Of Concerts and Developer Conferences

I’ve long held the view that concerts are for fans.  By this I mean hard-core fans.  There’s no place in a concert for people who casually consume the artist’s music.  No, you need to know all songs by heart, even with different arrangements, the idiosyncrasies of the band when touring: the symbols, the antics…  You need to be deeply invested into a band or artist in order to make it be worthwhile the minor ordeal that attending a concert usually involves.

At least that’s my opinion.  And for somewhat similar reasons, I think similarly about developer conferences: generally speaking, they’re more of a hassle than they’re worth.  Read on to find out my argument before you think I’m just older and bitter than I should.

A (Very Shallow) Classification of Conferences

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to attend two types of professional conferences:

  • Product-specific developer conferences, similar to e.g. JavaOne, PyCon, BlackBerry Jam and the like
  • General trends or industry conferences, such as Gartner Application Development Summits, ICSE or OOPSLA

In the first type of conference, everything revolves around a given product (or product family) and getting as much knowledge about it as possible crammed onto a few days.  You get parallel tracks detailing specific techniques, exploiting particular features, charting the product’s road map, peppered with one or more keynotes about the more general context in which the tool is typically used, and also with practical tutorials, case studies, demos and the like.  I fondly recalled attending several conferences of this type for the InterSystems Caché multidimensional database/programming environment product back when I was a full-time Caché developer.

In the second type of conference, a more general trend or technology category is explored, typically in a platform-agnostic manner. The emphasis therefore is less on the practical aspects and minutiae, and more on introductory or conceptual elements of the domain being covered.  In terms of format, these conferences rely heavily on keynotes, case studies, panels and maybe time for more focused gatherings, such as “birds of a feather” meetings, thematic meals, focus groups or one-on-one with specialists or analysts.  I also have attended a couple of these conferences, notoriously Gartner symposiums.  They were good.

Needless to say, there are quite a bit of hybrid or entirely different conferences that don’t quite fit into these two types.  I’d also especially like to point out that within the second type of conference, some are indeed targeted at developers, while others (like the Gartner ones I attended) are not.  Among the developer conferences I feel fall into the second category, from what I’ve read (not having attended them myself) are QCon, GOTO Aarhus and quite a few more.

So What’s Wrong With Product-Specific Conferences?

Nothing, really.  But I feel about them the same way I feel about product-specific books.  If I am in dire need to get up to speed in a given technology (especially in the frame of time-sensitive projects where money is involved), then I’ll pony up for a product-specific book.  And I guess it is the same for conferences: if I were to go heads first into, say, BlackBerry 10 development, then yes, I’d probably want to pony up six hundred dollars for registration, about six hundred to one thousand dollars for a plane ticket, plus hotel, plus booking a week vacation at work, etc., just to get an intensive, immersive experience.  Well, OK, maybe BlackBerry is a bad example:  many developers got free invites this year to BB Live/Jam, and you also get an unlocked Z10 phone which costs about the same as the registration cost.

But you get the point: it is quite an effort, financially and otherwise.  My fear is that this knowledge, unless you are using it day in and day out, fades away pretty quickly.  It’s just its fate — it’s more or less what happened to my Professional Java 1.4 book, I don’t know, about one year after I bought it.  I know, I’m a notorious cheapskate; but it’s not that I don’t believe in the value of education, it’s just that I’d rather educate myself by other means.  I’d rather put fifty bucks in books towards design patterns, lean startup theory, uncommon business insights, or even higher-level programming language insight.  The low-level bits you get by reading online and by playing with tools, which you are supposed to do anyway to keep proficient in the face of updates — lest you plan on religiously attending that developer conference every year.

I have to say, of course, that the social aspect of any such gathering cannot be understated.  I’ve seen groups of fellows travel together to such conferences, and the experience alone is worth the ticket.  You also get to do interesting networking (maybe even land a new job), get to know industry luminaries, and generally enjoy a different and stimulating environment.  I like all of that.  I just think it’s more “fringe” or “wrapper” stuff.  Just like when buying a present: the wrapper matters, a lot, but the priority goes to finding the right present, after which getting the right wrapper is an important, but definitely secondary matter.

And that, really, is all I have to say about that.  Concerts are certainly not bad, and neither are product-specific developer conferences.  I just advice that you judiciously make use of your available time and money, because, as with everything else in life, there’s a lot of room here to waste precious focus on something that can be similarly obtained by less draining means.

Hat tip to my former student and current co-worker Robert Peralta for asking the question that prompted this post.

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