Here at DebConf10 the schedule is starting to get really packed of events, which is great! About a half of those events are BoFs (in the IETF sense), i.e. discussion sessions among people interested in specific topics. (Other conferences use "BoF" to refer to impromptu, non-scheduled, and spontaneous events, while at DebConf we have traditionally submitted, reviewed, and scheduled BoFs in advance.)

As most DebConf regulars, I've attended quite some BoFs in the past and I share with others the impression that the quality and usefulness for the project of BoFs varies substantially from BoF to BoF. That's why I'd like to share a BoF recipe, which comes from possibly the best organized BoF I've ever attended. As it happens with all good recipes (and with free software), I've took the liberty of customizing it a bit.


have a coordinator

A good BoF should have a coordinator, which is usually (but not necessarily) the person who proposed the BoF in the first place. The role of the coordinator encompasses at least 2 tasks: preparing the BoF in advance (read below) and moderating the discussion to ensure everybody get a chance to participate.

prepare in advance

A good BoF is more than just getting together, vaguely knowing the BoF topic, and ... discuss. Mind you, it might work very well that way too, but the chances of having a successful BoF are much higher if attendees arrive prepared.

That is quite simple to achieve. It just takes the BoF coordinator to prepare some working questions and/or detailed discussion topics, and advertise them as such. That way potential participants can make up their minds, recall experiences that they want to share, note down comments they want to bring into the discussion, etc. In my experience, the BoF time will then be used in a much more productive, exciting, and ultimately fun way.

Most BoFs can also benefit from a few introductory slides on the BoF topic, to ensure all participants start from a common ground. The last slide could contain a brief recap of the working questions, so that the audience have them handy.

don't be exclusive

Debian is not a company and Debian contributors are not employees, therefore we cannot expect all relevant people to attend a specific BoF, just if they had to. As usual, the risk of cutting off community members who cannot attend should be mitigated as much as possible. To that end, minutes are just great; after the BoF, minutes should be posted where appropriate, and possibly uploaded to Penta as event attachments.

... but taking minutes is just boring and not everyone is good at that (for instance, yours truly used to suck at taking minutes, even if I'm trying to get better ...). If you have a trusted participant which is good at taking minutes, great, go for it!

If you don't, use collaboration. During past DebConfs as well as at UDS this year, I've been shown a nice way of doing that. It takes a dedicated projector in the BoF room showing some real-time, collaborative editing facility (e.g. gobby). With such a setup, people usually just start taking minutes collaboratively, although explicitly inviting the audience to do that is a very good idea.

Ideally, the room should have two projectors, one for supporting slides, another for collaborative minutes taking. In case there is only one, as it is usually the case for DebConf, it's probably better to use it for minutes and switch to them as soon as supporting slides are over. for BoF minutes at DebConf10

For DebConf10, the DebConf team has setup a gobby (infinote) server at Just do the following in order to be ready for collaborative minutes taking:

    # apt-get install gobby-0.5
    $ gobby-0.5 -c

(Note: you shouldn't use the non versioned gobby package as it uses a different protocol and doesn't support undo, which is quite risky; see Debian bug #590753 for more background.)

As the naming convention for DebConf10 minutes, using document names that start with dc10- sounds sensible.

comments welcome!

So, what do you think of the above suggestions? Do you have further best practices to share on BoF organization at DebConf? Leave a comment or mail me. In the end it would be nice to author a proper "DebConf BoF HOWTO" document for further reference.

Thanks to Gregor for his feedback on early versions of this post.

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Comment by Tolimar Fri 30 Jul 2010 09:55:30 AM CEST