OSDC 2005 Wrap Up

By Matthew Magain
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The second Open Source Developer’s Conference, held in Melbourne this week, can be most simply described as a massive geek-fest.

It’s probably unfair to compare it to the Web Essentials conference that I attended earlier this year, because OSDC is – in the organizers’ words – “created by developers, for developers” whereas Web Essentials has less of a grass-roots base.

But I’m going to make the comparison anyway, as I think it does provide a useful measuring stick. As far as I could tell, OSDC differed from Web Essentials in five aspects:

  1. speakers were not paid. This meant that the presentations varied wildly in terms of quality and relevance. There were a number of excellent presentations that appealed to the entire audience, but there were also quite a few talks that were amateurish and about completely obscure topics that would only interest a handful of people.
  2. presentations were much shorter. Apart from a 60-minute keynote presentation at the beginning and end of each day, all talks were only half an hour long. The more experienced speakers made good use of this limited time, but for some speakers it resulted in their 73 slides being whizzed through far too quickly for anyone to digest.
  3. the variety of topics and industry representation was mind-boggling. The broad umbrella of ‘open source’ was the only common thread linking all presentations, and this resulted in topics ranging from doctorate research papers to entrepeneurial advice to snapshots of large-scale government projects to corporate sales pitches.
  4. three streams, instead of two. Unfortunately this meant that occasionally there were three topics that interested me and only one that I could attend.
  5. less innovation, more unashamed geekiness. WE05 was exciting to be a part of because of all the new technologies and new ways of thinking that were presented. Microformats, AJAX, user-centred design, innovative ways to make web pages accessible – all these topics were introduced by the people who either invented them or were the most proficient in the world at applying them. We were hearing the latest and the greatest from the forward thinkers responsible for advancing the medium of choice for everyone in the room – the web. OSDC presenters on the other hand, were passionate about their area of expertise, but there wasn’t a common medium for everyone to get excited about other than “being a geek” and “free software”.

That said, it was a worthwhile three days with plenty of topics relevant for web professionals. Here were some of the highlights for me.

  • Jon Oxer’s opening presentation about how easy it is to connect random bits of hardware to your PC and talk to them using C, PHP or whatever language you fancy. I haven’t decided whether the coolest part of his talk was his demonstration of how his letter box sends him email (and a text message to his phone) when the postman delivers his mail, or the fact that his cat has been injected with a microchip that opens his cat flap.
  • Paul Fenwick’s entertaining tips for giving a good presentation, which included using a Perl module to echo pre-prepared characters to the screen regardless of what keys you press, so that you don’t make any mistakes when giving a live demo.
  • Scott Penrose’s talk about the ambitious project he calls Zaltana, where he has added HTML hooks to the templates of common web applications such as SquirrelMail, MediaWiki and other custom objects and methods in order to provide a common look and feel across the whole framework for his clients that is reusable.
  • Gus Gollings’ discussion of the Semantic Web. This was a different (less technical) take on the concept than I had heard in the past. Gus provided a rich historical context and posed some thought-provoking questions about what might be one day achievable, and anything that gets me thinking about the future always captures my interest.
  • SitePoint’s own Kevin Yank‘s talk about Mozilla XForms (watch Kev’s blog for more on this soon).
  • Luce Chandon’s description of how open source software and the concept of “agents” was used at a Ford manufacturing plant to ensure motor vehicle parts were delivered to the assembly line in a just-in-time fashion.
  • The “Lightning Talk” sessions (nothing to do with the miserable weather outside) where interested attendees gave a 5 minute presentation about whatever they liked. The preparation that went into some of these snappy talks was incredible and it was a good, encouraging environment for those new to public speaking to give it a go.

In summary, OSDC is a professionally-run conference that represents good value for money if you are a web professional, but even more so if you are an enthusiastic Perl/PHP programmer who wears a red hat everywhere, has named his first son Linus and has a Slashdot ID of three digits or less.

The networking aspect was also good and I met some terrific folks, many of whom are involved in the various user groups active around Melbourne and Australia, and some who travelled all the way from Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere for the conference.

However, it was a conference that required you to pick the sessions you attended very carefully, as both the speaker’s presentation skills and the relevance of the content varied (sometimes significantly from the talk’s title).

Credit to the organizers for running things so smoothly. I’ll be back next year!

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  • teej

    For me, one of the key draws of the conference was the rich variety in presentation topics. At OSDC I caught presentations as varied as keeping Cisco switches consistent to a new Python XUL toolkit.

    Highlights for me were:
    – Paul Fenwick’s excellent talks on presentations and small business – both were entertaining and informative.
    – Jon Oxer’s automation madness – further info at http://jon.oxer.com.au/automation for those interested.
    – Richard Jones’s introduction to game development using PyGame
    – Nathan Bailey’s talks on best practice development and enterprise open source

  • craiga

    …his cat has been injected with a microchip that opens his cat flap.

    Wow… that is geeky! :)

  • Anthony Baxter

    Are there things you’d like to see done differently? Topics you’d like to see covered that weren’t covered?

  • Hmm, to be honest I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before attending.

    The talks that didn’t interest me much were ones that focussed on very specific areas with which I had no experience. This might be obvious, but I felt quite a number of talks excluded anyone who wasn’t already using that technology. It might sound unfair but unless I am an avid Python or MySQL user, a session describing the features in the latest release of the software is just going to alienate me. I concede that it is difficult to write a presentation/paper to appeal to groups of people who are new to the technology as well as experts, but I did attend these talks hoping they would spark my interest in the technologies, and would have appreciated more effort to appeal to a wider audience rather than rely on such an assumed knowledge (and assumed interest-level).

    I also felt a bit let down with some of the more corporate presentations. The Oracle talk was titled “PHP Security: It’s Your Data” but was really nothing to do with PHP or data; it was just a list of the ways Oracle are trying to include support for PHP in their offerings, along with a lot of marketing and free CDs in a not-so-subtle attempt to win developers over.

    As for topics that weren’t covered, I was kind of hoping to see more discussions on open source software out of the software development arena. Stuff like MythTV excites me; open source moving beyond the IT-savvy audience and into more mainstream applications such as home entertainment.

    This is my own view of course, others may disagree.

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  • Adam Kennedy

    The problem with things like MythTV talks would be the “for developers” bit. This is also what makes so much variety in the talks and means that introductory talks can be a bit thin on the ground.

    The target audience is certainly at the geekier end of spectrum. They are the people that are themselves writing code. There may well be an assumption that if you are a developer, you already made it to “Hello World!” and basic tasks on your own.

    So yes the talks tend to be “You already know $language, but maybe you don’t know $framework or $skill or $new_things”.

    That said, I also think some of the titles got a little too cute, and it may well be worth asking for people to clean them up a little for next year.

    The Lightning Talks get just keep getting better and better too, as people see the good and the bad of doing talks.

    It also seems to be getting competative, as people try to outdo each other. That said, a lot of them are still put together on the day. (For example, my 2 World Domination talks that bookended the second day were still only written that day and partly the night before).

    5 minutes lets you pack in the shiniest, funnier, and coolest bits, without worrying about actually having anyone in the audience learn anything :)

    Like the way a movie trailer compares to an actual movie. :)

  • There may well be an assumption that if you are a developer, you already made it to “Hello World!”

    I agree, but I still think a few of the presenters could have been more mindful of the disparate backgrounds in the audience. It’s one thing to begin to tune out of the second half of a presentation because the assumed knowledge has crept up to expert level, but it’s another to not be able to catch up from the start because no context has been provided.

    Like the way a movie trailer compares to an actual movie

    I agree that the Lightning Talks were fantastic, and this is a good analogy.