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Rethinking linux.conf.au

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By Jonathan Corbet
August 29, 2012
Linux.conf.au has long been one of your editor's favorite events anywhere in the world. It typically features one of the most diverse and interesting programs and is hosted in a different city every year. And the whole thing is fueled by that classic Australian energy and humor — even when it is held in New Zealand. With well over a decade of history, LCA seems like a solid and well established event. So it was a surprise to run across a discussion suggesting that there might be no LCA in 2014. LCA, it seems, has found itself needing to rethink how the conference is organized and run.

Linux Australia council member James Polley started the discussion with a post on the current status of LCA 2014:

Back in April, we announced the call for bids from parties interested in hosting LCA 2014. According to the timeline posted then, we should now be in the final stages of meeting with bid teams and visiting the proposed venues, ready to make a decision in the next few weeks.

This task turns out to be trivially simple, because to date we have not received any bids. Several teams and individuals have expressed an interest, but the number of bids received is zero.

James noted that LCA was once the only major community conference in Australia; now, instead, there are several. Perhaps, he surmised, there is no longer a need for LCA? Or, perhaps, it is time to move from volunteer organizers to a professionally-managed event? Or, perhaps, it's time to take a break and see if any interest develops for 2015?

Participants in the discussion raised a lot of concerns that the conference has simply gotten too big and complex. Potential organizers, they say, are being put off by the sheer time commitment required. Some past organizers (such as Russell Stuart, Brisbane 2011) disagreed, saying that the actual time required is not as much as it seems. But there is no denying the fact that LCA organizers tend to look awfully tired and haggard even at the beginning of the event and thoroughly fried by the end. Putting together a conference like LCA is a lot of work.

So it is natural to think about ways to reduce that work. Perhaps LCA should go back to being a smaller event? There were proposals to reduce the number of talk tracks, eliminate various social events, and even to drop the 1-2 days of miniconfs that precede the conference itself. LCA did not originally include miniconfs; they were first added by the Brisbane team in 2002. But the miniconfs have since become an integral part of the conference. Their contents are not under the control of the program committee, with the result that the areas covered — and the quality — vary widely. But the best miniconf talks tend to be quite good indeed, and the miniconfs serve as an important entry path for speakers trying to get into LCA proper. It would be a shame to lose them.

Another idea that came up was to settle down and have the conference in the same city every year. That, in your editor's opinion, would risk repeating the story of the Ottawa Linux Symposium. There is a long list of reasons for that once-dominant conference's decline, but one of them was certainly the organizers' unwillingness to move the event to new locations. Even a city as nice as Ottawa gets a little tiresome after several years in a row. A new location every year helps to keep LCA fresh and interesting.

The volunteer organizer model also helps in this regard. LCA has managed to evolve a mechanism where each year's team is given a great deal of freedom in how it runs the conference. Behind the scenes, though, a "ghosts" committee (made up of prior organizers) oversees the effort, provides advice, and sounds the alarm when it sees something in danger of going wrong. The end result has been a conference that is, in some ways, new every year, but which still runs like a smoothly oiled machine.

A shift to a professionally-organized event might take some strain off the volunteer organizers but it would have to be done carefully if it were not to kill the magic that has made LCA such a good event for so many years. That would not be impossible to do; the Linux Plumbers Conference has thrived with a great deal of organizational help from the Linux Foundation. Such a setup requires professionals that are willing to defer to the "amateurs" for most of the important decisions; it can be done, but it's not something that happens by itself.

Donna Benjamin (Melbourne 2008) thinks that workload issues could be addressed, perhaps with the help of professional organizers and a team that is distributed across the country. But, she says, there is another, more difficult problem: the fact that the organizing team must sign up for a lot of criticism from the community.

If no one wants to run it because it's just too much work, the workload can be addressed. But if no one wants to run it because they don't want to sign up for the toxic bikeshedding - that's a very different problem.

This sentiment was echoed by a number of other participants in the discussion. In our community, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished; even an event as well run as LCA is going to draw its share of complainers. When a difficult job starts to appear thankless as well, the number of volunteers is certain to decrease. But potential organizers should also heed the words of Andrew Ruthven (Wellington 2010):

The *most* important thing for any potential team to consider is that running LCA is AWESOME. I'm going to repeat that, IT IS AWESOME. What's more, we would do it again.

Finally, one could also argue that most conferences have a limited lifetime. Linux Expo and LinuxWorld are long gone. Even the much-respected Linux-Kongress, arguably the first Linux conference, was last held in 2010. LCA, having started as the Conference of Australian Linux Users in 1999, has certainly had a long run. Perhaps LCA, too, is reaching the end of its life span?

Your editor does not believe that to be the case. We are not witnessing a conference heading into senescence; instead, it is a middle-age crisis at worst. There is too much that is valuable and unique worldwide in LCA, and the people who attend the conference every year clearly appreciate it. LCA can be seen as a sort of free software project that, after years of success, needs to reevaluate its processes and governance. Once that task is done, LCA is likely to be stronger and more vital than ever.

For 2014, the deadline for bids has been extended for a few weeks, so there is still a chance for interested groups to sign up for a chance to host the event. There is talk of putting together a distributed team that, most likely, would propose to return LCA to Sydney. One expects that somebody will step up to the plate and make the event happen; who knows, perhaps 2014 will be the year that LCA finally is held in Broome.


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Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 30, 2012 14:27 UTC (Thu) by butcher (subscriber, #856) [Link]

Broome... nah, still has an international airport.

Go 'interior' for remote - Coober Pedy, Woomera; oh, they're near the railway. Andamooka?

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 30, 2012 17:34 UTC (Thu) by felixfix (subscriber, #242) [Link]

Alice Springs!

A lot of us old farts know it from a TV miniseries or something many years ago. I only know that it is remote and has a good name.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 3:59 UTC (Fri) by galah (guest, #52673) [Link]

Not unless its moved to the middle of winter.
You don't want to visit the Alice in our Summer.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Sep 3, 2012 23:26 UTC (Mon) by Baylink (guest, #755) [Link]

Alice Springs is right in the middle of the interior, in consequence of which lots of radio astronomy goes there; I think it's also a NASA Deep Space Network site. There's also, I think, a USAF outpost there.

The Outback chicken dish, much as I like it, probably has nothing really to do with the name. :-)

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 30, 2012 21:46 UTC (Thu) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

disclaimer, I am part of the volunteer staff that puts on SCaLE

> Even a city as nice as Ottawa gets a little tiresome after several years in a row

are people attending the conference to see the conference content, or to see the city?

This seems like the least important reason to pick a location, especially for a FOSS conference.

"professional" conferences where the attendees are traveling on expense accounts may need more weight on the tourist aspect of things, but where most people are paying their own way, there are other far more important things.

Moving a conference around spreads the travel costs (i.e. one year you may not have to pay much to travel to it as it's going to happen close to you, another year it may happen further away)

Keeping a conference in one location lets the volunteers build experience rather than having to learn 'running conferences 101' from scratch each year. It also makes it easier for a conference to accumulate equipment that they can re-use.

Of course, you need to have a large enough volunteer population so that you don't become completely dependent on a small number of people and burn them out. This is partly a location issue and partly related to how the particular staff handles newcomers (and this can vary from team to team even within one conference)

It's also really hard for a conference to shrink as economic times get tight, and I think that handling that had more to do with the problems of OLS than the fact that people got tired of one city.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 9:57 UTC (Fri) by clintonroy (subscriber, #6660) [Link]

> are people attending the conference to see the conference content, or to see the city?

Both, we hope.

For most of our international guests, any city in Australia is a hike, and it makes sense to tag some tourist time onto the conference trip.

For locals such as myself, almost all of my travelling around Australia has been tagged on the end of LCA conferences.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 12:12 UTC (Fri) by pboddie (guest, #50784) [Link]

are people attending the conference to see the conference content, or to see the city?

This seems like the least important reason to pick a location, especially for a FOSS conference.

It has a bigger impact than one might think. Even repeating a conference in the same place risks losing attendees because it becomes harder for them to justify going if they don't get the full benefit of combining it with some sightseeing. That said, going to the same place again does allow you to use your knowledge of the location and perhaps enjoy it a bit more.

Of course, you need to have a large enough volunteer population so that you don't become completely dependent on a small number of people and burn them out. This is partly a location issue and partly related to how the particular staff handles newcomers (and this can vary from team to team even within one conference)

I think a key issue is managing the interactions between local and long-term organisers. I've seen a lot of enthusiasm when organising conferences, but this can manifest itself as throwing existing solutions overboard and trying to show everyone how things are done. People can demonstrate a lot in doing this, but it encourages the same mentality in others, and this can lead to the loss of long-term organisers.

Mentioned in the article, possibly the biggest challenge is related to conference size. Everyone seems to want to ramp up their conference to be the biggest, but not only does this potentially undermine the conference experience, it also makes it very difficult for another local organisation to take over. Nobody getting into the conference game wants a thousand person conference to land in their lap when they've organised nothing larger than a user group meeting or something on that scale.

I actually think this tendency to super-size conferences is actually quite destructive, and I think more - not larger - conferences is the answer.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 18:05 UTC (Fri) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

If you can have a relatively stable conference staff, new people don't have to jump in and take over a large conference, they can join an existing team and get their feet wet, then move up in responsibility (letting the earlier people relax a bit or do other things they are interested in.

As for conference size, it's a lot easier to add a few rooms, or even a day to an existing conference than it is to set a new one up from scratch. You always get people saying "this was good, but if just added this one thing it would be even better"

Also, if you say you want to not have a big conference, how do you do it? tell people walking up to registration that they aren't allowed to attend?

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 22:34 UTC (Fri) by pboddie (guest, #50784) [Link]

It is true that people can get their feet wet and then find themselves immersed a bit more deeply - locally involved people gain responsibility from year to year, for example - but the progression from local organiser to "stable conference staff" isn't always as easy.

Firstly, local organisers can get burned out and feel that once someone else is hosting a conference, they're happy to take a back seat. Secondly, if other local organisers are happy to do a lot of the "stable" work, then it's difficult to see why one would have a "stable conference staff" until the venue has to move again. I still have involvement in a conference where, like linux.conf.au, there are challenges in finding another host in a couple of years.

As for conference size, it isn't necessarily easy to add rooms. Conferences have to be pretty careful choosing the right size venue unless money is no object, and in certain situations there's no possibility of adding rooms without moving up to a much bigger and different kind of venue. Once you get up to the thousand person conference, there are serious financial risks involved.

Some conferences have addressed the issue of becoming too big by having a cap on the number of attendees. You can also raise prices, too, but that risks turning community conferences into corporate affairs with all that this brings with it. And yes, I would imagine that most conferences of the nature of linux.conf.au discourage "at the door" registration with much more expensive pricing and, indeed, the risk of not being able to get in at all.

If you're really interested in going to a particular conference, you sign up while there are still tickets. If you miss your chance, there's a growing consensus that supporting another conference on the same topic is not only the next best thing, but also the right thing to do.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Sep 1, 2012 6:15 UTC (Sat) by speedster1 (subscriber, #8143) [Link]

> disclaimer, I am part of the volunteer staff that puts on SCaLE
>
>> Even a city as nice as Ottawa gets a little tiresome after several years in a row
>
> are people attending the conference to see the conference content, or to see the city?
>
>This seems like the least important reason to pick a location, especially for a FOSS conference.

As an attendee of every SCaLE thus far, that was my first thought as well.

LA is *not* a place I enjoy visiting, but it is a very practical conference location in that there are plenty of nearby LUGs, schools, and universities with interested people plus LAX is a major international airport for convenience of non-local speakers and attendees.

Rethinking linux.conf.au

Posted Aug 31, 2012 4:13 UTC (Fri) by clintonroy (subscriber, #6660) [Link]

We're not talking about permanently hosting LCA in the one city, but to host it in the same city two or three years running. PyCon.au does this in two year stretches. The idea is to make the hard work of organising everything stretch out just that little bit further.

Clinton, LA committee.


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