Monday, November 23, 2009

Pattern writing in Sofia

Continuing about patterns... At the beginning of the month I went out to Bulgaria to teach pattern writing to some academics and students at the University of Sofia. It was the first time I’d been to Bulgaria so I was interested to see the country which physically, historically and culturally sited between Europe and Russia.

We made the class very practical, no PowerPoint, in fact apart from a 5 minute video it was computer free. Yes we talked, yes we used flip charts but most of all it was practice, this was about writing after all. Only about an hour in and we had our participants putting pen to paper to write some patterns.

For this we used a video about milk packaging from TetraPak, there is an English version on You Tube, as it happens we used the short German version but it was the pictures not the words which were important. After watching this we did some brainstorming to identify what was happening in the video, i.e. what solutions were being used to solve which problems.

Initially we asked the participants to think about three things: the state before the solution, what the solution was and how things were different after the solution. Once the groups had grasped this we expended these into the traditional parts of a pattern: context, problem forces; solution and implementation; consequences and all the other bits (known uses, etc.)

During the writing myself and my co-presenters (EuroPLoP regulars Klaus Marquardt and Didi Schueltz) circulated between the groups to answer questions, provide advice and deliver a bit of shepherding.

And then we repeated the exercise with different subject material. We did some brainstorming to identify ideas which the participants would like to write patterns about, problems in their own domain. We repeated the writing process and finished the day with a writers workshop.

So in the space of one day we covered all the pattern basics. Although not in as much depth as maybe we could have. We carried on into a second day but only used half of the day. Next time I’ll be sure to use two whole days.

On the second day we covered the ideas behind shepherding, talked some more about pattern form, answered some questions and ran a second writers workshop, this time on an existing pattern by an experienced writer.

More than ever I left feeling that patterns are a generally applicable knowledge management technique. Not everything belongs as a pattern but the form is useful in many domains. And pattern thinking (or perhaps pattern analysis is a better term) is useful even when the thing you are writing (or just analyzing) is not a pattern.

And what did I learn? Well...
  • I really enjoyed teaching pattern writing and hope to do it again
  • Using a video to provide source material worked well
  • Not using slides worked well, it requires confidence but the result was better
  • You still need to give the attendees something to take away so having support material is necessary. Still, I’m always disappointed with slides which are little more than bullet points after the class. We did hand out some of my writing about patterns and patterns form, some patterns about patterns and some links to websites with more information and patterns.
  • Having co-presenters was good. This was an intensive class so it needed more than one person
  • You really need two days to do this properly
  • Having attendees experience what you do was far more valuable than just lecturing them
Next time I would like to include a pattern reading exercise too. Take a well written pattern and read it through as a group. I’m going to be delivering a software patterns course this week and I plan to try this exercise in miniature.