In the last 20 years, I have attended a lot of workshops.
Many of those focused on web technologies and skills and they’ve included sessions led by people like Vitaly (in 2015), Andrew Clarke (several times), Elliot Jay Stocks, Ethan Marcotte & Karen McGrane, Mark Boulton, Jared Spool & Dana Chisnell, and at least a dozen more.
I’ve also done a lot of other workshops focused on tangentially related subjects including business planning, book-keeping, freelancing, writing, specific software, editing, speaking, home networks and PC maintenance. Each of those has been a real boon to my work and my business, and their lessons have stayed with me, all from a day or a half-day each.
I’ve written previously that workshops are one of the three main arms of my ongoing professional development, the other two being books and conferences. Since then, it’s fair to say that video has increased its role in my ongoing self-directed training, especially in series covering topics like new developments in CSS.
What those four options have in common is easy, direct and relatively inexpensive access to the thoughts, skills and experience of people who do what I do but are a lot better at it, in one way or another.
With books and video, of course, you don’t get direct contact. Even in conferences, your contact with the expert is likely to be limited to a quick question at afternoon tea or in the pub later.
Workshops are different.
You’re in a room about the size of a classroom with 20 or so other people. The workshop leader usually doesn’t need amplification and can, if they wish, walk among you. They will typically use visual aids and may have physical props. They are, largely, accessible to you, and you can interact with them.
In my experience, there are three distinct types of workshop, and the differences relate primarily to the level of interactivity with the workshop leader, and how much (or how little) the participants are expected (or allowed) to do.
The first kind isn’t really a workshop at all, despite what it says in the advertising material. There’s no interactivity with the participants, except for maybe a question-and-answer session at the end. The workshop leader basically give attendees a series of lectures, about one hour in length, with breaks in between. You’ll get two lectures in a half-day workshop and four in a full day.
Let me be clear – sometimes, this is the perfect format. It’s a bit like watching a live action video, but sometimes that’s just what you want. The workshop on book-keeping I went to was like that, and it worked. Mr Parker used PowerPoint slides to illustrate his talks and we received a printed “manual” at the end. Two sessions of one hour plus 10 minutes Q&A for each session was a morning very well spent.
The second kind of workshop is more like a group seminar. These tend to be full-day workshops where the leader is perhaps not completely confident they have a full day’s worth of material, so they’ve built in an element of “But enough about me – what’s your story?”
The workshop leader makes it clear at the start that they can be interrupted at any time with questions, the more questions the better. They also insist that they are not experts, just working practitioners like you who hope to learn as much from you as you learn from them.
There is a loose structure of sessions and breaks, but we don’t have to be too strict about that, let’s see how it goes.
The leaders know their stuff incredibly well, of course, and they show you lots of examples of their work and others’, and they take you through how they came to know what they know, and what they do with it, and what you can do with that knowledge.
The workshop leaders do their best to involve every participant – verbally – during the course of the day.
They tend to leave you not with any physical takeaways but a lot of links. You will have been advised that laptops are welcome at the workshop but not compulsory. The most use your device will actually get will be pointing your browser to a suggested useful resource.
Again, let me emphasise that I do not object to this approach. I have had some lovely, friendly and genuinely productive days that follow this format.
My third kind of workshop is what I would call a workshop.
In this kind, the room has desks or table space of some kind for participants, with access to a sufficient number of convenient electrical outlets. Laptops are mandatory and suggestions may be offered as to preferred browser or other software.
The workshop leader has supplied pencils, paper, post-it notes, highlighters – not just props, but tools for the participants. Tools at a workshop – who’d have thought?
The screen that displays the workshop leader’s laptop is high enough, large enough and crisp enough that it is both visible and legible. The equipment works. The wifi works. The air conditioning works.
The workshop leader explains the structure of the day, that the breaks will be quite short and the sessions long, “because we have a lot to get through”, and adds that it’s possible we might run over time.
Each session features the workshop leader explaining some aspect of their topic and then involving the workshop participants in an activity that illustrates or highlights the point. If it’s a piece of code, you have to write the code and render it in your browser for that satisfying “aha” moment.
You might be asked to show the result of your activity to your neighbour – no hiding, here. You might be asked to form into a group with your nearest neighbours and come up with a way of doing something. Tip: the quiet one will be the one that cracks it.
The workshop leader might ask a general question and when you offer your answer they say come up here and show me what you mean and you have to use their laptop so it goes on the big screen.
And the leader says, “I’ll have to think about that. Thank you.”
And the workshop leader might say, “I need three volunteers – you, you and you. Saves time that way.” And you all laugh, and the workshop leader says, “Oh, you’ll all be up here before the day is out”.
And you are.
The day is long and yet passes by in a flash.
You reach the scheduled finish time, and no-one leaves.
You reach half an hour past the scheduled finish time, and one person really does have to leave, they really don’t want to, and they’re sorry.
An hour past the scheduled finish time, the workshop leader says we need to wrap it up. And you’re disappointed.
That is a workshop.
I can hardly wait for this next one.