The Belgium Conferences 2015 Edition


Getting to the conference

It was that magic time of the year again - Belgium lured professionals and enthusiasts to great conferences. FOSDEM is one of the world’s largest gathering of open source software contributors and vendors. For me, the place to be afterwards is Config Management Camp, a gathering of users and developers of configuration management software such as Puppet, Ansible or Chef. (Fun fact: attendees expressed broader interest in Ansible than Chef this year, apparently.)

Getting to Belgium is a breeze for me - I don’t live far from Berlin’s TXL airport, which is especially convenient, thanks to its short walking distances. As such, I set foot on Belgian ground some two hours after leaving my apartment.

However, for reasons that I will go into in a bit, I came a little ill prepared. I had not plotted a route from the airport to my hotel. I figured it would be simple enough to find my way across town. Boy, was I ever wrong. The bus terminal near the airport does not feature a map. There is a diagram of the means of public transport, but this is not helpful if you don’t know the name of the stops to which you could head.

Odyssey?

I retreated to the airport proper to connect to WiFi. Brussels airport requires lots of personal information before allowing access. What fun when using a cellphone late in the evening. To find my way, I tried my hotel’s website as well as the city of Brussels’ mobile website. Both proved utterly incapable of identifying a bus stop close to the hotel, let alone a route from the airport.

Now I don’t like to rely on Google for all things in my everyday life. But imagine my glee when the maps app gave me all the details I could want upon entering the destination address, along with live tracking that keeps working after leaving the WiFi zone. I had finally determined on which bus to get, and where to change lines. It was a little disappointing to learn that my ING visa card didn’t work with the ticket vending machines. Said machines won’t accept bills either, so I had to settle with getting my ticket directly on the bus. I braced myself for a revival of my high school French, but luckily the driver spoke some English.

The last leg of my journey from cold Berlin to FOSDEM proper was the 30 minute walk from the hotel to campus the next morning. The quarter of town that I wandered (Ixelles, I believe) is quite impressive. Historic architecture next to modern blocks and streets. Parks and public art wherever you look.

Streets of Brussels

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, I did not have the luxury of checking into the hotel and getting to sleep right away.

No sleep till campus

My conference season started off straight from an intense week of crunching at work. By the way - quick shoutout to MPeX.net GmbH who sponsored my whole trip and keep paying me for my humble developsing skills. So not only had I worked crazy hours for a straight week, I was also still on call duty during the last night before the con.

Murphy’s law was in full effect, apparently, and right when I finished the final chores that I had needed to bring from the office, the pager went bananas. An important server had decided to freeze up, so I took way over an hour to salvage things via hotel WiFi.

The following nights were not much more restful, with more than enough leftover and new tasks that needed finishing before the day of my return. Of course, I still had the advantage of not being jet-lagged at all; I live in Belgium’s timezone. Great respect to all guests who arrived from America and even volunteered at the conference in various capacities.

Large spaces and small rooms

[Oh, look, he’s finally going to write about FOSDEM. What do you know?] This was the first FOSDEM I attended and expectations were quite high. I had received recommendations from several peers who had been to some previous incarnations. And indeed, the atmosphere is quite amazing. Everyone is excited and curious and milling about. The sheer number of people that is scattered across the campus can give you the feeling of being part of some sort of strange and elaborate ant colony.

Within few minutes of wandering the halls, I chanced upon Eric Sorenson, the first of many Puppet Labs employees to follow. The opening keynote was part of my schedule, although in hindsight, half an hour of additional sleep would have served me better. At least this way, I caught the useful advice to “not die on the slippery pathways between buildings”. First talks were in Configuration Management by Ryan and Adrian (who noticed and greeted my mid-sentence - thanks dude, that was rad). Met up with Peter after the talk as well.

After attending some urgent business (as in actual business - you won’t find toilet euphemisms on this blog) I collected some advice from Eric to find Henrik in the cafeteria. To my amazement, he was not alone but in the company of Luke, Brian, Gareth, James and others, forming a veritable Puppet regular’s table.

So many peas, such small pots

After trading some more antics with Adrien, I tried to make my way into the Perl language room to hear about the new characteristics of Perl 6. No luck though - the language rooms were small and packed, for the most part. Perl in particular was not only fully seated with all walls lined by standing listeners. There were also people sitting in the space in front of the seats, and in virtually any square foot of empty floor.

Quick aside: one language room that was not crowded (at least at some times during day one) was about Open Document processing - if that’s your cup of tea, you might be able to have a relaxed time amidst the semi-orderly chaos that is FOSDEM.

There were other rooms that would never quite fill up, i.e. the larger rooms. The IaaS room in particular struck me. They had a larger auditorium and I was reminded of my university days - inconsiderate folks hogging the edge seats of otherwise empty rows abound. A diligent volunteer at the door guided stragglers towards easily reachable seats and started bouncing them away after those were all taken. After the morning in the crowded configuration management room, I was rather incredulous at the latter. There was a lesson here:

Before a talk starts, the organizers should make the seated attendees flush either to one side of the rows or the middle, leaving few or no empty seats between each other. This will allow stragglers to proceed to free seats even during the talk without causing a commotion.

Such hiccups aside, the talk program was truly amazingly organized by the staff of volunteers.

Unique experience

Another highlight found me by surprise - one speaker in configuration management didn’t show up. The room organizers stood up to the challenge and took the stage for an impromptu Ask Me Anything session, themed around open source communities’ health and how to measure it. It contained a tasty side-dish on the topic of diversity in our larger community, which ended up as a recurring theme throughout the cons. More on these later.

Other notable impressions from FOSDEM:

  • met and chatted with David Lutterkort
  • the cafeteria serves no food whatsoever - bring your own, likely from the decentralized food court
  • note to self, do get at least one waffle next year - what’s wrong with you?
  • the Puppet booth was hosted by the illustrious Johan De Wit
  • Mitchell Hashimoto could occasionally be found at the inofficial Puppet Labs cafeteria table
  • Kara, Dawn et al were absolutely rocking the configuration management room
  • getting into James’ talk was difficult but rewarding
  • both Adrien and Eric claim to have the attention span of a young squirrel - coincidence?

Perl

Towards the end, I caught one talk on the main track after all - Larry Wall promised to present on the imminent release of Perl 6. In front of a packed lecture hall, this grand master of open source celebrated (fittingly) a lecture. He came prepared with an endless stream of Tolkien allegories to the Perl languages, strung into a loose narrative. While rather entertaining, it missed some golden opportunities (where were the movie stills with silly captions?) and generally failed to live up to its potential due to a somewhat wooden delivery. Still, we were witnessing living history on stage, and it sure was entertaining to watch jet-lagged Americans loosing it to the surreality of it all. Check out Adrien’s twitter feed from February 1st for all the details.

Condensing it

After The Tolkien Lecture, I hung out with Adrien, Peter and Morgan. After some antics in the cafeteria and the futile attempt to get into a talk on testing, we were found by David and Igor. Adrien and Morgan wrapped up their conference duties and we all departed for Ghent. Config Management Camp was finally at hand.

Transfer to Ghent is always quite pleasant. Train tickets are inexpensive, yet the trains are quite comfortable and practical. Some two hours of riding and shenanigans later, we arrived in Ghent Sint Pieter’s to check into our respective hotels and then meet up with Henrik et al for sushi. I was amazed to finally lay eyes on the breath-taking old town core, after having spent the entire con last year near the station and college.

Ghent

Config Management Camp is smaller than FOSDEM by at least an order of magnitude. All attendees can fit themselves into a large lobby for coffee and snacks. It’s not unlike a large family reunion, and it even feels kind of like that. Everyone gets together, catches up, builds new connections and generally has a lot of fun. The talks are much more focused as well, naturally. There are only a handful of tracks, and quite a number of slots that are only filled on the main track. This year, the amazing keynotes featured Mitchell Hashimoto and other excellent speakers.

Not much of a tracker

The Puppet track was quite captivating again. Aside from Luke’s traditional Q&A session, it boasted talks from various Puppet Labs employees such as Morgan and Colleen, as well as reknown community members like RI.

I had resolved to not glue myself onto this track exclusively the way I had handled it last year, but the folks didn’t make it easy. The more interesting Chef talks overlapped with ones that I felt to be obligatory in Puppet. As a compromise, I did manage to catch some main track action, such as Gareth’s wonderful presentation (or, as I felt, his sermon - difficult to grasp in full depth, broad and encompassing, and leaving you with a sense that there is a greater scheme of things).

I cannot stress this enough: Config Management Camp is much denser with networking opportunities than FOSDEM, with coordinated breaks, free catering, a semi-open bar in the evening after the first day and a general atmosphere that is much more personal. Shout-out to the great Puppet Labs folks (and Igor!) who took me out on Tuesday - definitely among the best times in recent memory.

Recurring themes

It appeared to me that this year of conferences was themed around a few central aspects. Of course, this impression is partly informed by my choice of talks to listen to, but some issues were pervasive.

Clouds

Well, this particular buzzword is not new at all. Still, and especially from an operations perspective, there are certain aspects of the topic that bear repeating and ever further exploration:

  • the “do”s and “don’t”s of building cloud based platforms
  • existing and emerging technologies to create and manage such platforms
  • the wider view across the board, with fundamental considerations

These are exciting times for this industry. If you will, you can even see a shadow of Skynet between the lines of some of the presentations…or this is just me growing silly/paranoid/ecstatic.

Testing

Despite missing the complete testing track at FOSDEM, I found myself watching testing related presentations in the context of configuration management time and again. This is only logical, I guess: Tools like Puppet allow us to express infrastructure in code. The tools are constantly becoming more powerful, and the use cases grow in complexity. Operations teams are borrowing ever more concepts and techniques from software development.

As such, it is probably a natural progression to witness continuous integration and delivery in the context of configuration management increasingly often. Testing has certainly risen on my list of priorities for this year.

Diversity, the lack thereof

There was some loud meta-discussion going on behind the scenes of the event. From what I gathered, things were sparked by the missing code of conduct at FOSDEM. Apparently, the team behind the event had been pleased so far that the con was universally enjoyable without any written codex. A feminist (read: judicious) block of attendees now demanded a reality check.

Well sure, everyone you meet at FOSS events is nice and cordial. Why would it be necessary to put forth any express rules for what is common sense? Well, news flash: Sexism is not a phenomenon that is limited to the jocks at the next sports bar. Harassment is not monopolized by the socially disadvantaged.

The FOSDEM staff acknowledged the criticism, and created the first code of conduct in the history of the conference. Config Management Camp received a codex as well. I assume this was deemed appropriate in the light of the discussions surrounding FOSDEM. And I agree.

Discussing sexism and ruthless conduct as an obstacle for diversity, of both race and gender, is especially important with regard to the state of the industry, and the business world at large. This state is manifest in the conference crowd itself: it’s a large slew of white dudes. Caucasian males are absolutely dominating the audience of any FOSDEM talk. (There was some additional flak because the line of speakers was similarly monotone.)

The percentage of female attendees was even relatively impressive, somewhere above 10%. Yes, the fact that this feels like a lot is another symptom of the problem.

Representative tweet

In Ghent, the ratios were more “usual”, with very few women milling among the crowd. As for racial diversity, that was insignificant at both conferences, despite their international nature.

Now when approached from an individual angle, this might not seem to be so problematic. After all, I am a dude, born in central Europe, fervent supporter of the open source movement and I cannot help my background. I can only assume that the majority of guys around me will feel the same way. (And yes, there are larger social issues that keep girls and young women from even considering careers and hobbies in IT, but we need not concern ourselves with this scope just now.) And Belgium is in northern Europe, after all, where Caucasians just form an absolute demographic majority.

But there were lots of guest from abroad, where society is generally quite diverse. People of color live in all parts of Europe as well, so it should not make sense that so few of them engage in open source development. And needless to say, women make up about 50% of most societies. It makes no sense whatsoever that this is not reflected by the open source crowd. IT should not be a male domain.

In a broader scope, there might be other fields of work that can be sensibly dominated by men (I’m not disclosing which one’s I have in mind), but again: computer science and engineering are definitely not among them.

So why is our open source community such a monoculture? This question bears considering. Have you ever stopped to do just that? Jez Humble put it wonderfully in his amazing keynote in Ghent: This is a problem that we are facing, and it won’t do to wait for the women to solve it. We have to get on that.

To add my own to cents: us guys are currently the backbone of the movement, like it or not. The issue was created by men and it is being perpetuated by men. It would be rather impudent to expect others to clean up after us.

Speaking of sexism

The very end of the trip was a real doozy. Brussels airport boasts some large screens near security control that explain the procedure to travellers waiting in line. It uses a short animated film to demonstrate, featuring a hulking security guard and two travelers. The first is a man around 30, wearing business casual. His belongings mainly comprise a laptop computer and his wallet. He indicates to the gruff looking guard that he is not carrying anything else and proceeds through the metal detector.

Enter the female traveler. She is about the same age as the man, wearing a short skirt and hot pink jacket. Her suitcase is pink as well, as is her purse. She upends the latter to reveal a lipstick, some other small items and some coins. Her luggage includes skincare products. As she moves towards the detector, she smiles flirtatiously at the huge security man, who awkwardly smiles back.

Seriously Brussels airport, what’s wrong with you?

Edit hey, what do you know - you can watch the whole piece on YouTube.

Closing thoughts

All things considered, the Belgium trip was absolutely rewarding. Config Management Camp surpassed my expectations once more, it was such a great time. I saw many new things in beautiful Ghent and caught up with amazing people that I got to know a year ago. One simple insight that I gained: A conference is more fun the more people you already know.

It’s probably that last bit that lead to FOSDEM not quite living up to my expectations. Veterans had recommended it so highly, I had probably imagined even more of the magic that happens in Ghent. Also, I was not really prepared for the sheer dimensions of it all. And still, there were definite highs such as the aforementioned AMA session and cafeteria chats.

I had been wondering why a number of my peers had vocally rejected the proceedings of FOSDEM and would attend Config Management Camp exclusively, even though Brussels is conveniently close by. In hindsight, it’s not that astounding. Leaving Friday night is quite strenuous, you loose the weekend, and getting into talks can be difficult or impossible. The crowd is more anonymous and dispersed.

There will most definitely be yet another trip to Belgium next winter, though some deliberation will be required as to whether FOSDEM will be on my schedule then. But I will definitely try to be in time and make the CFP for Config Management Camp again, which I missed this time around - cons with a presentation are the best, after all. But all that aside, I’m already looking forward to meeting all my FOSS peers again.

You folks are the best.