What We Learned From Running Open Spaces

Jeff Foster

Head of Product Engineering at Redgate



The fast-paced tech environment and product development focus create a culture in which little or no time is left for learning and development. A learning and development culture requires the free and open exchange of ideas between people from across the engineering domain. Despite having dedicated “10% time” to focus on learning and development, people still focused on individual learning and development, rather than using the skills around the department to learn and grow.

Actions taken

We introduced an open space session for engineering to share information around the division. An open space is a conference where the agenda is completely driven by the participants. This is a scary thing; what if no-one turns up? What if no-one suggests any topics?

Each open space starts with a blank timetable, with a number of meeting rooms each sliced into 45-minute chunks. We ask participants to define the agenda by inviting them to give a brief Tweet sized introduction on the topic they want to present/share and placing it in the timetable. This sounds chaotic but it’s worked!

Open spaces sessions are governed by four principles and one rule. The principles (it starts when it starts, it ends when it ends, whatever happens happens, whoever is here are the right people) help participants. For example, if I run a session on Erlang and only one other person turns up, I shouldn’t be disappointed! This is a great chance for both of us to learn Erlang in more detail. Similarly, if I’m running a session and it morphs into a different topic, that’s because that topic is more valuable for those in the room. These principles help lower the barrier to entry. encouraging people to share. The one rule (the law of two feet!) supports this, with a simple mantra - if you’re not going value from a session, leave!

Over time, we’ve had a huge number of topics shared. For example, when the K8S operator framework was launched we ran early sessions on this and from this generated new ideas around how we could harness that technology in the business. Topics haven’t just been technical; we’ve seen sessions on leadership, emotional intelligence and psychological safety. We’ve also had some fun sessions too, from understanding sorting algorithms using bells to human simulations of message buses.  

Keeping open spaces running hasn’t always been easy. Some open spaces have fewer sessions than others, but one lesson we’ve learned is that by regularly scheduling them you increase the likelihood of engineers engaging with it. It’s important to also remind engineers (through their line managers).

Lessons learned

  • Over the last few decades, a concerted effort has been made to create spaces and tools that will provide opportunities to share and hopefully generate innovation.
  • While open spaces received huge prominence in the tech world, they aren’t silver bullets and their magical appeal doesn’t work for each and every organization.
  • Whatever method or tool you opt for giving a platform for people in your organization to share and collaborate increases engagement, and most immediately productivity and innovation.

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Jeff Foster

Head of Product Engineering at Redgate

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