The PHP Community Conference – A Review

I expected a lot from the PHP Community Conference when it was announced. My first attendance to a programming-centric conference, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I did feel it was something I couldn’t afford to miss. I’m really glad I made the trip down to Nashville, and I’m thankful that I decided to buy a ticket right away – because they ended up selling out.

The Venue

The conference was held at “A Venue”, right off Broadway on third avenue south. The building was an old, brick building, two stories high with a basement, mostly wooded interior and high ceilings throughout. I’m not sure what the building was used for originally, but it had the feel of being a riverside storage and trading building – perhaps once filled with wooden barrels, dried goods and tools. The feel was earthy and comfortable, and in no small way lent itself to the relaxing and friendly atmosphere felt at the conference.

Being professionally catered and staffed, and perfect for the conference’s several hundred attendees, the venue was an excellent choice. This owes no small thanks to Lisa Denlinger, who took time off work to travel all the way from Columbus, Ohio to handle the selection of both venue and staff.

Speakers

To say that the conference featured strong speakers would be an understatement. The speakers were all PHP rock stars – and not just the proclaimed type – the very best in the industry. I only mentioned the speakers I actually saw.

Rasmus Lerdorf – Opening Keynote

Perhaps no member of the PHP community is a greater titan than Rasmus Lerdorf, the inventor of the language. Rasmus’ talk included:

1. General technology trends (server and database choices)
2. Low hanging performance optimization fruits
3. Analysis tools and further optimization techniques
4. Best practices for achitecture, workflow and deployment
5. Resources and QA

I had the opportunity to speak with Rasmus after the talk – not only is he incredibly smart, he’s also a nice guy willing to offer advice to even beginning PHP users. I was extremely impressed with Rasmus.

Feedback from other attendees.

Lorna Mitchell – Web Services

I think Lorna was the only Brit in attendance, but I could be wrong. Either way, England certainly sent her finest. Lorna’s talk focused on best practices for building PHP based APIs. Here is some of what she covered:

1. General information (types of APIs, how APIs are consumed, etc.)
2. Debugging and tools (Wireshark, Charles, etc. and how to use them)
3. Best practices
4. Covered REST in detail
5. Well-implemented, well-documented APIs (such as Flickr) and what made them so strong
6. What promotes API adoption

Lorna knew her content extremely well and presented it in a very logical format. In addition, her passion for building great software really showed. Despite a few technical problems due to the Ubuntu presentation tool she used, Lorna’s talk was excellent. Her well-known passion for the adopting open source technologies such as Ubuntu (which I share) certainly excused the slight hiccups.

You can view her slide deck and the feedback of others here.

Helgi Þormar Þorbjörnsson – Frontend Caching, The New Frontier

Don’t let Helgi’s young age fool you. Helgi has packed more into the past 8 years than most pack into a lifetime. His talk focused on an area that I knew extremely well, and that is unappreciated – the value of good front end engineering. I only stayed for the first 25% of the talk, but what I saw was very well prepared and presented.

The talk began with discussing how much of the load on web sites (up to 90%) comes from poorly implemented front ends, and then dove right into strategies to improve web site performance through simple practices like reducing HTTP requests, eliminating JavaScript at page load whenever possible, and markup structure. As I said, I left early to catch another talk, so I didn’t get to see the entire thing…luckily it can be downloaded here, along with feedback from other attendees.

Joel Perras – Lithium

A trained physicist, and author of the Lithium framework, Joel is one smart dude. I walked into his talk about 25% of the way in, and it took me a bit to catch up, but I was extremely impressed with Joel. I want to develop crazy leet skills like this guy some day. As he showed off Lithium’s routing and filtering system in MacVim and discussed in great detail the decisions he made in creating them, as well as providing some usage examples (but not enough).

Joel also discussed how hard it had been to find people to help with documentation, and how much it is needed on a project like Lithium. I’m hoping I can win some brownie points (and hopefully get what I do critiqued in the process) if I can find the time to help document some simple uses of Lithium.

Feedback from other attendees here.

Brian Moon – Phorum

Brian’s talk was about one of the web’s longest lasting and most popular message boards, Phorum, which was originally created in 1998 for Brian’s own need of a message board solution…he says it was “accidently” open sourced, yet over the past 14 years it has enjoyed more than 50 contributors, 3 of whom contributed to Phorum’s core.

Brian focused primarily on Phorum’s story;
1. The start
2. Failures
3. Successes
4. Technology choices (how they diverged from the mainstream)
5. Current status
6. What the future holds

The talk was one of the most interesting to me, as it did a great job of chronicling forum’s history, touching on both technology and adoption.

Feedback from other attendees is here.

XHProf & Wonderproxy – Paul Reinheimer

Paul’s talk was extremely fascinating. A veteran developer and incredibly smart guy who is tackling some world-changing problems in his day job, Paul talked about some really cool tools that he had created over the course of the past couple years, originally to get more performance out of projects he was working on. Mainly focused on the stories, Paul began with Wonderproxy, a tool for automating global testing. He discussed:

1. Where the idea came from
2. The venture capital that got him started (Amex, Visa, and Mastercard)
3. Early stumbling blocks
4. Successes
5. The future
6. Profitability achieved (hooray!)

Then on XHProf (a tool Rasmus had mentioned during his keynote):

1. How it started
2. How it was built
3. How it’s used (UI stuff)

At the end, in true Canadian style, Paul handed out a couple bottles of maple syrup. This guy kept me laughing through the entire talk.

Slides and feedback from other attendees here.

Sean Coates – GimmeBar

Another story-focused talk, Sean chronicled his adventures in GimmeBar, a new startup which aims to help you keep track of all that cool content you find on the web (and incidentally, liberated Sean from his consulting work). I took more notes during this talk than any of the others I attended, as Sean provided a pretty awesome road map for building stellar start-up technology.

He covered:
1. The technology they built with
2. The fact that they weren’t optimizing for IE (everyone clapped at this)
3. Difficulties in building (tough technology problems)
4. Mistakes
5. Successes

For any aspiring startup builder, there were endless nuggets of great information to be gleaned from the talk.  You can find the slide deck here, along with feedback from other attendees.

Marcel Esser – From Earth to Jupiter

Marcel’s talk walked us through some big challenges his team had recently faced in building a Flash based application for a large government agency which would help sell an Earth to Jupiter mission to the US public. I found my mind wandering during the talk, but Marcel showed a solid information architecture process that his team employed, and went into great detail on the value of stories.

View feedback from other attendees here.

Terry Chay – Closing Statments

Holy shit. Terry Chay is one funny dude. And you can’t mention him without using expletives – that’s the rule. This guy has been featured in a PHP “player’s deck” of cards, has written reams of content, worked at some big names (he’s at Automattic now), and is basically the Chuck Norris of PHP.

Terry’s presentation was epic; This guy effortlessly mixes a well designed slide deck (quite rare at a PHP conference) with side splitting humor, a visionary sense of what’s next, and great anecdotes…and he also happens to be a former physicist.

Terry covered:
1. Key takeaways from the conference
2. PHPs expressiveness as a language (ie 5 lines of PHP is worth hundreds of lines of C)
3. New paradigms in application deployment (cloud hosting, platform as a service)

You can find the full slide deck here, along with feedback from other attendees.  I highly recommend it.

Impromptu Talks
At the end of the conference, impromptu talks were allowed, I don’t remember all of them, but Jason Hunter from Red Ventures and Ryan Weaver from knpLabs gave especially good ones about organizing user groups and writing documentation, respectively.

People
The people were definitely one of the high points of the conference. I’ve been to a fair amount of conferences in the past 5 years (usually one or two a year), but I enjoyed the company at this particular conference a lot. People were friendly, interesting, and eager to lend an ear to an inquisitive youngster (I think I was the youngest guy there).

This was my first programming conference, and for some reason I slightly expected the crowd to be a bit more shy…to my surprise nearly everyone I met was pretty outgoing, and there were a lot of conversations about things other than programming.

Sponsors
The hospitality of the sponsors was tremendous. Thanks guys, for the awesome parties and great meals. A special thanks to Larry Masters and the CakeDC team, who filmed the entire event, provided sound support, and probably a billion other things I don’t know about.

To the Moontoast team – you guys did an awesome job being the hands on deck throughout the conference. To Red Ventures and Microsoft, thanks for the awesome parties at great venues. A complete list of sponsors is available at the PHP Community Conference home page. Thanks again, guys!

Swag
Most conferences load you down with a lot of crap that you just end up throwing away. All we got here was a cool lanyard and name tag which cleverly had the entire conference schedule on the back. I don’t know who thought of that, but it was brilliant. It’s the little things…

Parties
The parties were fun, and everyone had a great time, but there was a definite gender imbalance… This was most apparent when everybody was riding the bull at Cadillac ranch. We still had fun, however. Thanks again to the generosity of Microsoft and Red Ventures for making the parties possible.

Food and Drinks
Excellent, unlimited and totally free. My only suggestion here would be having healthier snacks (fruit, yogurt, etc).

Possible Improvements
I talked with Nick Sloan a little about this during the conference. There are a few areas where I think the conference may be able to grow in the future, but this may just be me rambling. Here goes:

1. Free / reduced parking at the venue, for the local folks: Just sayin….
2. Involving young students / non programmers who are interested in learning: This would mean expanding the size of the conference, but it could be cool to let youngsters (middle school and high school students) come and learn around seasoned pros. It seemed everybody at the conference was hiring – I got a few job offers / hints at job offers myself – we could possibly get some younger kids started early so they’re available for later recruiting.
3. Involve VCs and business leaders so that they can see how complex and under appreciated the craft is.

Keep in mind these are only my suggestions, and you’re free to disagree. This was my first PHP conference, so my opinion could be totally worthless.

Summary
A great conference that embodied professionalism, painstaking preparation, and lots of string pulling from top to bottom. I learned a lot, met some really cool people, and gained quite a bit of perspective on everything from how PHP applications are being built to what attracts the best developers to the companies who build them. Most importantly, I walked away from the conference with that all-important yearning of improvement rekindled with fury. I’ll definitely be back next year, and I’ll definitely be buying my tickets in advance. Thank you again, guys, for a wonderful conference.

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2 Comments

  1. Evan Edwards
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Nice writeup! Lorna’s issues were with the projector and the signal from her laptop, which is no fault of Ubuntu. They put a signal booster in during her talk, which is why nobody had problems afterwards. You and I were on different tracks (other than the first two, I mostly attended the “other” presentation), so it’s nice to see what the other talks were about.

    One thing that wasn’t obvious but was very cool (and ties into your “beginning programmers” idea) was that several of the attendees were students or recent graduates from Rural Tech (rurtek.com). They may be older, but they are newly minted developers just starting their new career. It was cool to talk to them and neat to consider them starting now, with all the neat tools and resources available these days.

  2. Jason Hunter
    Posted April 25, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you enjoyed my talk about User Groups. See you next year!

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