Web: you can now not suck.

In perhaps a new trend, I’m blogging from 39011 feet (or so says the seatback in front of me). I’m traveling back home to the east coast from San Jose, CA where I attended (and spoke) at this year’s O’Reilly Velocity Conference.

I participated (and blogged) about the Velocity Summit in which I’ve participated for the past two years. The summit is the unconference preceding the real conference that help the organizers digest current hot topics and better define the conference track for the actual conference. The summit itself is filled with enough brain power to warp space-time, so I drop everything to go to that.

Ironically, despite being a well respected authority in web site (and general internet) scalability and performance, my talk proposals for Velocity 2008 were not accepted — I clearly need to write better proposals. This year, I managed to work my way into the workshop track on Monday. Despite having a bad headache and feeling "off" the day before, I managed to get my act together and put on an A-game for my workshop. For those of you interested, here is my scalable09 slide stack.

I thought I’d take a moment to talk about what I liked about the conference and what I think could use some improvement. I realize this is a down economy and that might be a legitimate justification for some the actions that resulted in some of my disappointment.

First, the negative. I usually start with positive and end with negative because I’m a pessimist. However, all in all the conference was awesome, so I thought I’d get my short list of gripes out of the way early.

O’Reilly is infamous for throwing good conferences for geeks. In my opinion, the field of web operations has been so severely neglected and applies so broadly to the world today that this conference needs to be for everyone.

  1. In the next conference, I’d love to see a technical business track. Several of the talks I went to spoke to the dollars and cents lost or earned by paying the right amount of attention to web site performance and better operational paradigms. I thought a lot of the topics would be very useful to business managers.
  2. The first day was not video taped and the second and third day were only half video taped. Come on guys, ante up. The attendance fee was substantial, you can afford to give your attendees the value of watching what they had to choose not to attend. I like the option when I go to a conference to choose a session that seems interesting so that I have the opportunity to participate, but often times I find that another session was top notch and I expect to be able to later review a recording of that.
  3. Lastly, and this is the most significant. While I thought the conference was extremely well executed (excellent job Jesse, Steve, all your support, and most definitely O’Reilly), it lacked sufficient PR and marketing outreach. I talked with several journalists (as a part of my normal day job) while I was at that conference and not one of them was aware of Velocity — simply embarrassing. Given that the Structure conference was in town that same week, O’Reilly should have invested more in their PR and marketing outreach. It would have resulted in a substantially increased audience and a better venue for teaching the world to run a faster web.

Now that I’ve griped and aired my disappointment. I can focus on the gobs of awesomeness that was Velocity.

  1. The conference was put on quite well from an operational perspective. Things started on time, A/V problems were non-existent. Like an idiot, I managed to lose my MacBook Air power adapter and the A/V crew managed to recover it for me. Conferences just plain suck when they have technical difficulties; this one had none.
  2. The two tracks at the conference were extremely well articulated and while I wanted to be in both all the time (as OmniTI is a full-stack company, we care about both equally) it was an excellent split.
  3. One track was performance which focused intently on user-perceived performance. This was largely front-end (HTML,CSS,JS,etc.) but also had a healthy amount of deep stack performance discussion as well including the often ignored, but much deserving networking aspect of delivering the web to users.
  4. The second track was operations and I feared it would be bunch of blind “The Cloud Solves All Our Problems” sessions. Much to the contrary, it focused heavily on operational strategy and and what it takes to execute tactically. There was a bit of cloud here and there (okay everywhere), but there was very little blind and ignorant mentality that launching in the cloud was a solution to a hard scaling problem.
  5. I had the opportunity to see a lot of old faces, but spent most of my time meeting new ones. The opportunity to learn more about other people’s problems is what completes me as an engineer. The people I met at this conference were both honest and open and provided a fabulous and refreshing perspective on what today’s performance and scalability problems really are.

In my workshop, I spent about 20% of the time discussing the philosophy of being a good engineer and 80% discussing practice (non-cookbook) with examples and advice. The basic message is that systems are complex and you must think of all the parts holistically or its a recipe for disaster — or failure.

Two of my favorite talks were Nicole Sullivan's “The Fast and the Fabulous: 9 ways engineering and design come together to make your site slow” and “ 10+ Deploys Per Day: Dev and Ops Cooperation at Flickr” by John Allspaw and Paul Hammond. While Nicole's presentation, like mine, was not recorded, the other was and if you want to break down the divide between operations and development, it is a must see.

All in all, I would encourage everyone reading this to attend next year's Velocity conference. I am certain you will walk away with knowledge that is both valuable and applicable.

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