My QConSF 2018 Adventure

QConSF is a developer conference made by InfoQ, held at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District. This year, the conference itself is on November 5, Monday, to November 7, Wednesday; with additional workshops on November 8 to 9.

Caption: QCon Logo

The Origins

When I looked up InfoQ, I got this Wikipedia definition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/InfoQ), and the website of InfoQ itself. The organization InfoQ itself is owned by C4Media (https://www.infoq.com/about-c4media), founded 2006 by Floyd Marinescu, Roxanne Beverstein, and Alex Popescu. The founders of C4Media “saw a need for unbiased content and information in the enterprise development community… With a mission and passion for empowering developers, … to build a community of communities created by the community and for the community.” That’s why they made InfoQ. Which is probably why they chose the name “InfoQ”, because its Wikipedia / dictionary definition means “the potential of a data set to achieve a specific (scientific or practical) goal using a given empirical analysis method.”

InfoQ’s goal is all about sharing information, techniques, and practices for developers, by developers. From their website (https://www.infoq.com/about-infoq):

“Content written by software engineers/Professional developers over professional writers
InfoQ’s editorial team is made out of software engineers who are constantly pushing the barrier of innovation one step further in their professional lives. The community is about sharing knowledge and experience between people who direct innovation and change in software.
We think that the story is best told developer to developer, architect to architect, and team lead to team lead.
Instead of hiring journalists, InfoQ seeks out engineers and practitioners and provides them with training and support to help them express their expertise. On both the site and at our events, we work hard to create an inclusive, diverse and conscientious community where of all our readers and attendees feel welcome and respected.”

The first QCon was launched in 2007. Their main goal is for attendees meet to learn about the latest trends in software development. Ever since, QCon conferences have been running annually in San Francisco, New York, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. They are practitioner-driven conferences designed for people who influence innovation in their teams (including team leads, architects, project managers, and engineering directors).

Caption: QCon Tagline

QConSF’s tagline is:

“Engineers over Evangelists 
Practitioners over Trainers/Coaches 
Tech Leads over Consultants
That is, while there is value in the people on the right, we value the people on the left more.”

Full disclosure, this was the first QConSF that I have ever attended, and I haven’t heard of InfoQ until I did research before attending the conference to prepare for it and to write this article. So when I saw that banner, I was really happy, because I’ve been to other conventions and conferences are targeted more on the marketing side or the business side. While those other job functions are important too and has its place, it’s nice to talk to people who are interested in the same things and people who don’t use marketing jargon.

The Conference Itself

The conference was scheduled as such: each day, in the morning, the first talk is a keynote for everyone in attendance. If people cannot fit into the rooms, the keynote is simulcasted. Then there’s a 30 minute break for people to mingle or browse the various booths of companies, startups, organizations, and such who were either sponsoring the convention or who were showing off their products.

Caption: The sponsors of QConSF

After that, there’s a talk from each of the tracks, which are scheduled at the same time as each other and last for about 50 minutes, before the next break. This goes on until the end of the day, except for the hour-long lunch break in the middle, where the attendees are served a selection of a well-balanced cuisine, including healthy options like fish and vegetarian foods. The break in the afternoon also included snacks that give a sugar-boost to fatigued con-goers.

Caption: They really know how to take care of us developers!

There were so many tracks to choose from, including these topics that I am super-interested in: APPLIED AI & MACHINE LEARNING, FUTURE OF HUMAN COMPUTER INTERACTION, SECURITY: LESSONS ATTACKING & DEFENDING. The FOMO was truly real in this one! But I met a cool person who gave really good advice for attending conferences with talks or keynotes that have times which conflict with each other: that I can learn more by going to the talk that’s about a topic that I always wanted to learn but I am least familiar with.

But if attendees missed any of the talks, most of them are available afterwards in video-form to the attendees, and the slides are available for download; except for a few that have the “no video” icon beside their titles.

Since it is a a developer-centric convention, the tracks also include topics that a business wouldn’t necessarily care about, but developers as human beings would care about. The tracks include “OPTIMIZING YOU: HUMAN SKILLS FOR INDIVIDUALS”, “SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS SOFTWARE”, “DEVELOPER EXPERIENCE: LEVEL UP YOUR ENGINEERING EFFECTIVENESS”. There are topics like “Using Technology to Protect Against Online Harassment Panel”, “Community Centered Tech for Social Good”, and “Helping Developers to Help Each Other”, and also other things that us developers are concerned about, such as the moral and ethical implications of our work. The moral and ethical implications of our work had really come to light recently. For example, in April this year, Google developers demand end to Project Maven, which is Google’s AI work with Defense Department/Pentagon initiative involving AI and drone footage. You can read the full text of it here: https://static01.nyt.com/files/2018/technology/googleletter.pdf . After what happened in Google, developers from Microsoft and Amazon had followed suite, with Amazon developers demanding that Amazon calling on chief executive Jeff Bezos to end the sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies and to discontinue partnerships with firms that work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). (Sidenote, as a software developer myself, I sometimes get emails from recruiters asking if I want to work somewhere that builds embedded systems for combat vehicles. When I received that email, I promptly deleted it. As a software developer, I know the feeling that I signed up to make cool things, I didn’t sign up to make things that can be used to kill or hurt others. And I would like to imagine that I’m not alone in this sentiment.)

The specific talk that comes to mind is Fairness, Transparency, and Privacy in AI @LinkedIn by Krishnaram Kenthapadi, who is part of the AI team at LinkedIn, where he leads the fairness, transparency, explainability, and privacy modeling efforts across different LinkedIn applications. He also serves as LinkedIn’s representative in Microsoft’s AI and Ethics in Engineering and Research (AETHER) Committee.

Caption: Krishnaram Kenthapadi — Tech Lead for Fairness, Transparency, Explainability, and Privacy Efforts across LinkedIn Products

The most important takeaway from this talk is that “We should think of privacy and fairness by design, at the very beginning, when developing AI models; not just as an afterthought.”, and “Privacy and fairness are not just technical challenges. They have huge societal consequences. That’s why it’s our responsibility to include as many and as diverse a group of people as possible to be our stakeholders.”

There are talks for getting developers started in new skills such as Jupyter Notebooks: Interactive Visualization Approaches by Chakri Cherukuri where we are taught how to use bqplot. Even though this was made for Bloomberg, this is open-source and can be found in their GitHub: https://github.com/bloomberg/bqplot. And Open Source Robotics: Hands on with Gazebo and ROS 2 by Louise Poubel. Since I already knew ROS, I took the advice to heart and attended the talk on Jupyter interactive visualizations.

Caption: An output of bqplot

There are also talks for people who are more experienced and want to improve their processes and techniques, such as Human-Centric Machine Learning Infrastructure @Netflix by Ville Tuulos, Deep Representation: Building a Semantic Image Search Engine by Emmanuel Ameisen, and Engineering Dumb: Modern Mobile Thin Clients by Brandon John-Freso.

The final keynote was “Finding Purpose Through the Things We Build” by Kortney Ziegler. He shared his experience as a creator and a person in tech, who also happens to be a black trans-man. It seemed fitting as a final talk, because even if we are software developers, we are all human beings first and foremost. It’s nice to know that even though each of us has our own specific kinds of struggles and challenges, we are not alone in that all of us are struggling together. One of the things that we as people might find ourselves dealing with is at the end of the day, we want to know that what we build is going towards something meaningful to us.

Caption: The final keynote was “Finding Purpose Through the Things We Build” by Kortney Ziegler.

Final Thoughts

I think overall that QConSF is a pretty chill conference, compared to the bigger ones. It’s basically the Fanime of developer conferences. Which is a great thing to be compared to! Fanime is basically a fan convention for the fans and by the fans. QConSF was made by developers for developers. Another good comparison would be QConSF is like GDC or PAX which is developer-focused, instead of being like E3 or CES, which is more about corporate announcements and marketing hype.

And because the event is smaller and more chill, nothing really felt rushed, and people feel more approachable to socialize with. I think that socializing and mingling with other developers and making new friends is an important part of our growth not only as developers, but as people. In my experience, growing your community is a key part of success in being a developer, because that’s how we learn from others.

That was one of the reasons why I was a bit bummed that all the talks that I wanted to attend were all happening at the same time as each other. To me, it seems like the organizers think that there are people who are not interdisciplinary, as if there are no such people who are interested in both the Machine Learning talks and the Magic Leap talk or the Human-Computer Interaction talks. It would be nice if the talks were all staggered, so that people can attend as many talks as they want. Of course, this was all offset by having the slides and the videos available afterwards, but just seeing the slides and the videos are not the point of the talks, but the Q&A that happens afterwards, and being able to talk to other people in those talks. I say this, because I think that growing one’s community is important as a software developer and as a person.

But aside from that, I liked that the topics covered in the talks and keynotes were thoughtfully curated, and are as varied as possible to represent most of the range of human experience, and that the staff took care of the needs of the attendees. I learned a lot and made some new friends. It’s a refreshing experience to have a conference for developers, by developers. And I thank the QConSF staff and speakers for this experience.

AWESOME/10, would attend again.

Caption: Me Posing With Some Of The QConSF Staff