The future of conferences? Small and local, if you ask me

This post might sound like a blatant excuse to promote OSBA, our fist public venue packaged as a nice day where we grab some unusual audience for Open Source (CIOs, decision makers, business people) and talk about important yet somewhat underestimated stuff: economics, budgeting, metrics and all that makes Open Source a viable proposition to business users. We already have an impressive speaker list and registrations are going incredibly well, which means we’re looking forward to a successful day packed of nice discussions and some reality checks about business and Open Source.

Shameless plugs aside, this is an occasion to voice my opinion about conferences and events. I’m attending quite a few of them, I’m getting employee requests to attend conferences day-in day-out and I receive my fair share of pitches to sponsor tech events. What I notice, however, is a clear shift towards smaller, focused and localised events which are becoming more popular than traditional, well-established and international shows. Two examples come to my mind:

  • the Cocoon GetTogether, a small, local and highly focused event which has been successful for its fifth year in a row, with the usual 100-or-so Cocoon enthusiasts coming from all over the world (a large majority were from Europe, of course). Cocoon is just one of the 35 ASF projects, yet the yearly event has been able to do surprisingly well compared to other major stuff such as EurOSCON or ApacheCon. Just do the math.
  • BarCamps rock. Just look at their news page to see how easy is to gather a few hundred hackers to party, code and talk about tech stuff. All you need is a large enough room, wi-fi, beamers, beers and pizza. Hackers bring the rest and the experience is great.

Those two events have something in common: they are comparatively small, localised and definitely affordable. It’s no surprise how corporations tend to be skeptical about spending a few thousand bucks in travel, conference fees and lost working days: with self-education being so affordable today (just google for stuff), the measurable benefits from sending people to conferences tend to be employee motivation and, possibly, some networking. With my corporate hat on, I have serious issues in justifying conference budgets these days, so much that our current policy provides full conference packages just for speakers, while others are considered on a case-by-case basis (e.g. we happily send committers to ApacheCon).

Sticking to my corporate hat, I also have an hard time considering my company as a potential sponsor of big events, and I think I have a solid business case for it. Our upcoming event is far from running on a shoestring budget: given we’re addressing decision makers dressed up in suits, we chose a great location, we have been assisted by a leading agency, we will provide a full business lunch, coffee breaks, gadgets and everything that sums up to a quite posh event. Quite surprisingly, though, when we were presented with the budget, we found out that running our own event is going to be less expensive than sponsoring a major venue. And it wasn’t a close call.

I guess this boils down to a win-win situation: our attendees will enjoy not having to travel far away (we plan to move OSBA to a European roadshow, by the way), while listening to great speakers and enjoy an interesting day for free. We, of course, will gain quite a bit of recognition both in the Open Source and business community, while of course we won’t mind grabbing a few leads. If you move this business case to the typical geek event, where all you need is a wi-fi router, power plugs, beamers and enough beer to keep the code flowing, the difference becomes even more apparent.

I guess this might be some food for thought for conference organizers and for the future of conferences: sticking to Open Source events, what I can see is a couple of major venues left, with a galaxy of volunteer-based and maybe company-sponsored local events, possibly happening on informal basis such as “structured hackathons” and bringing – at least – lots of fun and interaction between focused communities of users. I just happen to love the “Get Together” concept we used for our Cocoon event: a great excuse for a few days out, with some nice work done and lots of fun. For a reasonable budget. A recipe for success, indeed.

What I’ve been up to

This post from Matthew made me realize that I haven’t been blogging in the past two months. It’s not like I don’t have anything to say, quite the opposite actually, but I tend to grow a strong resistance from posting just a few lines when there is such huge gap between posts: I tend to feel I should write a long explanation of why I have been silent, then resume business as usual, with casual posts and the like. Thanks to Matthew, I now have an excuse to get back to writing some stuff, so here we go with little more than a braindump of what has been going on so far.

As some of you might already know, I’m busy building the next generation of Sourcesense, the endeavour we started almost a year ago, and something that has been highly rewarding and successful over here. We have been able to meet and exceed (actually, almost triple!) the expectations on the italian market, and we are now ready to move to the next level, in our quest to build the best Open Source system integrator ever. Quite an ambitious plan, I know, but the outlook is definitely promising: we have the best people on board, we are getting very interesting leads and we are ready to move to the European market with a solid proposition and great stuff for our customers.

Building a multinational company, no matter how small, requires a great deal of effort, as my overweight and stressed out body knows by now. Apart from crazy traveling, a good deal of nights spent crunching numbers and spreadsheets, an average of 70 working hours per week and a distant memory of how nice life was when I was just coding along, the bumpy ride includes interesting stuff such as understanding different countries cultures and ways of doing business, grasping the different fiscal and corporate laws, adapting to markets with very little in common and getting ready for a serious amount of work to come.

I must confess, however, that I’m having the time of my life: it feels great turning back and noticing how much we have been able to do in barely ten months, and it’s incredibly exciting to foresee the future to come as pictured in our road map. In a couple of months I will leave my current job, as Italy becomes a branch of our European setup, and climb the ladder to coordinate our international efforts. We already found a great guy to take my place at the driving seat of the Italian arm of Sourcesense, and I feel incredibly proud when I consider how the baby I helped nurturing is ready to spread its wings and fly on its own. This somewhat self-celebrating post should also become a chance to thank (in strict alphabetical order) everyone who helped in making the dream come true (the list is not over) handling the grunt work and being supportive of the idea.

It’s now time to move on, and I’m getting ready for that. Expect a lot more posts and news to come.