On the ground at CppCon 2014

I’ve just returned from the week-long CppCon 2014 in Bellevue, Washington. Here’s what I experienced.

I’ve absorbed a great deal from a variety of C++ developer conferences – CppNow, Going Native, C++ And Beyond – but always virtually, via video and webcast. This was an opportunity to jump into the thick of things and participate in person. With community heavyweights like Herb Sutter and Scott Meyers in attendance I knew the content would be stimulating and informative. (Honestly, the speaker list featured nearly every name in the “C++ royalty” that you could imagine. I smiled to myself seeing Bjarne Stroustrup standing in the registration line like he was just another attendee.) So when the conference’s early-bird admission opened in March, I eagerly sent in my hard-earned dollars and blocked off the week of September eighth on my calendar.

The technical content provided by the speakers was impressive in its depth and variety. Some talks were wholly focused on low-level intricacies of the language. Others were much more general and highlighted the usages of the language in an applied manner. The latter talks included presentations about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from a Lockheed-Martin developer, and a particularly well-presented session about the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” by an engineer from JPL. While all the talks had their own appeal and value, I found the latter sessions particularly interesting and rewarding. It’s one thing to learn details of data structure optimization or to contemplate exception safety – but it’s quite another to see how JPL’s rover uses stereoscopic computer vision to autonomously select, plot and drive routes on another planet. Profoundly impressive stuff.

A fact of life with conferences like this one is this: you cannot attend every interesting session. Multiple tracks of fantastically interesting material ensure that you will miss things. A corollary to that is the fact that some of the content is presented at such speed and depth, it is impossible to absorb in the first sitting. Fortunately the CppCon organizers will be making the video recordings of every session available, presumably in just a few weeks. It is telling that a good portion of my hastily scribbled notes are items like “Defens. prog. 00:50 – revisit!” and “DCL – learn more!” I am quite eager for the videos and presenter notes to be made available online so that I can shine some light on my many questions.

The observed technology ran the gamut. It was quite unlike, say, a Ruby on Rails conference or ADC, where glowing Apple logos and lots of polished aluminum dominate the view. Here I saw a healthy mixture of sleek Thinkpads and MacBooks, colorful Lumias and black Nexus devices. Windows, OS X and Linux in about equal amounts. Android perhaps the dominant phone OS. And yes, a goodly portion of polished aluminum. C++ is, after all, a cross-platform development tool and the variety of devices reflected that.

One unexpected, interesting, and frankly depressing aspect of such a conference that I must mention is the terrible loneliness that is the mantle of the solo attendant such as I. Most others seemed to have been sent in groups of two to three from their respective development houses. Now, you have to really consider the type of person that attends a C++ programming conference, and realize that it’s a thoroughly self-selecting crowd: brainy, shy introverts with bags of electronic devices. The result is a fairly un-surprising state machine:

statemachine

The latter state especially makes things difficult, for during the actual prime “meet and socialize” time people are emanating a very standoffish vibe. Society’s current etiquette is not to bother a device-absorbed person. The interstitial break periods were not at all like a cocktail party or wedding where people are primed for handshakes and hellos, I’m sad to say.

Another disappointing observation was the severe gender skew of the audience. Out of nearly six hundred attendees, there were, I suspect, no more than ten or fifteen females in the entire audience. We know that software engineering is battling gender challenges and working hard to become more accessible to women, less of a boys’ club… but to see such a marked imbalance was a little eye-opening. I hope that the positive efforts to bring more women into software engineering will eventually put an end to such severe imbalance.

In retrospect several sessions are particularly memorable and noteworthy. The most interesting was the discussion of the Mars Rover’s autonomous behavior, a topic that greatly appeals to my AI interests. The most thought-provoking presentation was John Lakos’ “defensive programming” talk, the concepts of which I am still absorbing. And Vittorio Romeo’s game programming session deserves a prize for sheer enjoyment value and his clean, modern code style. One of the most impressive take-aways from the conference as a whole was the importance of testing. Every single production codebase that was discussed — from the Mars rover, to the F-35 JSF, to the financial code — had strong and well-maintained test suites. The presenters emphasized the importance of their tests’ contribution to the code reliability and maintainability; it was clear that automated testing was no afterthought, but an established and integral part of each house’s development and release workflow, and critical to the robustness of the delivered product.

My hat is off to the conference organizers. Putting on a conference such as this one is, I imagine, a Herculean task. Nice touches like ample and free coffee, snacks like fruit, pastries and bagels, even hummus and pita in the afternoon went a long way to keeping the blood-sugar and caffeine levels high, and the volunteer staff kept the operation running smoothly. John Kalb and the other staff derserved every bit of the thanks and applause that they received.

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9 thoughts on “On the ground at CppCon 2014

  1. Your comments on being lonely at a conference really struck home for me. I’ve attended No Fluff Just Stuff, a Java conf, three times by myself. It is surprisingly lonely, even when surrounded by other people — most solos just quickly buried their heads in their laptops or phones, even at meals. And since most developers are introverts to begin with it could get pretty painful.

    The gender imbalance was interesting to read. The Java conf was nowhere near that imbalanced… I’d say it was probably 70/30 male/female. I wonder why that is.

  2. I was there too as a solo developer. I was actually thinking of making a suggestion for the next conference that they organise some sort of meet up for solo attendees (I didn’t go to the reception simply because I didn’t know what the format was and figured that, being by myself, it probably wouldn’t be that much fun).

    • Jonathan, that was actually something I did suggest in the final survey: a specific designated area, possibly with a facilitator or two, where people would go with the express interest of meeting and being met. The area’s only rule would be “no devices”: encourage people to get their heads out of their phones, and actually interact. I think the impact would be large and positive.

  3. Cool. Really well-written and thoughtful trip report. I’m so jelly 🙂 of you guys who got to go this year, I hope I can go next year!

    I think you have a good idea about a ‘solos-only’ meet and greet. Maybe it would be good to have it during the first couple of evenings off-site at a nice restaurant/bar, with a facilitator. Hopefully the conference organizers could get wind of this and arrange this kind of meetup each year.

    Thanks again.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve never been to a programming conference so I don’t know what it’s like. But if I were to travel alone halfway around the world it would be nice to get together with some other programmers and also learn from each other. For example, it could be interesting to split up into small groups and discuss some challenges being presented. I’m not a very social person, but still I would be disappointed if almost everyone kept to themselves.

    I hope I can afford to attend CppCon (or similar conference) in the future.

  5. Chris, Thanks for this trip report, your kind words, and particularly for the feedback on “solo”s and the gender imbalance. (Thanks also to the commenters on this.)

    I’ll be thinking about how to address the needs of solos. Meeting other attendees is at least as important as anything else that happens at the conference.

    I’m also working on the gender imbalance. This is a huge problem and we can use as much help as we can get on this. I want to make it clear that it isn’t because women aren’t welcome. I am ever-vigilant to get women involved in the conference as attendees, speakers, volunteers, or members of the planning or program committee. If you know someone that might be interested in the conference, please introduce us.

  6. Very nice writeup, Clare. I wish I could have sat down with you for at least a few minutes – I apologize that the only time we had was while I was on-the-go.

    I’m really looking forward to the videos coming out, especially of those sessions that I was unable to attend. I would have given my left arm to attend the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter session, but was unable to because of not keeping track of when exactly it was, and only realizing it more than 30 minutes into the session, when I was already busy at my volunteer station (which was definitely elsewhere).

    To be fair, I will also say that I don’t know that I missed out very much on the sessions, since they were being recorded anyway, but I know I enjoyed all my interactions with the other volunteers, while being regularly overawed by seeing most of the C++ royalty, and getting to chat with them and other attendees while they checked in for the conference, or used the bag check and/or charging station facility.

    I will second your observation of Stroustroup, in whom I failed to detect even the slightest bit of “I am C++ royalty” vibe. Ditto with Scott Meyers, and the other presenters and speakers. During wrap up after the conference was over, I even got to swoon (very discreetly) over the similarly down-to-earth Herb Sutter. Shh, don’t tell him I said that!

    I also noted the extreme skew in gender towards men, and noted with not a small amount of curiosity that it didn’t reflect in the volunteer population, which had a much more reasonable mix. I will agree with Jon (Kalb), though, that I never got that chilly “we don’t want women here” vibe at this conference – at others I’ve attended, it does get that way, even with a healthier gender ratio of attendees and speakers.

  7. Hi Anu,

    I’m glad you thought the link I sent to this was useful – and this article is indeed a very good reflection of a really good conference – but I have to admit that Chris wrote this excellent piece, not me!

    Clare

  8. Thanks Chris! I was probably one of those guys on a laptop, and was the solo guy from my company (the only C++ engineer where I work.)

    My flight was delayed Sunday and ended up missing the reception. I agree with the idea of more solo events, or even events with other group attendees. Beer has a way of lowering barriers, even among us less talkative types. It’s something you see at other (web-related) developer conferences. I hope next year’s event takes your suggestions to heart. Of course that might mean fewer 8am sessions!

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