The need for conferences

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 29, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Last week's OpenStack Summit was my first conference in three years. Living with a dying partner for ten years got me out of the habit of traveling, and I'm just starting now to become more adventurous, so when a conference landed in my own back yard, I was eager to attend. But I wasn't at the conference for half an hour before I found myself feeling at home. Simply roaming the halls was enough to make me feel at home.

True, the attendees were not quite my people. My friends and contacts are mostly developers of desktops and core applications, while most of the summit attendees were developing for the cloud.  But they were close enough cousins that they immediately seemed familiar.

In fact, while eating out on the patios of restaurants surrounding the convention centre, I made a game of distinguishing at a distance the conference attendees from the tourists passing by.

Men at the conference divide into two main categories: Those in suits (which tourists almost never wear), and those in jeans and either a T-shirt or plaid shirt of dull color. Those in jeans were often slightly tubby, unless Europeans or Asians, and all of them had a quiet, serious air very different from what you'd expect from a tourist. Confirming my guesses when they were close enough for me to see their lanyards, I found I could identify the men from the conference well over ninety percent of the time.

The women from the conference were harder to identify, partly because there were less of them. They tended to be younger than the tourists, who in May are usually retired. Half were dressed more casually than the female tourists, and half more formally. I identified them largely by the same mixture of seriousness and casualness that characterized the men, but, even so, my guesses were only accurate about two-thirds of the time.

But the point is, I knew these people, or at least people similar to them. I knew their humor, and could laugh with them at Ubuntu distributing their own lanyards as an "upgrade" to the Red Hat branded ones included with registration. I knew their community problems, too, and the solutions such as the Women of Open Stack and the Diversity Work Group.

Mostly, however, I recognized their talk. The Summit attendees might talk about open source rather than free software, and the technologies they discussed in such details might be ones that I had come to educate myself about, but knew them. Most of them had the air of people excited about the work they were doing, and a conviction that it was important. When I interviewed them, or talked to them in the halls or while waiting for a session to begin, I felt I could listen for hours. People who are committed to their work are almost always worth talking to, and the Summit attendees were no exception.

I may have started out three-quarters ignorant about OpenStack, but, thanks to their enthusiasm, by the second day, I knew the names of the major technologies and something about the challenges and predictions for OpenStack -- and was even infected with something of their enthusiasm, returning with a dozen or more OpenStack-related topics to write about. If I am slightly less ignorant than before the conference, the reason is due entirely to their commitment to their work.

Out of personal necessity, I had rationalized for years that attending conferences was unnecessary, that in these days of email and chat direct personal contact was not needed. That is true to an extent, and if you have to criticize someone, doing so is probably easier if you haven't had a drink with them (although that never stopped George Orwell).

Still, a face to face interview is more revealing than asking questions via email, or even a phone interview -- just as a code sprint can be more efficient than exchanging ideas over the Internet.

I admit that the Summit was marred for me by the appalling sight of someone evidently running away from my proximity, for reasons that I can't begin to understand. But that was the exception. I came away from the OpenStack summit with a sense of identification that I had partly lost while alone at my own keyboard.

Despite all that can be criticized and the blood feuds that sometimes breakout, overall, free and open source software is a community. Going to a conference may be a welcome break from work, or a chance to learn something new, but it is also an anthropological ritual that reaffirms your sense of belonging to the tribe, even when you are at odds with part of it.

Those who attend a dozen conferences a year may laugh at my enthusiasm, and take the sense of belonging for granted, but these things remain emphasizing all the same. I came away from the OpenStack with long lists of readings and of software to tinker with, but, mostly importantly, I came away with the determination to attend more conferences. My articles, I am convinced, will be the better for the effort.

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