FOWA Miami 09: more diversity, please

March 6, 2009
67 Views

I led a workshop on cloud computing at the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in Miami last week. The workshops were all on Monday — each workshop was a half day affair. The conference proper was on Tuesday. Carsonfied, the organisers, paid my way there and back, put me up in the most excellent Mondrian hotel in Miami Beach, and paid for the workshop. As a speaker, I got to go to the conference proper on Tuesday as well.

I’d never been to one of the FOWA conferences before. I actually paid for a ticket to the last FOWA in London in 2008, but at the last minute had a conflict, and couldn’t go. So this was my first FOWA. In general, I had a good time, and liked the conference. But the theme that emerged for me was nevertheless quite clear: cross pollination is a good thing, and there is still too little of it in the IT industry.

My workshop

Before I talk about what my impressions of the overall conference were, a few words about my workshop. It was sold out, which not all the workshops were, but that reflects the tremendous level of interest in the topic of cloud computing far more than it says anything about me. Nevertheless, it was a variable in an overall equation

I led a workshop on cloud computing at the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in Miami last week. The workshops were all on Monday — each workshop was a half day affair. The conference proper was on Tuesday. Carsonfied, the organisers, paid my way there and back, put me up in the most excellent Mondrian hotel in Miami Beach, and paid for the workshop. As a speaker, I got to go to the conference proper on Tuesday as well.

I’d never been to one of the FOWA conferences before. I actually paid for a ticket to the last FOWA in London in 2008, but at the last minute had a conflict, and couldn’t go. So this was my first FOWA. In general, I had a good time, and liked the conference. But the theme that emerged for me was nevertheless quite clear: cross pollination is a good thing, and there is still too little of it in the IT industry.

My workshop

Before I talk about what my impressions of the overall conference were, a few words about my workshop. It was sold out, which not all the workshops were, but that reflects the tremendous level of interest in the topic of cloud computing far more than it says anything about me. Nevertheless, it was a variable in an overall equation that had me concerned:

  • My workshop was in the afternoon; IOW, post-lunch
  • We were in MIami; IOW, it would be (and was) warm
  • The logistics had been unclear. In particular, Wifi for the participants had only been arranged at the last minute. I was forced to assume that workshop participants would have no Internet access, so the workshop would be all show and tell, with no way to directly try things out in the Cloud
  • The material is not exactly the stuff of a JJ Abrams TV show
  • I am not Steve Yegge; IOW, making dry technical stuff seem as amusing and interesting as stand up comedy is not one of my talents
  • When I got to the venue, I found my worst fears confirmed: a fairly small room, with no windows, and the air conditioning was holding the room at a tolerable temperature with just me in the room. “Sold out” meant 40 people, which would max out the seating in the room, and add a considerable amount of heat

So, when you feed all those variables into a formula, what came out was this: I was worried that people would wilt in the afternoon, or even doze off.

That didn’t happen. And the AC coped admirably with having 40+ people crammed in such a small space — the room didn’t get unpleasantly warm at all.

I got a fantastic crowd, of interested and interesting people, and they not only stayed awake, but we had an engaged and interesting conversation about cloud computing throughout the workshop. It was a successful workshop, and all of the feedback I got, either directly or via Twitter, was positive. I learned a lot about what web app developers are thinking (and worrying) about regarding cloud computing — some of what I learned was really great stuff.

For example, Pete Bernardo (@petebernardo) shared with us the fascinating nugget that Amazon’s DNS host names for EC2 images are blacklisted by big spam services (like Spamhaus). Thus, if you intend to send email from EC2 images, you will almost certainly need to map an Elastic IP address to an external DNS host name of your own, or your mails will vanish into various spam catchers. That’s probably a good thing to do anyway, but this problem gives it a certain urgency. The spam angle makes a lot of sense — if I was a spammer, I’d be all over EC2 to send my mails. But I had never thought of it before, nor have I ever needed to send emails from my own EC2 images, so it was news to me. That’s the kind of dispatch from the front that you can only get from people who are actually there, and it was illustrative of the value of such events for me.

I certainly got what I wanted to out of it, and it seemed that most of the participants did as well. Can’t ask for more than that. You can get the slides I used for the workshop here. And, as always, I met some great people, so shout out to: @MarkLaymon, @reybango, @cgranier, @pbacgrad, @appirio_nara, @caleboller, @petebernardo, @chriskelleyLA, and everyone else.

The awesome

The Mondrian

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mastermark/3316836842/

Carsonified put us up at the Mondrian hotel in Miami Beach. This hotel is cool to the point where one of my younger friends would probably describe it as “sick” (a compliment of the highest order, in case that’s not clear). The Mondrian was gorgeous. Like being in a recent William Gibson novel. Great fun.

Media Temple sponsored a dinner on Monday night that was also “sick”, in that same sense. Good food (Japanese fusion?), acceptable wine, a ridiculously over the top Hummer stretch limo to move us from place to place, and great conversation with Victoria Axelrod (@vaxelrod), Jenny’s partner in crime. I had met Victoria in Boston briefly in June, but not had an opportunity to talk at any length with her, so this was an excellent opportunity to rectify that, and we did. My dinner conversation with Victoria will surface again later on in this post.

And last, but not least, Chris Kelley (who was in my workshop – yay!) did the most amazing video material for the stage show — apparently, for free. If so, the coin in which he must be paid is equally free advertising, so allow me to do my small part here. Chris Kelley rocks — he does tremendously awesome motion picture design work. Should you happen to need some of that, go get it from him. ‘Nuff said.

The good

I enjoyed the conference proper on Tuesday. Great venue, good seats, power for the laptop, uniformly good speakers on the agenda. The Wifi worked well in the morning. The audience grew in size after lunch, at which point the Wifi began to get flaky and break down. Not a big deal for me. I had to bail out just after Spolsky’s talk anyway (see “The Ugly”, below), so the Wifi problems in the afternoon weren’t an issue.

The geek high point of the day for me was Aza Raskin, the Ubiquity dude from Mozilla. He gave a talk about the chaordic nature of the things we are all working on (whether we know it, or not) that just hit all kinds of my hot buttons. Great, great stuff. Good enough that it’s made me go take a second look at Ubiquity (which, as a Quicksilver junkie, I had glanced at when it came out, and found nice, but not compelling enough to switch). So I suspect he had the desired effect on me. 😉 In the afternoon, to judge by the Twitter traffic, Aza had the Coolest Geek Thing title taken from him by Francisco Tomalsky of 280north, who demoed their upcoming Atlas tech, which is based on Cappucino. I’ve played with Cappucinio a bit in the past (worked throough the “Hello world” sort of stuff) and liked it, but never had time to delve into it any more deeply. Atlas, OTOH, is more accessible for the less geeky, and it proved to be a big hit at FOWA. Like my dinner conversation with @vaxelrod, I’ll mention Atlas again below.

Kristina Halvorson

http://www.flickr.com/photos/judxapp/3307193183/

But the overall high point of the entire conference for me was delivered by Kristina Halvorson. She runs Brain Traffic, and is on a mission to make writing on the Web not suck. I wish her luck — considering the fact that I’m actively (and copiously) adding to the entropy she’s trying to contain with my own sucky prose, it seems a hopeless (if noble) mission to me. 😉 She spoke for a few minutes about her work, and why it’s important, and then proceeded to hijack her own talk to go off and attack an entirely different issue: she was the only female speaker on the roster.

She proceeded to pull Ryan Carson and Chris Messina out onto the stage to talk about that. Chris, of course, infamously attacked the Carsonified events a while back for being just a bunch of white dudes (and he posted an update to reflect what happened in Miami). So, in a sense, the fact that Kristina was speaking could be interpreted as progress. Unsatisfied with that, and rightly so, Kristina led a conversation about a) why there are so few women (and more generally, non-white speakers of any gender) on the geek speaking circuit, and b) what we could all do about it.

I had met Kristina at the speakers dinner the evening before, and we had talked about just this — on Monday evening, she had still been working out the details of what she was going to say and do at the conference proper, but she had already decided to hijack her talk to address it. She had led a workshop herself on Monday afternoon, and I asked if there had been any women participants — she said, yes, several. I chuckled, and said, “Well, there were none in mine. Copy writing for the web vs. cloud computing. Mine was clearly too nerdy.” We talked about the mechanism of self selection, and what, if anything, could be done about that. I confessed that I had no idea if there were elements of my presentation material that was in some way biased for a male audience. I don’t think so, but since no women attended my workshop, I got no female feedback. Dunno. I still don’t.

Kristina, Ryan and Chris

http://www.flickr.com/photos/judxapp/3308024348/in/photostream/

Anyway. The next day, at the conference proper, Kristina ripped into it. She, Chris and Ryan proceeded to have a good conversation about the unfortunate consequences of the lack of speaker diversity, and what could be done about it. Ryan was quite forthright about his desire to increase speaker diversity, and the things that kept getting in the way of doing so. Among other things, the big sponsors that make such events possible only want to pay for “celebrity speakers”, which makes it harder for new people to break in, even if they have something interesting to say. As the least celebritous of all the speakers in Miami this year, I could relate to that. 😉 However, there was also some discussion of the self selecting nature of the beast in our profession — so long as women are mostly interested in things that are less than geeky, then it follows that the geek crowd will be predominantly male (albeit not just white males). Nevertheless, the key takeaway seemed to be that the only way to break such vicious cycles is for women (and other underrepresented groups) to seek more active roles, and — most importantly — for the existing speaker + conference organiser crowd to become much more aggressive about encouraging, mentoring and recruiting a more diverse range of participants.

All good stuff. I wholeheartedly agree, and will actively seek to do what I can, for my part, to help. But as I was listening to Kristina lead this conversation, I began — as I am wont to do — to connect some dots. Dots that might not, at first glance, appear connectable — but they are, so bear with me. First off, my thoughts kept drifting back to my conversation at dinner with Victoria Axelrod the evening prior. Both Victoria and Jenny are remarkable for the depth and breadth of their knowledge — in particular, they are deeply enmeshed in academia. A conversation with either one almost always leads to learning about some research that you’ve never heard of before, but which is directly applicable to what you’re working on. At dinner Monday night, Victoria and I had been kvetching over the problem that too many wheels get reinvented in the IT industry. People never seem to know what other people have already done, and assume they’ve had some profound insight when, in fact, they’ve just gone down a path well worn by any number of other people. In particular, people don’t read enough. We’re all in such a hurry — there never seems to be enough time to just sit down and learn. So Victoria’s gripe was that there was lots of research, both existing and ongoing, on things like organisational models, webs of trust, and so on, all of which contained significant information of value for IT practitioners working on software to enable things like social networking and collaboration. Yet, she said, it was a rare developer or designer that she’d meet who had the slightest idea of the existence of such research. I agreed, and pointed out that this was just another wrinkle of the diversity issue that Kristina had been talking about. In the same sense that the “community” of speakers was too insular and lacked a wide enough spectrum of participants, the community of web developers and designers was too insular: isolated from valuable knowledge in academia.

The following day, at the conference proper, Joe Stump, lead architect dude at Digg, gave a great talk on the challenges that confront a team of developers when they need to scale up from a handful of people to several handfuls. He did a great job, hitting each of the pain points straight on, one after the other, and offering suggestions for how to deal with them. But as I sat there listening to him, I couldn’t help but think “Wow, dude. Here’s the diversity thing again.” Why? Well, first off, I’m an enterprisey guy. I may well have been the most enterprisey guy at FOWA — I was certainly in the top 10 or so, I suspect. People in the hipster world of the Web like to poke fun at enterprisey — slow, stupid, bloated and incapable of change. I’m as guilty of that as anyone — enterprise is an easy target, and it’s fun. And since the froth of innovation is happening in the consumer web world, it’s accepted as a given that enterprisey has a lot to learn from these young’uns. Enterprisey is very aware of the web app crowd — and everybody knows it.

The less than good

But something that struck me quite forcefully as I walked around eavesdropping on various conversations at FOWA was that the web developer community is just as easy to poke fun at, in its own way. Enterprisey has no monopoly on arrogance, ego driven bloviation, or blind greed — there was plenty of all of that to be seen at FOWA, for example. But most interestingly, many people I met seemed to lack knowledge / understanding of enterprisey. This is, frankly, just stupid. Enterprisey isn’t the way it is in order to provide entertainment value to the rest of the IT profession — enterprisey is the way it is as a response to external stimuli. The interesting thing about listening to Joe Stump talk about some of the challenges that Digg found itself confronting was this: he was describing those same stimuli. The ones that made enterprisey the way it is. As Digg grows larger, it begins to confront the same sorts of problems that drive the evolution of enterprisey. And not remarkably, the responses that Joe was describing were right in line with what enterprisey would have done (or does). IOW — we coulda told ya that, Joe. Now, let me be clear — I got the impression that Joe knows that. But it seemed that many in the audience did not. And that’s where the diversity dots connect again — the web developer community scorns enterprisey to its detriment. To the extent that you become a victim of your own success, and grow beyond a certain size, you will need to know how to respond to certain challenges. Enterprisey already has answers to a lot of those problems, and you are likely to find that the answers are surprisingly sound.

There was a vibe at the conference that just really grated on me, after a while — a kind of a smug, self-satisfied navel gazing. An impression that there were assumptions being made on the basis of anecdotal data — “I’ve been tremendously successful by doing this (whatever this might be), so doing this must be The Way ™ for everybody. I don’t need to know anything else.” Wrong, dudes. Epic fail. The community is not entirely blind to this — Spolsky skewered 37SignalsFried with an offhand joke about Fried”s talk from that morning (“Just give ’em coupons!”). Despite that, however, this sense of ironic self-awareness doesn’t extend far enough. You want irony of the sweetest sort? I can distinctly recall an age when no self respecting developer would have been caught dead being referred to as a “Web developer”. Now, ten years later, the Web developer community appears to have responded to that by deciding that it requires no input from anyone else. Enterprisey can (should) be a trove of knowledge for you, as you grow, Web Jedi. The places you’re headed? Been there, done that. But on a macro scale, nobody much talks to anybody else. We need to talk to one another — more diversity might follow, and that would be a good thing.

The ugly

Jet lag. How do other people do this? I just seem to need more sleep than the average person, and short transatlantic journeys just kill me. On Tuesday afternoon, I had to bail out of the latter part of the conference in order to do a conference call for the day job. After that wrapped up, I had a few hours to kill before heading out to the legendary FOWA party. So I decided to take a nap. FAIL. When I woke up, it was just after midnight, I was starving, and I had completely missed the festivities. Meatspace just sucks, sometimes.

Would I go again?

Absolutely. Given all that I’ve said here, t’would be awfully hypocritical of me to not to, wouldn’t it? 😉 But apart from that, if I can find someone demented enough to listen, I suspect I can contribute something of value. After all, there ought to be somebody in the audience who, upon seeing something like Atlas, stands up and hollers “We’ve seen this before — that’s just like the old Visual Age tools used to work. They called it ‘design by wire’.” The stuff that you dudes are all going slack jawed over is actually old wine in a nice new bottle (NeXT FTW! ;)). Want to know how that worked out last time?