PRL Offsite 2019 Retrospective

:: offsite, by Ben Greenman, by Olek Gierczak

On November 11th 2019, the PRL had a private offsite meeting at the More Than Words bookstore in downtown Boston. For future offsite organizers, this post records what happened and how.

Early Planning, Goals

Every Fall, the PRL holds a kickoff meeting to assign roles for the coming academic year. This year, Prof. Amal Ahmed led the meeting and expressed interest in having a retreat at some point. Seconds later, Amal enlisted Olek Gierczak and Ben Greenman to help plan a retreat.

Ben G. was on the (unsuccessful) 2018 retreat planning committee. The three lessons from that year were: (1) Veterans Day is a possible date in the Fall, (2) there are approximately zero possible dates in the Spring and Summer, (3) the Warren Conference Center is Northeastern University’s only franchised off-campus venue.

The motivation for the retreat was to bring our growing department together for one day in the hope that everyone has (at least) a small interaction with everyone else. These little interactions are crucial for new Ph.D. students — both to get to know the group, and to become known. They’re also useful for everyone else to build a stronger community and to open doors for collaboration. And yet, despite the fact that these interactions are an admittedly key benefit of having a lab, the last time the PRL got all together in a big way (more than a few hours for PL seminar or Ph.D. open house) was for the Spring 2017 edition of HOPL.

Our primary goal this year was for every Ph.D student to present research. Time permitting, we wanted a keynote speaker, a panel discussion, and activities. Weather permitting, we wanted to go outside during lunch.

In light of the main goal, we prefer to call the event an “offsite” (or “offsite meeting”) rather than a “retreat” because the target was an informative day rather than a relaxing one.

Booking and Logistics

Our planning went like this: (1) pick a date, (2) find a venue, (3) invite a keynote speaker, (4) order food, and (5) arrange the technical program. The process took 2 months because that’s all we had.

Date = Nov 11

In the beginning, we chose Veterans’ Day (2019–11–11) and Northeastern reading day (2019–12–05) as possible dates. We ended up with Veterans’ Day.

A small number of lab members were opposed to Veterans’ Day. They gave two reasons: the Fall semester is especially busy, and Veterans’ Day is a federal holiday.

Venue = MTW

The first venue we tried was the Warren Conference Center in Framingham. The venue was difficult to contact. We submitted an online form; no response. We searched the website for contact email addresses; no luck. We called the office, got forwarded to the event manager, and left a message; no response. Lastly we asked the Khoury Events Team to reach out on our behalf. They returned with an email address and event menu (Thank you Chelsea and Donald!) and we decided the Warren Center was not a good fit for our small and short-notice offsite.

Second, we contacted the Northeastern University Alumni Center. They were not open on Veterans’ Day 2019.

Third, we turned to Google and Yelp for venue options in New England. Most were at a corporate-level price range, but this search led to our winner: More Than Words.

More Than Words (MTW) is a bookstore and event space. We got in touch via email, visited the store, and then booked. Easy!

More Than Words is also a nonprofit social enterprise that offers job training for ~350 young adults each year. If you visit, you’ll see a mix of “employees” and “volunteers” helping out.

Booking was complicated, though, by the fact that Northeastern requires liability insurance for all off-campus events. If you are booking an event, get a contract from the venue well ahead of time and allow 2 to 4 weeks for Northeastern to process and sign it. We received our contract with 1 week until the payment was due and were very fortunate that the Northeastern administrative staff met the deadline.

Here are more facts about MTW:

  • the theater space seats 30 with lots of extra space
  • the two long tables in the reading room can seat about 20
  • the projector is 16:9 native and accepts HDMI input; bring your own HDMI adaptor
  • there’s no whiteboard, but MTW can supply an easel stand
  • much of the furniture in store is antique and for sale, so be careful using it — both to avoid damaging it, and because antiques can be oddly-shaped
  • the bookstore was closed on Veterans’ Day, but we were able to have our event and buy books
  • MTW may have fridge space to temporarily hold leftovers
  • closest T station: Tufts Medical Center

Keynote = None

The original, ambitious plan was to invite two keynote speakers — one working in industry and one from academia — to enrich the offsite with new knowledge. And because this was the PRL’s first offsite, it was decided that these speakers must have roughly-equal research overlap with every Ph.D. student. (Later meetings could specialize.)

We failed to come up with many candidates that met our goal, and so we fell back to a simpler plan: pick one. To this end, we sent out a Google Form to assess preferences and research overlap. The form responses indicated a clear favorite, who we invited.

Our chosen speaker, however, was unable to attend. Rather than invite a different guest, we replaced the keynote time with a morning activity (more on that later).

Food, Coffee, Tea

Flour Bakery + Cafe provided lunch. For most days, you can order from Flour using an online form. For holidays, you may need to send an email — that’s what we did, and the catering staff quickly helped us place an order. We ordered 16 assorted meat sandwiches, 16 assorted veggie sandwiches, 4 vegan hummus sandwiches, and 2 vegan & gluten-free everything spiced salads.

Cuppacoffee provided coffee, tea, and breakfast items. In the morning, that was: 3 gallons coffee, 1 gallon brewed black tea, 16 bagels, 12 muffins, and 10 croissants. In the afternoon, that was: 2 gallons coffee and 1 gallon brewed green tea. We were able to pick up everything — the order + napkins, milk, cream cheese, butter, and knives — ourselves because Cuppacoffee is very close to MTW.

CMart sold us water and juices. (There is also a Whole Foods near MTW.)

At the end of the day, the leftovers included ~2 gallons of coffee and ~8 sweet potato sandwiches. People asked for more meat sandwiches, more blueberry muffins, and Flour’s sticky buns.

Event Program

The following assumptions/goals constrained the schedule for the day:

  • give all 17 on-campus Ph.D. students a talk slot; talks must either communicate one technical idea from recent work or say what led the speaker to apply to a PL Ph.D. program
  • allow at least 10 minutes per talk (because the audience may have trouble following a day of 5-minute talks, and the speakers may have trouble preparing informative 8-minute talks)
  • do not make the audience sit for more than 1 hour at a time
  • maximize the number and length of breaks (to encourage discussions)
  • include a relevant and fun welcome activity
  • save time for a panel discussion at the end, with everyone sitting around a room able to freely ask questions

We decided to start with an hour-long activity, split the day into hour-long blocks of three 15-minute talks (10 min. talk, 5 min. Q/A) and one 15-minute break, and end with a 1.5-hour panel discussion. In total, we started the activity at 9:25am and ended the panel at 6:40pm.

The activity was codewalks. Before the offsite, we (the organizers) picked a few short and interesting programs (for example, the IntegerDivider class from a silly FizzBuzz implementation and a solution to the Dutch national flag problem). During breakfast, we made 2-person teams and gave each team a printed copy of one program. Then, for the activity, we selected one team to present the code and three panelists from the audience to lead a discussion. Discussions ran for about 10 minutes, and then we picked another team; half the teams did not present. This activity ended up being fun (thanks to the great participants) and definitely met its serious goals; namely, to practice reading, speaking, critical thinking, and egoless programming.

The talks ran conference-style. One organizer played “session chair” to help each speaker set up and to announce each talk. Questions mid-talk were allowed, but most questions arrived after the speaker finished.

For the panel discussion, we put chairs around the room and asked people to sit more-or-less comfortably. The panel moderator started by asking one question to the faculty, and we took things from there as answers arrived and inspired new questions.

Looking Back at the Details

Reading Day in the Spring may be a good, free date for future retreats.

We planned a 15-minute breakfast/welcome slot, but wound up needing 25 minutes to give people time to prepare for the activity.

The planned 15-minute breaks often had to be cut short because talks ran longer. Next time, we’d keep the morning breaks short — just enough to use the restroom and grab a coffee — and aim for 30-min breaks in the afternoon.

Groups of three 15-minute talks worked well, but groups of four talks might be equally good.

Perhaps each speaker should get the chance to pick a talk length. NEPLS, for example, allows a choice between 5-min. and 30-min. talks.

The panel ended up too chaotic. People often had lots to say and it was difficult to queue questions during a speech. One idea for next time is to seat the professors together and give each a time limit to answer; this would organize the discussion, but may not improve the quality. Another idea is to pick “topics” beforehand and have the moderator enforce a time limit on each topic. Or maybe we should drop the panel unless we have a clear goal for what to discuss.

Looking Back, Overall

This was a good offsite. Organizing was mostly easy and straightforward. We very much enjoyed hearing what everyone had been working on.

There were two rough parts to the organizing. First, we faced some difficult initial choices about the date, venue, and program. Second, we feel that we put undue pressure on students to prepare talks with short notice. Both challenges could easily be avoided next time — keep the same date & program, and announce the plan early! Maybe though, a different program could lead to a more effective use of time.

With all that in mind, we recommend having a similar meeting next year or next semester. It was extremely useful to sync up with the whole lab, good practice to make a 10-minute talk, and overall a rewarding (though stressful) day.