Complex Workshops in a Conference Setting

The typical conference session is a 50- or 60-minute lecture backed by slides. No Fluff Just Stuff, where I do most of my speaking, extends that to 90 minutes. Some creative speakers think of group activities to supplement the otherwise-non-stop bloviating, but those are generally limited to soft skills and process-oriented sessions. If you want to talk about code, getting people to get their hands on a keyboard at a conference is a tough problem. I’ve been wanting to solve it.

Two weeks ago in Raleigh, I retooled my open source business intelligence talks to include a hands-on workshop. The talks had been two 90-minute lecture sessions covering the basics of ETL, reporting, and analytics on a conceptual basis with a brief demo of relevant tooling, including some elaboration on using the Pentaho Analytics Platform. The retooled version is comprised of one part lecture covering the basic concepts, plus a 90-minute, hands-on training session building an ETL job in Talend Open Studio.

A working Talend installation has a few moving parts: a Java runtime, a database, sample application data, a sample data warehouse schema, and Talend itself. Asking 15 or 20 people to install all these things by themselves and get them talking is at least an hour of work by itself, and my goal is to provide a valuable workshop experience in 90 minutes. I tried the install-your-own approach at ÜberConf in June, and it wasn’t a terrible experience, but it was clear that it could be improved.

My new approach is to create a VM and distribute it to attendees before the session. So far this is working much, much better. There are some frustrations in the first few minutes of the session, but I’m able to get people’s hands on a tool that requires a fairly complex runtime environment. Here are some lessons I’ve learned and problems I’m still working on:

  • Try to keep the VM as small as possible. Right now I’ve got one that takes just over 8GB while running, but zips up to just under 2GB. This seems like an easily achievable minimum.
  • When creating the VM (using VMWare), be sure to check the box that splits the disk image files into 2GB chunks. Chunks greater than 2GB will not unzip on Windows machines, seemingly no matter what client you use. Windows users will not remember you in song (at least not the kind of songs you want).
  • Find some way to distribute the VM image ahead of time. Otherwise it will take several minutes to copy and unzip, burning up valuable workshop time. In my case, the workshop follows a 90-minute lecture session which is but required as a prerequisite, so I pass around thumb drives during that session. Attendees can copy the image and unzip it while they listen to the dulcet tones of my voice. It’s a win-win.
  • Note that your more enterprisey attendees may have laptops whose thumb drive capability has been crippled by their corporate masters. I have yet to devise a fallback plan for this. Perhaps I could burn a DVD with the requisite files on it; I will be thinking about this and other options. (I’ve chosen thumb drives to make it easy to update the image and other support files on a regular basis, as the talk evolves.)
  • Distribute a player with the VM image. No, seriously. Twice now I’ve asked attendees to download the VMware player at the start of the session, since I’m not formally allowed to distribute it myself. This is a big fail. I may switch to VirtualBox to get around this problem.
  • When distributing an operating system image with a database installed on it, be sure to document the usernames and passwords of all OS and database accounts. I’ve made the decision to use a single, simple password for all accounts, favoring user experience over security in this sandbox OS.
  • When providing instruction on a visual tool like Talend, distribute screenshots of each step of the procedure you want attendees to do. That way, if someone gets behind, he or she has a shot at getting caught up by following the slides.

So far I’m getting positive feedback on the session. People really enjoy getting their hands on a tool and are mostly ending up with the satisfied feeling of having learned and done something new. I’m still working out the kinks, but I think this is going to become a staple of my stable of talks. I’d love to hear your ideas on how to improve it.