As a software developer, I am fortunate to live in the Twin Cities. I participate in monthly, after-work, software Jam Sessions and Practical Agility Sessions hosted by DevJam. These sessions are produced and deftly facilitated by David Hussman. Malcolm Gladwell, author of best-seller The Tipping Point, would identify David as both a Maven and a Connector.
To the uninitiated, imagine these sessions as book group gatherings for software producers and heads-down programmers, but without the herbal tea and cranberry scones.
The sessions are held in a cavernous subterranean space below an independent coffee shop. The subterranean walls are festooned with vintage rock posters and late 20th century kitsch. The garage band vibe is palpable.
We don’t actually produce software in these sessions. For participants, these sessions are pre- and post- production events (to carry the music metaphor). We talk about our gigs as programmers, software producers, and coaches. Discussions are lively.
We use David’s brand of Fight Club discussion format. I have never seen the movie Fight Club, but I understand it is about insomnia, aggression, and an underground fight club used as radical psychotherapy. I don’t know if that describes our Mötley Crüe, but I dig the kinship with a cult flick.
I’d guess that about 50 or so people show up. Many are regulars, but each session welcomes Fight Club newbies.
In this fight club, one or more participants tee up a discussion topic with a 5-10 minute lightning talk. After the lightning talk, we break to imbibe, socialize, and to write a few leading questions about the topic at hand on index cards.
Our questions will be fodder for the ensuing fight club.
The physical space is one key to the vibe. There’s a platform in the room raised a foot off the basement floor. All sorts of recycled library chairs, bistro seats, grungy sofas, and a bank of velour theater seats are distributed about the platform.
The platform is metaphor for both performance stage and fighting ring. The visual is basement-level darkness interrupted by colorful lights and strings of LED bulbs.
How It’s Done
Six stools are placed on the raised platform.
Five people begin by sitting on a stool, leaving one stool open. One person will read one of our questions off an index card. Discussion begins.
The audience may not speak to those holding court on the platform. If an audience member wishes to contribute to the discussion, he or she must jump up on the platform to perch on the open stool. Simultaneously, one of the five people must exit the platform. There are always five people discussing the question at hand. And, there’s always one chair at the ready for dissenting or consenting views.
People are experience rich and theory poor.
Each question is alloted about 10 minutes of discussion, then we vote yay or nay to continue the discussion, or move to another question.
Often I don’t know if I want to jump up to express an opinion, show off my understanding of something, or jump on stage to lay down some guitar licks on an imaginary Jimi Hendrix tune.
Our theater of discourse makes for interesting amateur sociology. Among other things,
- There’s No Limit. There’s no limit to how many times one can jump up on the platform to grab a stool to speak. So if you’re an irrepressible windbag, with no sense of communal fairness, it’s your shining moment in the spotlight to grate on those with measurable Social IQs.
- Who Steps Up? When something needs to be said, who steps up to say their piece? To defend or to shred? Who’s eloquent? Who’s milk toast? and
- Who Steps Down? When someone leaps to the platform, the audience is left to wonder who will step down. There’s no squatting-length rule. Sometimes a person has just grabbed a stool, and hasn’t had a chance make a peep (let alone opine), yet feels compelled to step down to allow room for an unheard voice.
We have some oddball characters, in the best sense, and several character types. I identify with several of the character types, and I borrow a few character descriptors from Malcolm Gladwell.
Do you recognize yourself in these?
- The Stoolies. Stool Monopolizers, or Stoolies for short, are of the genus homo wind bagus. They hog the stage stools to pontificate via verbal air-guitar. Stoolies are widely suspected of having soaring IQs, coupled with demonstrably low social IQs. It’s widely held that the consistent wind emanating from their pie-holes precisely offsets the collective suck of black holes in the universe.
- The Mavens. Mavens are the generous, unassuming people whom we all rely on to connect us to new information and helpful technology tips. Gladwell says mavens often spark word-of-mouth epidemics due to their capacity to enthusiastically communicate often complex concepts.
- The Salesmen. Gladwell identifies these persuader-types as charismatic folks with serious negotiation chops. These hucksters could convince Microsoft’s chief curmudgeon Steve Ballmer to learn Objective-C and code up Hello, World on a Mac Book.
- The Jesters. These are humble people with a sense of humor, and a sense of irony, who generally speak from anecdotal experience. I fancy myself a jester, but admit I might lack the requisite humbleness.
- The Minutiae Mongers. Minutiae mongers can’t avoid auguring into the abyss of marginally relevant detail. For these poor sots, it’s as if waves of staccato detail possess them like an involuntary tick.
- The Questioners. These are the peeps who, when questioned, tend to ask another question; another question either to spark discussion (positive) or to inadvertently deflect direct challenge (negative). I might be one of these, but if so, it would only be to mask an acute impostor-complex.
- The Meek. Occasionally the meek bound upward to seize a stool only to be overcome by stage-fright, then simultaneously overwhelmed with anxiety. In this pitiful state, the meek are incapable of expressing what might have been the most profound statement of the evening. Our loss.