I spent three days last week at OSCON 2014 and enjoyed it. I’m not actually sure what OSCON means any more, but I hope it finds a way to stay vital.

There are a lot of good software conferences these days; many of the best are dedicated to a particular technology. Python/Ruby/Go folks, and the various database tribes, have a selection of annuals and regionals, while if you’re a JavaScript weenie (browser or Node flavor) there are events most weeks. But somehow none of those feel important; if you want your tech meetup to have actual cultural impact you need a broader focus, a theme, something that captures imaginations.

This year’s model · The organizers have helpfully published Signals from OSCON 2014, cherrypicking the keynotes; I’d say all of these are worth checking out (but I’m biased, one of them is me).

On the technology side, well, soup-to-nuts. My two favorite talks were William Rowe of the Apache foundation on setting up SSL in a modern Web server, and Andrew Sorensen (who’s also on that keynotes page) on the technology behind his music composition/performance setup.

But there’s a big question kind of lurking in the background here.

Open Source, you say? · Back when OSS was weirder and sexier, OSCON was bigger; today, being open-source is so mainstream that there are essentially no technologies that you can only talk about in this context. So does this meeting even need to happen?

Let me offer two reasons why: One technical, one cultural. On the technology side, infrastructure code — compilers, databases, web servers, client toolkits — is overwhelmingly open-source. Infrastructure engineering culture has common threads, and a different flavor than over in the app world. So, this is the place to talk about that.

The cultural side gets tricky. Open-source has always had its detractors; in the old days, it was unprofessional, a dangerous commie/hippie thing. These days, there are critiques from feminists, diversity advocates, and anyone who dislikes male-white/Asian monocultures; helpfully aggregated in Model View Culture, whose current issue is conveniently about Open Source. And hey, Steve Klabnik argues that OSS just might be a tool of capitalist oppression.

Let’s grant the force of many of those arguments, but still: At the end of the day, OSS is by definition about sharing; and about working on the things you feel like working on. Which certainly doesn’t rule out all the human cultural pathologies (see above); but does actively encourage some of the better behaviors observed in Homo sapiens.

So, those are the two legs I think the OSCON of the future needs to stand on: Infrastructure and sharing.

Pix · Meh; I’ve got tired of shooting people on stage, and I didn’t bring a good portrait lens. But that’s what I should do in future, and make a serious attempt to come back with 100 good open-source portraits. Anyhow, here’s one of Randal Schwarz, with focus problems but it’s interesting. If you don’t know who he is you should read about him.

Randal Schwartz

Biz · So, we may like sharing but we still wanna get paid. So, it costs real money to go to OSCON, and some of the keynotes are advertisements (of wildly varying quality) by people who wrote big checks to O’Reilly.

I don’t particularly like this stuff, but I do actually like the exhibition. Some of the booths are enterprise-tech dinosaurs clutching for straws of open-source relevance; remember, the infrastructure is OSS whether they like it or not. Others are startups. Others are collectives and institutes and foundations and Projects. A lot of them are there frankly just to hire people (and some of those jobs aren’t Open-Source at all, go figure).

I disclosed here a few months ago that I was advising Auth0, an interesting little Identity startup, and I advised them to come to OSCON. I think it worked out well for them, but that’s because they’re ruthlessly developer-focused; offered as an example of exactly the kind of vendor for whom this show is a winner.

Auth0 at OSCON

Protip: Auth0 did something I haven’t seen before at a trade show and it worked really well; they had a big screen sticking up showing a continuous loop of a screen-capture of someone setting an app up for Auth0, with lots of JSON and JS and other config stuff going back and forth across the screen. A lot of your anti-social geeks who don’t actually want to interact with anyone remotely sales-y were standing there watching this with educated attention. If you’re exhibiting at a developer-focused meetup, you might want to think about doing this.

I’ll be back · Because the people who go to OSCON are good people, and my tribe, and I always learn something.



Contributions

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From: Anon (Jul 30 2014, at 11:15)

I think OSCON's really gone downhill as an attendee and as a speaker.

It's just too expensive for normal people to attend, and everyone who does attend is there for work, so you lose a vital piece of what's important in OSS.

Part of the cost is the venue. It needs a new place and a way for more non-sponsored people to attend. The convention center will charge you _$97 dollars for a pizza_. And the AV costs are horribly steep.

Our company could send more people to a show like SCaLE and get better topical talks (because the contribution bar is much lower), get to talk to more of our users, and the quality of the speakers is just as good.

The good content is CLS, and the BOFs (which are poorly attended because they don't earn Oreilly money, so they never get marketed, and are always up against sponsored parties offering free drinks.

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From: Gordon Haff (Jul 31 2014, at 07:20)

I was pondering some of the same questions after OSCON this year. Given the breadth of open source these days, what's the point really of a conference dedicated to open source as a whole? And mix in a certain cynical skepticism about relatively big $$ conferences--though OSCON isn't as pricey as some--held in convention centers.

Those things said, O'Reilly IMO seems to have been able to maintain OSCON as a worthwhile venue even if I would be challenged to precisely articulate what its distinctive value is. Yes, sponsored talks are a very mixed bag and, in an ideal world, we could probably dispense with a lot of the cost associated with these conferences but local user groups and very targeted events don't really scale.

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