Web Summit Centre Stage

Web Summit 2015: A developer’s perspective

Is Web Summit a good conference to goto if you’re a developer, or creative?


Web Summit 2015, Dublin, has just wrapped up. I’ve been there for the full duration of the conference; Monday 2nd November — Friday 6th November, and now I’m left to gather my thoughts on the week.

I describe myself as a full stack JavaScript developer with an eye for design and a passion for developing scalable front end architectures. I spend most of my days as a consultant, working directly with UX and software teams within large corporations, helping to bridge the gap between the stakeholders of both teams.

As a creative developer, I’m naturally interested in code, data, hardware/machine, design and UX — literally the building blocks of anything that makes it onto The Web. To say that I am passionate about these things is an understatement.

“Web Summit 2015 is the best technology conference on the planet” — Forbes

Web Summit is described as a conference, some even going as far as to say that it’s ‘the best technology conference on the planet’. It offers stages/events spanning the following disciplines: Code; Content; Data; Design; Enterprise; Fashion; HealthTech; Machine; Marketing; Money; Music; Night; Society; Sport; Startup University.

Sounds perfect, right?

Not quite…

Web Summit is not a conference, it’s an exhibition.

The general impression I got is Web Summit is not a conference, it’s an exhibition. It’s a showcase. A place for startups from all around the world to meet up, and show off their wares. It should be named ‘Startup Summit’, ‘Sales Summit’, ‘Gimme some investment Summit’, or even ‘Pep Talks for Startup Owners Summit’ (but I’ll get to that bit in a minute). The halls are filled to the brim with startup booths — big and small — all vying to get their share of the investment pie. The vast majority of the booths are tiny, perhaps a metre wide, with 2–3 members aiming to sell their product to whoever will listen. As a developer attendee, I struggled to get value out of this. The problem with the startup scene, is everyone and their dog wants to startup. This leads to an incredible amount of cruft. Startups that appear to be doing things that already exist, but in a slightly different way. When 9/10 startups fail anyway, and the only reps at the booths are salesmen (not the developers that actually worked on the product!) I found that there was little to be learnt from them.

As for the talks, they are (on average) 20 minutes long, and lack substance. Most of the bulk of the talks are dumbed down for business owners/startup owners, with the message always being, ‘we did this, and so can you’.

There are also a fair few slots that were just a group of guests on a sofa simply chatting between themselves in a very ‘impromptu’ setting. My issue with this is that no hard graft is required to prepare a slot like this. Slots like this are cheap. There are no slides, there is no agenda, it’s just a chat in front of a live audience.

Impromptu ‘couch chat’ slots — A sight seen way too often.
Even more chatting…
Even MORE chatting! And these shots are just from centre stage, day 2!

One talk was titled ‘Securing your Application’. It was a talk by the Security Lead at Docker. This talk had so much potential. Docker is an awesome new technology, that will become ubiquitous in the next few years. So you can only half imagine my disappointment when Diogo Mónica came on stage and immediately announced to the crowd that, ‘this talk has nothing to do with Docker’. It was simply a really over simplified, dumbed down infosec talk for business owners.

There is no ‘how’, only ‘what’.

I was expecting to learn something from the talks I went to, or at least come away feeling inspired. Yet nearly all the talks (excluding Brian Lile’s talk from DigitalOcean) lacked substance.

Brian Lile’s talk was excellent. His talk was full of humour, full of substance, and full of upcoming techniques that anyone involved in the deployment cycle of a product or application could and should take value from. Brian announced that originally he was told he had a 45 minute slot, and so prepared his slides accordingly. Closer to the Summit, he was told he had 30 minutes, followed by 20 minutes. He still managed to get through all his slides without skipping over anything of importance, but it would have been even better had he had the 45 minutes he was originally promised. At one point during the talk, Brian asked the audience how many people had heard of ‘immutable infrastructure’. Less than a handful of hands went up — one of them mine. I found this a little surprising, as I was sure most agile startups would have been running on at least some immutable infrastructure since at least the beginning of 2015.

The remaining talks, however, were merely a way of demonstrating what the speaker had achieved without explaining how they achieved it. And of course, there was the hard sell at the end, where the speaker reveals why they’re actually at the conference by taking the last 5 minutes to announce their latest book/app — or whatever — that’s about to go on sale; leaving only 10–15 minutes of talk time to be of any value at all.

Like I mentioned earlier, The Web consists of 5 major building blocks — Code, Data, Hardware/Machine, Design, UX. The Web Summit is supposed to encapsulate these 5 major building blocks. After all, there were speakers from Google, Facebook, Instagram, Docker, Spotify, CircleCI, Digital Ocean, Stripe — the list goes on!

Then why did each block only get one day at a three day conference? Code — 1 day; Data — 1 day; Design/UX — 1 day shared. Machine, interestingly, spanned the entire conference, but spanned subjects from smarter cities and smarter homes, to augmented reality.

On the contrast, Enterprise — 2 days; Content — 2 days; Marketing — 3 days; Society — 3 days; Sport — 2 days. By now, you can probably see that this Web Summit ‘conference’ isn’t at all aimed at developers or creatives, it’s an exhibition aimed at business owners, and wannabe visionaries.

“Experience the very best in quintessentially Irish artisan produce” — Web summit

Price of food has been causing a bit of a stir on Twitter too. The Food Summit was marketed as artisan food. €50 for the three days, or €20 per day. All you get for that is a small portion of vendor food and a bottle of water.

It would have been nice to be able to socialise at the Food Summit. I was expecting a food hall with banks of benches and long tables — something akin to a Bavarian beer house, but aside from a few tiny standing tables, the only seating that’s provided are park benches scattered around the park. It rained for 2/3 days, so sitting outdoors wasn’t really feasible, which is a shame. I feel the Food Summit would have been the perfect opportunity for attendees to socialise and network, and was a hugely missed opportunity on the organiser’s part.

The night summit is where the real magic happens. There are some fantastic conversations to be had with people you wouldn’t normally get to cross paths with. For instance, I spent a good 30 minutes talking to the Vice President of Sony Pictures about 4K, HDR video, and 3D audio — he even took my business card! You’ll also bump into the developers here, and interesting people that didn’t even manage to get a ticket for Web Summit, but who are out at the bars doing guerrilla networking. I’d argue that you don’t really need a Web Summit pass to meet the interesting tech attendees in the streets of Dublin.

I also met Eric Migicovsky, the CEO of Pebble. He’s a really humble guy, and made himself available to anyone who wanted to approach him. We had a brief chat about Pebble, Sport, and Football. He even put a note in his unreleased round Pebble to get me in touch with one of his developers.

Don’t get me wrong, Web Summit is an impressive event. The event is rather well planned, and some of the stages are absolutely monsterous in size. It’s a well oiled, mass marketed machine, and every newsletter, and every article, carefully written with hooks and call to actions to get you to buy tickets to the event. But when the entire event is filmed and put on Youtube for free, and you don’t necessarily need a ticket for the evening events, you have to wonder, why would anyone other than an investor, or startup owner/wannabe startup owner goto this event?

Web Summit did a great job shouting about all the key speakers they have attending from all the biggest tech companies in the world, but they’re not attending to wow developers and creatives, they’re here to impress business owners. It’s that simple. Web Summit might be great if you’re a startup and you’re looking for investment — or vice-versa for investors — but what you won’t find here are the doers; the brains behind that code that makes all these ‘new technologies’ possible.

People will tell you what they’ve done, but not the all important how.



Scotty Vernon

Principal Engineer @ Booking.com. Obsessive perfectionist. LFC follower; Nintendo fan boy; RasPi & Arduino enthusiast.