The Case for Smaller Conferences

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Ruby red grapefruit halfed on a blue plate.

This marks the second year that I’ve attended Southeast Ruby, a one-track conference hosted in Nashville by Jason Charnes, Shannon Charnes and Ernie Miller. Southeast Ruby is only three years old, but it has blown me away twice now. I think the reason I find it to be so consistently great boils down to a few things: Its smaller size actually works in its favor, the quality of the talks is off-the-charts, and the organizers do a really great job of fostering a welcoming environment.

Three (Thousand) is a Crowd

There’s something charming about smaller conferences. Southeast Ruby boasts fewer than 100 attendees, but I think that just makes it feel more intimate. It becomes almost impossible not to run into speakers and thought leaders in the hall, and it makes striking up a conversation feel much more natural. If I spotted @avdi or @schneems across an auditorium full of 1,000 other programmers, I would never have the guts to cross that ocean of people. But at smaller conferences, you find yourself in a conversation before you even know it with someone whose books sit on your shelf.

Quality > Quantity

Southeast Ruby also puts a great deal of emphasis on the quality of its talks. Each and every talk this year contained some real insight, not just a surface-level intro to the topic. I think it really helps that the organizers clearly see the value of having non-technical talks at a tech conference. Don’t get me wrong, Southeast Ruby’s technical talks are categorically amazing, but both years I’ve attended it was the non-technical talks that I kept ruminating on after I got home. The fact of the matter is that writing code is only one facet of being a software engineer, and it’s so refreshing to see people paying attention to the importance of things such as the ethical implications of our work, our emotional patterns through the lens of logic, and the roots of the tech community and how we can improve it for everyone.

Welcome ~/

Lastly, Southeast Ruby fosters a really welcoming environment. Everyone (as far as I can tell) was happy to adhere to the code of conduct, and the roster of speakers was diverse. The keynote by Avdi Grimm was an insightful examination of some of our nation’s history, how we (maybe unconsciously) use pieces of it as frameworks for structuring the software industry, and why we should reconsider it.

If our industry is full of people like the ones who put together Southeast Ruby, then I’m excited for the future.

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