Why should you facilitate Code Retreat?

Less than a week ago was another Global Day of Code Retreat. Few thousand people in few hundred cities spend a whole day working on improving their skills. That part doesn’t seem strange anymore, devs are doing such things all the time.

But during after party one of the participants asked me why am I doing it? Why spend a lot of time and effort on something nobody pays you to do? Participants have obvious benefit – they get better developers, they learn. Some openly admit that they treat it as a free training. But what about organizers and facilitators?

That question caught me off guard. I just wanted to organize this Code Reatreat for a while, even since I moved to New Zealand. But why?

1. Teaching (or facilitating) is a great learning tool

Some people think that teacher or trainer or even random CR facilitator has to be an expert and surely knows more than people who are “just” attending the event. That might be true, but more often it is not.

There is a good reason why it is said that if you want to truely learn something you should teach it to somebody else. Facilitators learn a lot during the day. Maybe sometimes even more than participants, because they have more time to observe and analyze approaches of multiple pairs. They see various approaches, compare them, think about them, try to come up with good questions.

We know there is more than one good way to solve a problem, but unless we have a big group of people working on the same task, we don’t realize how different ideas people have. Then we can discuss and compare multiple solutions, see their strenghts and weaknesses. This does not happen often at work, because we don’t give the same tasks to multiple groups.

Being a good facilitator is not easy, you have to practice asking smart questions – those kind of questions that guide, but don’t give away the answer. Also by trying to help people you have to organize your knowledge better. You are deepening your understanding of familiar concepts. You see them in a completely new contexts. You have to explain the same thing over and over, in various ways and by doing so, you discover what really matters, you get to the essence. In short – you deepen and distill your knowledge.

Apart from technical aspects, facilitators also have to learn basics of teaching, such as “crowd control” (make sure one person does not dominate the whole retro, try to encourage shy attendants to speak up), clearly explaining new concepts (might seem trivial unless you actually give it a try), providing encouragement, helping to get “unstuck” when somebody just sits there and stares at the screen, finding the middle ground between people “just doing it” and giving the answers away (also called proper guidance).

2. Moving the industry forward

Contrary to what is told, still too many developers seem to finish their education when they leave university. Some need to keep up to date with newest frameworks and buzzwords, but it still amazes me how many people in our industry never encoutered the basics such as proper testing or working in pairs. This is something we are not taught at the uni and not all companies pracitce it.

At every CR there are some people who never wrote tests or don’t feel comfortable with them (yet). It is really amazing that after just 5-6 sessions they say that it was easier than they expected. They discover the benefit of having more confidence in the implementation and are keen to introduce those concepts at work (or just practice it more diligently).

For some this is the first opportunity to try pair programming. Those people are very excited about the collaborative approach, they feel inspired by seeing in how many ways the same problem might be approached by different people, they discover that when they cooperate, the end result is way better.

Many participants commit to promote those two practices at their workplaces.

3. Bringing companies and communities together

In some cities companies are not eager to cooperate. Sometimes they say that if we work with X, they do not want to have anything to do with us. On the other hand, there are some companies that never got involved in community events, but if you ask them they are very keen to participate. Maybe nobody ever asked them, maybe they simply never thought about it. In such a case that might be the way to get them more involved in other activities as well.

For example one of our current sponsors insisted on booking few spots for people from their company. Now they are very keen to organize similar events. Since a few of their employees attended, they are in a very good position to make it happen.

The other thing I really like about Code Retreats is that they are technology agnostic. You meet people using C#, Java, Ruby, Clojure, Python, Haskell, JavaScript… Sometimes that means you just have a quick exposure to different paradigms and make a few interesting observations, but sometimes it inspires you to learn a completely new thing or become a member of another community group. It definitely broadens your horizons.

4. Spreading hunger

A while ago Steven Jobs gave a really great graduation speech. In it he encouraged people to “stay hungry, stay foolish”. I think this is a great state to live in. Always on the lookout to learn a few new things, to get better, to make world a better place. People do not always are lucky enough to be in a job where they have great role models, but they are very likely to meet fantastic people at event like CR.

Sometimes attending such an event opens up a completely new world for somebody. It turns out to be a first step in a very long journey towards mastery. It might be this tiny event that “awakes a hidden software craftsman within”.

Some time ago somebody inspired me and helped me to make that step. I never looked back. Now I want to give it back and share this experience with as many people as possible. I believe organizing CRs is one of the ways to make it happen.

P.S. If you’re thinking about organizing or facilitating the CR, but don’t know where to start, feel free to ask in comments or on Twitter. I’d be more than happy to help!

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