Monktoberfest 2019 theme

Monktoberfest – the small but influential and highly curated single-track conference run by RedMonk and Steve O’Grady – always has a theme to the talks. I’ve been trying to quantify what I think the theme is all day, although there’s so much good content here it’s hard to quantify it clearly.

My default description of Monktoberfest talks is that it’s about how technology shapes society – and bring data. In the past, many of the speakers had done real research into their subjects and could provide rich and detailed source references behind the compelling and innovative narrative they spun. I have to say this year has been very light on the data side (so far; there are more talks tomorrow), but are the equal of any in the storytelling and concepts.

Steve begins each day with a brief presentation about the Monktoberfest community and how important it is – in those immortal words of Bill & Ted – to be excellent to each other. That’s always been an underlying theme to the whole experience, but each year Steve also curates a more specific theme. They’ve been moving away from the details of technology more and more into society and how people work together, not just through computers.

On one hand, this year is a continuation of that trajectory, speaking even more deeply about diversity, ethics, inclusion, and how both technology we build and the ways we work with other humans shapes both our society and even our own beings over time. But I know Steve has some specific messages underlying parts of all the talks he chooses.

My first thought was mentorship, in a wholistic way: Erik was explicit in his talk on “Mentorship, A tradition, a right and a duty”; but the opening talk of the day from Hadley on “Letter to a young maintainer” and others covered similar aspects of both traditional mentoring and the concept of training your new employees – and not just on code.

The “Letter” and Steph’s explainer of “Management Mistakes I’ve Made” both also explicitly called out many self-care parts of effective management and teamwork, so for a while I thought the theme might be that. Ensuring your own health and energy enables you to do… everything better; and extending that analogy to relationships and teams as well. Swarna’s “Achieving Your Career Goals Is Like Being A Spider Folk” brings similar themes, along with the lesson that careers are never straight lines.

But while self-care is important, it’s growth and interaction that make up society. Meg reminded us that information is not enough; knowledge (what the information means and it’s context and consequence) is what you need. That only comes from working with mentors or teachers and critical thinking, not just rote learning. That tells me the theme is more dynamic: it’s not just what you or I can do, it’s what we do together to improve.

While all the talks have discussed privilege and our diversity – in multiple aspects – we then have Kohsuke making us directly consider all the real world aspects of diversity and inclusion – both on a personal level and why they’re important business wise. In a related vein, Maureen’s talk on ethics and AI biases was really about diversity and how unconscious bias on so many levels in an AI/machine learning world can creep in. If it weren’t for diversity and inclusion already being a big part of the conference, I might have said that’s the theme. Heck, they had three sponsors for the program bringing in newcomers to the conference this year! But Steve thinks deeper than that.

Abby wrapped up the day giving a non-technical talk about “soft” skills and how we (think we) value them differently than coding or technical skills. This also is a common message at Redmonk and many other smart conferences: it’s not about the code – it’s about people, and how your code can get useful things done. Abby’s perspective goes deeper: it’s not about your skills and what you do with them, it’s how you are valued for your skills (or in some cases, not valued). I find this an obvious message, although I know many people still need to hear it. We know technology – especially open source projects – need marketing, project planning, documentation, and all those other non-code things, and we’re still figuring out how to value those contributors in many projects.

But I kept getting stuck on the individual themes from these talks – caring for yourself; mentorship and true knowledge learning; embracing inclusivity for so many reasons. Speaking with other attendees, we brainstormed a number of incremental improvements on these (some of which were great insights); but again, I know Steve thinks more deeply than the simple lessons here.

It ended up with Sophie reframing the question in a way that floored me briefly: the theme isn’t about the individual actions and bigger perspective within each of us. It’s about organizational change: how do we work with and within our many existing technical organizations to make our organizational thought itself better. The focus certainly is on considering diversity, equity, and ethics in how our companies organize themselves. But it’s also on helping to teach organizations as a whole how to do this, not just on the individual level, but the wholistic level.

Really, the theme of Monktoberfest this year is about making society a more just and equitable place.

How’d I do?

The Monktoberfest conference today and in history

This week is the Monktoberfest, the most interesting conference I’ve ever attended, and one of my must-attend events each year in October.  Not only are the talks thought-provoking and the attendees are awesome, but the location in Portland, ME and the food and events are top-notch. The ideas I get each year are a big inspiration, and it’s a long wait until next year each time.

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