Thursday, March 12, 2009

qCon Restores My Faith In Tech Conferences

I'm back at my cash money day gig after spending yesterday at qCon London, where I gave a presentation on RESTful approaches to financial data integration. Before I went, I have to say that I was a little down on the conference thing in general, having attended (and spoken at) way too many that were either just Vendor Drivel ("Got a problem? Buy my solution!") [1], or Preaching To The Converted ("Technology/Methodology X is great! Aren't we all so clever for noticing it?"). qCon has largely restored my faith that it's possible to put together an excellent technical conference that's relevant for the way we communicate about technical subjects today.

First of all, having individual tracks have their own coordinators helps with this quite a bit. In my case, the Architectures in Financial Services track was organized by Alexis Richardson and Cleve Gibbon, who did a fantastic job of putting together a quite varied collection of speakers, none of whom was a pure Vendor Shill. In fact, there was only one speaker who even had something to sell you at all, and he actually presented something that was quite interesting from a technology and business perspective, and could have been done with alternate vendor products as well, so it wasn't just a pure sales pitch. We had the CTO of a spread betting company, the head technologists of 3 of the AMQP implementations (RabbitMQ, OpenAMQ, and qPid/Red Hat MRG), some ranting geek, and the head of a statistical arbitrage hedge fund (who codes his own management interfaces in Curses).

Looking at the other tracks, they had a similar quality of curation. The conference had the inventors of Clojure, the Lift Web Framework, Erlang; practitioners/architects at brand-name companies galore; luminaries like Steve Vinoski, Tony Hoare [2], and Cameron Purdy. This concentration of insane brilliance with very few vendors giving thinly disguised pitches is one of the things that makes conferences relevant from a presentation-quality perspective.

My frustration and disassociation largely came from the rise of the internet programming community. Blogs, RSS readers, StackOverflow, Proggit, all of these disintermediated conference organizers from the programming public. Why have to get on a plane three times a year and watch the same old shills (of products and consulting services of course) bore the heck out of you for hours at a time just for the couple of nuggets of useful conversation that you couldn't get any other way? You can just follow the people you're interested in online and skip out all of that.

So how do I think qCon has become relevant? What is it doing well?

  • They understand presenters. Want to speak at JavaOne? Last time I tried, you have to have your slides completely ready months in advance. No last minute changes allowed. Given the velocity at which development is changing, that means that by the time of the show, everything you might want to talk about is irrelevant. At qCon, nobody asks for your slides in advance. Rather, they know that we're all doing last-minute revisions until 2 minutes before you go live. So they just walk up with a USB key while you're still onstage and grab them right there and then.
  • It's not single focused. While I think that there are places for single-focus conferences (whether on programming languages, methodologies, or specific technologies), it's hard. Getting people together requires at least a couple of days of content, and how much content can you put together on one single subject without it getting boring and repetitious (and thus Preaching to the Converted, as the only person who wants to hear 3 days worth of "Scrum/Perforce/Ruby Is Great" is someone who wants their worldview validated by others).
  • It has the right number of tracks.By having about 5 things going on, you always have a choice of something interesting to see, but you're not so spoiled for choice that you get frustrated that you can't go to half the things you find interesting.
  • They grab practitioners. This is extraordinary, because there are a lot of people that showed up to give presentations who aren't prolific bloggers or writers or speakers. You get to have their experience where they have maybe one or two things they can/want to talk about a year. That gives you remarkably deep access to senior technologists that you wouldn't otherwise get access to as part of the online development conversation (the guys who show up and present at every single conference you can't seem to get to shut up sometimes)
  • Free Beer. Seriously, while I expect that tonight there will be many people down t' pub, hosting a free beer night got lots of side conversations going fully lubricated by alcohol. While not a ton of technical content probably got disseminated, people made contacts and generally talked about what they're doing and why.

But it's also that the attitude of the audience, and the technologies around, have also changed. Laptops were open everywhere, and people were quite openly half listening to the talks and doing other things (presenters often working on their slides). Wifi sucked but was available, and people were blogging and emailing and twittering and looking stuff up online about the content of the speeches. That's a sea change.

One of the reasons I stopped liking attending conferences was that if there was a presentation that was boring me, I didn't have ability to do anything else. Leaving was rude, and by the time laptops became widely used, it was considered rude to not pay full attention to the speaker, no matter how rubbish he was. These days it's not (I've been to a number of recent meetings with tech companies where every single attendee has a laptop open on the table and is only half paying attention; this is now normal). That changes everything, because it means that the conference is part of that larger programming community on the internet. qCon isn't an experiential event, it's a nebulous event with a nexus around those people attending in person.

That's critical: there's still value in qCon for those who don't attend. Slides are online immediately; people blog about it during and after; interviews are performed and posted to web sites; presentations are filmed and trickled out over the course of the year; interesting points from most talks are tweeted out. You can still benefit from qCon even if you don't attend, but if you do, you're just a greater part of it, as you're at the core. And that's precisely how qCon to me seemed extremely relevant in the internet communication era.

So if you think conferences suck, go to a qCon one. I'm very glad I did, and only wish I had been able to stay for the whole thing.

[1]: Guilty! When I worked at M7, I was the designated thinly-disguised marketing shill at SDEast and BorCon.
[2]: Turing Award Winner in da hizzy! Also, best quote evar: "QuickSort was only the second algorithm I tried to write." Wow.

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