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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.