thinking in rules

That Conference

Wait... Which conference?

John Wright | 9/8/2014

In the early summer of 2013, I heard about a technical conference in the Chicago area that was spinning up for its second year - and whose organizers were trying to focus on establishing community relationships and breaking away from the typical “tech conference” experience. I attended and brought Jeff Key with me to That Conference (yes, "That Conference" is the actual name).

Well, Jeff and I were both blown away by our time at the event. The breadth of technical topics discussed and the overall enthusiasm of the attendees made this conference like no other event that we’ve attended before. After the conference ended, I requested to join the organizing team for That Conference 2014 and Jeff decided to bring the whole InRule development team to the 2014 event. And on top of that, InRule signed up to be a Platinum-level sponsor!

So last month our entire development team, plus a handful our non-dev cohorts, all made the drive up to the Wisconsin Dells - some of us bringing along our family (yep, that's right, we brought our families to a tech conference -- more on that below) to attend That Conference 2014.

Wait, which conference? That Conference!

As you can imagine, every conversation I have about That Conference starts out with a little Abott & Castelo "Who's on first" routine:

"We're going to That Conference"
"Which conference?"
"That Conference!"

So what is That Conference?

As you would expect for a polyglot technical conference, there were 140 technology talks (both hard- and soft-skills) during the three day conference, but where this conference is different is in the "vibe." In his opening statements on Monday, Clark Sell, the founder, face and heart of That Conference, told the attendees that “the conference organizers put together a line-up of great speakers, but it's up to you, the attendees, to make the conference awesome… to make it yours.”

The attendee handbook further describes this collaborative culture:
"With a technology wonderland around you, craft your experience around your needs and desires! Here you'll find hundreds of passionate software developers and companies across our industry. Meet them, talk to them, and code with them. That Conference is about learning new things from each other in a collaborative, collegial, and respectful atmosphere."

Additionally, That Conference is family friendly, encouraging attendees to bring their spouses and kids. The conference is held at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells, which features a giant waterpark, theme park, bowling alley, and a ton of other local family-friendly attractions. There are family-specific sessions to introduce young "geeklings" to technology.

The InRule Team Experience

InRule played two roles at the conference, as such, there were two sets of expectations:

  • As a sponsor, we wanted to increase visibility among the passionate group of developers that attend the event and plant the seeds for future customers and employees.
  • As attendees, we wanted to expand our technical know-how, gain exposure to technologies outside our day-to-day jobs, and develop relationships with our community.

So what did we get out of this experience?

  • Great technical talks in a very community-driven, high-enthusiasm environment
  • Brand exposure to engaged developers, both in and outside the Microsoft tech stack
  • The opportunity to support the development community, both current and future developers

Let's dig in to each of those.

Great technical talks in a very community-driven, high-enthusiasm environment

InRule Technology's Mission statement has four key pillars, one of which is this:
"Our culture promotes professional growth and continuous learning for passionate employees that are vested in our customers’ success and creates value for all InRule Technology equity holders"

To that end, events like That Conference are directly aligned with our core values, paving the way for our professional growth as attendees, but also allow us to support the larger community through sponsorship of the conference.

The massive range of session topics provides a (sometimes overwhelming) plethora of options for every timeslot. From a Deep Dive into Git presented by a senior developer on the team that added Git support to Visual Studio, to Going Node at Netflix, a case study of how Netflix is moving from Java & Stuts to Node-based solutions presented by a Senior UI Engineer at Netflix, there was no shortage of engaging sessions. Plus, the agenda featured excellent keynotes each morning that highlighted how our actions as developers impact the people in our communities and beyond, how UI design is changing to more natural user interfaces and how persistence and passion can help empower developers to break down barriers.

We encouraged the InRule team to attend the sessions that interested them and not to limit themselves to stuff they would use during their day jobs. In fact, I personally encouraged folks to attend some talks on topics which had nothing to do with their day-to-day work, just to get exposure to how things are done outside our corner of the world.

That Conference is setup specifically to foster personal engagements with technical leaders, which carry beyond the conference. Attendees had the opportunity to have in-depth conversations and establish relationships with presenters and other attendees, many of whom are industry leaders or have deep experience in their fields.

Brand exposure to engaged developers, both in and outside the Microsoft tech stack

InRule has been "the premier BRMS for the Microsoft Platform" for many years now, but we're looking to grow - both to increase our market share within the .Net environment, but also to expand beyond .Net. As passionate developers (and marketers), we are excited to show other passionate developers the software suite we've built -- and what we're working on for use outside the Microsoft platform.
We had a lot of traffic to our booth and many, many great, in-depth conversations with folks about our products and how they can be used in various applications.

We had the opportunity to show off our software in detail during a 30-minute lunchtime session, where Jim Wray walked a packed room through a hypothetical case study showing how InRule could be used by a craft brewery to manage distribution and ordering, while keeping up with ever-changing (and sometimes ridiculous) laws and mandates.

Additionally, Jeff Key had the opportunity to present a full session titled "Why are you still hard-coding business logic?", which served as a less InRule-specific technical discussion around the virtues of rule engines.

The opportunity to support the development community, both current and future developers

The founders of That Conference intentionally try to keep the ticket prices low enough that developers can attend even if their employers don't pay their way. Unlike Microsoft Build, GoTo Chicago, or Google I/O, which all cost several thousands of dollars per person to attend, That Conference is committed to keeping ticket prices affordable (this year at $400), and a large part of that is having strong sponsors who cover about half the total cost of the conference. InRule, as a Platinum-level sponsor, is proud to support this great event.

Because That Conference is very family-friendly, many attendees bring their family along so they can attend sessions that introduce and expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts to the next generation. Educating the next generations in STEM concepts is a personal passion of InRule's co-founder and CTO Loren Goodman (see here and here where he is testifying before a Senate committee on that topic), so this is yet another way That Conference aligns with InRule's core values.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the excitement and pride in the voice of InRule Co-Founder and COO Rik Chomko when he told me about his experience at the half-day Kid's Coder Dojo on Sunday where his kids created a "Choose Your Own Adventure" game in HTML/CSS/JavaScript.

Next Year, Here We Come!

Now, in my role as a volunteer on the That Conference organizing team, I'm clearly biased in my opinion on the awesomeness of That Conference. But here's the real proof: The team enjoyed That Conference so much that, through an anonymous survey, 100% of the team said they'd rather attend That Conference again next year over any other conference of their selection. That’s the kind of feedback that any conference organizer dreams of.

So we’ll be doing it all again next year from Aug 10-12. I hope to see you there!

If you’re interested in learning more about That Conference, make sure to follow the @ThatConference Twitter account, or contact me directly at jwright@inrule.com or @Wright2Tweet on Twitter.


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