Why Go to a Tech Conference?

Good question! It does seem unnecessary, especially since most major conferences record every talk and make them freely available online. PyCon has been doing this for many years, and are so good at it that the talks are available online shortly after they are finished! So there’s no real penalty for waiting until you can watch it online.

I suppose that if you look at tech conferences as simply dry tutorials on some new tool or technique, the answer would be “no, you should save your money and watch the sessions at home”. But there are much bigger benefits to attending a conference than just the knowledge available at the talks. I like to think of it as pressing the restart button on my thinking as a developer. By taking advantage of these additional avenues of learning, I come away with a different perspective on things: new tools, new ways of using existing tools, different approaches to solving development issues, and so much more that is intangible. Limiting yourself to the tangible resources of a conference means that you’re missing out. So what are these intangible things?

One of the most important is meeting people. Not so much to build your social network, but more to expand your understanding of different approaches to development. The people there may be strangers, but you know that you have at least one thing in common with them, so it’s easy to start conversations. I’ve been to 14 PyCons, and at lunch I make it a point to sit at tables where I don’t know anyone, and ask the people there “So what do you use Python for?”. Invariably they use it in ways that I had never thought about, or to solve problems that I had never worked on. The conversation can then move on to “Where are you from?”; people usually love to brag about their home town, and you might learn a few interesting things about a place you’ve never been to. Many people also go out to dinner in groups, usually with people who know each other, but I always try to look for people who are alone, and invite them to join our group.

Another major benefit of attending in person is what is known as the “hallway track”. These are the unscheduled discussions that occur in the hallways between sessions; sometimes they are a continuation of discussions that were held in a previous talk, and other times they are simply a bunch of people exchanging ideas. Some of the best technical takeaways I’ve gotten from conferences have come from these hallway discussions. When you’ve been to as many PyCons as I have, there are many people I run into who I haven’t seen since the last PyCon, and we can catch up on what’s new in each other’s lives and careers. Like the lunchtime table discussions, these are opportunities to learn about techniques and approaches that are different than what you regularly do.

Closely related to the above is the “bar track”. Most conferences have a main hotel for attendees, and in the evening you can find lots of people hanging out in the bar. The discussions there tend to have a bit less technical content, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been part of some very technical discussions where the participants are all on their third beer or so. But even if you don’t drink alcohol, you can certainly enjoy hanging out with your fellow developers in the evening. Or, of course, you can use that time to recharge your mental batteries.

Yet another opportunity at a conference is to enhance your career. There is usually some form of formal recruiting; if you’re looking for a change of career, this can be a valuable place to start. I’ve heard some managers say that they won’t send their developers to conferences because they are afraid that someone will hire them; it makes you wonder why they think their developers are not happy with their current job! But even if you’re not looking to make a career move at the moment, establishing relationships with others in your field can come in handy in the future if your job suddenly disappears. You can also learn what companies are looking for skills that match yours; I was surprised to learn that companies as diverse as Disney, Capital One, Yelp, and Bloomberg are all looking for Python talent. As an example, back at PyCon 2016 I met with some people recruiting for DataRobot, and while I didn’t pursue things then, they made a good impression on me. When I was looking for a change last year and got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter at DataRobot, I remembered them well, and this time I followed up, with the result that I’m now happily employed by DataRobot!

Unfortunately, I’ve seen people who arrive to a conference with a group of co-workers, attend the sessions, eat with each other at lunch, and then go out to dinner together. By isolating themselves and confining their learning to the scheduled talks, they are missing out on the most valuable part of attending a conference: interacting with your community, and sharing knowledge with your peers. If this sounds like you, I would advise you to try out some of the things I’ve mentioned here. I’m sure you will find that your conference experience is greatly improved!

Deep Dish Pizza

OK, cards on the table: I’m a New Yorker, and I have a very strong attachment to pizza (and bagels too, but that’s another post). So I find myself in Chicago, staying one block from Gino’s East, so I figured it was time to finally try Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

I sat at the bar, and asked the bartender for his recommendation for the best intro to deep-dish pizza for a non-meat-eater. He recommended the O.M.G. pie, which has mushrooms, green peppers, and onions, so I ordered that. They offered a 9″ and 12″ version, and as I was by myself, I got the 9″.

My 9″ OMG pie

AS you can see, the pie came in its own pan, and the first piece was cut out for me. Subsequent pieces (I can’t call them “slices”) required cutting out with the spatula.

I was familiar enough to know that ingredients are upside-down compared to pizza, with “toppings” on the bottom, followed by cheese, and then the tomato sauce. It certainly looked tasty enough! So I dug in.

The first thing that’s odd is that you need a knife and fork to eat it. No self-respecting New Yorker would ever use a knife and fork to eat a pizza. But hey, this is Chicago, not New York, so I embraced that approach. And I must say, it was very tasty: the tomato sauce was fresh and bright, the cheese was rich and stringy, and the veggies were also good. But the crust?

A split-personality meal

It’s very odd: there is little or no crust underneath all the other good things. Instead, it’s all bunched up on the edge. And it isn’t anything like a pizza crust; rather, it’s a dense, cake-like bread. So as best as I could figure out, you eat the sauce/cheese/fillings, and then are left with a bunch of dense bread.

A hunk of dense bread

And the crust itself was good, but man oh man was it filling. I was barely able to finish half the pie. Contrast that with a 9″ thin-crust pie, which leaves room for dessert.

So what can I say? It was enjoyable, but it wasn’t pizza. I’d like to think of it as a tasty bread-based casserole. Now I can’t wait to get back to New York to experience the real thing once more.

Towel Theory

A popular way of looking at the effort that someone with a chronic illness must expend to get through the day is Spoon Theory. It came about when the author, who has lupus, was in a restaurant trying to illustrate to her friends how she must ration her efforts to avoid exhaustion. She gathered spoons from nearby tables, gave them to her friend, and asked her to list the activities for a typical day. As her friend recited the activities she would have a spoon taken from her. Once those spoons were used up, any further effort that day would be nearly impossible.

This metaphor for expending limited resources has become very popular in communities for those with such chronic illnesses; some even refer to themselves as “spoonies”. I’ve also heard Spoon Theory applied to introverts, who can be in social situations for a much shorter time than others. I am an introvert, and I guess I could never quite feel that Spoon Theory was an accurate description of what my exhaustion felt like. I’m also a bit too literal at times, so the concept of somehow your spoons getting replenished didn’t seem realistic – is there some spoon delivery service? Spoons also don’t lend themselves to division: how would you spend half a spoon? Yes, I understand that this is all a metaphor, but effective metaphors should have clear connections to the reality they are describing. For it wasn’t just the simple passing of time that recharged me; it was how that time was spent made a huge difference in how quickly I could handle more activity among others.

One day I was hanging up a towel after a shower, and I thought about the cycle of use for a towel. A fresh towel can dry off a person who has just bathed, but there is a limited capacity any towel has for this. Once it has absorbed enough water, it can’t absorb any more. So after drying the person, the towel has to dry itself out. And it isn’t just the passing of time that is needed, but also proper placement of the towel. Leaving the towel balled up on the floor would require a very long time for the towel to fully dry; it would probably get mildewed first! But if you were to hang it up so that air is able to circulate around it, it will be dry much more quickly. And if you hung it on a clothesline outside in the sun on a breezy day, it would be dry in no time at all!

Towels also come in different sizes and materials, both of which affect its capacity to absorb water. The drying task that the towel is used for also affects its usefulness: drying a hand here and there would never saturate it, but being wrapped around someone stepping out of a pool soaking wet would test its limits.

8pc Cotton Bath Towel Set - image 1 of 6

Introverts are like smaller towels that more quickly reach their limit absorbing social interactions. My experience attending tech conferences seems to mirror the cycle of towels. If I’m listening to sessions, with only occasional interactions, I can go all day. If I’m involved in lots of discussion-type sessions, I can’t go nearly as long. If I’m giving a talk, that’s even more draining. And when I’m staffing a booth, where I need to be constantly talking with all sorts of people, I run out of energy much more quickly. For a towel, that would be like being held under a running faucet: it loses its ability to dry very quickly.

How I “hang myself up” also determines how quickly I recover. I can sit in a corner of the conference and work on my laptop, but it’s much better if I can work in my room where there are no other people walking around. And what seems to work best for me is to go outside and walk around: the movement, the fresh air, the different visual scenery – all that helps me feel more energized. The last few years I have made it a practice that, weather permitting, I find a block of time toward the middle of the day, and go outside walking with my camera. Being a photographer, I can often get some good opportunities, no matter where the conference is held. And it seems that focusing my brain on creativity for an hour or so allows me to feel energized and able to immerse myself back into the conference events. It’s like a clothesline in the sun for my towel!

So I hope that Towel Theory does as much to help people understand what the introvert experience is like as Spoon Theory has done to help illustrate the situation of people with chronic illnesses.

Moving On

It’s been a great run, but my days in the OpenStack world are coming to an end. As some of you know already, I have accepted an offer to work for DataRobot. I only know bits and pieces of what I will be working on there, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be on OpenStack. And that’s OK with me, as I’ve been working on OpenStack in one form or another for 10 years now.

Wait a moment, you say – OpenStack is only 9 years old! Well, before the OpenStack project was started, I worked on Swift briefly when it was an internal, proprietary project at Rackspace. After that I switched to the Cloud Servers team, which was the team that started Nova with NASA. So yeah, it’s been a full decade. That’s a loooonnnnggg time to be on any development project!

So the feelings of burnout combined with the shift away from OpenStack within IBM made moving to DataRobot a very attractive option. And after having done several video interviews with the people there and getting their impression of life at DataRobot, I’m that much more excited to be joining that team. I’m sure that for the first few months it will be like drinking from the proverbial fire hose, and that’s perfectly fine by me. It’s been much too long since I’ve pushed the reset button for my career.

Over these past 10 years I have made many professional contacts, some of whom I consider true friends. I will miss the OpenStack community, and I hope to run into many of you at future tech events – PyCon, anyone?

Withdrawal, Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about my first experience attempting to stop taking the painkiller Tramadol that I had been using in my recovery from a total knee replacement. I had been assured by my health professionals that it was not habit forming, but I found that, at least for me and many others, that was not the case.

Before that attempt I was taking 4–50mg tablets a day. I called my surgeon’s office to ask for some advice, and spoke to one of the nurses there. When she heard my question, she replied dismissively along the lines of “oh, don’t worry – you can just stop taking it whenever you don’t need it anymore”. I told her that that was certainly not true, and recounted what I had gone through when I tried to do just that. She was shocked, and said she had never heard of anyone having withdrawal symptoms like that. I mentioned that a quick Google search would show that I was not alone in this regard. But we did discuss a plan to slowly wean myself off of it, and that’s what I began doing. Six-hour intervals between doses became 12 for a few days, then 16 for the next few. After that I started cutting the tablets in half, and taking half a pill every 12 hours, and after a few days increased that to 16 hours. Note that all this time I was continuing to do my physical therapy exercises and walk 30+ minutes a day, without any pain at all. Last Sunday I was out of the house when my next dose was due, and didn’t get back until 4 hours after that. I figured I was at such a low dose that I could now stop taking it without going through as horrible an experience as I had earlier.

Sunday evening I did have some difficulty falling asleep, as my muscles weren’t able to easily relax, but eventually I did get some sleep. Not much, but enough to function on Monday. When I got up I felt fine: no pain, and none of the runny nose, coughing, or sneezing that I had had last time. But by the time night came, I could definitely feel my muscles getting tense, and I knew I would have trouble laying still. It was now about 40 hours since my last dose. I knew that this night would be tough, so I made a plan. I was going to stay up as late as I could, so that I would collapse from exhaustion and fall right asleep! I even took a couple of sleep aid pills to ensure that I would go out like a light!

Well, it was a good plan, but it didn’t work. The sleep aids did their thing, and I got really drowsy. I knew if I tried laying down in our bed that I would end up keeping Linda awake, too, so I laid down in the guest room and tried to rest there. Every time I tried to get in a comfortable position, though, my muscles would get tense and my joints would hurt, and I’d have to move. It felt as though I was twitching uncontrollably. I thought about walking it off, but I felt too drowsy to even sit up! It continued to get worse, tossing and turning repeatedly, never staying in one position for more than 5 seconds or so. At a few points in the night it got so bad that I had to sit up and flail my arms around wildly to get them to feel OK. I would start to doubt the wisdom of continuing – maybe I should take another pill and wean myself even further before stopping. But I figured that I had come this far, and I really wanted to see it through. Besides, I didn’t have any critical meetings or anything at work the next day, so I could take it off to recover.

I would look at the clock every now and then, and remember the time passing midnight, then 1:45am, then 3, then 4:30am, then…

The alarm went off! I had set it for 6am because my wife had to get up early for work. But that meant that I had finally fallen asleep! I got up, went to our bedroom, woke her, gave her a quick summary of the night’s events, and then crawled back into bed. I slept until almost 11am, and though my body felt a whole lot better than it had before, my brain was still pretty fuzzy. I wasn’t able to focus on any task for very long. I’m not sure if it was from sleep deprivation or another symptom of withdrawal. I tried reading Twitter but had to put the phone down after a minute or so. Same thing when I tried to play some games. I started writing this post that afternoon, but after about 2 sentences I gave up. So I watched some TV, laid in bed, walked around our garden, watched some more TV, and generally was a blob all day. When Linda came home that evening, she saw the state I was in, and knew what I needed: a big bowl of homemade ramen, with lots of veggies and hot chilis! It actually seemed to wake my brain up, and I was once again able to focus on things.

Later that evening I was walking to the kitchen, and I noticed that my surgical knee felt… different. It was sore! When I bent it, I could feel the muscles and tendons and everything pressing together painfully in the still-swollen interior of the knee. It had now been 8 weeks since the surgery, and I was told that although the swelling would diminish in the first few weeks, that it wouldn’t be gone for about 6 months! So it appears that the Tramadol was helping to control that low-level pain, even if it wasn’t much help when, say, the physical therapists would force my knee to bend further than it wanted to – that was still extremely painful! But now that this low-level pain is present, I kind of like having it, as it reminds me that I need to keep working on getting it stronger and more flexible.

I’m writing this two days after that difficult night, and the only odd symptoms I’ve had are some strange visual effects. They started later in the evening both days, and it looks like there is a curved band of kaleidoscopic distortion in my right eye. It goes away when I close my eyes, so I’m not sure what it could be. If it keeps happening I’ll get it checked out, but for now, it’s a minor annoyance.

I now have a much greater appreciation of what addicts go through when they try to get clean. My addiction was tiny compared to most, and yet it left me feeling horribly uncomfortable and unable to lay still. It’s a small price to pay for the privilege of having a new knee, but it’s one that I didn’t expect. It’s great to finally be done with the painkillers! I really needed them to make the progress I’ve made, but I didn’t want to be addicted to them any longer than absolutely necessary.