Improving JavaOne

by William Grosso

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Allen Holub recently wrote a perceptive critique of the evolution of JavaOne. Some of it, like the following description of a talk, matches the complaints other people have been making as well.

By contrast, this year I listened to somebody droning on for an hour about a list of APIs, with no attempt to describe the overall architecture and design considerations of the subsystem. Mix in a heavy-enough accent so that you understand only half the words, a pace so slow that it puts you to sleep and no real code examples, and you’ll understand the depth to which the conference has fallen.

Unfortunately, some of his suggestions are lame and he doesn't address the real problem. Which is this:

The Internet Changes Everything

In the age of the internet, it's much harder to create a large-scale informative conference. Large conferences have large audiences. Speaking to 500 people is mostly non-interactive. It's one-way communication aimed at disseminating information. It's also inconvenient for everyone involved (we all have to be in the same room) and is going to gloss over a lot of the crucial details.

Since the web does one-way communication aimed at disseminating information very well, and the web is much more convenient for everyone involved, and the information from the conference is going to be on the web anyway .... large-scale conferences have to make fundamental changes in what they're doing, or die.

The choices, as I see them, are:

  • Become more convenient. No Fluff does this very well, by taking the conference to the audience's hometown. NFJF isn't a large conference though.
  • Become more interactive. Either the presentations have to become conversations, or there has to be significant support for conversations that wouldn't otherwise occur. This is what Dave Winer is aiming at with his discussion leader idea. BloggerCon is limited to 300 people though.
  • Offer content that can't be found on the web, or whose findable web-form is vastly inferior. JavaOne has done this to some extent by charging for access to slides from the conference. But, at the end of the day, you have to ask: is what you learn from JavaOne better than (or does it significantly improve on) the JavaDoc and the articles and weblogs already available?
  • Offer an immersive experience that, by sheer volume and overload, is qualitatively different from what is likely to be achieved in a home office. Big conferences have the opportunity to do this well.

Now, if you read Allen's discussion, it's pretty clear that he hasn't addressed any of these bullet points.

I agree with a lot of what he says, and his suggestions would make the conference better (except for eliminating the keynotes. They're my opportunity to sleep late without missing anything). But he hasn't explained why his new and improved version will beat using Yahoo Search on a Saturday morning. And without that, why would anyone go to JavaOne?

Some of his suggestions are also somewhat infeasible. When Allen writes

Sun should ask the user community, “What are you working on, and what programming problems are you encountering?” and then develop sessions to address those problems, to help programmers write programs.

It's pretty clear he's proposing a strawman. Polling the developer universe and then crafting the conference around the answers? That probably can't be done within a yearly timeframe for a fast moving technology. But my objection is mostly a quibble: if you had carefully chosen developers from outside SUN also choosing the presentations, you could get 90% of what he's looking for.

Of course, I don't really have a solution either. But I have a suggestion. Here's what I'd pay money to see. Hire a dozen really top notch consultants for a year. They spend 6 months working with a customer, and then 4 months talking about it to various user groups, refining a two hour presentation on what the customer was doing, what problems the customer encountered, and what the eventual solutions were.

At JavaOne, offer the talks repeatedly. As a two hour talk and then as a series of one hour discussion sessions. It's "Here's a top guy from the field, doing a real world case study of a significant implementation." And it's a refined and honed presentation that has been improved by repeatedly giving it beforehand.

Why would consultants do this? well, it's a year long gig with a big prestige bonus at the end, and a lot of speaking opportunities and exposure along the way.

Why would a company be part of this case study? They get six months of top-notch consultant + support. That's a significant amount of help, for free.

Does this meet my bullet points? I'm mostly going for the immersive effect (24 hours of real world implementation experience within a week? That's going to focus my brain in ways that a hour here and an hour there won't). It's also more interactive, and probably superior to what can be found on the web (because it focuses on case studies, and there aren't a lot of high quality case studies on the web).

Got a suggestion for improving JavaOne?


2004-08-22 19:01:18
Lame, huh :-)
Hi Bill,

Lame, huh :-). I think that our differences are that I think that a
large conference might be worth preserving and you don't, but be that
as it may, I agree with just about everything you say. The key point
is the notion of interactively, which doesn't work in a
large-conference setting. More to the point, Sun seems to see JavaOne
as a way to promulgate the party line rather than a way to interact
with the user community. As you point out, if the information flow
is one directional, the web does an okay job. It doesn't do a great
job, though. All of us have waded through voluminous on-line technical
stuff and come away from the experience as confused as we were when
we started. Nothing beats real conversation for facilitating real

Having said that, enough people seem to want to be at the
receiving end of this one-way conversation (can you even use the word
"conversation" when it's one way?) that JavaOne is a success about any
way you measure it, and it would be a good thing if we could
somehow improve that large-conference milieu, given the popularity
of the format.

Your suggestions would effectively break up JavaOne into several,
concurrent, small conferences. Not a bad
idea at all, but that's not what JavaOne is.
As you point out, there are a bunch of
great smaller conferences
(SD comes to mind) that are focused on
education and interaction, but these conferences are small because
people don't go to them, not because the organizers are turning people
away. Put another way, there's not all that large a market for a
small, intimate conferences, and there's a place in the world for large
conferences, too.

The question is: how do you make the large conference better? My
ideas were, perhaps, lame, but hopefully (and your BLOG is proof that
this is possible) they can get a discussion going.