Conferences, Challenges and Inspiring Great Ideas

“The notion that ideas are worthy not merely because they 'solve our problems' — but because they challenge us with problems to which our lives are the truest answers.”

This is from an article by Umair Haque, a popular blogger for the Harvard Business Review. In it he discussed TED talks and how our relationship with them has had a negative effect on our relationship with thinking and seeking out great ideas. It got me thinking about conferences I’ve been to in the software community.

Mr. Haque talks about how the TED conference develops bite-sized solutions to solve big problems. The arguments and presentations in TED are meant to be fast, exciting and instantly gratifying:

But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein's great equation is not a "solution"; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick "application" in the "real world," but challenges us to reimagine what the "real world" is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable "solution."

A great idea, he proposes, is something that is less of a solution and more of a problem -- a challenge. Great ideas challenge us “to redefine the reality of our worlds...So Great Ideas aren’t just “solutions.” Indeed, many of the Greatest Ideas are problems.”. How many of the ideas at the last conference you went to challenged you with impossible problems -- problems that make you feel and think and worry because they are daunting but also vitally important?

Are the greatest ideas in software today ones that can be made simplified in a short talk? Are the greatest ideas easily consumable? Are the greatest ideas commonly spread? Ultimately there is a broken relationship between many of the conference talks and great ideas. We can broaden the vision of the future of software by discussing great challenges.

How do we deliver content in the same way to all the devices in the world? Do you trust the quality of your software with your life? How can we make developer interfaces more intuitive? What are the biggest risks to software development? The biggest trends for good or bad?

As software craftsmen, we tend to write very technical talks. Our craft is best taught through the examples of technology solutions. It is how we best disseminate new and interesting solutions. Sometimes they fall trap to a miniature version of the Hero’s Journey. A problem is exposed, discussed, then -- lo! -- a solution and conclusion! Where is the struggle? Where is the appeal to something higher that forces us to invest in? Conference talks imitate the pinnacle of thinking in our industry, but in reality we are unchallenged and barely progressed.

Many of the other talks feel skin-deep and faintly recycled. Like a TED talk, they try to inspire and mine a deeper vein in our emotions and ambitions, but ultimately most of them are thin ghosts of a broken role model.

Then what is an idea worth hearing? An idea worth spreading? What does a community look like that makes great ideas more visible? Mr. Haque presents a starting point for us:

That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.

What does a conference look like that promotes this? What problems do you have to provoke us, to challenge us in a way we haven’t seen before?

If you are creating a talk, think about asking a larger question. Great presentations inspire deep thinking. Try giving a talk about a problem rather than a solution. Focus on helping us discover and earn our own solutions. Inspire us to face a challenge, to climb the mountain and to face a plateau.

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