Producing SPLASH



I’m chairing SPLASH/OOPSLA this year. That means that I’m like a Producer, I get to do all the work behind the scenes in order to make the conference come to life. And it’s finally coming to life. After one year and a half of “programming,” I just pressed “Run.” It’s a little crazy if you believe in agile. A whole year and a half of designing and “programming,” with no testing whatsoever, no small chunks, just a long process of envisioning, estimating, guessing, coordinating, signing contracts, making decisions; then we unleash the event during 5 days over almost 600 people and hope for the best!

So what’s involved in producing a conference like SPLASH? Read on if you want to know.

For the most part, there is a huge amount of coordination work that needs to be done. The producer needs to coordinate with the ACM (the sponsors of the conference), the hotel(s), the conference venue, the A/V and Internet people, external restaurants/entertainment, the industry supporters, and the registration people, among other 6 or so miscellaneous services. This is the administrative, logistic and operational side of the conference. I had produced one conference before SPLASH; for that one, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, so I ended up doing all this work myself, because I realized (too late) that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen — a duh moment for 1st timers. For SPLASH, I knew better. So from the onset I brought in one wonderful person from the Institute for Software Research, Debi Brodbeck, who is an absolute maniac when it comes to getting things done. She is an “animal” in the sense that Paul Graham uses that word in his essay “How to start a startup.” If I ever would start a startup and had to hire a COO, I would hire Debi in an instant. We’re so very lucky to have her at UC Irvine…! It really speaks to the environment we have at the University; that we have these absolutely fantastic staff people who like to work there, when they probably would make a lot more money if they would jump to positions in companies. Not unlike us faculty, I guess… except that we’re usually not nice.

Anyway, besides the administrative, logistic and operational aspects of the conference, there are also strategic and content aspects to it. These are the ones I called upon myself to take care of, again, with the help of Debi who also knows a lot about these issues, and the Steering Committee of SPLASH. When I accepted to do this, I realized that the conference was in flux trying to find its position in a context that is quite different from what we had in the 90s, when OOP was the big thing and everyone wanted to go to OOPSLA. It was this strategic challenge that made me accept to produce SPLASH 2011.

There are other big things now, and some of them have their own conferences; there are many developer-oriented conferences that took the ideas from OOPSLA, matured them, and made them even better for those audiences. For about two decades or so, OOPSLA has been right on the edge where academic and industrial research meets advanced development. It’s a balancing act at that edge. I didn’t think I could bring SPLASH back to the golden days of 2,000-people OOPSLA, and that wasn’t even a goal for me. Things have changed, and I loathe staring into the past. My goal here was to try to formulate a mission statement for SPLASH that goes beyond catchy, meaningless groups of words (we know OOP is not hot anymore, it’s everywhere), and that truly captures the uniqueness of this community — because I believe there’s something really unique here that we don’t find in any other conference.

So, what is the uniqueness of SPLASH? Why would someone attend SPLASH as opposed to, say, RubiConf, EclipseCon, Goto, Qcon, or academic conferences like PLDI, POPL, and the like? As I said, SPLASH sits right at the edge of these two types of conferences. Look at the program this year: the first keynote speaker is Turing award winner Ivan Sutherland; the third keynote speaker is Mr. JavaScript Brendan Eich; the keynote speaker in the middle is a Swiss academic, Markus Puschel, with some pretty wacky ideas on performance/productivity. Where else could we possibly find this combination of keynote speakers in one conference?!

This edge is not for everyone. Many people are better served if they go to conferences that have only Brendan Eich type of speakers or Ivan Sutherland type of speakers or Markus Puschel types of speakers, but not the combination of the three. And that’s ok. But this is the uniqueness of SPLASH: it’s a hybrid, a melting pot of software development approaches. As you go from session to session you may have the impression that you are traveling between distant planets!

The rest of the [vast] program reflects this hybrid combination, with academic research papers woven with experience reports, idea-papers and demonstrations. Even the 3 TechTalk speakers are a hybrid bunch: Jesper will geek out on “How to handle 1M daily users without a cache;” Dave will entertain us with a rant on “Why modern application development sucks!;” and Kresten will tell a more personal story of his involvement with Erlang.  Let’s not forget the self-hybrid that is the incredible Guy Steele doing a live demonstration of singing calls! The days preceding the main conference are also full of interesting talks and events with the same hybrid characteristic: from the Dart people (at DLS and VMIL), who have just unleashed one of the largest programming language design experiments ever over all of us, to Brad Myers, who studies the human aspects of programming in relatively controlled environments, to the AWS Hackathon.

You can probably sense the pride that I have in being the producer of this conference. I’m not going to hide it, I am proud of being part of this wacky hybrid! And I am extremely grateful to all the people who have helped put this conference together. As many said before me, the most important thing for a team leader to do is to put in place a great team and move him/herself out of the way!

Now, let me go monitor the execution of this test-less program… I have a few amulets in my pocket!

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