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The House of Agile or Just Another Flea Market?

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 In a few months, many people from the Agile community will make their annual pilgrimage to the Agile Alliance Conference to bask in the abundance of ideas and understandings that such a large and vibrant conference experience can provide. Attendees will drink in every moment of every presentation in a state of awe, and many more will follow along on Twitter or eagerly await the release of Tom Poppendieck’s pictures so they can become a part of the latest Agile enlightenment. 

But something went terribly wrong with this event a long time ago. While the conference presenters claim the intellectual high ground, the many of them are actually there to sell their services. Their presentations are characterized not by a healthy desire to educate but by an unhealthy desire to sell something to their audience.

The difference between wanting to educate and wanting to sell is not trivial. Educational presentations includes an honest assessment of what an audience can learn, hypotheses about the topic at hand and information and resources that attendees can really use when they get back to work.

In contrast, sales-pitch presentations are based on distorted information and incomplete analysis that attempts to prod attendee into initiating some kind of contact that will lead toward a financial benefit for the presenter.

My criticism isn’t specifically directed at Agile Alliance, and it doesn’t apply to everyone who presents or attends. Actually, compared to other conferences, Agile Alliance does a pretty good job of selecting their speakers. The problem is not with speakers’ names and credentials, however, but with their primary intentions.

If you look at last year’s conference program and scan down to the less famous names, the “I'm here to sell” presentations become even more visible and problematic. Ultimately, actual practitioners and people who want to learn something about Agile become surrounded by consultants that pretend their work and results are as significant as the Second Coming.

All humans are taught to and naturally inclined to respect authority, and many tend to believe that those who are presenting at the largest Agile conference in the country(world?) are worthy of the respect they command. Believing in anything that a sales person presents to you is every bit as dangerous as being completely ignorant to what is happening in Agile world.

Since we know all this, why are there so many so-called consultants and sponsor presenting during our Hajj? Is it possible that even 12 years after the creation of the Agile Manifesto we can’t find anyone better to speak to us than a salesman pushing a big model or tool?

What to say at the end except it will be very interesting to see what will happen this year…

Comments   

 
Rajive B. 2013-03-13
But if acceptance decisions were made based on your profession (consultant or not), would that be discrimination?
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You have my email 2013-03-13
I guess you don't understand. It takes of a lot of effort to prepare, travel, carve out time from your already busy life to do these conferences and honestly, I'm not sure it is worth it.
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Almir 2013-03-15
... I think everyone is in a different situation and needs to decide that for themselves.
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George Dinwiddie 2013-03-13
Almir, I don't buy your characterizatio n. Sure there are people going to the conference hoping to sell their goods and services. Very few of those get to do that in their presentations. As a reviewer, I and my fellow reviewers work hard to filter out any sessions that are aimed at selling rather than educating.

There are a couple of reasons that many of the presentations are by consultants. They're the ones with varied and in-depth experience. Sure, they want to build their name recognition, too, but they've got the chops to help people.

There are also relative newcomers presenting at the conference. We try to have a mix. Outside of experience reports, there are very few who have never presented at a conference before. The Agile Conference is not the place to start. There are plenty of regional conferences and local user groups where people can gain experience presenting to an audience.

I think this post unfairly characterizes a lot of good people who work hard to help others.
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Almir 2013-03-13
George, thank you for the comment. First I want to say that I have considerable respect for a lot of professionals associated in one way or another with the Agile Alliance. I should also add that I believe the conference is doing a better job than many other conferences in selecting speakers based on merit.
That said, there are a lot of opportunities for improvement. The editorial is simply calling out one particularly glaring issue. The issue in question is presenter’s primary intentions and the ratio of consultant presenters to actual company practitioner presenters is directly related to this. When I reviewed the 2012 list of presenters I noticed that over 80% were consultants. That seems quite high to me.

Are the companies really so bad in Agile that we are only having consultant speakers? Having a healthier mix of consultant to company practitioner would benefit this conference in so many ways.

I also don’t agree with the "consultants are the ones with varied in-depth experience" statement. With so many companies actually practicing what many consultants just preach about why not let them present?

The Agile consulting community should be celebrating, not marginalizing, these people. I believe that the Agile Alliance leadership is at least partially aware of this issue so it would be great to see positive changes made in time for the 2013 conference.
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George Dinwiddie 2013-03-15
Amir, you seem to be saying that consultants "just preach" and don't practice. If that were true, why would companies hire them?

The truth is that consultants, or many of them, have the experience of many situations, the desire to help others, and the skills to bring that experience to bear in helping others. People practicing Agile in their job often have experience in only that one context. They often don't know in what ways their experience applies in other organizations. This is, in fact, a common problem with people who practice Agile in one organization and then decide to be consultants, and try to get others to do it the way they did.

Most non-consultants don't have much experience in presenting to public groups, either. A conference the size of the Agile Conference is not the place to start. There are regional conferences and local user groups that are better for learning to present and for demonstrating your ability to present. Many non-consultants don't spend the time to do so, as becoming known in the industry doesn't help them in their day job.

Not all consultants are good presenters (or even good consultants), and not all non-consultants are bad presenters. Take Arlo Belshee, for example. He's not a consultant, but you could hardly go wrong attending one of his sessions. He's got both the Agile experience and the presentation skills.

No one is marginalizing non-consultants . Sessions at the Agile Conference are not chosen based on whether or not the presenter is a consultant. It is based on their having something valuable to say (as evidenced by their proposal) and their skill at presenting (as evidenced by past presentations). It's an imperfect process, in that some poor talks get in and some presenters aren't as good as they might be. I'm sure some good talks and presenters get left out, too, including those who are consultants.

Your "glaring issue" is not an issue. Any discrimination against non-consultants that you perceive is just in your head. There are natural tendencies for the same people who take the consultant route to be in the majority of those having the time, energy, and skill to present good sessions at the conference.
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Almir 2013-03-17
It is evident that some of our basic views and beliefs are different, and I don’t think we will achieve anything more by responding to each other’s comments.
If I remember right, the last time we talked was during Agile Conference 2011 in Utah, and we are certainly due to do this again. If you agree, we should have some dinner and drinks when there’s a chance and talk about this -- and many other Agile topics.
The most important thing is that we both care about conference. Also, I really have great respect for the Agile Alliance leadership, so hopefully only good things from them are in front of us.
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Scott D. 2013-03-13
KUDOS to you for this post!
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Almir 2013-03-15
Thank you Scott
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Steven J 2013-03-15
First, let me say that I'm so glad you're out there writing on Agile topics that matter! Do you really think there's any way to change the way presenters are chosen in a future?
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Almir 2013-03-15
Thank you for your kind words. I honestly believe that conference organizers are looking for ways to improve the event. I would have never created this editorial if I thought differently.
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Donna 2013-03-15
Excellent post and blog in general! Keep up the good work.
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Almir 2013-03-15
Donna - Your comments means so much to all of us and makes this experience so special!
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