Tits up at CeBIT

March 6, 2009
48 Views

I love languages. At university, I studied English literature, not some geeky thing like engineering or computer silence. For a long time, I thought writing novels was going to be my destiny. At some point, I realised that I don’t write human languages well enough to make a living at it, so I suppose I did the next best thing: I found a way to make a living writing in non-human languages (ie. programming languages), and inflicting incredibly long blog posts on you.

I’ve found that one thing that many language lovers have in common is a deep appreciation for profanity. People who really dig words love to curse. I certainly do. Bad words are the best. I use them appropriately, and not profligately, or merely to shock — they are useful tools, with an excellent signal to entertainment ratio.

I spent the last two days in Hannover at the big German IT conference, CeBIT. Talking, and listening to other people do the same. On Thursday, I spoke on a panel about cloud computing at the Webciety area of the conference. And I did some cursing.

“Webciety” was the slogan for the theme of this year’s CeBIT, and they had the entire rear right corner of Hall 6 dedicated to presenters

I love languages. At university, I studied English literature, not some geeky thing like engineering or computer silence. For a long time, I thought writing novels was going to be my destiny. At some point, I realised that I don’t write human languages well enough to make a living at it, so I suppose I did the next best thing: I found a way to make a living writing in non-human languages (ie. programming languages), and inflicting incredibly long blog posts on you.

I’ve found that one thing that many language lovers have in common is a deep appreciation for profanity. People who really dig words love to curse. I certainly do. Bad words are the best. I use them appropriately, and not profligately, or merely to shock — they are useful tools, with an excellent signal to entertainment ratio.

I spent the last two days in Hannover at the big German IT conference, CeBIT. Talking, and listening to other people do the same. On Thursday, I spoke on a panel about cloud computing at the Webciety area of the conference. And I did some cursing.

“Webciety” was the slogan for the theme of this year’s CeBIT, and they had the entire rear right corner of Hall 6 dedicated to presenters tailored to the topic. In addition, they set up a stage, and over the course of the week, held a wide variety of public talks, panels and presentations there. The talk on cloud computing was one of these.

Webciety Cloud Computing Panel

The cloud computing panel @ Webciety, as seen from Werner Vogel’s mobile

It was a fun talk, if too brief. Tim Cole, the moderator, did a pretty good job. Particularly entertaining was a monitor at our feet, on which we could see the #webciety and #webciety09 hashtag streams on Twitter going by — this was effectively a public backchannel. Lots of the comments were negative, particularly the German language ones (we were speaking in English). Stuff like “this is nothing new”, “IBM’s been doing timesharing since the 70’s”, “Sun invented the ‘network is the computer’ slogan a decade ago – see how that turned out?” IOW, the usual stuff you get from otherwise well-informed IT people when they’re just beginning to get their heads around cloud computing. 😛 It was fun to be able to see and react to some of that feedback in real time, and I certainly tried to do so. In one particular instance I missed an opportunity — a commenter was bemoaning the fact that the panel was humourless, and asked for “more jokes please”. As it happened, the conversation at that moment was about the reactions of traditional data centre folk to cloud computing, and I missed my chance to use Pat Kerpan’s (CTO of CohesiveFT) excellent crack about “server huggers”. 🙂

However, I did get a chance to go off on a rant about the risks and drawbacks of proprietary styles of PaaS, and I used the recent example of Coghead’s demise to illustrate my point. In the process of doing so, I spoke with enthusiasm of Coghead “going tits up”, and how that left its customers essentially in the unfortunate position of being “shit out of luck”. Now, I believe strongly that both of those usages of (mild) profanity were a) useful and b) true. But I nevertheless managed to shock (and probably annoy) a number of people, apparently.

I think that’s funny*. People who get their britches in an uproar over profanity amuse me. So those reactions were fine with me. And it certainly made for a great conversation starter — I was besieged for the rest of my visit to CeBIT by random passerby, who would suddenly come up to me and say something like “Dude, I saw your talk on cloud computing — ‘tits up!’ That was awesome!”, and laugh. Apart from that, and in general, the panel seemed to go well, and was well received. It didn’t hurt that we had a stellar group, with Dion Hinchcliffe (as a last minute pinch hitter), Martin Buhr and Manfred Schwendinger. You can watch the video and make your own call.

Webciety videos at zaplive.tv

On Friday, I spent my morning watching the talks of the “Global Conferences” part of the show. I came in just in time to catch the end of Reid Hoffman’s LinkedIn talk, which seemed interesting. And I stuck around long enough to watch Werner Vogels talk about AWS and the impact of cloud computing. Werner gave a great talk, and said essentially some of the same things I had the day prior, so that was cool. 🙂 And Werner proved to be immune to technical problems — about three quarters of the way through, his mike seemed to give out (or at least go flaky). But Werner was booming along at such a volume that we could all hear him fine without it, and I’m not sure he even noticed the problem, himself.

After his talk, I went outside to hang out at the AWS stand that had been set up in front of the auditorium. I must have looked like I knew something, because I found myself repeatedly being mistaken for an Amazon employee, and if you had wandered by, you would have seen me cheerfully explaining how Amazon’s services work (often in German) for the better part of the following hour. Martin Buhr, Simone Brunozzi, Werner and Martin Messersmith all had their hands full keeping the crowd of questioners satisfied (Werner, in particular, was literally besieged), so they seemed grateful for the help, however inadvertent. And I passed out a lot of copies of my CSC biz card. 🙂 I had a great conversation with Werner after the rush subsided — we talked about things like the speed of light, data lock-in, sneaker-net, Jim Gray, and capacity planning. There were no women in sight.

And speaking of which — there’s only one other thing worth mentioning about my profane adventures at CeBIT, and that’s a further observation about gender diversity and the self selection mechanism. It was on remarkable display for Werner’s talk. As Werner began his talk, about half of — and almost all of the women in — the audience got up and left. They were immediately replaced, however, by an impatient horde of geeky looking men. After Werner’s talk, there was some panel going on about the effects of Web 2.0 or something, and the hordes stampeded past one another again — the geeky men all got up and left, passing the women and the (somewhat) less geeky looking men streaming back in for the next panel. What’s that about? Why did the women run for the hills at the prospect of a talk about cloud computing (and why could the geeky boys not get enough of it)? Is it really as simple as the cliché that “girls want to know what to do with it, and boys want to know how it works”? I dunno, and I’m probably on very thin ice just musing about it, but the effect itself was unmistakably real. Watching the hordes stampede past one another, on their respective ways in and out of the auditorium, was like watching an episode of the Flintstones — the only thing missing was blurred feet.

All in all, two days well invested, and great fun. And if you now find yourself wishing you had been there, but weren’t, well, I guess you’re shit out of luck. 😀 Maybe next time.

* PS. (and for the record) Please note that I do not think that Coghead’s demise is funny. Both the human tragedy of the surely bright and well-intentioned folk who worked there, as well as the status of the unfortunate customers left holding their respective bags is anything but comedic. And I certainly meant no disrespect to any of the parties involved. I do think that people who get in an uproar when I say the word “tits” are funny. So I say “tits” to them at every opportunity.

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