only a great learning experience but also tremendously enjoyable.
When we say peer conference we don’t have a particular format in mind. Your conference might be a traditional series of talks followed by Q&A, it could be an unfacilitated discussion, it could use a crowdsourced agenda, or be a focussed group working to produce some kind of report on a topic of shared interest.
Adrian Segar describes a peer conference as “a conference that is small, attendee-driven, inclusive, structured, safe, supportive, interactive, community-building, and provides opportunities for personal and group reflection and action.”
We like that kind of framing as it provides room for many local variants, although we’d add that disseminating the results of the conference could be an important outcome too. If we had to boil down our own perspective, it would be something like this: peers exchanging ideas.
Your conference will not be the same as anyone else’s but we’d highlight a couple of things that we think are crucial for any peer conference:
- Treat all participants as peers, whatever their level of experience or expertise.
- Publish, and abide by, an ethical code of conduct.
- Remember that there is no best practice, only good practices in context.
Have fun and let us know how you got on!
How to use this Guide
The Association for Software Testing is an organisation dedicated to advancing the craft of software testing, but this guide is not specific to that area. We've deliberarately written it to be applicable whatever your topic.
You can read this guide from start to finish to get an overview of the kinds of things you might want to consider for your conference. It might seem like there’s a lot! Don’t worry, it’s definitely doable — we know, because we’ve done it!
The guide has been written to favour in-person conferences but the Remote Peer Conferences appendix talks about factors we've had to consider when running your event by video.
If you’re confident that you know what you want and are just looking for a basic checklist of stuff to remember, skip to the Appendices which give that, with links back to details in the main text.
Setting up a Conference
Getting off the Ground
Start with the why. Say what you want to achieve with your conference and then base other decisions on it. For example, CEWT’s mission statement is this:
CEWT is an exploratory peer workshop. We take the view that discussions are more interesting than lectures. We enjoy diverse ideas, and limit some activities in order to work with more ideas.
CEWT is about:
- Cambridge: the local tester community.
- Exploratory: beyond the topic there's no agenda.
- Workshop: not lectures but discussion; not handouts but arms open.
- Testing: and anything relevant to it.
An outcome of this is that CEWT has short presentations followed by group discussion, and both are time-boxed. CEWT also constrains its participants to have to have been to a local meetup in the prior six months in order to keep the group local and to locate people who have already exhibited some interest in the testing craft.
Once you have your why, talk to other people about your desire to start a peer conference. This allows you to gauge interest, find allies, and get other ideas. Some of someone else’s ideas will be better than yours in some ways in some areas. (Yes, really.)
Start lean. Fewer people to organise means less organisation, more flexibility, and probably lower costs. Limited process means easier change, less housekeeping, and less time. You can grow later, after you’ve made your mistakes and found things that work for you, although — for us — a peer conference will always want to be reasonably small to keep everyone’s participation levels high.
The Organising Team
More organisers might mean that the organisational load is spread and there’s a bigger pool of ideas. But more organisers require more organisation themselves and can potentially dilute the vision for your conference. So, as with the other considerations in this guide you need to consider what’s best for your aims.
There are some common roles in peer conferences, such as:
- Facilitator: manages timing and discussions on the day.
- Organiser: takes care of logistics, contact with participants, etc.
- Content Owner: chooses a topic, reviews abstracts, selects participants.
- Social Secretary: organises dinner or other events around the conference.
- Sponsorship Finder: prepares a pitch and finds sponsors for the conference.
You might choose to merge or share some of these, rotate them between members of your organising committee, or organise so that you don’t need them. For example, you could reduce or remove the Content Owner role by choosing topics for discussion on the day.
Set up some way to share information with anyone who is helping with the organisation. One of our reviewers even shares details with their venue.
Google Drive is a cheap and convenient way to store and collaboration on work. A basic spreadsheet there is enough to hold current status, checklists, and remaining tasks. Trello, Slack, and Basecamp also all offer a free plan for collaborative tools at the time of writing.
Find what works for you. The tooling is much less important than easy access to shared status, timings, and context for your organising team.
Think about how often you plan to run your event. Then think very carefully about whether you have the time and energy for that. Pro tip: you probably don’t; it’s easy to be over-optimistic at this stage.
It’s not only your time and energy, though. It’s anyone who is collaborating with you, and your ability to come up with topics or themes, and the willingness of participants to turn up.
As you gather like-minded souls to organise your event with you, be clear about who is taking which responsibilities and check that everyone is happy about what they are doing.
Real life can get in the way of even the best intentions, so make it clear that early sharing of problems is going to help everyone to understand status and take appropriate actions.
Perhaps take a look at the frequency of some of the longer-running peer conferences and get an idea of how other people have managed to schedule them around their lives.
Code of Conduct
It’s imperative that you have a code of conduct which makes participants feel safe to be present and to share their ideas. Decide on your code in advance, make it visible in advance, and have copies of it available at your events.
The diversity of any speakers and your participants is important to consider. Your conference will be better for having voices from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and different perspectives.
Your area of expertise almost certainly has related areas of expertise. For example, AST is an organisation for software testers and we’ll typically be working with software developers, product managers, scrum masters and people in other roles around the production of computer applications. One way to get outside of your bubble is to seek participants from those related disciplines.
In conversations around diversity, gender and ethnicity are typically prominent but encouraging women and BAME participants to come to your conference is very much not the whole story.
Encouragement is certainly part of the story, but not discouraging and actively enabling are also part of it. How can you make your venue, your timings, your call for abstracts, your processes implicitly and explicitly non-discriminatory and inclusive? What can you do to make it more possible for those with disabilities, family commitments, or who need support to participate?
Increasing Diversity at Your Conference by Ashe Dryden contains heaps of advice and references for further reading in this area. Please be sensible and sensitive in your actions to help prevent more stories like Mevan Babakar’s Conference diversity is your responsibility.
Create and publish a diversity statement to go with your code of conduct.
What is your policy on sharing information presented at your conference?
Some conferences have a policy that says it’s the participants’ responsibility to share only shareable material. Anything stated at the conference can be repeated by the participants in any context. If you do this, it must be communicated clearly at the point participants sign up and again on the day.
You might implement an “ooops!” clause that lets participants flag that something they just said, but wish they hadn’t, should not be disseminated.
How do you feel about photos and social media during the conference? If you want to promote it, consider having a consistent hashtag to make it easy for others to follow along.
Some of your participants will expect that you will share speaker slide decks afterwards. Are you prepared to do that? It’s certainly a nice thing to do, but it’s more time and hassle for you.
The organisers will want to communicate within each other. (If they don’t, you are sunk already.) Something convenient and informal will help you to keep momentum alongside your busy life. Email, phone, text, and occasional meetings (or a mixture) can all work fine.
Beware the usual mixed channel problems of making a different decision on some issue in different channels and not being able to remember what you decided. Recording important decisions and actions in a shared place is a good idea.
You’ll need to communicate with your participants beforehand. This will be less frequent and probably a bit more formal, because you’ll need to spell out important stuff like dates, locations and costs. Email works fine for this, or you could use an app like Meetup.
If it goes well, you might want to communicate as a group of participants before, during or after your conference. A shared space such as a Slack channel allows many voices to get involved and provides some historical context to new comments.
Publicising your event is a different kind of communication again. You might want to consider social media accounts on whatever platforms your likely participants frequent. Perhaps a blog or website for your conference is a good idea too. Having something that can be searched and always has current information is valuable.
Consistent branding, done well, can make you look a lot more professional. However, it’s worth considering who it is for and how much energy it merits.
As a small conference you might have a website or blog, some social media accounts, email, and perhaps a handful of slide decks. Do they really need branding?
In the early days of your conference you’ll have plenty to do without spending bottomless time discussing whether you should go for #383732 or #373832 in your logo.
On the other hand, if you think that branding will be important to help you get publicity and find participants, then invest an appropriate amount of time and perhaps money. Sites like 99designs can be an effective way to get good design at low cost.
Planning an Event
So, you’ve decided why you’re doing it, you’ve got your organising team together, and you’ve worked out the basic shape of the event that you want to hold. Well done. Pat yourself on the back! Then take a deep breath because the hard work is about to start ...
In this section we’ll cover the kinds of things you’ll want to consider for the day (or days, if you’re really ambitious) of the conference itself. Be prepared to go through them several times because they can influence each other.
For example, the number of participants you plan for will affect the size of venue you need. The size of venue you need will affect the cost per person. The cost per person will affect the number of participants that come.
It’s best if you can be realistic and honest with yourself about the most important things. If keeping costs down is key to encourage attendance then perhaps try to find a free room in a local company office and size the event to fit it.
Number of People
Think carefully about the number of people you want at your event. It can dramatically affect the vibe, the momentum, and the kinds of interactions you’ll have.
But bear in mind that there’s no perfect size and that the personalities of the people involved makes a big difference. On different days, with different people, two groups of the same size will have radically different styles of conversation.
Generally speaking, lower numbers will mean you can get away with a smaller room, less coordination, and less (or no) facilitation. Higher numbers tend to give the opposite, but have advantages such as fewer headaches when people drop out, more diverse perspectives, and more space for participants who prefer to listen.
For what it’s worth, we’ve found that around 10-12 people is a good size for a discussion-style workshop: at that scale, everyone can be heard, and importantly feel heard, while still having a flowing conversation. In groups much larger than this, it’s likely that factions will form and some people will naturally feel less confident about speaking.
For conferences that are more traditional, with presenters and an audience, where it’s not expected that everyone will participate as actively, then larger numbers are generally fine. The larger the number gets, of course, the less personal the event may feel, although unconference or open-space event structures can help to keep everyone involved.
The participants are key to the success of your peer conference. Getting a good mix of the right kind of opinions, experience, personality, interests and motivations will make your conversations fly.
But it’s also hard to arrange that mix in advance. Really, really hard. And there’s much that you can’t control, so don’t try to micro-manage it but instead concentrate on setting up an environment in which it can manage itself.
The first step is to think about what kinds of participants you’re after, and what kinds of factors will attract them. For example:
- Do you want an international speaker? Travel expenses might be key
- Do you want local participants? Not clashing with local events might be key.
- Do you want first-timers? Not requiring everyone to present might be key.
Revisit your why; it will help you to clarify who your conference is for. If you can, write it down and even consider making it public.
You can then start to think about how people get places at your conference: will there be an open invitation? Will you require abstracts to be submitted? Will you invite people directly?
A simple approach to accepting participants tends to mean less work. For example, if you have a number in mind and accept people until you have filled up (plus a few reserves in case of drop-outs later) then you don’t need to worry about judging abstracts, discussing the relative merits of participants and so on.
On the other hand, completely open and uncurated may mean that you don’t get the kinds of participants that you think you need to achieve your conference aims.
Some potential approaches:
- Open call, first-come-first-served, with some limit on number of participants.
- Restricted call, e.g. to testers from the local area.
- Curated call, e.g. all prospective applicants have to submit a talk proposal and a subset of them are chosen to attend.
- Invitation, where you target participants.
You can mix these up if you want to, for example by inviting a couple of speakers and curating the rest or by having a restricted call followed by a more open call if needed — perhaps by sending an early call to previous participants, giving them priority.
Bear in mind that participants will have commitments outside of your conference. For example, potential participants with young children may be reluctant to spend a night away or be logistically unable to give up a whole weekend to a conversation, however interesting. If you build it, they still might not come … but perhaps you can build it in an accessible way for the kinds of participants you want?
Another consideration is whether you’re prepared to pay for participants to attend, either in whole or in part. Bear in mind that if you’re inviting speakers they might expect some kind of compensation.
Make sure that you keep careful track of who’s coming in the shared space you set up earlier. It’s at best embarrassing to be sending notifications to people who don’t want to come or not sending them to people you’ve accepted.
Finally, expect a drop-out rate of up to 30%, including some on the week of the event itself. Some strategies for reducing drop-out: communicate more, ask for an explicit commitment to attend after sign-up but before the day, remind people repeatedly that someone else can have their place if they drop out.
If things go well you’ll be oversubscribed initially. (You are starting small, aren’t you?) Put anyone that you don’t have space for or didn’t meet your selection criteria onto a reserve list and tell them that you’re doing it.
Letting them know there’s still a chance for them is both a common courtesy and also increases the possibility that they’ll maintain some availability for the event. If they say they don’t want to be a reserve then remove them from the list so that you don’t accidentally contact them later.
Hopefully, when you were getting off the ground you had some idea about the kind of peer conference you want to organise and that included the way you want participants to interact.
If not, now is the time to decide, although note that you are not obliged to have the same format throughout the day. You might have facilitated discussion around presentations, followed by lean coffee, and then lightning talks for sharing takeaways, for example.
A conference theme gives potential participants a way to judge whether they feel they have something to contribute to your conference and provides inspiration for the conversations that you will have.
A good default option is to choose themes that are relevant to your potential participants and encourage a wide range of views and experiences. Relevancy helps to encourage people to come, and breadth of interpretation keeps the conversation flowing.
Balance breadth and depth in your theme. It needs to provide a narrow enough focus for the conference, but have enough scope to provoke extended discussion from multiple perspectives.
You’ll probably also want some blurb. Blurb is a paragraph or two that explains the theme and gives some suggestions about where participants might want to take it. Typically published at the same time as your theme, it will form the basis of your call for papers if you require abstracts to be submitted.
You can use the blurb to constrain an apparently wide theme to be only certain aspects of a topic. You can also use it as a guide to judge whether or not submissions are on topic.
Whatever content you choose, make the theme and blurb buzz. You want it to attract attention and start people thinking. Let’s say you’re organising a peer conference and you want to focus it on progressive management techniques in your industry. Which of these conferences do you think your participants would rather attend?
Management is Dead!
The only thing that your boss and their boss and their boss want is positive status reports for the PowerPoint deck that they push up the management chain every month. As it travels higher, successive edits remove all actual content and it’s then filed without ever being read by anyone.
Prejudices over data: this is traditional management.
We think that this style of management is dead. It leads to dysfunction, disillusionment, and distress. In this conference we’re going to talk about ways in which we could change it, and what the effects of that might be on employees, managers, and the companies themselves.
Human-Centric Workplace Practices
Modern management practices neglect to take account of the emotional aspects of the human condition, according to recent research reported in the Journal of Industrial Workplace Metrics.
We propose to debate the motion that it is possible to motivate personnel to perform in the workplace to a higher standard if empathy is shown. We contend that this will lead to increased job satisfaction and an improvement in the bottom line.
At multi-day conferences, or those where people are travelling and staying overnight, it’s reasonably traditional to arrange a meal out for the participants.
This doesn’t mean that you have to do it, of course. If you do want to, for small events, it’s enough to simply book a table at a local restaurant for anyone who wants to come.
One of the nice things about doing something together is that it can build relationships that will help in conversations at the conference, or allow participants to pick up threads that were started in the conference but not explored.
If you don’t arrange something, be prepared for participants to ask you for recommendations about where to go and perhaps to even self-organise something. Be ready to introduce those who don’t know each other yet so that people don’t feel left out.
It’s worth looking out for local meetups that coincide with your conference. Perhaps you could co-organise something or maybe you’d just like to attend along with some of the participants.
You might also consider some events during the conference itself. Lots of talking can be tiring, so perhaps you’ll want to go for a walk or play some games after lunch to allow participants to relax, process the conversations they’ve had, and get some energy back.
Last thing: if you’re arranging anything and expect people to pay themselves, make it clear up front. If you need them to pay you beforehand, make that extra clear.
It goes without saying that the kind of conference you’re organising will influence the venue you choose. As we’ve already said, though, the venue itself may have an effect on the kind of conference you’re able to put on.
This section runs through some of the considerations. It’s worth bearing in mind that, while the venue is important, its function is to facilitate the conversations you want to have. So do have some minimum standards (no cockroaches, not too smelly, a roof) but don’t get carried away with trimmings (branded pencils, executive seating, a vaulted roof).
If you’re getting participants from out of town, or running a multi-day event, you might consider a venue that can also provide accommodation.
For group discussions you probably want a round-table or U-shaped layout. For a more traditional conference it’ll be theatre or classroom. For an unconference you’ll need plenty of space.
Some venues will have the flexibility to rearrange rooms for different purposes during your conference. This might be appealing, but will probably cost more.
If you are planning food, you’ll need somewhere to eat it. Again, another room will add to the expense, but maybe balance that against how good it can feel to get out of the debating space and into another environment for a while.
A short primer on meeting room layouts can be found on Conference.place.
You don’t necessarily have to pay for a commercial venue. Maybe a local company will lend you a room for the day. It’s worth cultivating local contacts at meetups, particularly at meetups hosted at local companies. You might need to give up a place or two at the conference in return for the room and food. If the participants are people who would’ve come anyway, it’s a definite win.
If you do get a local company you’ll probably have, or be able to develop, a relationship with your contact there. If not, there’ll be some kind of event manager at the venue. This is your host.
You must provide the host with clear guidance on what you need. Commercial hosts will probably be able to give you a checklist of what they need from you. As these kinds of things don’t change much from venue to venue, it’s worth maintaining your own checklist so that you can be prepared for next time. (Surely there’ll be a next time, right?)
It’s in your interest to provide as many details as you can about your requirements. Don’t assume that things will be OK on the day. You don’t want to be a chair short, you don’t want twice as much food as you need, and you don’t want any unanticipated costs.
If you’re using a local company office there may be restrictions on where participants can go and security requirements to enter the building. Make sure these are understood and communicate them clearly to the participants. You don’t want to annoy your host because that’ll reduce the chances of you getting back into the same company again.
As with the venue, food is important up to a point. You don’t want to offer people left-overs from last night’s dinner to save a few quid, but neither does it need to be Cordon Bleu catering.
What is important is to make sure that there’s enough food, and that it caters to everyone. When you are accepting participants for your conference be sure to ask them for their dietary requirements and check that the venue can deal with them: one of our reviewers had a vegan participant who ended up eating just roast vegetables one evening.
Don’t forget to have some drinks and snacks when people arrive at the event, and during breaks. These are important for refreshment, to keep energy levels up, and to be a catalyst for groups to form and continue discussions in the breaks.
How much time have you wasted in meetings waiting for someone to find something that connects something to something else so that they can show something? Don’t be that person! If you’re expecting or permitting slides, think about your audio-visual equipment requirements.
Do you need a projector or will a big monitor be enough? What connectors are available at your venue: VGA, HDMI, mini-HDMI? You should either be clear to anyone presenting about which connectors you will provide, or ask what people need and then be clear about whether you can supply them. Do all of this well ahead of time and then on the day do your best to have a collection of random connectors available just in case. (You might be able to borrow them from your workplace temporarily.)
What other kinds of equipment do you need? Power strips, a whiteboard, flip charts, sticky notes, sticky dots, pens, paper, or sellotape? If you’re being charged for this stuff by the venue, consider borrowing it from somewhere for the day, or buying it cheaply at a stationery shop.
Have you considered whether you need wi-fi? At a local company there will often be a guest network already. If not, ask your host whether one can be set up. Other venues may want to charge for access.
That 16th-century castle has a brilliant conference centre, an amazing vibe, and it’s available on your preferred date. Yay! It’s also at the top of a steep hill, up a road with no pavement, there’s 27 steps to the front door, and car parking for two cars, neither of them available to guests. Boo!
When you are accepting participants to your conference, ask whether they have any particular needs with respect to accessibility and then do your best to accommodate genuine and reasonable requests without question. If you do need to ask for clarification or are unable to fulfil a request, be sensitive and sensible in your communication, and try to offer alternatives that show you are doing your best to help the participant to attend.
If participants are travelling to your event, provide them with some recommendations for ways to get around, places to stay, car parking, and local eateries.
You might want to favour venues that are close to public transport.
If you’re using a commercial venue then you might be able to negotiate a discount for participants to stay there too, or perhaps they have an arrangement with another local hotel or guest house.
Breaks are important. People need time to process the material being discussed, to pick up side-threads with others, to think of new arguments for points they want to make, to replenish their energy. Organisers need breaks to get things set up, sort out logistics, and allow the schedule to get back into step when it’s running long.
Breaks risk losing momentum, however, so tend to the shorter side but also don’t be afraid to suggest ad hoc breaks as you go.
It is possible to run successful peer conferences on a shoestring budget. Here’s one formula that can work, under the right conditions:
- Keep your event small.
- Keep your event short.
- Keep your event local.
- Use a room at a local company who’ll also provide food.
You may not have enough local companies prepared to sponsor events, or not enough interested local participants (yet!) or you may want particular facilities or need to fund participants in some way. If so, you need some way to manage your costs.
A simple spreadsheet will be enough to begin with, but you really should keep track of what you think you’re going to spend and how you think you’re going to cover those costs. Incoming and outgoing columns with totals in each will do. Your aim is to balance them!
How can you cover costs? There’s some obvious options:
- Attendance fee for participants
- Your own pocket
All of them have drawbacks: charging participants is a barrier to entry and so will discourage some people; sponsorship may impose constraints or project an image you’re unhappy with and can be tiring to find and negotiate; grants take time and effort to research, prepare, and apply for and can’t usually be done retrospectively; your own pocket may have other demands on it.
Early in your peer conference organising career we’d recommend planning your event with as few costs as possible to remove the need to find funding. This takes away all sorts of headaches and leaves you free to concentrate on the important business of peers exchanging ideas.
How much time will it take you to organise your conference? Unless you’ve been doing this for a while and have all of your process and contacts ready to go, it’s probably at least a couple of months. If you need to raise funding from external sources it could be much longer, taking into account the time needed to prepare a pitch and negotiate terms. One of our reviewers starts sponsorship talks a year before their event.
How far in advance will your potential participants want to know about your event so that they can make arrangements? The distance you expect people to travel is relevant here: early-booked flights are generally cheaper.
Once you’ve set and publicised a date it’s going to be a chore to change it, so give yourself a bit of slack and estimate slightly longer than you think you’ll need for all the arranging.
Schedule and Status
In your organising team’s shared space create some kind of schedule. There’s an example in the Appendices. Again, you need to allow all of the organisers to see the status of things and know what tasks are coming up.
What granularity of task you choose will be a question for your team. Somewhere between one task labelled Organise it all and a task for every chair, sticky note, and grain of sugar is going to be needed.
Your shared view should have some way of putting deadlines and assignees against tasks. That doesn’t mean you need to get all process-heavy, but it does mean that everyone can see who is responsible for what, and by when, to help planning and to understand who to speak to about dependencies between tasks.
Groom your schedule by adding new tasks to it as you encounter them. Why? Because you can use the schedule from this event as a template for the next one and, if you do, next time that thing you forgot this time will already be on the schedule. (Here’s a clue: add taking a group photo to your list now.)
Although a small group running a peer conference on a voluntary basis isn’t likely to be subject to regulations such as GDPR, you should definitely make your best efforts to be careful with any data you collect from your participants.
If you want to take photos or videos on the day of your event, you should also check with participants whether they’re OK with that. This is particularly true if anyone is intending to share photos on social media.
Use Bcc on group emails so that the addresses of participants are not shared without their consent.
You can definitely over-communicate but it’s worse to not communicate enough.
Keep your participants informed about the event on a regular basis. If you don’t remind them from time to time that they agreed to come some of them will forget. As we said before, you might get as many as 30% drop out.
In every communication, ask participants to tell you if they can’t make it as early as possible so that you can give their place to someone else.
Don’t send the same communication several times because people will recognise that and stop reading them.
Who are your people? Go where they are to shout about your event. Online that might be Twitter or Facebook or relevant Slack channels. In real life it might be local offices or meetups.
Some industries will have conference listing sites (in ours there’s Software Testing Conferences) so seek them out and get yours listed on any that you think will drive participants to you.
Running an Event
How long ago was it that you had the idea to run a peer conference? How much stress has there been since then? Wow. You thought it would be easier than this, didn’t you? It can be, once you apply the lessons you’ve learned this time round.
But that’s for later. It’s the day of your event now, and you need to make sure that you give yourself a chance to enjoy it. Sure, you’re doing a peer conference for a reason, and you’re giving up your own time and putting in effort that you could definitely find other uses for, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also get some pleasure out of it.
So, take a deep breath, plaster a broad smile across your face, pick up your checklists, and go and have a great time!
Again, yes, relax. Something will probably burst into flames today at some point, but you will deal with it. A speaker doesn’t turn up? No problem, you’ll shuffle the running order as you go. The food comes without a vegetarian option? No problem, you’ll ask someone with a car to shoot up the road to the shops. The power goes out leaving you in darkness? No problem, you’ll move to the room with the biggest windows and run a lean coffee session until electricity is restored.
The participants are your peers. In many cases they will be giving up their own time to be there. They know that you are making sacrifices for them and they want you to succeed.
You’ve got this.
Sharing ideas is only part of the success of your conference. Creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to share their perspectives is also very important.
Many potential participants will come and be worried about sharing or, worse, not come at all, because they fear being contradicted, feeling inferior, or getting laughed at.
It’s the responsibility of the organising team to find ways to help the participants feel able to join in, to know that they are supported, and to make it a good experience.
Facilitation is key, your code of conduct is key, making a good atmosphere is key.
On the Day Logistics
Ideally you will nominate a particular person to do housekeeping on the day. This helps to avoid confusion about the status of any particular task.
If you are being hosted by a local company, your contact can answer the door, show people where the tea and coffee is, where the toilets are and so on.
If you are paying for a room and other services, nominate someone on your team to be the liaison with the venue. Again, this avoids confusion and contradictory instructions or status.
Someone will be late so schedule tea and biscuits for 15 or 20 minutes before the real action begins.
Have some kind of introduction where you can set the tone, remind everyone why they’re there, the kind of conference you’re expecting, that there’s a code of conduct, talk about fire exits, reinforce the message that you’re all peers, and so on.
Now is a good time to explain how the day will run. You’ll want to reiterate this at various points later too. Even if you have an extremely flexible agenda, explain what it is. Let people know there will be breaks so they aren’t anxious about it.
If you’re using facilitation, explain how it’ll work and why you’re using it. You’ll say this again later, but the repetition is worth it.
Consider having some kind of icebreaker exercise. Don’t groan! You’ve got a roomful of people who don’t all know each other and spending five minutes practicing each other’s names, introducing themselves in a couple of sentences, and learning a little about each other’s personalities is a good investment in the rapport that will make later conversations smoother. One of our reviewers recommends human spectrographs for this.
How do you want your day to be broken up? Should it run in a see-how-we-feel kind of way? Do your participants need to know when it wraps up so that they can organise their trips home? Do you want everyone who prepared a presentation to be able to give it?
Some conferences will expect people to pitch their presentations and then have the participants vote on them, lean coffee-style, to decide the running order.
Some conferences will have time slots for each presentation, or for discussion on particular topics, or for a specific exercise.
What you do is completely up to you but, whatever your style, make it clear to the participants.
Someone from the organising team should keep an eye on the energy levels in the room and be actively looking to change things up when they drop. Even if you have an agenda, don’t be afraid to tweak it.
You can say something like “I feel we’re getting to the end of this topic, shall we break 10 minutes early for an extended tea break? Who fancies a walk around the block?”
Provide spaces for conversations to happen outside of the conference room. If your snacks are in a separate location this will naturally become that kind of place, but corridors, hallways, reception areas and so on are all good for small conversations.
Providing a public place where people can record thoughts during the day can help to build up a topic list for later conversation, a retrospective, or a write-up. A whiteboard or a wall with sticky notes are simple and do just fine.
Facilitation may not be needed with the group and format that you have. You’ll need to take a judgement on that for yourself. It can certainly contribute to making the room a safe space and increase the range of voices heard.
Getting conversation to flow in a (large group) is a skill. If you have big personalities in the room, then the facilitator will probably need to be someone who has everyone’s respect and feels self-confident enough to be able to direct things if needed. A facilitator also needs to be selfless enough to know that their role in the discussion itself will need to be limited.
You should be clear up front what the facilitator is doing. Are they introducing talks, timing talks, announcing breaks, timing breaks, something else?
Facilitation is a huge topic. As a starting point, we recommend Paul Holland on facilitation.
Congratulations! It’s over and although it wasn’t perfect you can and should be proud of yourself. You have provided a bunch of motivated people with an opportunity to come together for learning, to make contacts, and to have fun. That’s valuable. Well done!
The participants helped to make it happen too, though, and you should consider thanking them for their time, energy, and ideas. One of our reviewers writes to each of them, with a note of something they said that was inspiring or interesting.
Right now, you probably don’t want to do another one but it’s still worth having some kind of retrospective to think about how it went, what was good and bad, what you’d like to do again and what to avoid in future.
You should definitely do this as an organising team. You could consider scheduling it as part of your event too, and having your participants give you their perspectives. Adrian Segar provides a personal introspective card that could help with this.
Be honest with yourself. The kind of conference you’ve organised suggests that you will be, and that you want to improve things next time. A retro is a great opportunity to enable that.
Some of the retro feedback might be challenging, perhaps because you disagree with it or because it's critical or because you're so heavily invested in the things that you chose to do. Outside of the retro you might also find that participants complain about things to you directly or you overhear them moaning to each other about the food, the venue, the weather, and other aspects of the day. It'd be easy to find this demotivating.
In all cases, we've found that assuming good intent on the part of the participants helps to overcome those issues. (Helps.) Some other things that can assist in dealing with this kind of thing:
- Expect that it might happen and be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t.
- Remember that you can't please everyone.
- Credit yourself with your achievements in organising this event.
- Deliberately try to accept all comments gracefully.
- Treat the comment as a suggestion for a future event not a criticism of this one.
- Review the comment later, when you're in a position to take a broader perspective.
You'll need some resilience if you're putting yourself out there but by getting this far you've shown that you have it!
Positive and negative suggestions from others aside, you will youself think of things that you’d like to have done different over the next few weeks and months. Note them down because they’ll be useful next time too.
And there will be a next time, won’t there?
The Association for Software Testing
Our mission: The Association for Software Testing (AST) is dedicated to advancing the understanding of the science and practice of software testing according to Context-Driven principles.
We are an international non-profit professional association with members in over 50 countries. We strive to build a testing community that views the role of testing as skilled, relevant, and essential to the production of faster, better, and less expensive software products. We value a scientific approach to developing and evaluating techniques, processes, and tools. We believe that a self-aware, self-critical attitude is essential to understanding and assessing the impact of new ideas on the practice of testing.
AST Grants for Peer Conferences
The AST provides grant funding for peer conferences that are non-profit and align with its mission.
We have created this guide from our own hard-won truths and that of the community of software testing peer conference organisers. We are extremely grateful to CEWT, DEWT,LAWST, LEWT, MEWT, NWEWT, SWET, TWST,and WOPR for sharing their approaches, advice, and personal experience publicly and privately.
We also thank our reviewers for their insightful and helpful comments on the first versions of this guide: Fiona Charles, Lee Hawkins, Duncan Nisbet, Adrian Segar, Karlo Smid, Neil Younger, and Elizabeth Zagroba.
More depth and alternative perspectives on pretty much all of the material in this guide can be found in the following links:
- Organising peer conferences (Erik Brickarp)
- Ten Simple Rules for Organizing an Unconference (Aidan Budd et al)
- A Deeper Community of Practice by Paul Holland (Markus Gärtner)
- Organising peer conferences (Paul Holland)
- The LAWST Handbook (Cem Kaner, Brian Lawrence)
- Organising LEWT (James Lyndsay)
- About Peer Conferences (Adrian Segar)
- Survey of peer conference organisers (James Thomas)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Remote Peer Conferences
The first version of this guide was written before the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic of 2020 and so focused heavily on in-person conferences. Pretty much all of our expertise is in this format and, other things being equal, we'd favour face-to-face over remote given the choice. However, with the advent of physical distancing, travel restrictions, and lockdowns, we have experimented with video conferencing for peer conferences and found that it can be enjoyable and successful, and that much of the guide still holds.
In some respects organisational concerns are simplified without travel, accommodation, and catering to worry about but, and it's an important but, we're conscious of how hard it is to get the vibe right during a lengthy video meeting with more than a couple of participants. This appendix records factors that we've found it useful to consider when running remote, so far.
Opening your conference up to remote participation can mean that time zones become an issue. In addition to choosing an appropriate duration for your conference, you'll now also need to find a start and end time that are acceptable for the participants, wherever in the world they are. Also, when sharing times with people, don't forget to say what time zone you're talking about and be consistent in all your communications.
Deciding on the number of participants is always a little tricky. We decided to err on the lower side to reduce the risk of participants who aren't currently speaking from zoning out or being distracted by all the other windows they have open. As with an in-person conference, the setup you choose will make a difference here; there's less reason to be worried about the numbers if your conference is set up more like a webinar than a group convesation.
Breaks are crucial, both for health reasons and to keep energy levels high. In one-day events we aimed for ten minutes away from the screen every hour and a longer break at the half-way point. (UK government advice is to take more shorter breaks over fewer longer breaks.) Letting the participants know the schedule is important too; they may have domestic stuff to schedule around your conference.
Also crucial is the software you'll use for your conference. Again, your format will play a part in your choice. For the traditional peer conference setup, with a small group presenting and conversing on the same topic for an extended period, we found that our requirements were:
- software that could stay on all day
- host able to mute and unmute participants
- participants able to share their screens
- participants able to see all other participants at all times
- global, multi-user, and 1-1 chat
- multiple channels for chat
- threads in chat
This essentially breaks down into two communication modes: video and text. There are many choices for video conferencing tools and, unless you have very specific requirements, your selection may well depend on what's convenient for you. On the text side, we've tended to want rich communication channels to manage facilitation, allow organisers to talk outside of the main conversation, and to permit side-conversations by participants. It may be worth considering separate applications for chat and video.
At Association for Software Testing events our favoured mode of facilitation uses K-cards. We have found that its possible to reproduce this style of facilitation remotely and the way we've gone about it is described in A Remote Possibility.
This is an extract from the schedule used by the organisers of CEWT. It’s maintained in a Google spreadsheet where each row also has a completion date, assignee, and status. The Email column refers to templates, and you can see some examples in the Standard Emails appendix.
You’ll see that there is a focus on communication. This helps to keep participants feeling part of the group, and to reserve the day or let us know they can’t come.
|Choose venue||Venue, Lead Time|
|Write blurb, update blog, publicise||Blurb, Publicise|
|Ensure host has Hosting CEWT checklist||Host, The Day|
|Send invites to potential participants||Invitation||Participants|
|Notify speakers, participants, reserves||You’re In!, Speakers||Communicate|
|Send Facilitating at CEWT checklist||Communicate, Facilitation|
|Reminders, and confirm attendance.||Confirm||Communicate|
|Entry, etc details; dietary requirements||Final Host Details||Host, Accessibility|
|Finalise how we’re going to run the day||Agenda, Side Events|
|Facilitators OK?||Facilitator Check||Communicate|
|Blog the abstracts||Dissemination, Publicise|
|Remind participants of details||Reminder||Communicate|
|Final prep (see Prep the Day checklist)||Venue|
|Do CEWT!||The Day|
|Thank the reserves, participants||Reserves, Participants||Afterwards|
|Follow up with non-participants||Didn’t Make It||Communicate|
|Write up retrospective||Afterwards|
There are certain kinds of mails you’ll find yourself sending frequently if you run your conference a few times. It’s convenient to have templates for them. Here’s some examples provided by the organisers of CEWT who keep them in a simple Google Doc ready to paste into email.
I'd like to welcome you warmly to CEWT #<N> on <Date> at <Place>.
As things stand, this is the list of speakers:
I'll send more details shortly, including how long talks should be, deadlines for abstracts, and so on. But here's some key points:
- This is what we're about: http://cewtblog.blogspot.co.uk/p/about-cewt.html
- This is the topic we're discussing: <Link>
- Speakers don't have to use slides
If you have dietary or accessibility requirements, please let me know.
We have a reserve list, so if you find you won't be able to come inform me as early as possible and we can give someone else the opportunity.
Thanks for saying you’ll speak at CEWT #<N>. Here’s our speaker guidelines:
- Talks should be max 10 minutes each (and expect us to be strict on the timings).
- Speakers can use slides but they're not required.
- Speakers can give demos, show examples etc.
- Title and short abstracts need to be with me by <Date> (and ideally before that).
Joint talks are very welcome, but we won’t make extra places at CEWT available for them. If you want to do a joint talk, it’ll need to be with another participant.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
If you find that you can’t attend, please let me know asap so that I can offer your place to someone else.
Didn’t Make It
CEWT #<N> was last week and you were down to attend but didn't make it.
If you have a moment, and are able to say, please could you let us know why you didn't come?
We're interested in this not to pry or make you feel bad, but to help us to improve the way we run things, and in particular to try to ensure that as many people get the chance to participate in CEWT as possible.
There are certain sets of actions that you’ll find yourself doing over and again, or asking others to do and it’s convenient to store them somewhere that they can be easily accessed by whoever needs them and, perhaps more importantly, easily updated.
A couple of checklists extracted from those used by the CEWT organisers are below.
So you’re hosting a CEWT? Good on yer! Here’s the things we know we’ll need:
- A room for presentations and discussion
- A projector with standard connectors (at least HDMI, VGA) in that room
- Tables and chairs sufficient for all participants in the room
- … arranged so that everyone can see each other and the presenter
- Enough power sockets for laptops
- (Ideally) wi-fi
- Whiteboard or flipchart with appropriate markers/rubber
- Post-its, pens, blue tac
- Food and drink at lunch time and for breaks
- It doesn’t have to be anything fancy
- It should include something vegetarian-friendly
- We’ll let you know about any other dietary requirements
- (Ideally) somewhere separate from the main tables to eat
- You will need to provide instructions on getting in for us to circulate to the participants
- This should include at least:
- Special instructions (e.g. which door, which bell)
- Emergency phone number to contact you
- Time that people can arrive
- Access to toilets
- Access to the building (do you need to alert your security people?)
- You to be available on the day to let us in early and do whatever needs doing after
Facilitating at CEWT
- Introducing speakers
- Guiding discussions
At the start of the day be ready to say a few words about:
- how you’ll facilitate discussion (including K-cards)
For each talk:
- Ask the speaker if they want comments slips filled in
- Introduce the Speaker
- Start a timer for 10 minutes
- Let the speaker know when they have a minute left
- Don’t let the speaker run over 11 minutes
- Remind the participants about comments slips (or not)
- Start a timer for 20 minutes
- Remind people about K-cards
- Facilitate as lightly as possible
- Encourage people who haven’t spoken when the list is empty
- Keep to time
- Let everyone know how long the breaks will be
- Let everyone know what happens after the break
- You can use any retrospective format you like.
- Please make sure that your format encourages all to participate (e.g. writing down comments is easier for some to get their voice heard).
- Historically we have used a Stop, Start, Continue format.