A Farewell to In-Person Conferences? Anti-notes from DecisionCAMP-2020

This year almost all major conferences went virtual. Our 12th DecisionCAMP-2020 on June 29-July 1 in Oslo also went virtual and became a kind of success. No wonder: the registration count was 3-4 times larger than usual, people did not have to travel, the Zoom sessions ran rather smoothly and the use of Slack for QnA was very helpful. Along with interesting technical sessions, we even had a virtual cocktail-hour with BYOD. Sandy Kemsley did a great job as our moderator. All sessions were synchronously streamed live at DecisionCAMP’s YouTube channel and all recordings were made publicly available on this channel almost in no time. The majority of attendees liked to event. So, as many other conferences, we managed to convert a virtual necessity to actual success. But why do I, the chair of this successful conference, not feel satisfied?

Usually, after each DecisionCAMP, I wrote the notes from these events, e.g. see my notes from the previous 4 events:

Why, don’t I have much to write down from the Oslo event even after a few months have passed? Because it was not really in Oslo? Something more important bothers me. I’ve just read again a piece of my notes from last year’s in-person event in Bolzano. Here it is:

Human Networking

At events like DecisionCAMP, networking with colleagues is always one of the most valuable components. We had many formal and informal discussions that were important professionally but frequently went far beyond technological issues. It was Ritchie McGladdery from RapidGen who initiated discussions about the ethics during our QnA panels and who brought a human touch to many talks. Ritchie, David, Jan, Gediminas, Ulrich, Alan, Gary, Matteo, and many many others created the atmosphere when a highly technical discussion could be naturally transferred into a very personal story.

There were so many interesting people at DecisionCAMP! Attendees from 12 different countries, people of different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences found themselves talking about really important subjects over a coffee or a beer. I am always surprised how openly we sometimes share with almost strangers our personal life stories which we rarely share with our kids, family, or close friends.  Something good was in the air during the week of September 16 in beautiful Bolzano that made this event really memorable for many of us.

Early morning of Sep. 20 I was checking out of the Citta hotel and the concierge first greeted me in Italian, then switched to English, and noticing my accent asked about my background. In 5 minutes I learned that he perfectly speaks 10 languages and grew up in Moscow on the same street where I defended my dissertation in 1986. Thank you, Bolzano, for many memorable moments!

“Networking with colleagues”, “a human touch”, “beyond technological issues”, “something good in the air”, etc. Did we have them during our successful virtual event? Why do I remember many of them from the last 10 years, but almost nothing from two months ago? Despite all our efforts to “humanize” the event, we could probably name only a few. I suspect this is the real reason behind the dissatisfaction many of us feel after “successful” virtual events.

I can list a few other reasons. We lost the social events we always had during in-person events. Coffee breaks, lunches, and dinners are frequently more important than the presentations themselves. Being out of the everyday environment, in a foreign city, attending local social events, makes people more relaxed, opened up, and easier to connect with. The recordings are certainly a positive thing (you may watch them after the event) but they make both presenters and attendees feel constrained and force them not to say or shout out something spontaneously or state not always politically correct things. But such things are frequently are the most interesting ones. For instance, Gartner didn’t allow our keynote speaker Derek Miers to be recorded, and I have to admit that his presentation was much more human to compare with many more self-controlled presentations. Meeting colleagues face-to-face is invaluable. Even on a purely technical side, I miss brief discussions with colleagues-competitors: you could learn more from a 3-minutes live conversation than you’d ever learn from any formal presentation or a scientific paper.

Some people say that “Zoom is the Napster of the event industry“ and wonder if the for-profit conferences were going to make it through the current upheaval. Read Sandy Kemsley’s notes from 2020 conferences. I like Scott Francis’s comment: “Once we can safely meet again in person, I think people will remember how valuable those in-person connections are.”

DecisionCAMP is luckier than many other events as our camp always was a not-for-profit event. Preparing with our Declarative AI colleagues for the DecisionCAMP-2021, we are debating if it should be a virtual or a hybrid event. I suspect it will be virtual again in 2021, but I also hope DecisionCAMP-2022 will be again a live in-person event!

About jacobfeldman

CTO at www.openrules.com http://www.linkedin.com/in/jacobfeldmanopenrules
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