The Java Posse Roundup (An Open Spaces Conference): An Insiders Perspective

As I have done each winter for the past 5 years, I just spent a week at the Java Posse Roundup, an open spaces conference, in Crested Butte, Colorado. Organized by the Java Posse, a dedicated group of software professionals who generously give their time to produce a weekly podcast for developers on the Java Virtual Machine, the conference is a week of open spaces discussions, software coding sessions, networking and, inevitably, skiing.

As one of the 4 people (in addition to the organizers) who have attended all 5 of the events, I want to offer some perspective for people who have never attended, and for business owners or technical managers who wonder if they should fund their employees to attend.

The conference is designed around the people who attend the conference. It’s not designed for them; it’s designed by them. On the first day of the conference, the attendees choose topics for discussion, coding sessions to conduct, and extracurricular activities to organize. The content varies based on who attends, and if a topic isn’t discussed, that’s either because the attendees didn’t have interest or because folks were too shy to propose the topic. In the latter case, this doesn’t last long. Those who come back a second time usually come with a bunch of ideas.

A diverse group attends the Roundup. While the vast majority of developers are North American Java developers, we always have a number of attendees from the UK, Europe, Scandinavia. This year, we also had an attendee from Brazil and another from Australia.   We also had a .NET developer and some folks who no longer do active development in any language, but rather focus on either design or management of developers.

When Bill Venners attended a few years ago, we had some fun coding sessions on ScalaTest. When Bill Pugh, a professor from the University of Maryland, attended in years prior, we saw sessions around education as well as static analysis, his research focus.

Managers face an empty agenda when considering whether or not to send employees. Rather than looking at this as a concern, folks in the know see this as an opportunity to explore the many questions and concerns in software development. When people wonder about the content of the Roundup, I point them at the Java Posse podcast, where many of recorded sessions are freely available.

The schedule for the conference has evolved over the years. An optional “coding rodeo” day was added to the front of the conference.  Most attendees show up on Sunday so that they can do software coding sessions all day on Monday.  These have been very popular, and have since been added into the conference proper as well, as optional afternoon sessions.  Like the rest of the conference, these sessions are driven and organized by the attendees.  This year, they included (among others):

  • Developing and deploying an application on Amazon’s new Elastic Beanstalk cloud platform
  • Developing and releasing SnapItLive, a Flex application targeted toward desktop, web, and Android mobile devices
  • A Scala implementation of the Game of Life, complete with a Scala-based user interface
  • Converting a document from Microsoft word to docbook format
  • F# development using MonoDevelop on Linux

Code developed during the conference was made available in various code repositories, so that learning could continue beyond the one week of time spent together.

Geek note: We had an open spaces session on distributed version control systems (Distributed Version Control: Risks, Rewards, and the Cool Kids) which discussed the various issues around VCS such as git, mercurial, and bazaar.  Following a particularly bad experience last year of merging with git, many chose to use mercurial this year, while others stuck with git and had better success than last year.

Weeks before the conference, attendees start self-organizing by renting houses for groups of people to share. Upon registration, attendees are added to an online group to communicate with other attendees. The regret most often expressed by new attendees is in not joining a group house in their first year.  The houses provide amazing opportunities for communicating with other attendees, nearly around the clock, but also serve as adjunct locations for coding rodeos throughout the week.

The daily schedule for the 4 days after the coding rodeo day has evolved over the years, and continues to change as we figure out what we want to get out of our time together.  I say “we” quite deliberately, meaning all of the attendees. While the old timers often feel more comfortable suggesting changes, everyone is encouraged to do so.  Currently, we get together in the early morning each day for 3 open spaces sessions, with topics running consecutively in 4 rooms. One of those locations isn’t amenable to recording, so someone suggested having “off the record” sessions there. These are typically not as technical, tending more toward soft skills and managerial in nature.  They have a slightly different feel to them than the recorded sessions, as people are more free to be vocal about things that they’re not comfortable saying publicly.

After a lunch break, people either do something social (skiing and snowshoeing are popular), catch up on what’s going on back at their workplaces, or join in on one of the coding rodeos that have been organized by attendees. People then get together for dinner before returning for a few hours of lightning talks.  These are 5 minute talks, prepared by the attendees, about a variety of topics. They provide insight into who people are, as well as sometimes answer technical questions.

After a week of this, we all go home, energized by the knowledge gained, amazed by the connections we have made, yet both physically and mentally exhausted. I’ve learned to stretch out my trip for a few days (this year, I arrived on Sunday and returned on Sunday) to give myself Saturday to relax and recover and enjoy the town of Crested Butte with no specific schedule.  Of course, I ended up skiing and having dinner with some other stragglers.

I’ve made some great friends at the Roundup. I’m sad when longtime attendees have to skip a year, but I’m thrilled with the spaces that opens up for newcomers. Over the past several years, I’ve gotten to know many of the attendees personally and we continue our interactions throughout the year.  There are others that I don’t regularly communicate with, but if a question arose that they could help with, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out. When you spend a week with people, the relationship is based on a pretty deep appreciation of who they are, and an understanding of how you might work together.

Unfortunately, there’s one elephant in the room. That is, while the group is diverse geographically, we still suffer from a significantly lower participation by women than expected. In the past 5 years, only 4 women in total have attended. Even by the paltry statistics of women in this industry, that is pathetically low. I’m working on a side project of how to increase that number, by trying to engage directly with women software developers.

The Java Posse Roundup is one of my favorite events, and I would strongly encourage developers to attend and managers to approve this as a conference.  The opportunity to spend a week with such amazing people is not to be squandered.  I stand behind that recommendation.  That .NET developer who attended the Roundup this year?  He works for me.