At the beginning of November I attended the International PHP Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. This was my first attendance at any of the larger conferences and I thought I’d share my experiences as a conference newbie. The most noticeable thing was that all kinds of minorities were wildly under-represented. There were very few people over 35, female or with non-caucasian appearances. On the women front I counted about ten, excluding organisers, and I’d say most of these were attending the AJAX strand of the conference – on the PHP front there were only two female speakers.
The hotel itself was a really nice venue, and well-suited to an event of this kind. Between talks there were plenty of drinks and coffee laid out for everyone, and the snacks which were provided in some of the breaks were really tasty. Their meeting rooms were well-equipped with projectors and so on, however the wireless network didn’t survive the strain of so many geeks in a small area and was intermittent at best. The “expo” was about 5 stands clogging up the entrance hall, with the main sponsors each having a stand. EZ Systems, SugarCRM, Code Gear, Mayflower and some german-language publishers were there, and there was a Zend Lounge in the corner consisting of three sofas.
The night before the main conference, there was an event called “Code Camp @ Night” where two internals developers (Marcus Boerger and Johannes Schluter) delivered a workshop on extending PHP. The session also featured pizza and beer which I saw as a major selling point. The website listed the session and said that it was imperative to register for it, however there was no means to do so on the site and my repeated emails to the organisers met with no response. Since we weren’t registered on the conference until the following day we didn’t think we’d be able to attend but we dropped in to the hotel a day early and were told we’d be welcome at this event, which was great news! The event itself was really interesting, if a bit over my head.
Pizza aside, the food throughout the conference was extremely good. The days were very long, with two meals being served on the Tuesday and a main meal on Wednesday. It was a hot and cold buffet setup with large dining spaces – I think everyone managed to find something they were happy to eat, with fruit, salads and dessert being available as well as a selection of hot food.
One thing I found strange throughout the conference was that almost all the attendees and speakers had German as a first language. There were sessions in both English and German but even the English sessions often started with “does anyone NOT speak German?”, with the speaker hoping to be able to communicate in the majority language of the assembled group . Since I only speak English I felt quite awkward about the whole thing and having sessions in both languages didn’t really work that well for me as there were quite a few that I couldn’t attend. The keynotes were all in English and perhaps it would have been more straightforward to have everything in one language or another – in the end I had to go through and highlight which sessions I _could_ attend and then choose from those.
The keynotes were of varying degrees of interest and quality. First up was Zak Greant with his “Age of Literate Machines”. This was a fantastic and inspiring talk, Zak was eloquent and interesting and his slides were excellent. His point, that only open systemns should be used for government of society in order that everyone can understand the mechanism that controls their lives, was noble and thought-provoking. The following day Derick Rethans’ talk “Personal Home Page Tools Have Grown Up” showed a clear (and amusing) history of how his experience has grown alongside the language and how much he and it have developed along the way. The final talk was much less interesting, Bill Scott on “Design Patterns and Principles”; this didn’t involve design patterns but instead revolved entirely around inaccessible, client-side technologies. I’m sure the point of this talk was to cater to the AJAX conference that was happening in tandem with the PHP one, but it didn’t do anything for me and I hope it wasn’t representative of the content in that strand.
The sessions themselves were generally very good, with four to choose from at any given time. On the first day I think I picked the mainstream topics since quite a few of the talks I attended were standing room only. I can’t speak in general about the sessions as of course I only attended a small sample of the choice of sessions that were available, but what I did see was very interesting, put across well, and were well-prepared which is always a bonus!
There were long breaks between the sessions which was excellent and allowed for plenty of chattering, coffee drinking and table football (I lost count of the number of times I was asked the English word for it!) and enabled everyone to mingle. On the Tuesday evening, the middle night of the main conference, there was a Casino Night, with Poker, BlackJack and Pontoon tables running with a free bar. The games looked like fun but basically I couldn’t stop meeting new people for long enough to try them out! Certainly it was a good ice-breaker and people who didn’t know anyone could sit at the games tables and get talking with others as the evening progressed. To add a finishing touch to the conference I was also able to tag along to dinner in a local eatery with a bunch of speakers and others who were staying over the night following the conference – talk about being in with the cool kids!
All in all I am really glad I made the effort to go, I met quite a few people in person that I knew of by reputation or had met online. Having never attended a conference it was interesting to see how things work, see different styles of speaking and presenting, and generally get a feel for these things. The party atmosphere I heard so much about from ZendCon and the php| conferences was definitely missing from this one, however I did have a good time regardless. Would I go again? I don’t think I would, I paid for the conference and the trip myself since my employers didn’t see it as worthwhile, and for two days I must say it really did seem like a lot of money. I won’t say it was a bad conference, and I don’t have a lot to compare it to – certainly there is nothing else close to it in Europe. Perhaps if I wish for it enough the rumours of a European ZendCon will come true one day …