Field report on the German SoCraTes Conference 2018

What is the SoCraTes Conference?

The International Conference for Software Craft and Testing (SoCraTes) is a conference for software developers interested in the field of software craft and testing. It takes place several times worldwide at different locations: UK, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, France, USA. I participated in this year’s German SoCraTes conference in Soltau in August 2018.

Why SoCraTes?

Some fellow students from my student days drew my attention to the conference independently of each other. Therefore I checked it out on the net and discovered only positive feedback. Hence I wanted to attend as well and confirmed my participation there at the next staff meeting – which was possible without any problems.

What about the conference setting?

The conference took place in the ‘Hotel Park Soltau’. The entire hotel grounds were reserved exclusively for the conference. In addition to numerous single and double rooms, it offers a beautiful inner courtyard, a large dining room with a sumptuous buffet and 23 meeting rooms, most of them equipped with beamer and flipchart, which can be used by all participants during the conference period.

The number of conference seats is limited and this year there were about 220 attendees. The demand is usually greater than the supply, so there had to be a draw after the registration deadline. Here some groups of people are given priority in the draw. These are: Women in tech, People of Color, LGBTQIA+ folk, People from abroad, Disabled people, Neurodivergent people. The conference language is English, as software developers from abroad will also participate in the conference.

Even the basic setting is fundamentally different from most conferences.

  • Great diversity of participants
  • Limited number of participants
  • Entire hotel area exclusively for the conference and the participants (I personally liked the most)

This gave me a ‘Silicon Valley’ feeling of being among a group of passionate IT experts and sharing experiences.

How the conference days work out

The conference works according to the ‘Open Space’ principle. This means that there is initially no fixed agenda for the lectures during the conference days. Instead, these are determined daily in the morning at 9 o’clock, after a sumptuous breakfast buffet, jointly among all conference topics.

The procedure is as follows:

  1. At 9 am everyone meets in the large conference room, where blank keyword cards and pens are available
  2. Everyone may take some of the cards and note down the topic he/she would like to hold a lecture/discussion
  3. After a short speech by the organizers, all developers offering a topic come forward and announce their topic in turn, principle “First come, first serve”. The conference room and time are also defined for this purpose. A lecture lasts about 45 minutes to one hour – exceptions confirm the rule.

The topic groups can be roughly divided into three categories:

  • Tech” (e.g. tools, programming languages, programming paradigms, Katas…),
  • “Softskills” (e.g. ‘Conflict at Work’ or ‘Nonviolent Communication’)
  • I need your Help”, i.e. topics which deal with a concrete problem situation and where a direct exchange of experience is desired.

What at first sounds very vague and chaotic has been surprisingly good in practice – here is the list of topics – which is probably due not least to the motivated, passionate participants.
Personally, I particularly liked the soft skill area – specifically the topic ‘non-violent communication’ – because here you can take something with you for both work and private life. Above all, in this area one comes into contact with topics of everyday working life which one does not (and probably cannot) learn during one’s studies or training.

The presentations are not classic PowerPoint presentations, but rather free presentations on Flip Charts, in which lively discussion is explicitly desired. The focus of the entire conference will is on the mutual exchange of experiences.

The morning lectures run from 10 am to 12 noon, followed by a two-hour lunch break which encourages direct communication with further lectures from 2 pm to 5 pm. At 5 pm all attendees meet in the large conference hall and briefly report on their experiences during the lectures. Further lectures/discussions will be announced for the evening and the following morning (until 9 am). Time for a joint dinner is from 6 pm to 8 pm.

The subject areas for the evening lectures were somewhat more freely designed: There were technical lectures, common board games and quite curious topics like ‘How to get better at Tetris’. Of course it was always possible to spend the evening with other developers over a beer.

In my opinion, the evening lectures in particular were another big plus of the conference, as they provided an opportunity to get to know other developers and exchange experiences. – A possibility quite unique and uncommon at regular conferences.

Conference expenses

The conference price for the SoCraTes 2018 was less than 500 Euro (yes, there is no 0 missing) and included the hotel costs, all non-alcoholic drinks, the food, as well as the conference itself.

Which topics did I find particularly interesting?

Besides the especially interesting “Non-violent Communication” lecture, I personally liked the lecture on the Popcorn-FlowChart. This is a method for defining, carrying out and reviewing time-limited experiments on identified problems. This determines whether the experiment contributed to solving the problem.

Popcorn stands for “Problems, Options, Possible Experiments, Commited Experiments, Ongoing Experiments, Review, Next”, where each term represents a column in the FlowChart. The Popcorn FlowChart provides the structural framework for a change process and functions similarly to a kanban board. More information can be found at https://popcornflow.com/.

Who should attend the SoCraTes conference?

The SoCraTes is an ideal conference for passionate and motivated people of all ages from the field of software development who are open to new experiences and like to look beyond their own horizons. Children should not be an obstacle here either. At SoCraTes 2018 there were some participants who brought their families with them.

Summary

The SoCraTes 2018 in Soltau was for me the best and most valuable conference of my IT career so far. I have heard many interesting lectures (in which I was allowed to participate actively) and got to know many new people. I am already looking forward to the next SoCraTes 2019 in Soltau.

Useful links

Slack Channel: https://socrates-conference.slack.com
Popcorn Flow Chart: https://popcornflow.com/
Non-violent Communication: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication

All pictures: Anna Biebl