Alex Hughes

@alexjackhughes

What Software Engineers Want: Event Edition

That’s me with the man, the myth, the legend — Brendan Eich

Listen, I’ve awkwardly embraced Brendan Eich, I’ve cheered Werner Vogels talking about AI, I was with Douglas Crockford when he announced Neo.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s conferences for software engineers.

But here’s the thing — for whatever reason, developer conferences are bad.

Like, really bad.

And it’s not because of the speakers. The speakers are always great. It’s the event that’s bad.

I don’t want to name and shame, but I recently went to a high-ticket conference with some of the biggest names in software engineering — where the entire focus of the event team seemed to be on getting people to take a selfie with an inflatable shark. You know, rather than the coding bit.

So, rather than just shake my fist at a cold, unforgiving universe, I thought it might be a bit more productive to have a think about the Perfect Conference™ for developers. Feel free to steal these tips for your next networking/conference/gathering/cult get-together.

Provide Good Coffee (And Free)

This is a no-brainer; coffee addiction is real, I’m addicted to coffee, please give me coffee. No, I do not want herbal tea, I spend eight hours a day designing complex algorithms inside my brain.

See, the thing is folks — when you restrict my coffee supply with massive queues, exorbitant prices, or terrible coffee, I don’t say anything because I’m British. But I am silently seething with rage, like that boiling kettle you are using to pour my overpriced latte. And I’ll be so low on caffeine that I’ll probably skip that last speaker.

And that’s on you.

Give Regular Breaks

Here’s the thing, learning is kind of exhausting. When you go to a good speaker, afterwards, your mind kind of needs to un-melt before the next one.

Plus, when was the last time you went to a conference and your website/app/API didn’t spectacularly and immediately explode? It’s literally never happened.

You see, everyone who is at that conference has a job that hasn’t just pressed pause whilst we attend your conference. There are emails to answer, bugs to fix, Product Managers to ignore. Rather than have a load of little breaks, why not just have a 30min break every two hours so we can get some work done?

Designated Coding and Talking Places

So, this is really two points rolled right up into one.

Let me reveal a shocking secret to y’all. A significant majority of developers, are really kinda awkward to talk to.

Shocker, I know.

Now, I don’t mind this — I’m not exactly the Prom King of social events. BUT — when you’re at a developer conference, there’s this awkward dynamic where there are two groups of people; people who are trying to network awkwardly, and people who do not want you to talk to them.

These two camps are indistinguishable to the naked eye.

You could be chatting to a guy who definitely does not want to be chatted to, whilst next to him is someone trying to insert themselves into the conversation and failing. Hell, I’ve been both of those people — and this is a super easy problem to address!

Here’s what we do, we split the room into two with a bit of yellow tape.

There’s the “Quiet” section, where people can code, answer emails, and where it is generally agreed upon that we will politely ignore each other until our next workshop. And then on the other side of the room is the “Networking” section, where you’re effectively fair game. All bets are off. If you’re standing on that side of the yellow tape — you’re basically saying, “Hey, please come talk to me, do not be deterred by my awkward interaction with you — I do actually want to speak with you!”.

I genuinely think this would solve 99% of weird interactions.

Because half the time when you’re chatting to some guy who might be building the NextBigThing™, I actually think they do want to talk to you, but the general awkwardness of the convo makes it feel like you‘re annoying them. Some clear boundaries would be really quite helpful.

Start the Conference Late And Finish Late

I’ve yet to meet a developer who was thrilled that the Keynote speaker started at 9am.

In fact, I know a lot more developers who missed the keynote speaker by hitting the snooze button, and had to watch the speech on YouTube after the event. Which, you know, they could have done anyway without buying a thousand dollar ticket.

We just need to admit the fact that a lot of developers wake up late, and even the ones who don’t could be coming from all over the country — perhaps even the world — and that makes you sleepy.

So, let’s start the event in the late morning, like 11am, and watch as your attendees miraculously attend that speaker they’ve paid through the nose for.

Plan For Workshops

Workshops should let you download the code beforehand.

I’ve yet to be to a workshop where the internet didn’t cut out halfway through the event. I’m not sure why WiFi is so bad at event spaces that Steve Jobs had to tell reporters to stop using the goddamn WiFi, but it is, that’s a thing that really happened, and we need to plan ahead for that.

I propose that when you say you’re going to a Workshop, you get sent a link to a Github repository where you can download the entire codebase before you get there. Then the speaker can talk you through the code whilst building it from scratch, and you can follow along without needing to install any dependencies, or type at the same speed as the guy who knows exactly what he’s typing.

And plugs? Why do event spaces not have plugs?! Electricity is a prerequisite of software engineering. It’s not a “nice to have”. There is nothing sadder than a flat MacBook. Please don’t kill our things.

Women Should Get In Free

So, before I’m crucified by the Red Pill mob, hear me out. Here’s a picture I took of the line for the men’s toilet at the last conference I went to.

Yes, really.

Yes, that is a line for the men’s toilet, next to an empty door for the womens. Turns out, there’s not a lot of women in tech. Or, to not give such a cop-out answer and perhaps hit a little closer to a problem we can fix, there’s not a lot of women in comparison to men who attend tech conferences for whatever reason.

And that’s a real problem.

I’ve yet to meet a developer who doesn’t find it incredibly awkward how obvious this discrepancy is. It’s a weird blemish on an industry with some of the most liberal companies in existence. There’s a reason why Google is facing walkouts for exactly this reason.

Conferences are pretty good at making sure the speaker line-up is about 50/50, but when it comes to attendees? We have so many blokes that we’re blocking the urinals.

So if it’s a problem, let’s fix it! Perhaps with marketing campaigns targeted at female developers, and a certain amount of free tickets for women. We give discounts to students because we want to encourage them to attend, and in turn, help improve the future of the industry. Why not an entire gender of humanity?

Drink Tokens for Networking

Enough moaning — let’s talk about a great event to get some ideas.

A few weeks ago, I went to a networking event run by a tech recruitment company, where at the door they gave you two drinks tokens.

That seemed pretty stingy, but whatever, I earn money to pay for things. So, I tried to buy a drink with real money.

Plot twist — You can’t. You can *only* pay for drinks with drinks tokens.

So, we decided to chat away with some bankers about why C# is a terrible language whilst we whistled down our drinks, when another rep came over and handed everyone in the group two more drinks tokens.

The game is afoot, Watson.

Turns out, at this event if you were networking you were rewarded with more drinks tokens as a kind of positive reinforcement technique, like a drinking version of that episode of the Big Bang Theory.

And you know what? It worked! I don’t think there was a single group in that room we didn’t talk to. So, the moral of the story is that if you’re going to pay for an open bar at your next developer conference anyway, why not make sure your money is well spent?

Also, there was free pizza. It was pretty dope night.

And a ball pit! It really had everything.

So, if there are any event managers out there who want to work together to make the Perfect Conference™, then please, hit me up as I have a space in mind.

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