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Workshopping a Workshop: Tips for Crafting and Delivering Your Content

Conference-affiliated workshops are an important component of building a community and furthering the goals of your project. They enable you to bring together like-minded people to learn about your project and/or collaborate on a set of the project’s problems in an intimate way. But when you consider crafting and delivering a workshop, it’s important to understand the differences and when to effectively apply tutorial versus brainstorming methods. In this blog, I’ll share takeaways from my recent experience at Open Source Summit Europe 2022, where I used the tutorial approach, and at OpenFest, the brainstorming approach. So, let’s get started by laying the groundwork for crafting that impactful workshop!

Optimizing the experience for all attendees

To discern which type of workshop to create, begin by evaluating your content with these considerations in mind:

  1. How can you best align your workshop with the interests of a cross-section of the conference attendees, while keeping within the greater context of the conference topic?
  2. What is the size of the venue, the level of attendees’ expertise, and the potential number of workshop participants?
  3. How will participants best absorb the content you will be sharing? Is it better to deliver the content as a voice of authority (tutorial) or sit with them elbow-to-elbow and actively problem solve some aspect of your project (brainstorm)?

Let’s look at how I used this assessment to craft my very first tutorial workshop at Open Source Summit EU.

The tutorial workshop

Open Source Summit Europe is a well-known and funded international conference for open source developers, technologists and community leaders. It’s sponsored by several prominent tech companies and conference tickets range from a couple of hundred dollars to more than a thousand. Last year’s summit was held on September 13-16 at the Convention Centre in Dublin spanning four days and gathered more than 2,400 attendees from around the world, many of whom are tech-savvy experts from companies that lead top open source projects.

Jussi and I presenting at the Open Source Summit EU 2022.

My workshop Secure Python Packaging & Release Using Continuous Deployment took place on the second day, and I had the good fortune to deliver it with my colleague Jussi Kukkonen from Google. We planned on presenting content relevant to all conference attendees – security – and geared the tutorial to meet mid-level experience due to the intermediate level of the conference agenda and the likelihood that everyone had at least a year-plus participating in the open source community. Seventy people signed up to attend and because we learned beforehand the room assigned to us was equipped with a stage, we delivered the 90-minute workshop as a tutorial.

The outcome

Jussi and I introduced ourselves to the audience of more than 70, and I gave an overview of the content. We informed the audience that questions were welcomed throughout the session.

The tutorial got off without a hitch and went along nicely. I referenced the notes I prepared to keep me on track and, having practiced the tutorial with Jussi a few times, felt confident and poised. Most of the attendees seemed to follow the presentation. While I was grateful to have Jussi’s help in providing answers to the questions asked during the session, I was surprised by how many approached us at the conclusion! I interpreted their reluctance to speak up during the session as 1) most people in tech are introverts with very little experience speaking in public and 2) being on stage higher than the rest of the audience gave us the appearance of having more authority. Next time, I’d ask for a room without the stage to create a less intimidating environment.

Lessons learned

When leading a tutorial workshop, I’d suggest:

  1. Crafting the content into small, easy-to-follow steps
  2. Beta-testing your content with a colleague or friend
  3. Keeping a documented step-by-step breakdown of the content nearby (on the podium or in your hand) in the event you need to reestablish your direction and/or ascertain that you haven’t missed a step in the process
  4. Having a colleague on standby during the tutorial who can help address the audience’s questions in real time (and afterward, of course!)
  5. Making time for questions following the tutorial
  6. Letting everyone know before beginning the tutorial that a step-by-step breakdown will subsequently be made available online for their review (This will allay some of the fears of those attendees who are reluctant to ask questions.)

The brainstorming workshop

OpenFest is a free, two-day conference in October, founded by a group of open source and Linux enthusiasts in Sofia, Bulgaria to create a place where like-minded people could meet and share their expertise in the Sofia Tech Park. Although the conference doesn’t compare in scale to the Open Source Summit EU, it’s sponsored and hosted by many of the same prominent players in the open source community.

Participation in the workshop was limited to 25 people. I had revisited and practiced reciting my Open Source Summit EU material beforehand, bearing in mind that I’d be leading the tutorial by myself. When the time came, I sat comfortably at the same long table as the attendees – a setup designed to encourage the natural flow of questions and interactive discussion that occurred throughout the entire tutorial. So, how did the outcome in this case differ? The attendees dispersed quickly at the conclusion, having all their questions answered as the tutorial unfolded. But wait, there’s a caveat …

Facilitating the brainstorming workshop at OpenFest 2022.

Lessons learned

When leading a brainstorming workshop, you should be aware of a few things that could throw you off track:

A participant can interrupt you at any time.

Suggestion: A reminder that keeping notes of the workshop written down step by step will allow you to retrace your steps to keep you from losing your place or skipping a critical aspect.

A natural flow of questions and interactive discussions will cost you time.

Suggestion: Prepare for interruptions during your dry runs with the understanding that your brainstorming (informal) workshop will typically take much more time to complete than the tutorial where many questions are addressed at the end.

There will most likely be a question you don’t know the answer to.

Suggestion: Don’t panic. Take a second to think. If it turns out you don’t know the answer, admit it.

It’s likely something unexpected will happen. You’ll forget to start a service, run a command with the wrong arguments, etc.

Suggestion: Having your notes of the workshop is critical. If you have commands, configurations or something else to set up, referring to a cheat sheet is priceless in this scenario.

Which type of workshop will you lead?

These two experiences highlighted the pros and cons of using the tutorial and brainstorming methods. In summary, if you’re leading a workshop before a large audience, parsed into easy-to-follow steps, then the tutorial format is your best bet. If you envision leading a more complex workshop, however, and aim to make sure everyone in the room can follow you, then the brainstorming approach may better suit you.

Note the logistics at play

Depending on the conference, you may not be offered the ideal room. Ask before you submit! For instance, a conference organizer may not be able to secure 10 6-foot tables with power strips and extra-large WiFi pipes to accommodate your needs. You may get stuck with a lecture set up and classroom style seating that’s not optimal. In some cases, you won’t know the setup or the number of participants for your workshop at the submission deadline. However, when you are given latitude, determine the room setup based on the estimated number of attendees, the preferred seating arrangement and any equipment and accessories needed.

Leap at the opportunity

After two years of pandemic life, getting people in a room to focus on your project is an exciting prospect. Conferences are an excellent opportunity to share your projects and the work you’re doing and to get to know the community. And it so happens that first-time speakers are encouraged to submit talks to many conferences. So, what’s stopping you?

I hope these are useful tips for your first workshop. If you have something to share with the world, I encourage you to be brave and ready to learn along the way.

Stay tuned to the Open Source Blog and follow us on Twitter for more deep dives into the world of open source contributing.


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