Can Online Conferences Replace Offline Ones?

IT conferences are a great way to stay up-to-date with technology and the newest industry trends, but also to interact with fellow programmers or specialists. At Yumasoft we also value conferences and our colleagues often attend such events. However, as we are now in the middle of the global pandemic, the conferences – as most of the activities – moved online. Is it possible for an online conference to provide as much value as the offline events used to provide? Is it worth paying for online conferences’ tickets? Do online conferences provide any sort of community interaction?

On 20th March 2021 I had a chance to attend the Boiling Frogs 2021 conference. The event was held 100% online this year. I was not sure whether this was a good idea to take part in an online conference, but finally decided to try. In this article I will try to point out how the event was organized, what worked and what could have been better in my opinion.

Boiling Frogs 2021 – the platform

Organizers of Boiling Frogs 2021 decided to use Hopin for hosting the event. I must stay that it was quite well-organized and worked very well. That’s how it looked like:

Hopin platform during Boiling Frogs 2021 conference

The Expo section allowed to switch between tracks (there were 3 different talks taking place at the same time). This worked smooth. As you can see, on the right panel an online chat was available. It was possible to ask questions, which were collected by moderators. The questions were then either answered by the speakers at the end of their session or asked in a special Q&A available in Sessions section after each presentation.

The Q&A was a very good idea. Each speaker was available for several more minutes in the Sessions section and anyone could ask questions. What is more, anyone could connect with video and mic to ask the question more personally ? It made it feel like the community is really there.

The videos were transmitted through Vimeo, which made the quality great.

That’s it about the platform itself. I think Hopin was a good choice for an online conference. It made everything smooth and easy.

The sessions

This article is not a “sessions-describer” article, so I will not summarize every 8 sessions I attended. I’ll just point a few ones that were the best and what I learnt from them.

Tomasz Kaczmarzyk – Żywot programisty poczciwego (EN: Kind programmer’s life)

This was a very interesting talk, also touching some issues that we face every day at Yumasoft. The speaker started from wondering what the programmer really does. Are we really just coffee-to-code-transformers? Or we should rather be problem-solvers, who tries to think from the user’s point of view? The whole talk was oriented towards the issues in software design and understanding customer’s problems. Unclear requirements, changing the requirements too often or throwing the already-done work away were one of the issues we all face on daily basis.

The particularly interesting statement was that some of these issues are of course the issues with the design, but a lot of them are driven by programmers’ ego. When the developer gets the requirements that are not clear, (s)he often thinks “I will not be able to implement that?!” and goes on with the work. Instead of rejecting such a design and asking for clarifications.

The other issue is communication – both between programmers and non-programmers and the developers themselvesOvercommunication seems to be one of the solutions here. However, we should also try to wear customer’s shoes and try to understand the problem we are going to solve. As soon as we see some unclarity, we should not bother to say “no”.

I think this is particularly important to try to understand the domain and the root of the problem we are going to solve with the code we deliver. The non-programmers (clients, designers, analysts) are not infallible. That is why we should not think that our “no” will offend someone. On the contrary – it will help. In the end, we are all a team, and our goal should be to deliver the solution of our end users’ problems, not to show who is more powerful and whose design decisions are the only truth ?

Łukasz Szydło – DDD – to jednak nie takie proste (EN: TDD – that is actually not that easy)

Boiling Frogs 2021 - Łukasz Szydło's presentation on DDD
Łukasz’s presentation on DDD

This was a great presentation about Domain-Driven Design (DDD). As always, Łukasz delivered funny and, at the same time, very useful content. The presentation was of the kind I like – not to “sell” some new concept and evangelize everyone to start using it straightaway after watching the session, but rather to analyze when NOT to use it. The speaker pointed out some of the concepts used in DDD and – based on the projects he took part in – advised when to use them and when to avoid them. For example, according to Łukasz, aggregates are not always needed, e.g. in case of modeling a calculations-only system, like a flights search/comparing engine, which only fetches the results from external services and only does a complex calculations on these results in the end.

The discussion panel (Andrzej Krzywda, Łukasz Szydło, Mariusz Gil)

This is the last thing I would like to describe from the conference’s content, because it made me feel the community of Boiling Frogs 2021 even more. The discussion panel hosted 3 speakers who were answering questions asked on the chat. The discussion was mostly around DDD again, but I do not want to talk about the topics here.

I want to emphasize that the discussion panel is what makes on online conference more like a stationary one. This is what we used to attend normal conferences for – to meet people, ask them some questions and interact. Q&A sessions and the discussion panel reminded me a bit about sitting in the InfoShare 2018‘s conference room or talking with fellow Polish programmers at Wroc#… Let’s hope these times are back soon ?

So… can online conferences replace offline ones?

In my opinion, an online conference will never replace the offline one. You cannot really create an online version of the cookies room (you know, the place where you stand between the sessions, eat cookies, drink coffee, and talk with other participants). Even if we invent some tool that would create such a room virtually (there is an option in Hopin for that called Networking, which allows to randomly talk with other participants, but I did not try that), there’s still room for technical issues. The Internet may not work for a while and all this interaction goes away. Either way, the physical contact cannot be replaced by an online call. At least not for me.

However, I noticed another interesting thing. When I used to attend offline conferences, I did not remember much from the sessions themselves. Maybe from few of them. As soon as I met someone during the break, I either started talking with them and was late for the session (or missed it completely…) or we continued to talk during the presentation. It was cool to talk, but after coming back home I did not remember much from the presentations.

With an online conference, I was able to get a lot from the sessions themselves. With the online streaming, most of the time you can also pause or rewind the video. It is extremely useful when a complex topic is described, and you need more time to analyze it (for instance a code snippet).

Another thing is that nowadays, when everything moves online, there are no alternatives to online conferences. I think this is good that we are moving such events online. The knowledge can still be shared in even more convenient and efficient way. If you want your employees to stay up-to-date with technology, online conferences might be a good choice. We do that at Yumasoft and consider it a good way for our programmers to learn and explore new technologies. However, I do hope that the offline events come back soon, so we all can have a coffee and chat in a conference room together ?

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