Interview with Francesco Cesarini: Conference and Old-School vs New-School Erlangers

The Erlang Factory’s 2010 conference is March 25 - 26 in San Francisco, with the university three days before, starting March 22 The conference is at the Hilton San Francisco Airport with three tracks, each on a different theme. The number of tracks gives attendees an unusually broad set of choices for talks. When attending conferences I use the times when one or both talks are uninteresting to check email and generally hang out with people. Occasionally there are two talks I want to see at once so I’ll pick one and then duck out to catch the end of the other, like with Joe Armstrong and Nick Gerakine’s simultaneous talks on Day 2, for example. However, in this case there will at times be three interesting subjects running concurrently, which is only appropriate for a conference on Erlang.

The conference is USD $500 until TOMORROW January 31, then the price goes up to USD $700.
(If you can’t make it to the Bay Area, the Erlang Factory London is June 10 - 11 with the university the three days before.)
We’re going to be doing a series of posts on the event with interviews with the keynote speakers, starting with conference organizer Francesco Cesarini, founder of Erlang Solutions Ltd. Both conferences and universities were smashing successes last year so I expect that they will be well attended and worth the price of admission. I’m personally making it back to the states as well to go for the first time.
Erlang Inside: How many attendees will be at the SF Bay Event?
Francesco Cesarini: Erlang Factory is becoming a very popular event. We are expecting an increase in participants, somewhere between 150 – 200 delegates. We have seen a growing trend, irrespective of the state of the economy.
EI: What is the experience level of the average developer?

FC: It varies. Last year, we had students who never used Erlang in a commercial project but were interested in learning more. They were interacting with people who have been working with Erlang full time for 15 years. Even with this huge gap, you did not notice any divide. That’s the beauty of our conferences; Erlang enthusiasts from architects to newbies have an opportunity to exchange knowledge, ideas, experience and have a great time together. Of those attending, about 50% came from the west coast, 17% from the east coast, 15% from the Midwest and 18% from the rest of the world, mainly Europe, but also from Canada, Central and South America.

EI: What percentage of people go to the university and the conference?

FC: About 20% attend the Erlang University. The value of attending the courses in this way is that they are condensed versions of the 5-day courses and allow delegates to attend the training as well as the conference. Furthermore, having the training together with the conference provides the opportunity to discussions and networking, multiplying the value many times. New for this year is a course by Basho Technologies‘ very own Kevin Smith on Web Development in Erlang. This course will run alongside the OTP Express course, taught by Erlang Solutions’ training manager Henry Nystrom; Erlang Express, taught by Erlang Programming O’Reilly author Simon Thompson; and Quick Check Express, taught by Professor John Hughes and Professor Thomas Arts.

EI: How has the attendance and the demographic of the group changed in the past few years? Last year people talked about ‘old school’ and ’new school’ Erlang crowds. Do you see this as a genuine dichotomy and if so what does it mean for the community?

FC: It felt very strange being referred to the Old Guard last year. But during the first day of the conference, I heard newcomers comment on how approachable and friendly everyone was. As one of the speakers put it, the Erlang community seems to lack Prima Donnas….which is an advantage.  Gone are the days when you knew everyone on the erlang-questions mailing list personally, but the community still feels small and welcoming. Where else do you see inventors of the language helping newbies on mailing lists? Those who have been around a while get excited at all the new projects and companies adopting Erlang, and will help out to ensure it happens.  This is what we have all collectively been working for, and seeing presentations from Facebook, E*Trade, Yahoo! or SAP (to mention but a few of the success stories) makes us all very proud.

EI: Do you see a shift from Europe toward North America? Or Asia?

FC: The community seems to be growing the fastest in North America, Eastern Europe and China, but have no hard facts to back this up other than tweets, blog posts and websites. In 2004, it was easy to derive by examining the email addresses of the erlang-questions mailing list subscribers. Today, the majority of subscribers seems to be using a gmail account. We are aggregating concrete data from Erlang related websites, book sales and other sources which we hope to present in San Francisco.

EI: In training classes, do you see the push for Erlang coming from inside larger corporations, startups, consultants? Or is it more driven by technical needs – multicore, distributed systems, etc.?

FC: It is very varied. In the US, we have a lot of private individuals attending the training courses and the conferences. In Europe, it is mainly companies; everything from one man band consultancies and small start-ups to multinational corporations. This difference is cultural, where the responsibility is moved from the employee to the employer. These companies, in turn, are using Erlang to solve problems related to distribution, concurrency, reliability and scaling on multicore. Five to ten years ago, Erlang was primarily used within Telecoms. Today, you will find it in finance, banking, messaging, web development, as well as in cloud computing backbones. Another emerging area covers test automation and property based testing.

EI: What can the average developer who is not using Erlang expect to get out of the conference and university?

FC: The Erlang Factory is a conference not only for Erlang Developers but also for non technical people, including managers, testers and system architects. We advocate the right tool for the right job, so expect to meet Ruby and Haskell enthusiasts alongside Java and Python developers, all there to learn more. If you are thinking of introducing Erlang in your organization or just want to learn more about it, this is the event to be. This is the major difference with the User Conferences, which are primarily aimed at developers.

EI: What about the Erlang developer using it on a daily basis?
FC: Those using Erlang on a daily basis will be able to get the latest news directly from the horses’ mouth, meeting members of the community they have previously only met in ascii format. With the ratio of four delegates to every speaker, the Erlang factory gives everyone the opportunity to network, provide feedback on tools and libraries, and discuss ideas, projects and solutions. Many have even found new jobs this way.
EI: Any other thoughts on the conference in SF or London for people thinking about going?

FC: Don’t hesitate to try it out one year and we promise you will come back for more, maybe not only as a delegate, but also as a Speaker. With Joe Armstrong and Steve Vinoski in San Francisco, and Robert Virding and Martin Odersky in London being just some of the 35+ speakers at each event who have confirmed, the Erlang Factory has now become the largest Erlang conference around. We are also working hard to reduce costs so as to enable more people to attend. This is something which in San Francisco has been reflected not only in reduced Early Bird rates, but also in the conference hotel room rate, which we managed to negotiate down by $70 per night compared to last year.

Thanks, Francesco! Remember tomorrow is the last day to get signed up for $500. Hope to see you there!