LinuxTag 2014, the writer takes on a developer conference

Written on May 26, 2014

As promised, more blog posts are coming. This time, less than 2 months after the conference, I give you a recap of my adventures at LinuxTag in Berlin (May 8-10, 2014). Warning: It ain’t as pretty as the previous one. My opinions are my own and if I quote anyone it’s by agreement and their opinion are their own too. Play nice!

Another conference already?

After the initial euphoria subsided from Write the Docs EU in Budapest, I decided that my agile docs talk should be given a chance to be heard in a broader setting, and when I found out that LinuxTag had an agile track, I figured it’ll be a softer landing into the world of developer conferences.

When I submitted the abstract for the conference it was fairly late in the game, so I was pleasantly surprised that when accepted me. I guess there’s always room for one more talk! Unlike WTD EU, the folks at LinuxTag required me to upload my slides in advance, which was a great motivator to sit down and get ‘er done!

I was even approached by the organizers to be featured in the “look at how many internationals we have!” section, which was basically a fun little informal interview. Why not? No such thing as bad publicity, especially when your talk is so… niche.

I was excited to participate in a long-running conference (it’s been around since 1996 in various formats but mostly under the same theme and management), and was curious to see how “.com meets .org”, as their motto states.

LinuxTag meets re:publica meets droidcon… 

When I arrived to the registration area I found the answer to my “why the hell were all the hotels in Kreuzberg fully booked all week” question… Apparently, that week was dubbed Berlin Web Week, and the conference center that hosted LinuxTag also played home to re:publica and droidcon.

Cool! More geek conferences to explore, I thought. I knew nothing about the other two conferences (other than droidcon was an Android-focused event, duh.), but I quickly noticed that their participants differed from ours by more than just the color of their badges.

Upon entering the venue I was greeted by hoards of not only geeks, but hipsters, activists, and generally colorful and interesting human beings. As I suspected, most of the hipsters belonged to re:publica, which turned out to be a “former blogger meetup but now a festival about freedom and politics and stuff” event.

They also had most of the female attendees that were roaming around the venue, but I guess with speakers like Jacob Appelbaum and other buzz-worthy characters, the attraction to such an event is quite understandable.

Unfortunately, it presented a harsh mirror to LinuxTag, as if to say here, this is where the world is going, where are you? Of the three conferences, LinuxTag probably had the smallest attendance, and my initial impression that this is going to be an exciting, diverse event took a dive when I came back the following day.

… and that ended well.

A quick inspection of the premises revealed that most of the people I saw there on the previous day were gone (apparently the first day of LinuxTag and droidcon was the last day of re:publica), and out of those who stayed, less than half were LinuxTaggers.

A few folks that I’ve been chatting with during the conference confirmed my hunch, and the general opinion was that Linux-focused events are dying because, well.. Linux isn’t exciting anymore on its own. The technology is well-established and doesn’t need to fight for its place in the world as much as it used to.

Paul Adams from KDAB, who also attended that weekend (and who’d been a long-time LinuxTag attendee), wrote a blog post about it that summed it up pretty accurately. 

But I digress.

Day 1 - talk the talk

The first day held some interesting talks, and naturally I went to the ones closer to my heart, or the agile track. One of my favorite talks was Getting to the core: three lessons from our Agile journey, by Gerrit Lutter (sipgate).

I do love self-reflective analyses, they indicate a level of honesty and maturity that many folks and companies still lack. The ability to look back at your past and analyze it objectively is an invaluable resource for a better future. And it’s one of the main agile principles. Accomplished.

Another interesting talk was Practical Kanban, by Georg Schönberger (Thomas-Krenn.AG), which described the implementation of Kanban at his workplace. Even though I didn’t agree with everything he said (it’s *so* easy to confuse Kanban development with Kanban board), the philosophy behind the migration was true to the spirit of agile developement.

I particularly LOLd when he showed a pie chart that illustrated how much time we spend on being productive (hint: not much) versus how much time we spend on things that we *think* will make us more productive (hint: most of the time).

Day 2 - the one that got away

The second day wasn’t very relevant to my interests, with the usual kernel talks (including a few that I already heard at DevConf.cz) and hands-on workshops, but I found out that the Community Leadership Summit was holding a mini-conference in the evening to test the potential for a European conference in the future, so I had something to look forward to.

I heard that the US summit was great craic and extremely important, the place where the top community leaders meet to shape the future of the open source ecosystem. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently lots. When I turned up for the first talk, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the ten or so people in the room weren’t exactly the best combination of attendees for a mini-conference. Not the sweeping enthusiasm that I braced for. The speakers probably sensed this, and what was supposed to be a healthy discussion about conflict handling within a community turned into what I can only describe as a bitch-fest.

I know it sounds harsh, but for a newcomer to this world, especially someone like me who is interested to learn about the workings of communities, watching community leaders go off on personal rants about the never-ending he-said-she-said was uninspiring, to say the least.

The topic is, of course, important and very relevant to all communities, otherwise I wouldn’t have turned up in the first place. But I was hoping that the folks who lead these communities would steer the discussion towards finding solutions, not restating problems. Such a shame, I hope that if they bring the actual summit to Europe its spirit will be closer to its parent conference.

Day 3 - .com meets .org

The third day was dedicated to “doing the rounds” of booths and people, and I got to see the .com side as well as the .org. I was never at a .com conference before, but it was pretty clear where the corporate suits ended and where the open source geeks began.

One thing I did notice that made me a little sad was that the corporate booths were mostly grouped on the ground floor, closer to the entrance (and therefore closer to the other conferences that shared the space), and the community booths were upstairs in an area that, although near the main stage, wasn’t at the “front shop window” and therefore felt a little like being shoved in the attic.

I realize that the corporate booths help to pay the bills, but this is probably just another nail in the Linux-centered conference coffin for community folks, who walk in to the conference venue to be greeted not with their comrades from open source projects, but with the companies who are consuming the projects and feeding it downstream.

This is not to say that those companies are evil (I happily work for one of them, remember?), but not all open source corporations are created equal, and not all of them collaborate with the communities in the same manner. This symbiotic relationship is a fragile creature that should be handled with care…

Agile docs strike again!

Right, enough ranting. My talk was scheduled at the end of the first day, which was a perfect combination between getting-it-out-of-the-way-quickly and oh-lawd-it’s-too-early. Unlike the first time I gave this talk, this time I didn’t have a fancy clicker or a head mic, which made me feel a little caged behind a podium. I guess I was spoiled in the first conference and now I’ve learned my lesson (still looking for clicker recommendations!).

On the bright side, working on the slides in advance, I had a chance to refine and restructure the talk. This extra effort proved itself invaluable, as I actually managed to get all of the information that I wanted in less time than the first time (30 minutes versus 40 minutes!).

I’ve also heard from several veteran presenters that they try to make sure that they take their talks “on tour” at least 2-3 times so that they can not only improve the delivery of the message, but also carry the message to different types of audiences. Solid advice! My performance background taught me that there’s no substitute for stage time, and I guess that principle applies to tech talks as well.

I was also concerned at the potential attendance (or lack thereof), due to the nature and placement of the talk, but I was relieved and happy to see the room almost full (~40 people), and only 2 writers (of course I had to ask how many writers were in the audience).

Once again, I was greeted with a friendly and receptive audience, who kept the smartass heckling to a minimum but asked solid questions, and shaking-of-hands and exchanging-of-cards ensued afterwards, which is always pleasant.

Shameless plug time: If you want to take a look at the slides from this rendition of the talk, they’re up on speakerdeck.com (it’s a nifty solution to the “have your slides and share them too” problem), and the crafty folks at VoiceRepublic managed to stream all the talks and post the audio recordings on their website, if anyone has 30 minutes they really don’t know what to do with…

So was it worth it?

You bet. I know I ranted a lot in this post, but I enjoyed my time there and I felt that it was an important conference for me to attend, perhaps even more so because I got to see the shifting trends of the tech world with my own eyes, instead of just reading about them on the blogsphere.

The attendees were diverse, and the community booths were vibrant enough that it still felt like a community event, albeit smaller than one would hope. When I wasn’t giving a talk, attending a talk, or doing the rounds, I got to nest in the Fedora booth with my colleagues and friends, so even though I traveled to Berlin by myself, I had plenty of clever and friendly company.

So even though LinuxTag wasn’t all butterflies and unicorns like Write the Docs EU (or a mega-uber-geek-festival-from-space like FOSDEM… apparently I’ve been spoiled with my first few conferences), it was a fascinating glance into the “real world” problems that arise when the hot-new-tech becomes a commodity, and a motivator for me to dive even deeper into the community waters and see how they will handle this evolutionary process.

As for me, I think I’ll keep exploring difference audiences for my docs-are-awesome message, and I was already inspired by this conference to start building a few (hopefully) interesting new talks that might be relevant to the tech world’s interests.

I have a feeling that universal themes, decoupled from the technology, have better appeal in today’s climate of cross-platform, cross-technology, cross-discipline geeksphere. And they definitely cause fewer flame-wars.