Software developers are changing: They want to learn in different ways

Software is changing, and with it how we look at developer relations. So how is that change affecting the developer conference?

As the year moves into spring and summer, we're at the start of conference season, and a calendar full of developer events. They're useful tools, a way of getting a deep dive into key technologies quickly and efficiently. You're in the right place with the right people.

But are you?

The way we build software has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. We're no longer addressing a nearly homogenous world of PCs and web browsers. Instead, we're building applications that cross clouds and devices, in a myriad different languages and toolkits. There's no longer one place to work, one place to find the information you need, let alone one place to build all that software.

We need new ways to learn things, too; the traditional ways of delivering documentation and training don't scale to modern application development. That same scaling problem faces anyone putting together a developer conference. What used to be a safe bet, an event that brings all the technologies from one company together in one place, isn't quite so safe a bet any more.

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Of course, the big platform companies -- such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and even Amazon -- can continue to drill down into their ecosystems, but even they've had to change how they work over the years. They've had to expand out beyond their own platforms into the wider open world, into cross-platform language communities and into open source projects that they're using in their own products. With that in mind, there remains a place on the calendar for their events, but it's interesting to watch them experiment with new formats, bringing these companies into the mainstream.

You only need to look back at Microsoft's Mix conferences: intended to rehabilitate Microsoft's browser work after the long stagnation of Internet Explorer 6, they began by highlighting the work of folk building the open web. Instead of focusing on building for IE, they were about building for the web. While the aim may have been to rehabilitate Microsoft's browser, it showed that there was interest in building a web that just worked (the slogan of the Mix events).

Can we bring that model forward to today?

Certainly some conferences aim to do so. Many aren't corporate events, like analyst group RedMonk's software engineering-focused Monkigras and Monktoberfest events.

Pairing developers and beer, they look at how we as an industry can improve our craft, focusing on specific issues that can spotlight innovative ways of working - along with lessons from outside the world of software. Recent events have looked at packaging, how we deliver and maintain code for our users and how new ways of wrapping code change the way we work, and at sustainability, including how we can build code that supports generations and how we can work in a sustainable manner, without burning out.

Monkigras has been a highlight of the conference year for some time; it brings together an eclectic and fascinating group of people to a single-track event where the hall is as interesting as the sessions, and where a conversation can lead you down a fascinating and unexpected path.

Other events are taking an inspiration from RedMonk; and a recent arrival on the scene is cloud identity provider Okta's Iterate event. While Okta also has its product-centric Oktane conference, Iterate comes from its developer relations team, with a focus on how we can build effective API-driven cloud-native applications. That's partly because Okta is rolling out its own API products, but like Twilio (which does similar through its Signal conference), it is part of a growing ecosystem of API-based companies that are offering cloud services that replace what used to be infrastructure.

The first Iterate was a half-day event focusing on API design and development, with a second stream on how to manage life as a developer. That's an interesting combination, and one that made a lot of sense. We're at a point where software is a critical part of societal infrastructure, and we need that software to be both well designed and built by people who aren't stressed and unhappy. A good work/life balance helps developers produce better code - especially if that code needs to connect services to the rest of the world.

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After the event, I chatted with Alex Salazar, vice president of the Okta Developer Platform and Application Network, about Iterate and the choices the company had made in introducing a new event.

"We're not duplicating Oktane," he told me. "We're trying to make an industry conference, one that's relevant to us; but we resisted the urge to put the brands forward. The reason we did this was that it was our way of trying to lead the industry in a way it needs to go, focusing on good API design and API security."

The transition from product to platform is a tricky one, and Iterate is part of that transition. As Salazar notes: "[Okta is] also a member of the developer community; we are a developer company."

His philosophy for the event matches many of my thoughts on the direction that developer events need to take: "Half [of developer conferences] are vendor run, others are community specific. So, you want a conversation outside the tool, outside the company, if you want the higher-level developer conversation, if you want cross-pollination."

We can also take a leaf from the book of Microsoft's growing Azure Developer Advocate programme, and the roll out of its Reactor collaboration spaces. The opening of London's Reactor was a small conference, a series of cross-industry presentations, with a wide selection of London's developer community - and as wide a set of conversations in the building's open spaces.

It's clear that this evolution in developer events is one that's driven by the evolution of the software development industry. We're moving away from the model of, as Salazar puts it, "the hermit genius" to one where we're building teams to solve problems, teams that need to develop a common understanding of software development as a craft - and the things we need to do to sustain that craft.

That's where the modern developer event comes in, the place where we can meet to construct the craft, having the essential conversations and finding the tools we need to do just that. It's an exciting time to be writing code - so let's do it together and do it right.

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