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what is a BOF?

BOF stands for Birds Of a Feather, it’s an informal session run at a conference usually without any formal approval by the people who run the conference.

Often conferences have a white-board, wiki, or other place where conference delegates can leave notes for any reason. It is used for many purposes including arranging BOFs. To arrange a BOF you will usually write the title for the BOF and the name of the convenor (usually yourself if it’s your idea) and leave a space for interested people to sign their names. Even though there is usually no formal involvement of the conference organizers they will generally reserve some time for BOFs. Depending on the expected interest they will usually offer one or two slots of either 45 minutes or one hour. They will also often assist in allocating BOFs to rooms. But none of this is needed. All that you need to do is find a notice-board, state your intention to have a BOF at a time when not much else is happening and play it by ear!

My observation is that about half the ideas for BOFs actually happen, the rest don’t get enough interest. This is OK, one of the reasons for a BOF is to have a discussion about an area of technology that has an unknown level of interest. If no-one is interested then you offer the same thing the next year. If only a few people are interested then you discuss it over dinner. But sometimes you get 30+ people, you never know what to expect as many people don’t sign up – or have their first choice canceled and attend the next on the list!

To run a BOF you firstly need some level of expert knowledge in the field. I believe that the best plan is for a BOF to be a panel discussion where you have a significant portion of the people in the audience (between 5 and 15 people) speaking their opinions on the topic and the convener moderating the discussion. If things work in an ideal manner then the convener will merely be one member of the panel. However it’s generally expected that the person running the BOF can give an improvised lecture on the topic in case things don’t happen in an ideal manner. It’s also expected that the convener will have an agenda for a discussion drawn up so that if the panel method occurs they can ask a series of questions for members of the BOF to answer. My experience is that 8 simple questions will cover most of an hour.

One requirement for convening a BOF is that you be confident in speaking to an audience of unknown size, knowledge, and temperament. Although I haven’t seen it done it would be possible to have two people acting as joint conveners of a BOF. One person with the confidence to handle the audience and manage the agenda and another with the technical skills needed to speak authoritatively on the topic.

Some of the BOFs I have attended have had casual discussions, some have had heated arguments, and some ended up as lectures with the convener just talking about the topic. Each of these outcomes can work in terms of entertaining and educating the delegates.

But don’t feel afraid, one of the advantages of a BOF is that it’s a very casual affair, not only because of the nature of the event but also because it usually happens at the end of a long conference day. People will want to relax not have a high-intensity lecture. One problem that you can have when giving a formal lecture to an audience is nervous problems such as hyper-ventilating. This has happened to me before and it was really difficult to recover while continuing the lecture. If that happens during a BOF then you can just throw a question to the audience such as “could everyone in the room please give their opinion on X“, that will give you time for your nerves to recover while also allowing the audience to get to know each other a bit – it’s probably best to have at least one such question on your agenda in case it’s needed.

Note that the above is my personal opinion based on my own experience. I’m sure that lots of other people will disagree with me and write blog posts saying so. ;)

The facts which I expect no-one to dispute are:

  • BOFs are informal
  • Anyone can run one
  • You need an agenda
  • You need some level of expert knowledge of the topic

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