ALT.NET Conference Part Deux: Was the Sequel Better than the Original?

As I mentioned in this last post, the Austin Alt.NET conference last fall was one of the best conferences that I had ever attended. Nevertheless, I liked the second one in Seattle this last weekend better.

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Alt.NET has finally been defined – There was quite a bit of time spent at the first conference and in the news groups afterwards arguing about fundamental issues like what Alt.NET meant and whether or not the name was too divisive. Although these questions were important to hash out in the beginning, the topic quickly grew stale for me and I certainly didn’t relish the idea of listening to even more debate about it. Apparently I wasn’t the only one that felt this way because the only mention of it was a topic suggestion done in jest about renaming Alt.Net which was promptly greeted by groans and eye rolling. No longer having to deal with this mental baggage meant that there was much more time to focus on substantive technical issues. For example, I was pleasantly surprised when the opening night fishbowl immediately delved into a top notch discussion about whether or not polyglot programming is a desirable industry trend.
  2. Open Space Format No Longer an Issue - Another roadblock that caused the first conference to get off to a slow start was the skepticism regarding the Open Space format. While everyone eventually warmed up to this approach, I remember quite a few sarcastic barbs the opening night that were funny but ultimately detracted from the quality of the discussion. The fact that the organizers didn’t really have to waste any time explaining or converting people to the Open Spaces philosophy this time around was another contributing factor to how quickly discussions became productive.
  3. Better Mix of Geek Celebrities, Alpha Geeks, and Regular Geeks – Expanding the participant list to 150 and reserving 50 spots for invitation only celebrity geeks was a stroke of genius. The mix at the first conference was great, but the mix at this one was even better. In my opinion, the biggest threat for future conferences in terms of “jumping the shark” would come from altering the number of participants or unique geek ratio too much.
  4. Microsoft Employees No Longer on the Defensive – In Austin, I definitely got the sense that Microsoft employees were either walking on eggshells or else (often legitimately) defensive. Since then, I believe that the ALT.NET group has collectively decided that the ideology\movement is ultimately grounded in .NET and thus the purpose of the group is to push Microsoft into improving the current development experience rather than trying to instigate a mass exodus of developers to other platforms. I think this shift in mind set made a huge difference in how productive conversations were and how willing prominent Microsoft employees were to attend. Some of the more notable Microsoft attendees included Scott Guthrie, Scott Hanselman, Phil Haack, Brad Abrams, John Lam, Dustin Campbell, Glenn Block, Howard Dierking, and many more.
  5. More Focus on Positive Examples of Microsoft Technologies- Instead of focusing too much on canonical examples of tools and technologies that Alt.NET’ers have traditionally criticized, such as the Entity Framework, Enterprise Library, or SSIS, many of the discussions focused around technologies that are being received more warmly, such as the MVC Framework, IronRuby, IronPython, and F#. Besides demonstrating how scary smart he was by diagramming out some of the internal implementation details of the DLR, John Lam impressed many Alt.NET’ers by mentioning things like his regular IM conversations with the head of the JRuby project or his team’s painstaking efforts to move towards passing 100% of the Ruby community test suite. Phil Haack enjoyed similar kudos for the efforts that he and his MVC team have made to solicit and incorporate community feedback into their product as well as learn from existing MVC frameworks in the industry and even openly release the source code.
  6. Leadership – I hesitate to even mention this one because Scott Bellware contributed so much to the first conference and he was so relaxed and agreeable this weekend. But let’s face it, as a conference leader, David Laribee just doesn’t have the same baggage to contend as Scott Bellware, whose publicly confrontational demeanor tends to cause friction at every turn. Despite poking fun at him from time to time on my blog, I respect Bellware and wish he was still blogging, but I have to admit that I’m glad that Laribee took over the organizing reigns for this conference. By the way, be careful about complimenting Laribee on how well the conference was organized or he will try to rope you into helping organize the next one…:-)

So what about a future Part 3 to this conference series?

I heard about 3 different potential follow up Alt.NET conferences this weekend that would take place in Canada, Austin, and possibly Boston. I’m not sure which one will emerge as the next viable option, but I’m definitely going to stay alert for any news.

I don’t know if the next conference will be as good as this one, but the odds are that it will still be much better than the passive, spoon fed material that you can expect from traditional conferences.

31 Comments

  1. Max Pool April 21, 2008 12:50 pm 

    Could it really be better than the first one? I wasn’t there. I just don’t see how you could have fun without me Russ…

    We will definitely have to hook up on the next one…you owe me a beer.

  2. Justice~! April 21, 2008 12:57 pm 

    I think we all know why the 3rd one will be the best ever.

  3. Tom Opgenorth April 21, 2008 1:20 pm 

    @Justice~!
    I didn’t have the heart to propose “How to be a better looking programmer.” That seemed to be best done by, well, you.

  4. Russell Ball April 21, 2008 1:46 pm 

    @Max – I have to admit that I did miss your ugly mug and heavy Fargo accent. So when is your wife due again?

  5. Russell Ball April 21, 2008 1:48 pm 

    @Justice – For not being there, I think your name was mentioned more than anyone else there. You’re a legend dude.

    BTW, Did I ever mention just how much that picture of D’Arcy grabbing Scott Gu’s butt made me laugh? We gave D’Arcy all kinds of grief about that this weekend. Brilliant!

  6. Fervent Coder April 21, 2008 11:00 pm 

    And it goes on… :D
    Don’t forget the London one. That is the one I am interested in (unless I misunderstood).
    By the way, they gave away a book that went to the person who most recently had a baby. You won. You were not present, so it went to someone else…go figure.

  7. Fervent Coder April 21, 2008 11:03 pm 

    @Justice~! Out of 150 attendees, I am pretty sure your name came up in EVERY conversation at least once. I would love to see this MVC presentation you did at DevTeach that is now legendary.

  8. Russell Ball April 22, 2008 8:20 am 

    @Rob – No fair! I can’t believe I would have actually won something. Curse you universe! Even though I left at 11:30, I still didn’t get home until midnight so it was still worth it to leave early. But a book…dang it…

  9. Scott Bellware April 22, 2008 10:58 pm 

    I’ll be organizing the next one in Austin. Sorry you’ll miss it.

  10. Russell Ball April 22, 2008 11:18 pm 

    @Scott – Sorry for any hard feelings. I tried to express my views honestly and professionally, but I think it came across as harsher than I intended. If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t have posted it.

    On the other hand, you do dish out the honesty in a lot harsher terms on a daily basis, so I’m a little surprised that you would react so strongly to it when you are the recipient. When people get angry at you, you often seem proud of yourself for having the integrity to be honest despite the confrontations that it causes. How is this any different?

    I hope to be able to attend Austin, but if I am blacklisted then so be it. It suppose I can at least check it off on my Life’s TO DO list…:-)

  11. Tom Opgenorth April 22, 2008 11:47 pm 

    Don’t worry Russ. We’ll just put a wig on you and call you “Justice Gray”.

    Start practicing your metrosexual strut.

  12. Scott Bellware April 23, 2008 1:04 am 

    The Austin event is for people who are looking to go deeper in expressions of courage through continuous improvement in software and ethics. It’s not intended to be merely another alt.net club meeting.

    I’m sure that Dave and others will host other alt.net meet-ups in the future that will be more appropriate to your intentions and desired level of engagement.

  13. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 4:17 am 

    @Tom – I could practice an entire lifetime and never be able to pull off the Justice metrosexual strut. Perhaps Scott will change his mind once he finds out that I am being considered for a prestigious “Potential Friend of Justice Gray” award. Then my geek frame will be undeniable.

  14. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 4:21 am 

    @Scott – I was worried there for a minute that you took it personal. Why didn’t you just say I wasn’t qualified to attend in the beginning? That’s some I could relate to. Still…it doesn’t quite seem as exciting as being blacklisted for critiquing “the man” though. Oh well…

  15. Dave Laribee April 23, 2008 4:57 am 

    I don’t understand where Scott’s coming from. He knows this. We don’t see eye to eye.

    In the closing, I made the comment that Organizers are not the same as Leaders. I consider myself a leader in certain categories, yes, but in this context I consider myself an organizer.

    I consider Scott a leader, a true revolutionary. He’s often ahead of the curve in terms of knowing where trends lie. I’ve learned a great deal from him and he’s turned me on to a number of things well ahead of where I’ve found them.

    What bothers me, though, is that he’s cast us as not analyzing. He calls this a club. Sure, there’s a club element. Is there a danger to that? I don’t see it. I think we’re still giving shit where shit’s due. I think we’ve moved passed issues of “cool kid club” and “identification” and “attachment.” Seattle was 100% about questioning and understanding how we can get better. It filled me with hope.

    I might be wrong, and don’t get me wrong, Scott’s among my best friends, but damn if he isn’t confrontational and singular in his vision. There’s nothing wrong with feeling positive about our little movement. There’s nothing wrong with growing that and reaching out. When we achieve a certain level, it’ll be easier to win acknowledgment for our cause and create a larger environment for “Continuous Improvement.”

  16. Max Pool April 23, 2008 7:04 am 

    @Bellware @Laribee @Russ –

    First up, alienating anyone for their *honest* opinion is not in the spirit of what ALT.NET is about, and I am sure it was not among the bullet points of actions on how to make more people aware and involved in the ALT.NET community.

    Second, this type of online post-meeting bitching is *exactly* why I decided not to register for this ALT.NET gathering. I do regret the decision now as I am starting to realize that how well we communicate in person is poorly represented in our online personas. But this bullshit has to stop as it poorly reflects on our personal professionalism and our group.

    In true spirit, of what ALT.NET (or Open Spaces) is about, if you disagree with a statement feel free to engage in intellectual debate, shut up and attempt to learn from someone else, or use the two feet rule. Anything less is ungentlemanly.

  17. Dave Laribee April 23, 2008 8:19 am 

    @Max

    The gathering wasn’t like this at all. You should know that. It was very positive and productive. You shouldn’t weigh the gathering from this comment exchange.

    I’m not sure I understand the tone of your comment, I suppose. To be clear: I’m in agreement with Russel’s commentary here, frustrated by accusations of “surface analysis,” and disappointed by Scott’s choice of retort.

    / Dave

  18. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 8:19 am 

    @David – Good point on the difference between organizers and leaders. I also consider Scott a leader. Perhaps if I had used the word ‘Organizer’ instead of ‘Leader’, he wouldn’t have been so offended.

    I think ultimately Scott and I just have different views on the usefulness of confrontation. I believe Scott sees it as unambiguously positive force, but I see it as a distraction. Scott thinks that acting more diplomatically would prevent him from being a leader, but I think it would make him even more effective.

    If given the choice between zombie like conformity and Scott’s current approach to challenging the status quo, then I would follow Scott every time.

    However, in my mind Seattle demonstrated how debate that is kept at a professional level and devoid of petty personality conflicts will almost always produce a much higher bandwidth of learning and information exchange than one that is driven by confrontation.

  19. Max Pool April 23, 2008 8:26 am 

    @Laribee –

    No, we are on the same page. The gathering was even more transparent this time around due to video and twitter, and I found myself jealous for not attending. I am sure the conversation and civility was equal if not greater than the first.

    It is this type of “kicked up dust” that happens after the events that is lame. This is why ALT.NET purse fight guy has reasons to blog – we keep pissing in each others eye on the email thread and in blogs. Sometimes to much passion leads to the inability to just let idle comments slide…

  20. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 8:32 am 

    @Max – I agree that Scott’s reaction directly goes against the efforts to a) prove to everyone that alt.net is not just an elitist movement b) encourage people who weren’t ALT.NET’ers from the start to participate in these types of events as a way to make all the best practices, frameworks, and tools discussed in this group less alternative and more mainstream.

    I’m guessing that I just triggered the classic Scott rage in some fundamental way and that he wouldn’t have reacted this way if I had been more careful about how I worded my post.

    On the bonus side, I’m pretty excited about this whole blacklisting thing. Something to tell the grand kids and all…

  21. Brian Donahue April 23, 2008 9:06 am 

    Don’t forget Philly as an option! Although, I know to really make it an option, I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and start organizing.

    Frankly, I’m glad that more people are calling Scott out. If there’s one thing the ALT.NET gatherings have taught me, it’s that this is a community that almost unanimously is interested in engaging, learning, tackling misperceptions, and working toward a common good.

    I feel that Scott deflects many opportunities to engage and educate and instead chooses to berate and emasculate, which is self-defeating. The community benefits from people engaging, whether they are trying to learn, challenge, or agree. Smacking them in the mouth may make you feel superior, but it’s not going to help you create the “united front” you desire. What it does succeed in doing is making people less interested in engaging.

    I completely agree with Dave about Scott being a leader, incredibly passionate, intelligent, even inspiring. I like being around him, in person, and learning from him. I wish I could engage with him and learn from him more. Unfortunately, I don’t support the way he treats many people who I feel are trying to take positive steps, but aren’t in immediate compliance with his criteria. He’s informed me that this is a position of naivete. I discussed this briefly in person at the ALT.NET “Leadership Summit” during one of the sessions, using JP Boodhoo as an example of someone who I think is an incredible leader and activist, who manages to change developers dramatically via positive interactions. I’ve had a few debates about it in more public forums like Twitter, one of his favorite places to go on the attack, because he has an audience and is masterful at public emasculation.

    I haven’t seen much hope in getting him to adjust his approach, and I think he enjoys viewing himself as a lion in a herd of sheep. My hope is that the community can continue to move forward in a positive, inclusive way, and not let his tantrums deter us from the message which, while undoubtedly having received great contributions from Scott, is not owned nor decided entirely by him.

  22. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 12:39 pm 

    @Brian – Philly also sounds like a good candidate for the next U.S. location. I offered to help Laribee with some of the administrivia if he decided to try to organize another one in Boston. I’ll extend the same offer to you. Just let me know what you decide.

    The one caveat is that the conference date will have to be at least 3-4 months away before I can get spousal approval to attend. She informed me as soon as I walked in the door that our daughter had better be sleeping through the night before I go to another one…:-)

  23. Scott Bellware April 23, 2008 12:51 pm 

    Brian,

    Your analysis isn’t well-considered or well-factored. I see in you a predisposition to community social climbing and opportunism. I’m disappointed in the effort you put into thinking through your conclusion. You can and should do better.

  24. Brian Donahue April 23, 2008 1:04 pm 

    Scott,

    Thanks for the analysis. I see in you a predisposition to assume everyone sucks. I don’t feel any need to defend myself – I’ve fallen into that trap with you a few times now.

  25. Scott Bellware April 23, 2008 1:08 pm 

    This thread presents a number of clear demonstrations of the sub-optimizing intellectual and behavioral qualities that I personally feel are always waiting in the wings in the alt.net community.

    Suppressing craven behaviors or not having the opportunities to express them doesn’t mean that courage has taken root. This community is still far too predisposed to craven opportunism.

    The lingering behavioral cancers in the alt.net community aren’t cured. They sleep waiting for the next trigger and the subsequent relapse, as demonstrated here.

    I want to organize an event in Austin that follows the path of the first event that I organized in Austin. In many respects, I hope that it won’t be like other events that you’ve attended – not even like events of my own doing that you’ve attended, as the Austin 07 event hopefully was.

    I want to get together with people who are looking to give no quarter when it comes to the predispositions to the craven behavior that keeps continuous improvement artificially suppressed.

    The Austin event isn’t – as I’ve said – another alt.net club meeting – a club that I’m on the inside of and have no qualms criticizing. I’m confident that others can replicate those kinds of events at will. They’re cookie-cutter events from a conception and organization perspective. My purpose isn’t best served by re-trodding trails that I’ve already been on for some time.

    Setting up last year’s event in Austin was pathfinding work. This year’s Austin event will be more pathfinding work – otherwise, I see no point. If you are personally invested in attending an event that is a large-scale alt.net user group open spaces meeting, then the Austin event may not be for you.

    I am personally interested in attending more events like Austin 07 and Seattle, but those events don’t really need much pathfinding to make them happen, and anyone in the community should be able to organize them at this point.

    The event in Austin is specially meant to address hard issues in continuous improvement – including predispositions toward shallow opportunism that some of this post and its commentary are exemplary of. That is what I see as the next step, and that is where I hope the event in Austin will go. If it doesn’t go there, no sweat – the right people will come and the right thing will happen.

    We will be talking about tools and practices again in Austin, but not exclusively, and we’ll hopefully be talking about them within the context of continuous improvement.

    I’m suggesting that members of the community search themselves for a considered understanding of whether they are the right people for this event. Again, this isn’t a user-group styled open space we’re talking about. If that’s the kind of thing you want, then don’t waste your time on the Austin event. The law of two feet is sacred and in effect.

    No one is black-listed, but consider whether the open spaces event in Austin in the fall is the event that is right for you. If you have questions or doubts, call me up and talk to me about it. We can figure out together whether your interest and investment is commensurate with the intentions of the gathering.

    I’m glad that you guys enjoyed Seattle. Your enjoyment of the event is yet more encouragement to me that the encounters and gatherings that I continue conceive of are on the right path. For those of you who chose to not come to Austin, we’ll see you at the next Open Conf styled event.

  26. Max Pool April 23, 2008 1:47 pm 

    Scott,

    No volume of well crafted words can hide the fact that you are being a hypocrite.

    The message that you are immune to the innate cowardliness people experience when challenged with change is laughable considering this all started when you blew your top at some light criticism.

    Your core mantra of “change or die” is in itself flawed. If you ever stop your eternal trailblazing, you contradict yourself. However, by never adapting to new opinions points that you have the inability to change – thus the larger contradiction.

    Suggesting that you are open minded and appreciate bold ideas that push the boundaries let me just say – you are being a dick.

    I would be more than excited to be part of a Philly ALT.NET. Diversity is this group’s largest strength, not elitism.

  27. Scott Bellware April 23, 2008 2:07 pm 

    Max,

    I don’t think I stated anywhere that I’m immune to innate cowardliness.

    I didn’t blow my top at the criticism. I didn’t blow my top, and I’m disappointed in the quality of the analysis and conclusions rather than an instance of criticism.

    I appreciate criticism and welcome it, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has meaningfully engaged with me who would refute this.

    My intention here isn’t to be a dick. I’m at peace with this.

    I’m glad that you appreciate the diversity in Philly ALT.NET. It has always been a goal and a good part of my action and work in community organization to set stages for diversity. I’m glad to see the manifestations of this radiating from early, explicit efforts and considerations. I hope to increase diversity even more at the event in Austin.

  28. Russell Ball April 23, 2008 11:24 pm 

    @Scott

    I would agree that your greatest strength is in your ability to generate innovative thoughts. Good luck with Austin. I’m sure it will be a worthwhile event and that future events will adopt that parts that worked well.

    As far as your other comments are concerned, I really don’t see very many specifics that clearly explain why you think this post is “cravenly opportunistic” or my analysis is “shallow”.

    I would love it if you could give me a simple paragraph that is devoid of pithy, abstract twitterisms and explains in detail exactly what you disagree with. Abstractions are helpful at times, but I can think of a million different details that could potentially fit under the umbrella of the vague criticisms you left us with. I have no way of being certain which ones you have in mind unless you roll up your sleaves and get more specific.

  29. Scott Bellware April 24, 2008 1:33 am 

    What you see as “pithy, abstract twitterisms” is in fact the way I talk. Sorry that I can’t help you here. Would that I could go back in time and make my schooling more commensurate with what would eventually become the American expectations for English comprehension.

  30. Russell Ball April 24, 2008 3:31 am 

    I apologize for dismissing your style of communication.

    All I’m really looking for is something along the lines of “Here are three reasons why I think this post is cravenly optimistic…”

    I’m just saying that I feel that you’ve provided sufficient analogies and adjectives to explain HOW you feel, but not enough supporting detail to explain WHY you feel feel that way.

    Express it however you feel most comfortable, just please focus less on the how and more on the why.

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