Development

This Week in Programming: In Search of the Virtual Conference Stack

2 May 2020 6:00am, by

Like many of you, my first tech conference was a long time ago, and I’ve since attended a hundred, if not more. I’ve sat through countless keynotes, music booming from the stage and executives breathlessly espousing the wonders that their new software would bring to the world, patting themselves on the back for the bravery of their live on-stage demonstrations.

Like you all, I’ve perused the expo floor, where companies dangle koozies, t-shirts and other schwag like bait on a line, fishing for email addresses and business opportunities, and sat through too many panels that led nowhere in particular. As any conference veteran like yourself knows, however, it’s not necessarily the keynotes, panels or expo floor where you’ll get the most out of the conference, but rather what’s referred to as the “hallway track” — those chance encounters that happen while you wander between frigid conference rooms, as you grab a complimentary pretzel or slog down another (bane of my existence) conference cup of coffee.

For my money, I’ve likely learned more listening in at the hotel bar across the street from the conference center or chatting at the afterparty event than I ever have during a corporately-approved keynote or panel… though of course, there is the rare gem of insight.

Well, these things are now no more, for the time being, and maybe for a while, and in much the same way that work has haphazardly gone remote, the entire season of tech conferences has had to quickly shift gears and either cancel or go completely virtual. This last month has seen some of the first of these virtual conferences and there’s definitely some good and some less good to this new normal.

In the pros column, there’s obviously the fact that you still don’t have to change out of your pajamas for a keynote, and we’re obviously doing the environment some benefit by not traveling across the globe by the thousands. Oh, and of course, you get to drink your own coffee rather than that aforementioned watered-down drivel.

On the cons side of things, obviously there’s no hallway track, no chance encounters, no running into friends you haven’t seen in years. Instead, there’s another Slack channel to add to your endlessly growing list of Slack channels. Just what you wanted, right? And now, a panel is just an opportunity for someone to talk AT you, as if you don’t have enough of that in your life already — the last thing I really want is to sit and stare at a screen for another hour or 12.

This is precisely where freelance DevOps and Docker consultant, and conference veteran, Bret Fisher targeted his own critique of the newly emerging virtual tech conference this week when he offered up some thoughts on Twitter around the idea of a “perfect virtual conference tech stack.”

A key point of Fisher’s thread is that “people go to conf’s for the connection as much or more than content” and that what we need is “a video-first experience where the audience is part of the show, and where you find the people you know at the event and you catch up while learning something new.” For Fisher, that will be achieved through a series of existing apps such as social video chat app HouseParty, the gamer-preferred live streaming app Twitch, and the live event app CrowdCast, which allow interaction, rather than more “pre-recorded webinar-style videos that are one-way information.”

To be sure, we are in the nascent days of virtual conferences and it seems likely that from here on out each conference will build on the successes and failings of the last. So far, we’ve seen conferences that run continuously, to hit all the time zones possible, and conferences that take place on a combination of Animal Crossing and Twitch. Coming up soon, Microsoft is holding its annual Microsoft Build developer event and it has already made some changes that would address some of the drawbacks we’ve seen so far. According to a blog post by Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman, the company is going to be holding its event for a continuous 48 hours, repeating all the panels every 8 hours, live — in essence, they’re saying time zones be damned. “No need to stay up until 2 a.m., we’ll do it for you,” he writes.

Hanselman also says that they’ll be offering shorter panels, with deep-dive videos available for those interested, and offering a live Q&A session with each panel. And though he doesn’t say exactly how, he does acknowledge that “sometimes the best track at a conference is the Hallway Track and we want you to spend time with like-minded people in a positive environment so we’ll have ways for you to self-organize and step into your own space to share and learn.” Microsoft will be using at least one piece of Fisher’s suggested virtual tech conference stack, offering “long-form workshops (1-3 hours) LIVE on Twitch.”

This Week in Programming

  • Speaking of Tech Conferences… Here’s a list of open source tech conferences that have moved online that crossed my feed this week, which notes one “con” that I forgot to include in my list above — that “attending a conference in person can cost a king’s ransom once attendees shell out $1,000 or more for admission to a major event, plus airfare and hotel fees.” They point this out as a contrasting point to the majority of the conferences on the list, which are completely free. And even the non-free events only charge a nominal fee.
  • Quantum Computing with IBM: If playing with a quantum computer sounds like fun, IBM has announced its IBM Quantum Challenge, which runs May 4-8 and lets you “tackle programming a quantum computer through the use of circuits — from writing their first ‘Hello Quantum’ circuit to solving a complex optimization problem.” Microsoft first introduced the first online quantum computer four years ago and has since brought online 18 quantum systems, as well as developed the open source quantum software Qiskit, a Python-based software development kit with several novel features. The IBM Quantum Challenge begins at 9 a.m. US Eastern on May 4 and ends at that time four days later. Check it out.
  • Twitter Intros a COVID-19 API Endpoint: Ever tracking the API movements of Twitter, ProgrammableWeb writes that the company has introduced a new endpoint in the fight against COVID-19 “to Twitter Developer Labs to help developers and researchers better study the global conversation around COVID-19.” The endpoint will include millions of Tweets about the pandemic that the company says will enable the study of the public conversation, not to mention those countless bots voicing their opinions on the topic. ProgrammableWeb writes that the endpoint includes “a realtime, full-fidelity stream of public Tweets related to COVID-19 and Coronavirus” with tweets delivered in real-time while protecting private data and removing protected tweets — and all without throughput limits. To prevent misuse, interested developers will need to apply for access through the Twitter COVID-19 Data Application.
  • Following Up with Go and Rust: Last week, we looked at the 2019 surveys for both Rust and Go, examining where the languages were being held back. Just as a quick follow-up, this week we see an interview with Go creator Rob Pike as well as an interview with Rust core team member Steve Klabnik. The former focuses on how “Go has indeed become the language of cloud infrastructure,” while the latter looks at what Rust features are still missing, from the point of view of a core member, rather than just the community survey.

Feature image by Alex Williams.

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