I was privileged this past weekend to attend the SoCraTes (Software Craftsmanship and Testing) 2014 conference in Soltau, Germany. I've heard about this Software Craftsmanship community-driven gathering for several years, and I finally decided to make the trip this year after Markus Gärtner reached out to me and suggested I attend. I originally met Markus via the Software Craftsmanship mailing list, and was thrilled to finally meet him in person.
SoCraTes is a so-called unconference. There are no keynote speakers and no planned workshops. The participants show up each morning and plan the sessions on the fly. Some are experts in a topic, so they offer to share their knowledge with others. Some have a topic they want to know more about, so they throw it up on the board, hoping other interested people will come and they will all learn from each other.
While chaotic at first glance, this format breaks the consumer mentality that drives many conferences. There are no talking heads, no featured participants. Each one comes expecting to contribute and to learn. While the content is certainly less polished, the learning that takes place is far greater.
I think there is something really special going on in Germany. The community I experienced this weekend is unlike anything else I've found in the world of software conferences and communities. In Chicago, you might decide to go to a meet-up after an interesting speaker or topic is announced. You might press the "join" button on meet-up.com, but most participants of user groups are passive consumers. The people I met this weekend were members of a community. They committed to the groups and actively participated.
SoCraTes is really a gathering of the small Software Craftsmanship groups sprinkled throughout the country. From these regional groups, I met person after person working hard to build communities inside their cities and companies.
As an example, the organizers obtained a handful of books from sponsors. At a U.S. conference, we would raffle off these books and the lucky victor would take the book home and add it to their collection. At SoCraTes, even these book giveaways became a means of building community. Each book was registered on a book-sharing website. Once the winner finished a book, they were to send it on to the next person who had registered interest in it. These books belonged not to any one individual, but to the community as a whole.
I saw another great example of the strength of the Softwerkskammer community in a miscommunication with the hosting hotel. There was a bit of confusion as to when the fridges full of beverages in the conference room were included in the daily price and when they were not. The first couple of nights, dozens of people (including me) innocently grabbed beverages from the inviting coolers. The hotel got a bit upset, and demanded that the mis-allocated beverages be paid for. SoCraTes is community-run, so there is no company with deep pockets to cover an oversight like this. Instead, one day at lunch, the organizers passed a hat and collected more than enough money to cover the costs and then some in a matter of minutes. I heard not a single complaint. When I signed up for SoCraTes 2014, I thought that I would be taking a trip to Germany to tell a bunch of developers about the Software Craftsmanship movement that we started in the United States. Instead, I found a community on the frontier of an independent movement that has far outpaced other parts of the world. I found a group of very dedicated practitioners, each committed to their own humble pursuits of mastery.
I thank that community for inviting me to join along for the weekend. I took away dozens of new ideas, like Mob Programming, and handful of new vim commands (<leader>gq has changed forever how I author blogs). But what I will carry with me most is the strength and intentionality of the "Community of Professionals" in Germany, which should serve as a model for Software Craftsmen throughout the world.