I Am A Strange Loop

Cruising through the unimaginably flat corn country of Southern Illinois is not the most stimulating of drives, but I was excited. Knowing that the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, Missouri, and the Strange Loop conference, hosted there annually since 2009, was only a few hours away had me abuzz. Strange Loop is a unique, multi-disciplinary tech conference bringing together developers and other technologists from all across our broad industry. Go hackers mingle with distributed database architects; cypherpunks chat with machine learning experts; and developers, architects, and engineers of all stripes cross-pollinate, sharing their ideas; even an unabashed Perl fan like me met like-minded people to talk with.

A Staggering Array of Topics

This was my first year at Strange Loop, and I knew going in that the talks were going to cover a staggering array of topics. The hardest part by far was deciding which to attend. At any given time there were between six and nine officially scheduled talks going; and that doesn’t even account for the informal “hallway sessions” that many individuals run, as well as the after-hours hacking and sharing. Fortunately, the conference does a great job of recording all of the talks and sharing them on their YouTube channel. It’ll probably take me the next few months to go through the talks I wasn’t able to attend in-person.

Let’s Be Decent

As anyone who’s worked in tech for very long knows, there are problems in our field. Unfortunate issues of intolerance, discrimination, and exclusivity. Things that seem totally counter to the otherwise enlightened state of learning, growth, and inclusion that we favor as developers. Many have read about both accidental and deliberate incidents at past conferences and the frequently poor handling of situations that have arisen. These are avoidable issues related to how conferences are run, how speakers communicate, and how attendees behave. Strange Loop has taken a great stand on these issues, including their Code of Conduct with a clear pathway for addressing problems, as well as offering an amazingly diverse series of talks and speakers; with both great variety in the topics covered and in speaker backgrounds and experiences. This is a conference put on by people who care and are working to change the bad parts of our shared culture, and it’s great to see that in action.  

A Few Highlights

In terms of boots-on-the-ground technology, the talks tend to have that in spades, and I was delighted by most I attended.   One of the first that stood out for me was Alex Robinson’s “The Hows and Whys of a Distributed SQL Database”. Alex works for Cockroach Labs, makers of CockroachDB, a so-called ‘NewSQL’ database offering the distributed, scalable ease of NoSQL databases like MonogoDB, and the transactional atomicity and other guarantees of traditional relational databases.
  On Saturday, John Moore of Comcast gave a fantastic talk and live demo (and it worked!) profiling and measuring API latency and throughput called “Stop Rate Limiting! Capacity Management Done Right”.
  While the nitty-gritty tech is great, one of the best parts of Strange Loop is the talks that dip into more of the social implications of what we do.   Matt Mitchell of CryptoHarlem gave the closing keynote on Friday called “To Serve the People: Public Interest Technologists”, an energetic call-to-action encouraging developers to take advantage of the many programs and funds setup to help enable technology work for social good. It was the sort of talk you walked away from with a renewed sense of hope and enthusiasm to use your skills to make the world better.
  Saturday started with a great talk by Nadia Eghbal called “Rebuilding the Cathedral” (a nod to ESR’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”) which addresses the changing landscape of development and open source, and specifically how communities and projects are built in this new era.
  This is just a smattering of the many, many excellent talks given. I’d encourage you to check out the videos on Strange Loop’s YouTube channel, because there’s a wealth of fantastic information available to you for free. I also cannot recommend highly enough attending the actual conference if you’re able; it was one of the most intellectually stimulating events I have attended in some time. Hopefully, I’ll see you, along with all of the other Loopers, in St. Louis in 2018.