OpenStack Summit Interview with Sharone Zitzman and Frank Days

Lessons learned as an OpenStack Day organizer

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While the twice-a-year OpenStack Summit is undoubtedly the place to be for those interested in OpenStack, it can also be prohibitively expensive and time consuming for many people who would otherwise be interested in participating in the OpenStack community to attend.

Particularly for users and operators who are just beginning their OpenStack journey, traveling halfway around the globe just for an event is out of the question. But a smaller regional event might be the perfect destination to mingle with others who are working in open source cloud building, hear what's new in the projects they care about, and better learn how to use the tools they need.

Sharone Zitzman of Gigaspaces and Frank Days of Tesora both have been involved in organizing local OpenStack Day events, the total number of which exceeded 25 for 2016, with 2017 likely to be even greater. I caught up with Frank and Sharone to learn more about the OpenStack Day organizing process and the panel they are participating in at the Barcelona Summit this month.

Q&A

Why are regional OpenStack Days events important? Where do the fit in the spectrum of events from local group meetups to the summit?

Frank: There is an extended part of the OpenStack community that either for timing, budgetary or other reasons just can’t the trek to one of the Summit events. For this group along with people with nascent interest in the project, these OpenStack Days events offer a low-cost, low-risk way to learn about the project.

Sharone: Building on what Frank said, I agree that the local events bring OpenStack to the masses in a sense—piecemeal. Those that can't make it out to the larger summits or are just getting their feet wet, will find the local events much less intimidating. I also think that on top of this, there are many local stories, that aren't large-scale enough to be deserving of a slot at a major summit, but can definitely serve as reference point for many of those looking to build out an OpenStack strategy, and can demonstrate how this can be done realistically leveraging local resources, and even make more global resources accessible to those who wouldn't otherwise know how to get started.

Regarding the second part of the question—I actually think this is highly dependent on the nature of the community itself. Where some of the local day events—such as OpenStack East, for example, come much closer to being a mini local summit, other events like OpenStack Israel can be seen as more of a meetup plus—as the Israeli technology community is much less formal, and many of the activities at the Israel event include ignites and workshops. I think all of these play together to provide different opportunities for those looking to get involved in the community to be able to do so, at their own pace.

Who attends OpenStack Days events, and how is the content tailored to their needs?

Frank: I can only speak from my experiences with the OpenStack Days East event where we had a mix of cloud operators and upstream developers in addition to supporting vendors. In general, this looked very similar to the mix at the most recent OpenStack Summit in Austin except that a large proportion of the audience came from the East Coast.

Sharone: We've seen this trend change substantially over the years, with the maturity of OpenStack. Where it once started off as mostly developers and early adopters of technology, we are now seeing decision makers from leading enterprises, security organizations, alongside community people, operators, and OpenStack technology partners. We make an effort to provide a diversity of content by ensuring a mix of local and global content, use cases—large and smaller scale, a technical track, as well as workshops. This way, at any given time the different attendees have options to choose from on the agenda—whether they want to actually try something hands-on in a lab, hear how specific tooling works with OpenStack, or get more of a business perspective on what taking the OpenStack plunge means for their organization.

In previous years the OpenStack Israel community has needed to do much more head-hunting for keynotes and specific content related to new technologies (e.g. when Docker, Kubernetes, or container orchestration was the hottest trend or hyper/scale/converged/insert -other-technology-here was just announced). A good agenda is the main driver of an event—so really each year is a burden of proof for the next year in recruiting anything from speakers to sponsors. That's why in order to build momentum you need to offer stellar content early, and then you'll find that the event many times start to drive itself, and the calls for papers come in, and then you have the even more difficult task of filtering out the great talks from the exceptional ones.

For others who are hoping to organize a similar event in their part of the world, what advice would you give?

Frank: Think of this as a community event and get your local meetup organizers involved from day one. For the OpenStack Day East event, we created a steering committee that included these meetup leaders and they were invaluable when it came time to create the agenda, review speaking proposals and recruit sponsors.

Sharone: Start very early—there will always be unforeseen glitches. Start small, and let the community surprise you—it's better to have a smaller event that's sold out, than a huge event that's half empty. I agree with Frank—leverage existing assets, from local meetup organizers, to the actual OpenStack Foundation who are always looking to support these events, and will provide you with much-needed resources and promotion.

On top of that, if the community doesn't yet exist, it might be a good idea to start a local group, drive momentum around that—and allow it to culminate in the day event at the end of the year, than immediately diving into the actual large-scale event. It's also very important to listen to what your community needs—and this is a takeaway I actually learned from another capacity of mine in leading the DevOps Israel community. We created the technical track (actually in both communities—OpenStack and DevOps Days), as while we do believe that the "only constant is change"—and the tool of today, may not be the tool of tomorrow, many attendees have trouble justifying participating in these events if they don't "learn something." So we created workshops and technical sessions to ensure these people can go back to the office the next day, and talk about what they learned thanks to attending their local OpenStack event. Let your community drive the content—and this changes based on who your attendees and audience will ultimately be.

How do you balance content around upstream OpenStack with vendor-focused content?

Frank: We focused on recruiting awesome and original keynote speakers first. We were lucky in that the call for papers yielded fresh community-oriented content. Finally we added the sponsor content. I use the analogy of a 30 minute television show in the US where there is around 22 minutes of program and 8 minutes of commercials. Our program had about that ratio of sponsored content. If you go much more than that you turn off the audience. Also, keep in mind that your audience is your primary customer. If they are not happy then nothing else really matters as they won’t come back for year two. If you please your audience, then you will attract quality people for your sponsors. Think of it as audience first.

Sharone: I think my two longer responses above answer this in part—I'll just focus on the last part of the question. These events do need to fund themselves at the end of the day—and while we very much believe in a meritocracy of content (as like I said above—this will make or break your event, and no one wants to attend an event of vendor pitches), there does need to be an incentive and justification for sponsors to back your event. We have learned to balance this in two ways—provide "add-on" opportunities, and this is in a sense a luxury and by-product of additional community activities of ours—but we do offer add-on meetups or OpenStack podcast, in order to not "contaminate" the event content. We also enable two other options for Platinum sponsors only—a five minute pitch to the audience, or opening words—where this is clearly stated in the agenda as a "vendor pitch" and is usually between sessions or right before the break. The other option is an add-on workshop—however, these are very tightly moderated, and are expected to provide substantial technical value to the audience, while being mutually beneficial for the vendor.

How do OpenStack Days events promote a broad spectrum of participants?

Frank: We shared the event through the standard OpenStack channels. The early bird discount was essential to moving tickets. We also offered discount codes to the sponsors who then shared with their customers.

Sharone: This is a core value at the OpenStack Israel event, and we do this on two fronts—talks and attendees—and we think both feed each other in a sense. In terms of attendees, we reserve a certain amount of tickets annually to provide women, students, and soldiers (a local Israeli thing) for the minimal cost of a tweet or share on social media. We also reserve "discounted" tickets for URM or those who truly want to come, are unable to fund the cost and provide sufficient justification for their participation. At the end of the day, this is an open source project and community, and inclusivity is much more important than exclusivity—especially when trying to build more a local contributor mass, and awareness among the younger generation of developers who are likely more interested in sexier open source projects.

From a content perspective, we usually try to ensure a certain amount of women speakers, and usually only one talk per organization. This enables a much more diverse agenda for the event, and hopefully caters to heterogeneous audience that attend these events.

And finally, you can't run a local event in a "vacuum"—that's why if you are helping to lead a local event, you'll likely need to work with additional relevant outlets if you aren't already involved—e.g. like meetups groups or local LinkedIn and Facebook groups. We took these from local to global—from leading the OpenStack Israel LinkedIn group to building a global OpenStack group on Facebook, and creating a global OpenStack Slack in order to help connect all the dots, and create better visibility to all of the local communities—and help them cross-pollinate each other.

You can register for the OpenStack Slack, and the OpenStack Facebook group and get involved—and are welcome to send us the RSS feeds to your local meetup groups and more, so they reach a larger global OpenStack audience.

About the author

Jason Baker - I use technology to make the world more open. Linux desktop enthusiast. Map/geospatial nerd. Raspberry Pi tinkerer. Data analysis and visualization geek. Occasional coder. Sysadmin. Web maker. Red Hatter since 2013.