Published 7 July 2020

Meeting and Learning in a Virtual World, by Claire Ingram

I’m fascinated by the role played by professional communities when it comes to sharing knowledge and experience. I’m so interested, in fact, that I conducted the world’s first study of technology professionals and their use of local meetups (watch my presentation at the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) or read the report. I’ve found that local technology groups can be useful forums for sharing knowledge which is built up over years of experience, and that many experienced practitioners who attend such meetings value the ability to make friends with shared technical interests or to obtain support from their peers.

There is something fundamentally different about meeting someone face to face for continued professional development compared to learning remotely.  Meeting in person to have rich and detailed conversations with other experienced practitioners is particularly important for sharing lessons learned for some of the most challenging software engineering tasks, such as working effectively in teams or with end users. The contrast between face to face learning and remote learning has been thrown into sharp relief this year, now that meeting face to face has been impossible for much of 2020 so far. An unanticipated side-effect of lockdown is that many professional communities– local, national and international - are now experimenting with virtual meetings and events for sharing technical content and for networking,. That brings advantages and disadvantages for professionals who participate in such groups.

The positive side of this development is that it’s now easier to attend technical talks than it ever has been before. There’s no need to travel to a city centre location for a meeting, I can simply log in from my desk and listen to a presenter talking about latest technology developments or recommended best practice. For example, in April, Agile North East, a wonderfully friendly Meetup group in Newcastle that I’ve attended in person previously, linked up with Agile York, Agile Notts, and Newbury Agile, to deliver a great joint event that included networking with technology professionals from around the country as well as presentations. Typically I’d have found it difficult to access this content, if it had been necessary to travel to a meeting.

In May and June I’ve been attending a series of great online presentations arranged by the ExpertTalks meetup in Leeds. Leeds has a vibrant technology community and interesting range of professional groups, many of which I have attended in person before, although as this usually involves a bit of travelling for me it’s undeniably easier to get to a virtual talk.

Last month I attended the very first meeting of the brand new North East Ladies Hacking Society, a virtual launch event featuring interesting speakers from around the country, a fantastic turnout, enthusiastic leadership team and some great technical content. I’ve also been able to attend some great public lectures offered by the University of York – such as the series of guest speakers hosted by the York Management School.

The lower barrier to entry for remote talks rather than in-person talks makes it easier to share technical presentations. But on the flip side, it does make it harder to feel part of a community, dive into deeper discussions, or to form social links with new people, all of which are important element of professional communities.

It’s also important for conferences, which this year are also moving online. The shift to virtual events has undeniably made it much easier to attend a conference. Virtual events usually have lower registration fees and, of course, no need for travel. In an ideal world, this is an opportunity for us to ensure that conferences become more inclusive and international, with latest research findings potentially more widely available than ever before, as consequence of lowering the costs and time involved of participating in national and international events. There are obstacles, however. Trying to bring together international communities online does offer significant logistical challenges (see how the International Conference on Software Engineering, ICSE, has approached time zones for example) which means it’s genuinely difficult to “meet” people from distant parts of the world at a virtual event due to time differences (unless someone is prepared to be working overnight).

Furthermore, it is undeniably very difficult to replicate the casual, serendipitous corridor chats and social links that cement together the communities that surround local meetups and international conferences alike. These social links provide participants with important and supportive links. Different organisations and communities have tried different techniques to overcome the problem when moving networking events online. For example, the International Council for Systems Engineering (INCOSE), a global professional engineering association that I’ve been involved with for many years, has recently launched online discussion “cafes”, kind of informal book clubs for people interested in systems thinking to meet and chat. I’ve also attended some meetups organised by local Meetup groups which have exploited the “breakout rooms” feature of Zoom to facilitate networking, by allocating participants to spend time in small groups and giving them talking points or short relevant exercises to work on together. It’s not the same as diving into deeper conversation with a new contact and coming away with a promise to stay in touch, but it does allow easy access to meet and chat to some new people.

We’re all still new at this, of course, and much experimentation is going on to work out how virtual tools can be used to build communities out of groups of strangers with shared interests. Experiments undertaken by varied groups during lockdowns worldwide will hopefully help us learn how to integrate more accessible, supportive and connected professional communities post Covid-19 with the in-person social networks that we already rely on.