The Monktoberfest conference held yesterday in Portland, Maine was a great success. The first-time developer conference about social, tech and beer delivered all that it promised, and then some.
The conference, organized by RedMonk emphasized the social side of software development. Unlike many conferences that are hard tech or business focused, Monktoberfest focused primarily on the things that make software development a passion and not just a job. And beer, of course.
Attention Conference Planners
I didn’t do a formal survey, but I asked a lot of the Monktoberfest attendees what they thought of the event. Not a single person complained about the event. So what did the Redmonk folks get right? Two things above all else – catering and content.
“People matter, and we have to care about them.” James Governor
Obviously, beer was a big focus of Monktoberfest. The evening before the event we met at a fantastic craft beer place in Portland and had a great selection of beers and appetizers. The conversation flowed well, and it was a great ice-breaker for the following day.
The day of the event, the RedMonk folks arranged a really good lunch that was not the standard conference fare. Lobster rolls, chowder, and a few other options that I forget. (But worth noting that there were good vegetarian options as well.) And yes, there were good beers for lunch as well.
I’m sure the catering cost was a bit higher than the average conference on a per-attendee basis, but I’m also sure that was a major contributing factor to attendees’ happiness with the event. Well-fed people are happy people as a rule. Conferences that skimp on the food and drink tend to skimp elsewhere. To be fair, I’ve been at conferences that were well-received that had mediocre food, but that’s usually community run events that don’t charge much (or anything) for attendance. If you’re charging, making with good food is a really effective way to ensure that people go away happy.
The wrap-up dinner was, well, over-the-top. We ate at The Lion’s Pride, a bar/eatery in Brunswick that has an A+ rating on Beeradvocate. The beers were unusual and quite good. The food – starting with appetizers, then several courses and dessert – was abundant and well-done. I’d write more about it, but I think it might be cruel to those who didn’t attend to go into detail.
Lessons Learned at Monktoberfest
While there’s plenty of good things to be said about the food and drink at Monktoberfest, I can find reasonably good food and drink in St. Louis. I wouldn’t have flown cross-country to attend Monktoberfest if it hadn’t promised to be enlightening as well.
After lunch we heard from Theo Schlossnagle, who talked about social improvements in monitoring. Schlossnagle had a lot of really good points about what we can learn from monitoring and how to implement process in a business.
Zack Urlocker, now with Zendesk, gave a really good presentation on social and distributed development. Urlocker, formerly with MySQL, has a lot of tips here that he gathered from his time at MySQL and by reaching out to other folks who manage or work on distributed teams.
One thing Urlocker said that really resonated with me was when he talked about team leaders who didn’t make an effort to go where the developers were. Instead of one person traveling to the team, they’d require the entire team to travel to them. That’s simply broken, for a lot of reasons. It’s more costly, and it’s lousy for morale.
Urlocker also stressed the importance of not putting all the burden of time zones on one team or person. For instance, if you have employees all over the world, meetings shouldn’t always revolve around one time zone. Nobody appreciates having to always be the one waking up early or staying up late to attend virtual meetings.
On Difficult Developers
The last presentation, “Assholes are Killing Your Project,” was also lively. Donnie Berkholz, of the Gentoo project, has been giving this presentation for a while but it’s still relevant. Berkholz largely talks about open source projects, but it also applies to companies with volatile and difficult employees.
Conferences that skimp on the food and drink tend to skimp elsewhere. To be fair, I’ve been at conferences that were well-received that had mediocre food, but that’s usually community run events that don’t charge much (or anything) for attendance. If you’re charging, making with good food is a really effective way to ensure that people go away happy.
One of the points Berkholz made is that we seem to think that a lack of social skills is consistent with being a good developer. Many talented software engineers tend to be, well, difficult. He noted that some of the more contentious and damaging people in Gentoo (that inspired the talk) were also extremely productive and probably “better” than many of their peers. But they weren’t worth the damage that they caused.
Berkholz showed a graph of involvement with Gentoo, and overlaid lines on the graph that corresponded with the rise in assholishness and decline in community participation. A key thing, says Berkholz, is to have metrics – have a way to display the impact on the project that comes with dealing with the difficult contributors.
That might be difficult in some situations, but Berkholz recommends pulling contribution statistics and mailing list traffic stats to demonstrate a correlation between bad behavior and a drop-off in contributions.
After Berkholz’s talk, James Governor took a few minutes to wrap up the conference. Monktoberfest, says Governor in part, is about the fact that “people matter, and we have to care about them.” Software development is not just about making money, it’s about people.
Where to Improve?
Really, there’s only one thing I’d ding the conference for, and one suggestion that I’ve made for the next event. (Yes, there will be another event.)
If you look over the agenda you might notice a pattern. A smashing line-up of speakers, no doubt, but not very diverse. Monktoberfest had no women speaking at all, and not too many women in attendance. I did talk to O’Grady and Governor about the testosterone-heavy speakers list, and they let me know they had approached women to speak at the event but the scheduling didn’t work for the women that they asked. They also made clear that they were going to make an effort to ensure that they have women on the list next time around.
The suggestion I have is that they should consider a second day with an un-conference format. The audience that attended Monktoberfest had a lot to offer, and I think that some of the talks might have spun off great discussions with more time. Plus, as fantastic as the event was, it’s a lot of travel for a one-day event.
But the RedMonk gang knocked it out of the part for a first-time event. It was well worth the trip, and I’m looking forward to round two in London.