Programming the Developer Stage at Web Summit


Engine Yard Product Manager Richard Watson tells the story of curating content for the developer stage at Web Summit. We hope there are useful tips in there for anyone organising a conference track, a CFP, or submitting to speak at one.

It started with a blaa.

No, really. A blaa is a kind of bread roll associated with Waterford in Ireland. Paddy had just got off a flight from the US. Eamon Leonard and I met him for a lunch of filled blaas and we chatted about what we all wanted for the developer stage at this year’s Web Summit.

Last year, Eamon emceed the developer stage. The stage definitely had amazing speakers (such as Monty Widenius and Mitchell Baker), all successful people, that had certainly developed stuff. But, Eamon wanted us to go back to basics, and have developers speaking to developers about developing.

I wanted us not to admire the speakers, but to take and use their stuff. I want the audience to shamelessly steal the speakers’ techniques, their hacks, and their workarounds. I want the audience to leave that room at Web Summit saying, ‘I can do those things too, I have some new tools to try’.

Paddy wanted the developer stage to be a platform. The start of an ecosystem of creators that Web Summit doesn’t control. With all our connections to developer communities in Ireland and beyond, Paddy asked Engine Yard not just to present, but also to curate the developer stage this year.

What Now?

How did we get from blaas to a killer two-day agenda and 24 amazing speakers? Firstly, Eamon locked me in a room until we had some principles, a plan, and a wish list. We actually emerged after a couple of hours with some whiteboard pictures:

The context of the Web Summit and its constraints gave us our principles:

  • Passing trade: Unlike many conferences, we know we don’t have a captive audience. With 10,000 or so people at the Web Summit, and 4 other stages, people will drift in and out of the Developer Stage. This means we can’t have an intricate storyline or an overt flow between the two days.
  • Technical depth: We want the talks to be technically in-depth, but realise that we can’t deep end on any single technology, so we need …
  • Variety so people staying in the dev stage will be rewarded, and
  • Horizontal themes, such as UX, Data, DevOps that cut across any particular technology, language, database, and so on.

The 5 blocks you see in the whiteboard pictures, let’s call them our themes, are the ones we stuck with: application front-ends and back-ends with developer culture on the first day. DevOps, Cloud, and all things data on the 2nd day. You can also see a clearer representation of those thematic blocks in the diagram below. This was our framework. Our edifice to go out and tempt speakers with.

dev stage structure

We know What, But Who?

So we started picking speakers with the thought: if we could get anyone, who would we get? That’s what I love about Web Summit. There’s no sense of aiming low, or settling for less. Aim high and be prepared to succeed. Or as Daire said in an email, “Who are the gods? Lets go after them now!” So, for all the five chapters, we invited our wishlist. Sure, some of them said no, but many of them said yes.

We wanted a mix of talk types. To give us that variety, talks will be a combination of three types making up each of those 5 thematic blocks of a couple of hours:

  • 1 talk from a big name speaker. Let’s not call them ‘keynotes’ but ‘anchor’ talks, drawing most people to the block. We expect these talks to be broader in scope, and may not be entirely technical. These are the red talks in the diagram.
  • 1 invited specialist talk, from either a big name or a topic specialist. These are the white talks.
  • 1 talk selected from the CFP, or the community. We expect these talks to be the most technical and hands-on. These are the green talks.

You can see the full agenda of speakers on the developer stage for the two days here.

Community = Sustainability

In addition to a world class lineup of keynote and invited speakers, this conference will thrive or falter on the level of participation from developer communities. We want this to be their conference. So, I want to give a special mention to the community speakers that made it through several rounds of judging the Call for Papers.

In the app front-end and UX section, we have Alex Shirazi, talking about “The Developer-Designer Relationship”. Richard Rodger is the 2.30pm talk in the apps back-end block on Wednesday with, “Falling in Love with Technical Debt”. In Thursday morning’s

DevOps/Cloud block, Eric Bowman will tell us how they do “Continuous Innovation at Gilt”.

We selected these three talks from the many we received in the open call-for-papers because they successfully balance a number of things:

  • they fit nicely into our thematic blocks
  • they have wide appeal, are not technology niches
  • they are not sales pitches for the speaker’s company, but …
  • the speakers are practitioners that are living this stuff in their companies day-to-day
  • the speakers are active community members.

Richard and Eric are active in the Dublin Node.js and Scala developer communities. A big shout to Alex Shirazi for coming from the Silicon Valley community. Invited speakers Rich Archibold and Andreea Wade are active in Dublin DevOps and start-up communities, while PJ Hagerty is a one-man community virus.

What can you expect?

What do those principles give the audience in the end? If you stay at the developer stage for a block of a couple of hours, you will get a deep exploration of a theme. You will get a blend of well-known speakers, invited experts, and community members, each with their own take on that theme and experiences to share.

We aren’t guiding the content of the talks. I mean, where’s the surprise value in that? But, I let speakers know what I expect from them in terms of these principles:

We assume the audience will be developers, people that manage developers, and people that fund developers. So your talk

  • must be about your experiences developing something. It doesn’t need to be software (could be hardware, or a community, etc. ) and you can certainly speak about leading a team that created something.
  • must give the audience new tools to walk away with. We want them to leave fired up to to extend application ecosystems and create new ones with the tools you pass on
  • should favour practice over philosophy
  • will go over better for this audience with code and technical diagrams if appropriate

Blatant sales pitches are totally out of order and, of course counter-productive, given the audience. You have been invited to speak because you do cool stuff. That will speak for itself.

If you’re coming to Web Summit, be sure to spend some time at the developer stage! Pick a theme and spend a couple of hours with us.

For example, let say you are building a new front-end for your app? Come and be inspired by Pablo Vio, Anne Pascqual and Alex Shirazi on Wednesday morning? Maybe you are dreading the moment your web site is actually successful! Come on Thursday morning and hear how Facebook scaled DevOps to handle a billion user infrastructure, how the BBC is empowering developers to take on their own cloud ops, and how the Obama for America 2012 campaign managed reliability. My personal must-see section is the middle section (11.30-3pm) on Wednesday all about application back-end architectures. Having built many different service-based architectures myself since the mid-90s, I’m very passionate about this topic and excited to get the chance to feature it.

In the meantime I’ve put together a twitter list of many of our great Developer Stage speakers. Let’s see what they have to say about the Web Summit in the coming days.

Oh, and Ben Reinhart deserves a huge shoutout for being the diplomatic shuttle between our unreasonable demands and the speakers.

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