The largest community FOSS conference you never heard of: OpenWest

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Tucked into a corner of the Salt Lake Valley among the Rocky Mountains hides the largest community-organized free/open source technology conference you've never heard of. Weighing in at an impressive 1500 attendees, OpenWest is perhaps the third largest conference of its type in the United States, coming in behind SCaLE and LinuxFest Northwest.

This year, I not only had the pleasure of attending OpenWest for the first time, I also had the honor to present two talks. After my experience at this year's conference, I'm looking forward to returning next year.

OpenWest is located in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Attendees from outside of the region should prepare for high altitudes and temperatures sometimes exceeding 100F/38C. The lack of humidity makes these temperatures bearable, but it's a good idea to carry a water bottle and hydrate constantly throughout the day.

There currently are few attendees or speakers at OpenWest who hail from outside of the Utah/Idaho region. Think about that for a moment: OpenWest has reached the size of 1500 attendees without having to import attendees or big name speakers, relying purely on its regional tech communities. This, plus the inaugural DevOps Days Boise happening in October, belie the arrogant notion that the best and the brightest technologists and innovators in the USA are on the coasts. The Mountain region in the US obviously has a lot to offer the free and open source world.

While Utah Open Source (UTOS) is the organization in charge of putting on OpenWest, the conference really is organized by more of a collective. In an exemplary show of the power of community, the free/open source and technology groups of the region come together to organize the event. A representative of each group is a core organizer and has a seat at the program committee table. Some of the many communities who contribute to this effort are SAINTCON, Utah Python, Utah Ruby, and the Provo, Ogden Area, and Salt Lake City Linux User Groups.

OpenWest takes place in the South Towne Center Expo Hall, a spacious conference center almost directly on the TRAX light rail line, making it a easy trip from the Salt Lake City airport. It's a striking building, with a roofline designed to evoke the Rocky Mountains which keep watch in the background. The wide hallways play host to booths from dozens of local companies, projects, and user groups which benefit from great foot traffic without becoming gridlocked between sessions.

OpenWest conference center

OpenWest takes place in the South Towne Center Expo Hall

So, yes, this is all well and good. But how's the program?

If you come to Sandy next year, what sort of content can you expect to see? If you've read this far you won't be surprised to hear that it's worth the trip. OpenWest is a good conference for the polymath and the curious. The program ranged from Advanced topics in OpenStack to Networking for Introverts and covered the entire spectrum of experience levels. There was a hardware hacking lab for those who wanted to get hands-on with their technology, an endeavor encouraged by the hackable circuit board badge handed to every attendee. Undoubtedly many people received their first lessons in soldering throughout the week, with plenty of experienced folks around to lend a hand. A local institution brought a hands-on prototyping and modeling lab, where attendees could create wireframes out of pipecleaners, colored blocks, and hot glue. Everywhere you looked someone was working on something fascinating, be it code or hardware.

The spirit of inclusion extends far beyond cooperative user groups and representation of many different technologies and experience levels. OpenWest has a strong code of conduct and proudly stands behind it. While there were relatively few members of under-represented groups in attendance this year, the organizers keep improving this every year and actively seek out advice and strategies for increasing the diversity of the event. The two opening keynotes on the first day of the event each stressed the importance of inclusion and the value of a diversity of thoughts and opinions. This was a theme which ran through a large number of the sessions in the program.

There were some facets of the event which were not entirely rosy. For one thing, the food options around the venue are quite sparse. The organizers arranged for the venue concession stands to be open throughout the event, which mitigated the problem somewhat, but those looking for variety or with special dietary needs would be well served to rent a car to enable them to get to the many restaurants which line State Street much further down from the venue. Another oddity of the conference was the complete lack of social and networking events. This could be due to the fact that the event draws a very local audience, who likely would prefer to return home to their families after a day of filling their brains. Regardless, it would've been nice to have a couple of events where people could meet and mingle with the other attendees. As downsides go, though, these are relatively minor. Overall, UTOS put on a very enjoyable and valuable free and open source technology event.

UTOS, by the way, does a lot more than just put on a great tech event. One of their other initiatives is the Electroregeneration Project, a program for rehabilitating computers, installing Linux and other essential software on them, and then providing these machines to the large refugee community in the Salt Lake area. UTOS also organizes and sponsors networking luncheons and events for women in technology. For more information about OpenWest, UTOS, or any of its many initiatives, please email Victor Villa at UTOS.

VM Brasseur profile photo
VM (aka Vicky) spent most of her 20 years in the tech industry leading software development departments and teams, and providing technical management and leadership consulting for small and medium businesses.

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