Preparing for my first open source conference

Preparing for my first open source conference
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How many open source conferences have you attended?
67.8% (61 votes)
3.3% (3 votes)
More than 10
28.9% (26 votes)

It's time for a confession: I have never been to an open source conference.

I've been an open source and free culture advocate for more than half a decade. I've used open source operating systems and applications on my computers and mobile devices for nearly as long. I've contributed to open source documentation efforts. I've organized a university event to promote the principles of open source in college. And I've been writing for

But I've never been to an honest-to-goodness, full-blown conference.

That will change this week, when the team and I head to SouthEast LinuxFest in Charlotte, NC, from June 8-10. To say that I'm excited would be an understatement.

But I'm also overwhelmed. Just look at this presentation schedule. It's packed. In order to decide how I'm going to handle it all, I'll do what I've learned I can always do: ask the open source community for help.

So tell me: What's the best way to experience a Linux conference?

SouthEast LinuxFest (or SELF, as the veterans, I'm told, will call it) begins Friday at 9 a.m. While many attendes will likely be snaking their way across the program grid, hopping between sessions on various open souce technologies like MySQL and FreeNAS, I'll try to confine myself to a speaker track rife with engaging talks on diverse topics like spam control and open source education (by the way, don't miss our own Jason Hibbets speaking on "The Making of an Open Source City" at 4 p.m. that day).

Saturday is bookended by the conference's dual keynotes—one by Robin "Roblimo" Miller, former editor of Slashdot, and another by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, veteran technology journalist who has written about Linux and other open source projects for Computerworld and ZDNet.

Sandwiched between these two powerhouse presentations on Saturday are too many sessions to list (though I must take a moment to mention that correspondent Ruth Suehle will be speaking on open source in popular culture at 10:15 a.m.).

No doubt my head will be spinning as I drift between talks on accessibility in free software, open source cloud technologies, and copyleft licensing. And then there's the 1:30 p.m. talk on Qtractor by Klaatu—yes, the Klaatu—which forces me into another newbie connundrum: How does a timid first-timer work up the courage to get a hero's autograph—and more importantly: what does he have that hero sign?

Between all that, I'll have to figure out how to hold down the fort at the table on the conference's expo floor. If you're headed to Charlotte, be sure to visit, pick up some buttons and stickers, meet other members of our community, and star in a video that we want to create during the weekend.

You won't miss me. I'll be the one with stars in his eyes.

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jcschweitzer's picture
Open Minded

Conferences are fun events. The presentations are generally too short to teach anything in depth, but are long enough to peak interest.

SELF and POSSCON (Columbia, SC) are two impressive open source conferences that come out of South Carolina (SELF was in SC the prior three years). I've had the opportunity to attend conferences all over the country and these two are are impressive as any of them, and are an excellent value.

Go to sessions you aren't familiar with and talk to your peers. The speakers (even the renown ones) are just people like the audience.

jhibbets's picture

Good advice. I've noticed that a lot of conferences I attend...there is an entire conversation happening on Twitter. So find the conference hashtag and talk while the presenters and keynotes talk!


jcschweitzer's picture
Open Minded

Once you attend, the next step is presenting. I'm presenting first thing on Friday on tinkering in education. Its fun to present and builds an excellent skill set. And don't worry if you don't know anything, it is all about the fun.

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

I've got your presentation on my shortlist! Hope to see you there (and thanks for the great advice).

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

Great talk! I especially appreciate the chance to handle a Raspberry Pi. It's even more impressive in person.

pfrields's picture
Open Enthusiast

Hi Bryan. Like you I was overwhelmed at my first open source conference, which was probably around 2005. After going to many of these, I would recommend trying to reserve 25-50% of your session attendance for topics that are really new to you. In other words, try some topics outside your comfort zone. For instance, I'm sitting in Jason Hibbets' presentation on the making of an open source city, and saw some ideas that really resonated with me, such as the story of Walk [Your City]. You might be surprised at the interesting lessons you can bring back to the areas where you spend more time in open source. You may not necessarily get a "wow" moment out of every session you attend, but at the very least you'll have an even more well-rounded appreciation for how people are applying open source in disparate areas of technology and life.

jhibbets's picture

Hi Paul - Check out the interview with Matt Tomasulo re: Walk Your [City]

Thanks for attending!

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

Thanks for this expert advice, Paul. It really has been a whirlwind--but a good one. Time management has actually been my biggest challenge this weekend. Running from presentation to presentation can be tiring, but I still want to spend ample time at our booth, making sure everyone knows about, and be sure I cover the event for those who couldn't make it (I managed to miss Jason's talk because I lost track of time filing a story, a fact about which I still feel incredibly guilty). But I suppose disappointment at not being able to do or see it all is par for the course at conferences like these.