A colleague and I were discussing technical conferences recently. They submitted that most of the conferences are not that helpful knowledge-wise. I disagreed. Based on my experience, conferences can be a fantastic source of knowledge. But it depends on the conference and how the participant approaches it.
My go-to example of a conference that greatly impacted me is LeadDev. I’ve attended four of their conferences in London, including the first one ever. They helped me grow as a leader and broadened my thinking in various ways.
(my number two example occupies three of the nine places on the list below)
But even before LeadDev, I was a fan of technical conferences. But I used to watch most of the talks online. There were a couple of years in my life when watching conference recordings was my go-to while doing boring stuff at home (cooking, cleaning, exercising, etc.). That changed now with the explosion of podcasts and the existence of Audible.
But some conference talks remain lodged in my brain. And while books and podcasts are great, a well-constructed conference talk narrative can distinctly affect a listener. Below, I list nine conference talks that significantly impacted me and, I believe, are still worth watching today.
Rich Hickey - Simple Made Easy (Strange Loop, 2011)
- Summary: Rich Hickey emphasizes simplicity’s virtues over easiness’, showing that while many choose easiness, they may end up with complexity, and the better way is to choose easiness along the simplicity path.
- Why I Loved It: It reshaped my understanding of simplicity and is one of the most impactful talks I’ve ever watched. It’s a talk I’ve rewatched multiple times and have recommended it many times to others. It made me appreciate the deliberate design choices prioritizing true simplicity over perceived ease.
Dan McKinley - Choose Boring Technology (Velocity, 2015)
- Summary: Mindful choice of technology gives engineering minds real freedom: the freedom to contemplate bigger questions. Technology, for its own sake, is snake oil.
- Why I Loved It: As an engineer, I quickly became suspicious of the chase for the shiny new technology. I wanted to make an impact, to build something useful. It felt wrong to spend significant time learning the latest framework and rewriting their code using it. This talk gave me a structure and the words to explain the feeling that I had.
Zach Holman - How GitHub Uses GitHub to Build GitHub (Ruby Midwest, 2011)
- Summary: Zach presents an insightful look into GitHub’s unique development culture and how they use their platform for collaboration.
- Why I Loved It: I enjoyed the presentation’s content. But how Zach presented especially captured my attention. I immediately wanted to copy his presentation style and look. I was not alone. With his permission, I ended up copying his slide design for my talk about Git. I still use the lessons I learned from this presentation and Zach’s writing about public speaking to this day.
Joshua Bloch - How To Design A Good API and Why it Matters (Google Tech Talks, 2007)
- Summary: Principles of how to design effective, user-friendly APIs, while understanding that perfection is not achievable.
- Why I Loved It: Every software engineer is an API designer. This talk gave me some practical advice that I applied to writing code daily.
Joe Armstrong - The Mess We’re In (Strange Loop, 2014)
- Summary: Erlang’s co-inventor delves into modern computing’s complexities and the challenges it brings.
- Why I Loved It: I remember trying to watch this talk and not getting it. I only started enjoying it on a second try. It’s a bit discombobulated (likely on purpose), and it took me some effort to connect the dots. And that’s exactly what I enjoyed - the challenge of thinking about what Joe outlined.
John Carmack - The Physics of Light and Rendering (QuakeCon, 2013)
- Summary: A legend in the game development world talks about the complexities of light in-game rendering.
- Why I Loved It: When I read Masters of Doom, I was impressed and inspired by John Carmack. But I didn’t entirely believe that the book gave a realistic portrayal. I was wrong. I found it spell-binding to watch Carmack get up on the stage of a game conference and talk science for an hour and a half.
Nickolas Means - How to Crash an Airplane (LeadDev, 2016)
- Summary: Nickolas delves into the story of a near-disastrous airplane incident, drawing parallels to the tech world and teamwork.
- Why I Loved It: I could’ve picked one of the few talks by Nickolas (Eiffel Tower, Mach 2.0, Skunk Works). All of those talks are very enjoyable to watch. He’s brilliant at weaving stories and revealing valuable insights. This specific talk kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.
Emery Berger - Performance Matters (Strange Loop, 2019)
- Summary: Emery dives deep into the nuances of software performance, illustrating its importance and ways to achieve it.
- Why I Loved It: Because performance does actually matter, and it’s good to be reminded of it. With the impressive hardware of today, we sometimes forget. I know I do.
(I haven’t yet visited Strange Loop in person, despite holding the conference in very high regard)
Gary Bernhardt - wat (CodeMash, 2012)
- Why I Loved It: Hilarious.
Each of these talks, in its unique way, has offered me invaluable insights or just pure entertainment. I highly recommend giving them a watch.