How Conferences Feed the Hype Cycle

    Nicolai Parlog
    Nicolai Parlog

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    Over the course of the last twelve months I’ve been to about a dozen conferences and as many community meetings. It’s always fun to listen to speakers talk about new technologies or interesting insights. They obviously know their stuff very well and are apt at presenting it in a fun way. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether it is all too smooth.

    The Missing Perspective

    The more well-known the conference the more professional the speakers (usually). That’s great, of course, but professional speakers usually spend a lot of time, well, speaking professionally at conferences. It’s often part of their job description as they are technology evangelists, developer advocates, trainers, authors, or consultants. One thing few of them are: full-time developers.

    That’s not a bad thing, coding is no holy activity that everybody who speaks about software has to perform forty hours a week. But if you do that, if you spend the vast majority of your work time in software projects, be that as a coder, tester, architect, ops person, or all at once, you have a different experience than someone who doesn’t do that. With that experience comes a unique perspective on technologies and practices and that perspective, I feel, is vastly underrepresented at conferences.

    Feeding the Hype Cycle

    There are a couple of implications but the one I wondered about the most is this one: Could that be something that contributes to the constant hype cycle? I mean, go through the list of jobs that I claim are strongly represented in the speaker community. How many of those earn their living with “new stuff”? Technology evangelists? Oh yeah! Developer advocates? Definitely! Trainers? Often. Authors? Mostly. Consultants? Depends, but surely a lot.

    So, yes, many speakers have the job to play with new languages or language versions, unreleased frameworks, and cutting-edge architectural styles. They do that and report their findings back to the community – usually in the form of “Look at this awesome thing!”

    In and of itself that’s of course not bad. But if that perspective is dominating conferences (as well the influential sites and blogs for that matter), how do you think that affects the developers who are actually creating production software? If almost everybody they see, read, or hear in public, maybe even look up or aspire to, talks about shiny new things?

    Wouldn’t they mostly consume content dealing with the cutting edge? Wouldn’t they want to try that stuff out? Wouldn’t they want to play with just the same things so they can partake in that discussion? Wouldn’t they assume that only the new shiny is really great because, hey, nobody talks about that old stuff anymore?!

    So on one side you have developers who love to learn and try things out and on the other side you have speakers who, by virtue of they daily work, are mostly talking about the cutting edge. There’s a clear demand and a supply to match but when there is so much more promotion of new technologies than of proven tech’s untapped potentials, is it surprising so many developers want to work with the former rather than the latter? Without a counterweight of interesting talks about getting better in what we do daily, isn’t it natural that we live in a never ending hype cycle merry-go-round?

    the hype cycle circus fed by conferences

    The One with the Disclaimers

    If you’ve read this far and are ready to send angry tweets my way, read on a little further. First of all, I don’t see this as an individual failure on the professional speakers’ part – I think this is a structural problem.

    Then, as some of you may know, I am also part of that crowd of almost-non-coding speakers, authors, etc. And I am not excepting myself from this observation! Actually, that’s where it started. Since I stopped coding for a living (thus doing it much less) I realized that I had less of my own experience to draw from for talks or articles. But unreleased stuff like Java 9 or JUnit 5 – that’s easy! All that’s needed is to put in the time to get to know the nuts and bolts and, bahm!, you’re ready to churn out content.

    But let some time pass… to still be able to tell developers who spent five years with those technologies something new, you better also spent a lot of time with them. To be cold-blooded: That’s a much worse publicity payoff you get with regards to the invested time. And it is also much harder to get your foot in the door. Conferences strongly prefer talks about the cutting edge and getting a slot talking about some lame old tech is not that easy.

    Finally, this is just one part of the hype cycle problem of course. Many of the mechanisms I described apply to sites (like this one) and blogs much the same There are also differences, though – mostly their format and the fact that most traffic is guided by Google, which works much better for “Java 8 lambda tutorial” than for “advanced uses of generics”. Anyway, this post is about talks, not articles, even though they would warrant a similar analysis.

    Final Words

    So what to do? I have some ideas but they are raw and going into them would lead to a whole different discussion. This post is just a problem statement:

    That great conferences are dominated by professional speakers accelerates the hype cycle.