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The thoughts of Wes Oldenbeuving

Kings of Code Side-event: Amsterdam.rb Unconference

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The Kings of Code (KoC) conference is going to be held on 30 June 2009. The day before, monday 29 June, is side-event day. Sander van der Vliet, the KoC organizer, posted a message to the Amsterdam.rb mailing list last wednesday to ask if we were interested in organizing a side-event on the 29th.

After only a couple of us replied to Sander’s e-mail, we knew none of the heroes usual people would step forward to organize this. On friday, Julio Javier Cichelli (@monsieur_rock) sent me a direct message on Twitter about my thoughts on how the unconference should be organized. From there, we discussed how to get it organized, how to get speakers and what we were going to present. In short, we stepped forward to organize the side-event.

Next I tweeted to ask for presenters. The message got re-tweeted a number of times and almost within minutes there is feedback from multiple people willing to do a presentation. At the end of the day we have 6 people willing to speak. Using Twitter to organize something is a really quick and powerful way to do it.

As more and more people indicate they are willing to speak (thank you all!) the focus moves from finding speakers to handling the details of making it all work. At what time do we start? How many hours do we have? Is there wifi? Is there a beamer? The further you go, the more you discover there are things you should find out or arrange.

Next week we need to find a sponsor for the venue and we need to start thinking about the things that need to be done on the event day itself. We also need to confirm time and location with all presenters and announce the side-event.


The side-event is an unconference. I have never been to one, so I can only go by what is on the internet. A characteristic of unconferences is that there is no fixed agenda. There are no time slots. It is not about one person being an expert and bestowing wisdom upon the attendees, but about the attendees sharing wisdom with each other. I like that.

Everybody knows something other people can benefit from, so the more opportunities there are for everyone to contribute, the more everyone will learn. Any one of the attendees can decide on the spot they want to talk about something, show code or sing a song. I hope people will do this.

The Devnology meetings have impressed upon me the importance of interactivity at a gathering of people, so I hope we can give the unconference an interactive twist.

After a presenter is done speaking, we’ll try to get a group discussion started on the topic. Once the discussion starts to fade, or starts to run in circles, we can ask for the next speaker to get on stage and introduce a next topic.

After the last speaker, we can try to spark group discussions by encouraging people to approach the speakers and ask them questions. This, in turn, can create a number of smaller discussions, with the speakers being the center of interactivity. It’s a great way to get to know new people.

Between 6 more or less confirmed speakers, group discussions, short breaks and (I hope) spontaneous speakers, it looks like we will actually fill up the 5 hours we have available to us.

Finding a theme

Unconferences tend to have a theme, this is so people can prepare themselves and to have some form of coherence between talks. This is trickier, as I did not really think about this until now.

Here is a list of topics that people have expressed they want to talk about:

  • CouchDB (or an introduction to Erlang)
  • Communicative Programming with Ruby
  • Code reviews
  • Using Rails for Location based search
  • Short and Sweet II
  • MacRuby, RESTful web services and other cool things

If I do a bit of creative extrapolating, one topic that can be extracted from this is “The Future of Web Development (using Ruby)”. Let me explain by briefly looking at each topic:

  • CouchDB is a possible future of databases. It’s not relational, so it has different scaling needs compared to ‘traditional’ relational databases.
  • RESTful services are the next big thing. Within the Ruby/Rails world it’s becoming a de-facto standard on how to design a web service. The rest of the webdev world seems to be following along here.
  • If you look at the last decade or two and how the dominant languages have changed, it becomes apparent that code is getting way more readable. Shorter, leaner code is more readable because there is just less code. People use more expressive languages that can do more with less code. Code has become more communicative (at least in Ruby) because of the focus on good conventions like intention revealing naming. DSLs are another good example of readability. If a non-programmer can read your code, you know it is readable.
  • Alternative Ruby implementations are a way into the future for the language. Diversity allows different ideas to be explored at the same time. The same goes for alternative web frameworks. They are a breeding ground for innovation, which is what you need to get a future that is different from the present.
  • Code reviews are a way to ensure that code written in the past is actually good enough to be kept around in the future.
  • Location-based search has a futuristic sound to it, so it fits the theme.

Thoughts on The Future of Web Development (using Ruby)

The Future is an interesting topic that can be applied in a lot of ways. Here’s a number of ideas for presentations:

The future of server administration

With VPSes and cloud computing becoming available everywhere, is there still a need to own your server hardware? With services like Heroku, Github webpages and Disqus, do you still need to even know how to install Ruby or how to configure Apache?

Even if you don’t use these services, by using tools like Capistrano, Ubuntu Machine, Deprec or Rudy, you can still simplify deployment and server management. Does simplifying these things bring new opportunities? What does a sysadmin do with the time saved by these tools and services? Are there new possibilities opened by freeing up sysadmin time? What are they?

The future of package management

I have addressed this in a separate blog post.

The future of web-based communication

I have addressed this in a separate blog post.

My personal experience so far

Between asking Sander for info (via Twitter, of course), discussing things with Julio and discussing details with speakers, there is quite some communication going on. It’s exciting and a little scary at the same time.

I’m a natural introvert, so I tend to avoid communication when I can get away with it. It’s not often that I approach other people first. Taking an active role in helping to organize an unconference like this is therefore quite a bit outside of my comfort zone.

So why the heck am I doing this? One reason is because I want to see it happen. If nobody does it for you, do it yourself. The other reason is is that I want to expand my comfort zone. Someone wise once wrote: “If something does not scare you at least a little bit, it is not worth doing.” It might sound be a bit extreme, but the core idea is valuable nonetheless: a very good way to learn things is to do the things that scare you.

Helping to organize a side-event for KoC will most definitely be a great learning experience.