In Pursuit of Quality Interactions

Recently my friend Jonathan had a birthday, and I sent him a short note with best wishes for the day and to let him know I was thinking about him.

In his reply he included the following paragraph:

[I] was reminded of your comment about a sparsely attended OUCE conference at Southampton one year. You said something along the lines of that it didn’t matter, that you would try to make it the best experience you could for everyone there. That stuck with me. It’s been one of my mantras ever since then.

I can remember talking about that, although I also remember I was very ill during most of that conference and spent a lot of time curled up in my room.

Putting on conferences can be a challenge. You don’t know how many people will show up, but you have to plan months in advance in order to secure a venue. Frequently we could use information about the previous conference to approximate the next one, but quite often there were a number of new variables that were hard to measure. In this case moving the conference from Germany, near Frankfurt, to Southampton in the UK resulted in a lot less people coming than we expected.

It is easy to get discouraged when this happens. I have given presentations in full rooms where people were standing in the back and around the edges, and I have given presentations to three people in a large, otherwise empty room. In both cases I do my best to be engaging and to meet the expectations of those people who were kind enough to give me their attention.

I think this is important to remember, especially in our open source communities. I don’t think it is easy to predict which particular people will become future leaders on first impressions, so investing a little of your attention in as many people as possible can reap large results. I can remember when I started in open source I’d sometimes get long e-mails from people touting how great they were, which was inevitably followed up with a long list of things I needed to do to make my project successful. Other times I’d get a rather timid e-mail from someone wanting to contribute, along with some well written documentation or a nice little patch or feature, and I valued those much more.

I can remember at another OUCE we ended up staying at a hotel outside of Fulda because another convention (I think involving public service vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances) was in town at the same time. There was a van that would pick us up and take us into town each morning, and on one day a man named Ian joined me for the ride. He was complaining about how his boss made him come to the conference and he was very unhappy about being there. I took that as a challenge and spent some extra time with him, and by the end of the event he had become one of the project’s biggest cheerleaders.

Or maybe it was just the J├Ągermeister.

In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the author Robert Persig demonstrates a correlation between “attention” and “quality”. In today’s world I often find it hard to focus my attention on any one thing at a time, and it is something I should improve. But I do manage to put a lot of attention into person-to-person interactions, and that has been very valuable over the years.

In any case I was touched that Jonathan remembered that from our conversation, and it helps to be reminded. It also motivated me to write this blog post (grin).