So I’m spending the first week of my VistaBreak in Portland. Because Portland.

And I spent the first few days of my Portland trip at Hashiconf 2015.

So would you go next year?

This is really all that matters in a conference review, right? Would I do it again?

Yeah, if there’s another Hashiconf next year, I would almost certainly go. Despite some of the qualms enumerated below, I had a great time. The Hashicorp folks put on a great event that will likely be even better next time.

So How Was It?

Full disclosure before I begin:

Disclosure the first

I am a Monitorama fanboy. Anyone who has ever talked to me about conferences knows this. Others may suspect it due to the number of times I begin sentences with “At Monitorama…”

The only conference that may have been able to stack up might have been Automacon, but I was sadly unable to attend.

Disclosure the second

I feel weird when it seems like people are trying to sell me stuff. It’s wrong of me, but it is a very real bias that I need to acknowledge. I’m not (quite) an open source zealot, but I do have some very strong opinions.

Opinions that might make one stop to think “hey maybe a vendor-specific conference isn’t right for you.”

Sometimes I think I’d never be able to start my own software business due to the powerful compulsion I feel to open source every scrap of code I ever write. But Hashicorp seems to be doing alright by open sourcing 80% of the code they write - maybe balance is possible.

But really, how was it?

I’m about to make a lot of comparisons to Monitorama, even though they are very different conferences. Unfortunately, they took place in the same venue and I hung out with many of the same people. So I’m going to embrace the comparisons.

The short answer is that Hashiconf was really good. I’m going to give some constructive feedback below, but honestly the Hashicorp folks put on a solid conference, especially given that it was their first go at it.

The Talks

One of the problems I’ve had with vendor-specific conferences in the past has been with the scope of discussions. The example I always go back to is the time I went to a Jenkins User Conference. If you were to strike up a conversation with any given person at that event or listen to any of the talks, it all boiled down to:

Oh, how do I use Jenkins? Well I use it to build and test my applications.

In a way, Hashiconf was a little bit the same. Most of the conversation was centered on Hashicorp’s 8 tools, but it turns out that most of those tools are really fun to talk about - flexible, extendible, composable, etc. And also there are 8 of them that do wildly different things - not just one or two closely related things.

People use Hashicorp tools in different ways and different configurations, so the talks didn’t all feel identical.

Highlights of the talks I attended (but we’ll get to that in a second) were:

  • Resilient Infrastructure Orchestration Using Serf

    • This is one of those geek-out, real-hacker, outside-the-box talks. Of the kind that I would expect to see at a Monitorama. Like, who uses Serf directly? That’s just a building block on Consul, not its own thing. I hadn’t even considered that might be a thing. It was pretty neat.
  • Dockerizing all the things!

    • It would have been worth it alone for just the cathartic rant at the beginning. Especially having just dealt with a similar “What the fuck is happening? This isn’t how computers work! Oh it’s just some shitty code way down deep in there.” week recently. But the Docker volume plugin that exposes a Vault tree as a volume in a container was awesome.
  • Managing Applications at Scale

    • I expect there was a bit of a change to the content of this talk with the announcement of Nomad. Seeing a demo of it (especially it in comparison to Kubernetes) was awesome. It felt a little weird that Hashicorp was like “here’s these two awesome new tools we’re releasing today, now let’s all go talk about all the stuff that’s been out for years.”
The Tracks

Subscribing, as I do, to the Dixonian philosophy of conferences, I’m not a big fan of multiple tracks. I mean, I get that it (a) allows for more content in a shorter time, (b) may spark conversations between people who may have seen different talks, and (c) allows attendees to tailor their experience a bit more personally.

However, I feel like I missed out on some great talks and may have made the wrong call on a couple of the options. Not to say any of the talks were outright bad, but I wonder if something couldn’t have been done to keep it to one track. Speaking of which…

The Length

Hour long talks are LOOONG talks. Some of the talks (like the ones above) did just fine with it, but others felt like two different talks got stapled together. Maybe it would be possible to shorten some of all of the talks, drop a couple, and make a tight single-track conference?

The Content

Another consequence of the vendor-specific nature of the conference, was that all of the talks naturally revolved around the vendor’s tools. All of the talks were broadly-similar technical talks. Well, come of think of it, Luke Kanies’ talk broke it up a bit, but everything else was “I did a think with Hashicorp software and this is what it was.”

I’m going to call out Monitorama again as a conference that does it right. Certainly, the talks about monitoring are plentiful. But I’ve also seen talks about math and science and mental health and UX and diversity and empathy and everything under the Sun.

I mean, it’s tough for a vendor-specific conference to have talks not related to their products, so I’m not trying to knock them and I don’t blame them, but something I noticed.

The People

But really, the talks aren’t the meat of the conference. I can read slides and watch YouTube videos all damn day. It’s really about your conversations and interactions with speakers and attendees both.

I’m known as a bit of an introvert. But I enjoy conferences because it’s really the one time I feel like I have stuff to talk about with every person in the room.

My experience at Hashiconf was no different. All of the people were lovely (especially the people who I had met previously at Monitorama).

However, while I did enjoy several great conversations, it never really felt like a community.

I asked on the Internet (as did apparently several other people) if there would be an official Slack team for the event. Monitorama had one, and it was great for - among other things - arranging activities outside of the conference. It really made the city of Portland feel like one big DevOps Summer Camp. Someone could shout out in #lunch that they were going to Cheryl’s for breakfast or food trucks for lunch or Bridgeport for drinks. Eventually 20 more people would show up and it would be A Thing.

Hashicorp decided not to set up a Slack (and even kind of mocked the idea at the start of the conference). Using Twitter for coordination SUCKS. I shot out a few “hey #hashiconf going to Blue Star for breakfast” type tweets but nobody ever bit.

Perhaps it’s, again, my Dixonion sensibilities coming through, but having a catered lunch probably hurt that community feel as well. Banding together to brave the Wilds of The City is part of the community-building process. Telling people to stand in line to receive their food doesn’t really do the same thing.

But the interactions I had at the venue and at the monday night event were just fine, really.

All of the Hashicorp employees I talked to deserve a particular shout-out. Given the conference was centered around them and they must have been fielding questions and having conversations left and right. Every single one I talked to was friendly and knowledgeable and just great people that are really passionate about what they do.

All of the non-Hashicorp attendees were equally as awesome. Especially the people I met previously at Monitorama, but plenty of great conversations with new people as well.