The 3rd Java Posse Roundup was held last week in Crested Butte, Colorado. As I flew back home on the plane, I reflected about why this conference is my favorite conference to attend, and why I start looking forward to the next event as soon as the current one concludes.
The contributing factors include:
1. The people
2. The format
3. The location
The Roundup attracts some new faces and some diehards. Some come back after missing a year for whatever reason. Even before the conference begins, an online group is created which starts communication among attendees about housing, flights, what to bring, etc. This communication is not driven by the old-timers. Sure, they answer questions, but the new attendees are pro-active as well. This year, one newbie set up a google map of the areas of interest (houses, etc.) while another set up a list of things to bring. Discussions were started long before we ever met one another, and houses were shared by complete strangers.
It also helps immensely that the people who drive the conference (in particular, Bruce Eckel, Dick Wall, Carl Quinn, Tor Norbye, and Joe Nuxoll) are all really approachable and inviting. They invite people into their homes for dinners and for hacking sessions and for discussions that extend long into the night. Their approachability sets the tone for the conference, and the attendees reflect that with one another as well. I have never felt intimidated about going up to ANY roundup attendee (including industry luminaries) to talk. They've all been very nice and generous. This sense of approachability was described by attendees all week, this year.
Through our online group, the attendees continue to maintain contact throughout the year. As one attendee put it, there's a lot of benefit in having a personal connection to the other attendees, in setting up that network. I have certainly made long-lasting friends and those relationships continue to grow.
The open spaces format of the event is announced/described on the registration page, but even before people experience open spaces, they act in an open spaces way. The self-starting attitude that the attendees, old and new, bring to the conference is apparent long before we all touch down in Crested Butte. It doesn't take long for the attendees to understand that pretty much anything goes. The first day or so is often a bit driven by concerns about where the boundaries are, with newbies asking "should we do it this way", "is it OK to do this". The answers typically come back as "Sure, go ahead" (when it's an idea that someone has, or "Let's just let things happen" (when someone is trying to impose some additional order on the process). Quickly, people learn that for the most part, things will happen, but that this is their experience to help mold and create, and they go with it.
The conference is held in the remote mountain town of Crested Butte, CO. A town of just 1200 residents, CB is a great place to hold the conference for many reasons. For one, Bruce Eckel lives there. He helps to organize the conference with the Posse and holding it in his town certainly simplifies things. The prior-year attendees are comfortable with the town and with the rental housing there, and that has a bit impact on the interactivity among the attendees. And I think that it's a really big deal that no one (other than Bruce) is close enough to their homes or their jobs to be able to move in and out of the conference. For the most part, people are on a retreat (or as several people called it "Camp"), and spend the entire week together. The retreat from "real life" in a region unfamiliar to most encourages the attendees to eat together and to form groups to hack or to ski. I strongly believe that if this conference were held in the Bay Area, we would have a boatload of attendees, but the experience wouldn't be nearly as rewarding. And the town reflects a casual welcoming attitude as well. By policy, there are no chain (stores or restaurants) in Crested Butte. That means that visitors are "forced" to local hangouts, where they quickly learn that they are welcome. People stop and talk, and seem genuinely interested in a conference coming to their town. A few locals have stopped by lightning talks to see what it's all about. After a while, several of us recognize some of the locals, and we even turned the tables on one of them, with 15 of us visiting his restaurant. We chatted him up, and he knew who we were. In addition to being a fabulous town, Crested Butte offers the perfect backdrop to such a friendly conference, but being an approachable town.
What I've decided is that it's hard to separately analyze these factors. While I definitely think that the Roundup would succeed in another location (because of the people who organize it, and because of the format), I do think that care has to be taken to choose a location that reflects its intimate nature. On the other hand, I believe that the people and the open spaces format are the key ingredients to the Roundup's success. And if I had to pick only ONE component that really described why I like to attend the Roundup each year, why I count it as my favorite conference, I would have to answer … the people. It's really all about the people.