DawsCon 2019

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The DawsCon Conference Logo

On January 11, 2019 Dawson College held its third annual software conference. Previously called NetBeans Day, this year’s conference was renamed to DawsCon. The final tally of participants was 180. In our first year it was 50 and last year it was 70. The amazing lineup of speakers and, for the first time, sponsorship from a major organization, Deloitte, elevated the conference beyond just a local event.

The Registration Desk

Preparation for this year’s DawsCon began immediately after the 2018 conference. I started tweeting, facebooking, and linkedining to get the word out about the conference. Josh Long, Spring Developer Advocate at Pivotal, Java Champion and resident of San Francisco when he is not travelling, was the first speaker who confirmed for 2019. This came about when he wrote on Twitter how he was looking forward to travelling the world in 2018 promoting Spring. I wrote to him suggesting that we could be his first stop in 2019 and he agreed.

The Deloitte Booth

Pratik Patel, Lead Developer Advocate at IBM and Java Champion living in Atlanta, was next on my list to reach out to. He spoke at the 2018 conference. Not only did he quickly agree to speak but he brought with him Mary Gryglesk, from Chicago, and Billy Korando, from Kansas City, two developer advocates from IBM to speak as well.

Pratik Patel
Mary Gryglesk
Billy Korando

Next, I reached out to Henri Tremblay who had spoken in 2018, a Montreal Java Champion and one of the organizers of the very successful Montreal Java Users Group. Aside from speaking at the event Henri also helped to get the word out for DawsCon to the 2,000+ members of the JUG.

Felix Roberge was another speaker from 2018 and who is now the Chief Technology Officer at D-Teck. I reached out to him and he was more than happy to join us in 2019.

Funny thing about both Henri and Felix. Rather than meeting them at some event in Montreal I first met both in San Francisco at Java One. In Henri’s case I sat next to him on a return flight and then discovered that he was in pictures I took at a Google event at Java One. I met Felix while walking back from the appreciation event at Java One when I heard some people speaking French with a Quebec accent.

Venkat Subramaniam

Venkat Subramaniam, President, Agile Developer, Inc., Java Champion and JavaOne Rockstar, is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world. For the 2018 conference Henri learned that he was going to be close by speaking on the east coast of the US. For that conference he was only going to be available for the Thursday and not the Friday the conference was planned for. Due to the lean conference management structure, just me, we moved the conference to the Thursday so he could speak. This year he squeezed us in between Oslo, Boston, Denver and then back to Oslo. We fit in between Boston and Denver.

Simon Martinelii

Simon Martinelii, of 72 Services in Switzerland, saw my numerous posts about DawsCon and offered to speak. Simon is an example one of the coolest aspects of the software development profession and that is the desire to share what we know. Simon is involved with several JSRs (Java Specification Requests) that drives the evolution of Java. Simon came to Montreal with his wife and my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a little time with them and do a little sightseeing.

Hugh McKee

Initially we were expecting Markus Eisele, another Java Champion, from Lightbend to speak. Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues, he needed to be in Hawaii for LavaCon, he was unable to attend. In his place he arranged to have Hugh McKee, Developer Advocate at Lightbend coming to us from Florida, speak.

Sean Sullivan

Sean Sullivan, a Principal Software Engineer at the Hudson’s Bay Company living in Oregon, was another developer who reached out to the conference to speak. He was already planning to attend and offered up a topic that I felt would interest our audience. You can access his slide deck at: https://speakerdeck.com/sullis/aws-sdk-for-java-version-2-dot-0-dawscon-2019

Hrishikesh Kanabar,Thomas Winter, Brett Leighton, Kevin Huang

Our final four speakers, Hrishikesh Kanabar, Thomas Winter, Brett Leighton, and Kevin Huang, all came from our first ever sponsor Deloitte here in Montreal. Deloitte is actively growing their software services and these four are part of this growing team.

In May I attended an event at Deloitte to encourage us, teachers from Montreal area colleges and universities. to encourage our students to consider working for them. At the last session of the day we were asked what Deloitte could do for us to encourage our students to seek employment with them. I said, semi-seriously, that they could sponsor DawsCon. About two weeks later I was contacted to say that the Deloitte partners had discussed my request and that they will sponsor the conference.

In mid November I was approached by Plusgrade, a software development company here is Montreal, and asked if they could have a booth at the event. Like Deloitte they looked upon DawsCon as a recruiting opportunity. Now we had two sponsors.

Josh Long

If you are someone reading this who might be interested in sponsoring next year, then contact me at kfogel@dawsoncollege.qc.ca. There is just 11 ½ months to next year’s DawsCon.

Plusgrade and their delightful pizza.

The real first sponsor of DawsCon is Dawson College. With the support of Diane Gauvin, the Academic Dean, the space for the conference is made available to us at no cost. She made her staff available to assist me in dealing with the bureaucratic tasks necessary to run a conference. Refreshment costs in the first two years were covered by the College while this year’s sponsorship from Deloitte and Plusgrade should cover that expense. This year the college’s public relations department, under the direction of Donna Varrica, arranged to have a logo designed for us and helped us get the message out to the college community. The college’s web group managed our web site and when changes or additions were necessary, they were carried out quickly. Thank you to everyone at Dawson for your help.

Its a near full house!

One of the important aspects of DawsCon is to allow Computer Science Technology, the program at Dawson College that I teach in, to reach out to the software development community here in Montreal. We have an internship in the final semester of our three-year program and our internship coordinator made several important contacts at the conference.

Some of our student volunteers.

In the end the conference went off without a hitch. We held a keynote at the start of the day and one at the end. Between the keynotes we had two sessions running each hour. The only tiny issue was video adapters. While I have adaptors for mini and maxi display ports, this year’s crop of laptops wanted a USB-C adaptor while all our projectors used VGA connectors. Luckily the speakers from IBM came equipped with all the necessary adaptors. I do remember seeing at one session a three-adaptor chain to get a laptop’s output to VGA. By the end of the day my step counter read 22,320 steps.

Two of our faculty volunteers, Gordon Garmaise and Josiane Gamgo j

I’d like to thank my faculty and student volunteers. Without their help the day would not have been successful. I’d like to thank the Plant & Facilities department of the college whose staff set up the rooms we used perfectly. Even when, on Thursday morning, I noticed that the cafeteria setup was too much to one side the P & F staff were happy to move the stage and every chair about 3 meters to the left.

The secret to Venkat’s success, he is always working.

I started DawsCon to bring a little of Java One to my students and the Montreal software community. I have been fortunate to attend Java One, now called Code One, every year since 2014 with funding support from Concordia University, where I teach part time, and from Dawson College, my full-time gig. I have spoken at that conference every year that I have attended. Unlike JavaOne/CodeOne and most other conferences, with Dawson College’s support the DawsCon conference remains free to attend.

Venkat, Mary and Henri

Don’t forget, DawsCon returns January 10, 2020. By the time I attended Code One last October I had already found all the speakers and had to put some on the list for 2020. If you are interested in speaking at a conference aimed at students and developers, then let me know.

Conference Surprise

While introducing Venkat I was interrupted by Henri. This was unusual but I thought Henri wanted to plug the Montreal JUG. Instead he announced that I have received the designation of Java Champion. Here is the description of the honour from Oracle that I received later that day:

Henri interrupting me while I was introducing Venkat.

“Like your fellow Java Champions, you have demonstrated a proficiency in all things Java and your significant contribution and activity shows true commitment in sharing your knowledge and experiences with the community.”

Student volunteer Suzan Sharif with Josiane

I also discovered that I had been accepted into the Java Champions program back in December but Henri arranged to have it only announced at DawsCon. My swollen head is slowly shrinking to normal but I remain humbled to part of a group of developers I have been in awe of from when I first started coding and teaching Java.

The Dawson College cafeteria full of eager conference goers.

Improving the Code One Conference Experience

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After writing about my personal experience as a presenter at this year’s Oracle Code One I was asked for my opinion on what could be done to improve the experience for attendees and presenters in the future. While I have a tiny bit of experience in organizing and running conference, this year called DawsCon, having 100 attendees is not the same as having 10K+. So here are my thoughts, for better or for worse, on what Oracle’s conference organizers can do in the future.

The Venue

Let’s begin with the venue. The Moscone Center, has over 700,000 square feet of space spread across three buildings. Code One was held in the Moscone West building which has 300,000 square feet of conference space, such as meeting rooms and exhibition areas, and an additional 75,000 square feet of pre-conference space that effectively means lobby space on each of the three floors. This year Code One occupied the first floor for its exhibition space and the second floor for conference sessions. The third floor was used by Oracle Open World. In addition, the basement of the Moscone North building, where a large presentation space exists, was used for keynotes. The remaining space in the North and South buildings were used by the Oracle Open World conference with its 40K+ attendees. The South building was torn down about two years ago and its reconstruction is almost complete.

To sum this all up, the Moscone Center is huge. Therein lies the first problem with Code One this year. The venue might be too large. With a total attendance of 50K+ between the two conferences the Moscone would appear to be an ideal location. Up until two years ago Code One, then called Java One, was held in the Hilton and Parc 55 hotels and that is where I attended my first three conferences.

The West, like all the Moscone buildings, can best be described as cavernous. Developers come to Code One to be inspired by new technologies, to learn new skills, and, possibly most importantly, to network with fellow developers. I believe the Moscone Center is not up to these roles. Let me explain why.

Conference Rooms

The conference rooms are too large. Except for the spaces used by hands on labs, all the rooms seat approximately 300. What I saw this year was that unless your session had the words Cloud, AI or Microservices in the title you were lucky to have between 50 and 75 attendees. If you were doing a Birds of a Feather session in the evenings, then you were lucky to have between 10 and 50 attendees.

The rooms are poorly lit. While the lighting enhances the projected images, my PowerPoint slides never looked so good, the general lighting could best be described as dim. Presenters were difficult to see on the podiums. There is no dedicated lighting for the podium. I bought a desk lamp at Target the night before my presentation on a robot car just to illuminate it so it could be seen.

My own spotlight from Target.

The ceilings are too high. This might seem like a strange comment, but it relates to the ambience of the room. It creates distance between the presenters and the audience. I believe it hinders participation by the audience. Couple this with 300 seats with 50 attendees scattered throughout the room and you have the recipe for a cold and uninviting space.

 A standard conference room at the Moscone Center West.

Exhibition Space

A similar problem exists with the space where exhibitors have their booths. It’s a 100,000 square foot space that can never be described as intimate. Yet, the exhibitors for Code One need intimacy, in my opinion, to get their messages across. It wouldn’t surprise me if exhibitors had fewer visitors than previous years.

Exhibitors may be every bit as important as the sessions. Exhibitors provide a sense of the direction of the industry. The first year I attended Java One there were numerous companies showing CI systems. They are all gone because CI is standard equipment and the CI companies don’t need to convince us to use their products. I’m not sure what message this year’s exhibitors were saying because, quite frankly, I felt uncomfortable in the space.

Pre-Conference or Lobby Space

If you wanted to get upset with this year’s conference then how the pre-conference space was used is an excellent place to focus your anger. If you were at Code One then you almost certainly carried a laptop. This meant that from time to time you needed to find a place to possibly do some work and communicate with your company. Maybe you needed to charge your device or you required AC to work. Other than a few tables in a hacker space there was no place to work.

If there was an AC socket in the wall you were sure to find someone sitting on the floor with their laptop plugged in. I suspect, without any proof, that some people purposely went into sessions they had no interest in, sat in the back row, and worked on their laptop because that was the only place to sit down. Why else would you attend a session with 50 other people in a room that seats 300 and sit in the back row.

Speakers Presentations

Some speakers are not adequately prepared. They do not have a good sense of the experience their attendees are having. We are not entertainers, though in one session I tried to be. There are some basic principles of presentation that every speaker should be familiar with. This is not the conference’s fault. The conference, I believe does have a responsibility to provide some instruction on the art of presenting.

For example, how to create slides. It may be the largest projection screen your slides have ever been on but in the back row its still pretty small. Increase your font size. One problem from previous years has diminished and that is what I call the “Essay on a Slide” where the slide is crammed with text. Still, every now and then a slide is so full of text that while reading it you no longer are listening to the speaker.

When showing code, running scripts, or live coding increase the font size. Nothing riles me more than watching a Linux command line presentation where the text is too small to read from the third row. I have only seen a handful of presenters successfully live code. What I do when I want to show how code evolves is to prepare multiple files with more code in each file and switch between them as I talk. This year the most common keystroke during a live coding demonstration was the backspace.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Have a plan B and even a plan C if something goes wrong. Be prepared to give up on your slides and coding to just talk to your audience. Listening to a presenter apologize while they franticly try and fix something that doesn’t work and is painful for the audience because we all feel the presenters pain because it has probably happened to us at some time.

I believe that a conference should consider running a presenters Boot Camp either on site or online. We may all think we are great presenters like Venkat Subramaniam but sadly many of us come off as Donald Duck. I know this is harsh but anyone can be a great speaker as it is a skill that can be learned.

Some Further Suggestions

I mentioned earlier that the conference used to be held in hotel conference rooms. While these rooms can be quite large they are not as consistently large as the Moscone. Their ceilings are a little lower. They felt more intimate. I know nothing about what Code One costs to put on and if Oracle sees a way to better manage the cost by placing everything in the Moscone then that is their right and I support it. What I think they can do is influence the center to reconfigure their space. There needs to presentation spaces that seat no more than 100 and even spaces that seat no more than 50 attendees.

I was advised a few years ago to submit sessions to the Birds of a Feather evening track because they were poorly attended and so fewer presenters submitted to this track. It must be true because for the past two years I have had sessions accepted in this track. This year I may have even broken a record by having 47 people attend one of my BOF sessions. On the other hand, in my second BOF sessions I had zero attendees. Walking around the halls looking into other BOF sessions that night I rarely saw more than 10 people per session.

My advice, cancel the evening sessions. Conference goers are attending parties, eating out, or getting to bed early because jet lag has messed up their sleeping pattern. Heck, I had to miss a party I was looking forward to because I was presenting that evening. Continue to have BOF sessions, just have then during the day.

Keep Code One separate from Oracle Open World. Its easy to spot an Open World attendee, they are probably wearing a suit while Code One attendees are in t-shirts. I visited the Open World exhibition space and it reeked of big money. They even had better carpet padding. Open World is a very different conference and by having the third floor of West used by that conference it diluted ambience of Code One. Please don’t take offence, I have always wanted to reek of money although that ship may have sailed for me. Code One, as I’ve already mentioned, is very much about networking and the Moscone Center fails in this regard.

Conclusion

Everything you have just read is nothing more than my opinion. I hope to continue attending Code One for as long as my session proposals are accepted and I can get funding for my expenses. I have written this because I believe that the conference experience for both presenters and attendees can be improved. Oracle, for a fat retainer but in Canadian dollars I’d be happy to work with you.