RailsConf 2015 was local and in downtown Atlanta this year, making it the perfect opportunity for my first RailsConf. For starters, I whole heartedly appreciate the effort that goes into staging a conference of this size. Lining up venues, negotiating with hotels, managing vendors, attracting quality speakers, and just getting people through the process takes a lot of time and effort. It's an impressive undertaking for a non-profit organization relying on volunteer support. For that, the team behind the conference deserves some kudos.
That said, my company spent a good deal of money and three days in a critical period for my team to go. With that context, I didn't feel like I got enough out of it to go again, especially not outside of my home city. What follows are my thoughts on why.
A great conference cannot exist without great talks, and there were some GREAT talks. One of the tops was the keynote on the first night. Sara Chipps was interesting, but she also brought a collection of kids that programmed dancing drones. DHH was interesting and controversial, Aaron Patterson was every engaging and did an excellent job of making a rather mundane subject, performance improvement, interesting and fun at 9:00am. Of course, that was helped slightly by the twitter tension between the two headline speakers.
Of the non-keynote talks, there was a wonderful talk by local Atlanta rising-star Kylie Stradley. I spent some time in the development track and found most of the talks thought provoking, though I'm not sure I agree with some of the conclusions, especially about apprenticeships.
For the the more technical talks, I got a lot of value out of Micheal Chan's talk about React.js on Rails. React looks to be taking the mantle of the least-horrible way of writing JS heavy web applications. I also liked Michael May's talk on Varnish. Adam Cuppy's talk "What if Shakespeare Wrote Ruby," was a lot of fun.
There some highlights, but most of the talks were rather "meh." Some were outright bad. Many of the speakers, especially the first timers, could have greatly benefited from some talk coaching. There is nothing worse than getting up on stage and seeing a stream of people walking out. Too often the talks had good subjects, but were put together in a way made them hard to follow.
Then there were the talks that were well put together, with great subjects, that were completely unintelligible. Which leads me to the next point.
RailsConf was in America's Mart in downtown Atlanta. The upsides of America's Mart are, easy access to parking, multiple nearby hotels, next to Marta, and a pretty good local bar scene. That makes the mart a great location for trade shows with multiple small booths spanning a half dozen floors.
The mart is a horrible venue for a tech conference. The keynote room was especially bad. Unless it was full of people, the reverb in the room made the speaker completely unintelligible, unless they had precise enunciation and the American standard mid-western accent. On top of that, there were few locations where one could see the speaker and the screens, due to the large poles extending throughout the floor, as seen below in the following tweet:
Slides were a massive issue in general. The screens were completely washed out in two of the bigger rooms, which is especially a problem if you have engineers showing off code featuring white text on dark backgrounds. Micheal Chan discovered the trick of using inverted colors, but that didn't work for everyone's slides.
The conference organizers got a lot right. Checking in was easy. Getting a T-shirt was also easy and quick. Food and snacks were kept in large supply and the coolers of sodas were a really nice touch.
It's not so much that I felt it was a waste of time, but that there were so few moments that made me pause and go "wow, I'm really glad I came."
But once again, I felt that they could have done better with the talks. The organizers were kicking people out of talks in the smaller rooms at the same time large rooms were mostly empty. This was a technology conference attended by technologists. Most attendees were connected to the Internet in at least two ways. This was a solvable problem that would have greatly benefited the attendees and speakers.
There was a lot of downtime. On the first day, I really enjoyed it. It was great catching up with the people in the community that I don't see every often. By the last day, my inner developer was really starting to shine and I was tiring of making small talk. I would have preferred more wall to wall content with more self directed breaks.
The silver lining in the number of breaks was that I got to spend quality time with some of my colleagues outside of our office environment. This was great for having conversations around broader topics that we don't generally get to talk about as we tend to focus on our immediate concerns.
I left the conference on the final day feeling that it hadn't been the best use of my time. I'm glad I went. I reconnected with old friends, I met a few new people, and learned a little. I could see myself having a hard time going as an attendee. It's not so much that I felt it was a waste of time, but that there were so few moments that made me pause and go "wow, I'm really glad I came."
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