App Development

A Review of Revolution Conference 2016

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Revolutions often spring from manifestos, aspirational turns of phrase like, “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," “…individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” and “uniting software professionals.”

Revolution Conference (aka RevConf), a one-day event held May 13th in Virginia Beach, takes up the cause of this last one. That’s no easy task these days, when new languages, frameworks, APIs , and SDKs are born every 1.618 seconds (ok, not really, but probably close). Meetups proliferate at a similar rate, and the number of possible applications for the hacker obsession du jour is nearly infinite.

You gotta start somewhere. Why not in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia with a call for proposals to developers of every stripe?

The revolutionary motif is primarily a nod to one claim to fame of the conference location, being in the neighborhood of the “Historic Triangle” of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. That’s not to say RevConf is revolutionary in name only, though. The three conference founders, Erik Olson, Linda Nichols, and Kevin Griffin pulled off a legit coup by executing on an idea in five months that won the instant interest of 250 software developers and attracted an impressive slate of speakers and sponsors. This was also all done in an area which hadn’t previously ever hosted a similar event.

Location

I found myself joining this particular revolution for several reasons, not the least of which is the location. Any conference jaunt that doesn’t involve a frustrating flight odyssey gets bonus points in my book. It’s a pleasant 3-hour drive, give or take, from Willowtree HQ in Charlottesville to the Virginia Beach beachfront venue for the conference, a great opportunity to catch up on podcasts! Oh, did I mention “beachfront?" Yes. Yes, I did. How many conferences can boast that?

Price

The price point was phenomenal, as tech conferences go. Most tech conference prices border on absurdly prohibitive and often don’t deliver a commensurate value. I’ve personally been to a $1K+ conference where the a.m. food consisted only of granola bars, the coffee was whisked away way too early, the swag amounted to a few stickers, and the content generally featured showmanship over substance. For the RevConf registration, by comparison, I walked away with a handsome T-shirt I’ll actually wear, and I was treated to a continental breakfast, a buffet lunch, and an open bar reception, all while my horizons were satisfyingly broadened by a diverse lineup of pro developers from the trenches.

Experience

Location and cost-benefit are important, but I primarily choose conferences based on the professional development edge I think they’ll provide. This edge comes in three flavors, as I see it: deep knowledge, broad knowledge, and peer networking.

I’m a Web apps developer, so to deepen my existing knowledge, I might choose a conference focused on Javascript, Node, CSS, etc., with several-hour-long or multi-day workshops. RevConf wasn’t that event. It never claimed it was, in fact. That’s ok, because broad knowledge and peer networking were still in abundant supply thanks to the “polyglot” character envisioned by the conference founders.

Sessions ran about 45 minutes long and ranged widely in their subject matter. If you like learning a little about a lot of things, the RevConf format is perfect for you. I personally enjoyed it, as I felt like I walked away with a slightly better grasp of lots of things I either knew little or nothing about. 45 minutes isn’t much time, though, so, to be honest I probably can’t just sit down and spin up a new Phoenix-Elixir or Unity project after attending sessions about those. I now have a pinky toe in those doors, however, which was much more than I had before.

In the age of full-stack developers, DevOps, transpilers, big data, cross-platform mobile development, hobbyist hardware like Raspberry Pi and Arduino helping to give rise to maker culture, an explosion of database choices, the cloud wars, and IoT, it pays to be a polyglot coder. Nay, having a broad skillset is becoming the ONLY way to survive in the software industry. In that sense, RevConf is a very timely and prescient addition to the conference landscape. RevConf featured one or more sessions touching on every new hotness I just name-dropped above, which I must say is a testament to the extraordinary reach of RevConf’s call for proposals and the speaker selection process. Also, for what its worth as a gauge of success, the program included speakers from some big players in the industry, like Microsoft, Yahoo, Twilio, and NPM. This was RevConf’s first year, so that’s quite an opening salvo.

Just as the 45-minute sessions constrained what could be presented, the fact that the whole event was just one day somewhat limited peer networking opportunities. Still, the opportunities were there, and I much appreciated them. If I was allowed just one critique of RevConf, it might be that one day isn’t nearly enough time to get to know such a diverse group of attendees. During the breakfast, lunch, and evening reception, as well as at an impromptu dinner gathering, I nevertheless managed to chat with Node developers, a specialist in 3D graphics, a UX designer, a graph database guru, one of the panelists from my favorite JS podcast, a hobbyist developer who recently attended a dev boot camp, and the excellent conference founders. That’s not bad for an introvert like me. The conference made it possible.

Would I go again?

Absolutely. In fact, I’m going to try to spread the word among my regional peers and coworkers about next year. Virginia doesn’t have many events like RevConf, despite being home to a wealth of tech businesses. Why schlep out to the west coast or to a major metropolitan area and spend a small fortune, when such an assembly of talent and knowledge can be had in our backyard for a fraction of the price? Developers in Virginia and surrounding states need to help this thing grow. The conference founders certainly hope it will, to the tune of about 500 attendees next year! This is bold, but probably doable, given that the first year easily sold out.

Bottom line: sign me up as a card-carrying revolutionary for this cause. I met my brothers and sisters in arms and they blew my mind. I’m headed back next year to fight another day.

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