Don’t Go to a Software Conference for the Technical Stuff

Prior to attending StrangeLoop, I did not have a well-defined idea of what I wanted to get out of a software conference, but I roughly thought software conferences were for learning the latest and greatest framework. I no longer think that.

In Matt Mitchell’s StrangeLoop Keynote, he describes his evolution from hacker/developer to public interest technologist. “I was building sandcastles that were literally going to be washed away the next day. And then Michael Brown died. That’s when I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when I thought, ‘I have to do something’. What good is all this knowledge and technology and this ability to do these things if I’m just going to be sitting at a standing desk all day?” Mitchell said, “You are gifted with technology and it is not just a way to get a paycheck.”

Mitchell describing his motivation during his keynote at StrangeLoop. Credit: Lorien Smyer

Mitchell’s keynote stood out from the tech-heavy programming at StrangeLoop because it was one of a handful of talks that involved no code. It was also the most helpful to me, as a software developer: I feel most fulfilled when I have outlets through which I can help others, and Mitchell provided a comprehensive roadmap for using my skills as a maker for social good.

Premature Optimization Is the Root of All Evil

There exists a temptation to think a software conference’s purpose is to learn cutting-edge technical stuff. After all, your company is paying your expenses to attend—don’t you want to learn how to make their apps faster, their users happier? Or if you’re footing the bill, don’t you want a return on investment, to add the most valuable new skills to your resume?

Talks that involved performance issues, like So You Wanna Go Fast, Measuring and Optimizing Tail Latency, and Stop Rate Limiting had packed houses. It’s fun and interesting to see smart people solve hard problems, but that’s not the only reason it was hard to find a seat for those talks. They also represent the developer dream: you discover a CS problem wrapped up in a business problem and through the mastery of your domain, you save the day.

I’m going to put forward a competing idea: exposure to new tech is not the best reason to go to a conference. It might not even be in the top 5.

If you aren’t going to a software conference for tech, what are you going for?

During his closing keynote, Adam Savage described a conversation he had with another maker. He was talking about his own imposter syndrome when the 45-year old veteran of their industry he was talking to stopped him and said, “Wait a minute, is that what I think it is? I thought only I had that.”

Savage then talked at length about how, even while collaborating with George Lucas to create the gorgeous backdrops for Star Wars movies, he came into work every day worried that he was going to get fired because he didn’t know what he was doing.

That leads me to reason #1: Go to a software conference to overcome impostor syndrome.

As Coraline Ada Ehmke was demonstrating Alice, the Slack bot that she wrote (which is open source, btw), she said something profound. “She’s a toy project, but toys empower us to play, and playing is essential to learning,” Ehmke said.

Mariko Kosaka began her talk by explaining how her trade is JavaScript development and her hobby is knitting. She found a delightful way for her two passions to intersect: by creating a compiler that generates ugly sweater patterns. She detailed how her iterative process of doing one simple, fun thing after another lead to the creation of Sweaterify.

In How to Play with Deep Space Data, Lisa Ballard tells the story of how she discovered an undocumented API that let her use real-time data from NASA’s deep space network to power her website,

These examples converge into reason #2: Go to a software conference to remember that making software is fun.

Byron Woodfork is a developer at 8th light, a software consultancy in Chicago. He is also a black man who grew up in the South Side of Chicago and dropped out of college. You should listen to him talk about 1) how he became a software developer through 8th Light’s apprenticeship program 2) the lessons he learned about mentor-mentee relationships with minorities. Byron’s talk is a perfect followup to my previous blog post A Moral Justification for Diversity In Tech.

That leads me to reason #3: Go to a software conference to meet and listen to people different from you.

And reason #4: Go to a software conference for cross-pollination of company culture.

But Tech Is Good, Too

I haven’t given much credit to the exchange of technical ideas that StrangeLoop facilitates, and how very valuable it is. I appreciate that StrangeLoop specifies in their About section that “Talks are in general code-heavy.” But I think we need to not misread that. There’s a lot of code in these talks, but code is not art; it is the medium.

As a developer, you might find a bona fide performance issue, the bespoke solution to which is critical to the success of your project, once every few years. You might need up-to-date knowledge to pick a project’s tech stack a couple of times a year. However, you’re going to sit next to your coworkers and shape your company’s culture and your industry every single day. So pick the talk on mentoring over the talk on tail latency.