Many people will say the best thing about a conference is the hallway track. But what exactly is a hallway track? The phrase is a reference to conferences having different tracks of presentation content. For example, there might be a series or track of discussion on one topic (e.g., security, networking, storage or community), or a series of lightning talks or birds of a feather sessions. These are formal sessions in reserved rooms, taking place at specific times on the official schedule. The hallways in the event center are filled with people moving between these formals sessions, and they naturally start mixing and mingling with each other. This usually leads to some fascinating unscheduled conversations. These informal discussions form the so-called “hallway track.”
I often have specific reasons for attending conferences, and KubeCon EU 2018 was no different. I had a packed agenda of things I wanted to accomplish, people with whom I wanted to engage in discussions and sessions I wanted to attend. The hallway track wasn’t exactly on my agenda for this conference, but I knew it would be a valuable part of the conference.
Based on my previous KubeCon experience, where I observed a new attendee expressing how overwhelmed and intimidated they were by the homogenous mass of people who seemed to know so much more than they ever could, I set about approaching this KubeCon in a subtly different way: I made a commitment in my mind to watch for and take actions that worked counter to this intimidation factor. This comes up, especially in the hallway track.
Approaching people you don’t know can take some courage, and being approached by people you don’t know can be surprising. Increasingly, conferences are making stickers available that you can put on your badge to indicate your approachability: red (I’d prefer not to be approached or photographed), yellow (talk to me if we know each other) and green (please talk to me). This is an interesting attempt at taking some of the anxiety and uncertainty out of face-to-face conversations. I now put a green sticker on my badge.
This may seem unnecessary in open source since our conferences and communities are all about discussion. It is, nevertheless, a useful bit of micro-messaging because the reality is that we spend more of our time in virtual discussion, which can lack a basic human element. That green sticker or a brief conversational introduction can be a big step in facilitating human connections with our remote peer collaborators, easing future interactions. You will usually find people open and friendly at conferences and in open source. I had multiple encounters at KubeCon and left each feeling less intimidated in the presence of my “superiors” in the community. After all, we’re all just humans!
Beyond the sticker, body language and group behavior can make a big difference for a newcomer as well. I noticed a conversation I tried to join during the conference where I was “boxed out,” and it was a reminder to consciously practice the “Pac-Man rule.” As a group, standing with a gap in your circle shows others they’re welcome to join.
Most hallway track conversations can be approached by saying, “Hi, do you mind if I join the conversation? A conversation in the open is clearly welcoming for other people to join. These big group circles can be intimidating but are also a great place to gain insight into community members’ thinking and personality by simply standing there and absorbing the conversation.
We often say, “oh, to be a fly on the wall in that room,” referring to some conversation we’ve heard about but were not a party to. I was walking to a planned meeting and passed by nearly 30 people in a circle discussing something in the hall that appeared very intriguing. I continued by slightly unhappy at the missed opportunity. As I walked by the crowd, I saw a half dozen influential, highly experienced, established Kubernetes contributors spanning multiple project areas. I thought, “WOW! I wonder what they’re talking about, I bet it’s interesting!” If you see this in the hallways, know that you are empowered to stop, observe and participate. If you are in these conversations and a crowd grows around you, be mindful of speaking louder so that others further out in the circle can hear. Be even more welcoming by making eye contact and prompting others to share their ideas.
Those influential contributors and well-known figures in a community may seem unapproachable to newer contributors. In a way, they can come to have an almost celebrity-like status. Senior members of a community would do well to remember this and make themselves accessible to newcomers with interesting ideas so that they feel empowered to make an introduction or facilitate a meeting. In the same way, as a newcomer feeling some pressure in this area, it’s reasonable to ask a senior connection if they might make an introduction on their behalf. Practicing these simple steps can encourage an open and inviting open source community around any project or at any conference.
About the Author
Tim Pepper is interested in development roles involving dynamic, sophisticated and deeply-skilled teams driving forward the state of the art in open source and Linux-based systems.
Born in California to a U.S. service member, he has had at least two dozen addresses and attended over a dozen schools, eventually settling in Oregon where he has now lived over almost 15 years, three times the length of any prior location. He holds a B.S. in Computer Engineering from Cal. Poly San Luis Obispo and an M.S. in Computer Science from Portland State University. He specializes in Linux and open source systems development and is a staff engineer with VMware’s Open Source Technology Center.