Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

EuroRust 2023 Reflections: What's a Conference For?

written on Saturday, October 14, 2023

I very rarely write recaps of conferences but this time around I could not resist. This is for a lot of reasons. To kick things off, quite a bit of what was on my mind relates quite directly to a perception of a general negativity in the Rust community that I share. Most specifically this quote by Adam Chalmer:

Rustconf definitely felt sadder and downbeat than my previous visit. […] I felt like this year's conference was defensive and maybe somewhat depressed. I wanted to give the spirit of Rust a hug and tell it, "hey, I know you've had a tough year".

Not only did this get me thinking, I also had a lot of reflection to do about myself and Rust this year. In case you are not familar, I posted a regretful tweet in response to the keynote fiasco.

Those reflections let me come to the conclusion for myself that the following three things would be good for us as a Rust community:

Let me elaborate.

Rust Conferences and Purposefulness

I have several critiques of Python, but I must admit that the Python community has excelled in certain areas over the years, and one of those is their conferences. How good Python conferences are is often only apparent once you go to other events that don't quite meet the same standards.

One aspect where Python shines, and which I believe is somewhat lacking in the Rust conference landscape, is the clarity and purpose. When you attend a PyCon, you can anticipate a particular style of conference, and if you happen to attend the PyCon, you're guaranteed a well-defined and cohesive conference experience. You know what the PyCon conference is and what you get to expect.

Rust has a few conferences these days but it's not clear who the target audience of that conference is. Here is my current interpretation of what the conferences are for:

  • RustConf: It's the Rust conference of the Rust project where we get to hear the thoughts of the Rust project and nerdy things.
  • Rust Nation: a classic conference for users of Rust.
  • EuroRust: a blend of RustConf and Rust Nation maybe?
  • RustFest: a former travelling conference for Rust users?

I confess that I'm uncertain if my interpretation is entirely accurate. From both the perspective of a potential speaker and an attendee, the lack of clarity about the purpose of these conferences leaves me hesitant. This also comes up when pitching or preparing a talk. At EuroRust this lack of clarity was at least in parts apparent by the somewhat random collection of talk topics.

In my personal opinion, I believe Rust should consider two distinct styles of conferences: one that deliberately fosters connections between language developers and the core community, and another aimed at language users. These two conference styles would quite likely feature different types of content and cater to different audiences.

I initially perceived RustConf as a platform for major language announcements, much like Apple's WWDC just for the Rust project. However, I've come to understand that this perception is somewhat subjective and not universally shared. It's essential to establish a clear identity for the conference and communicate its purpose effectively.

Personally, I contemplated attending RustConf this year, but the conference's location in Albuquerque (which is really inconvenient for me to go to) and the lack of a clear conference identity made it less appealing to me.

My fondest memories of Python conferences are the sprints, are the “Birds of a Feather” sessions, the hallway track, connecting to people eye-to-eye. The latter being particularly important. Łukasz Langa described me this year as “more nuanced in person [than online]”. I believe this to be true to all of us. I don't even remeber having a bad experience with someone in person, even if I had massive disagreements on Twitter or an issue tracker.

I think it should be the task of a conference to enable this. EuroRust 2023 could have done better in enabling attendees to network and connect with each other. Here are some of my thoughts for a better hallway track experience:

  • Double sided badges: the badges were single-sided, and the lanyards made it easy for tags to flip over. It was incredibly hard to read, especially for people like myself who have a hard time matching faces in real life to online identities. This is also feedback I heard from others. So, next time around, make sure they are always visible.
  • Badge addons: just seeing the badge is not enough because it's really hard to spot people. PyCon has these awesome extra stickers that you can hang underneath your badge to augment it. The basics are somewhat obvious (no pictures, what are my pronouns) but the really useful ones are great conversation starters. Am I a maintainer? Am I a core dev? Am I a sponsor? Am I a speaker?
  • Better hallway layout: The layout of the conference venue, in addition to the badge-related challenges, significantly hindered the ease of spotting and engaging with fellow attendees. The absence of clearly designated spaces for mingling and initiating conversations was really making things difficult. I've noted how other conferences have successfully implemented specific areas, such as topic tables, to bring together people with various interests. Even a spacious, open area like the one at the Berlin conference last year provided a more effective setup for fostering connections and discussions. Consider reevaluating the layout to encourage more meaningful interactions among attendees.

Toxic Discourse

I had a great experience at the conference. I had good conversations, meaningful discussions, and did not feel any animosity. Among the people I talked to, there was a widely shared recognition that the sentiment and vibe in the community is unnecessarily bleak. This is not something we can fix overnight. Much of this negativity comes from Twitter, Mastodon, issue trackers, and other online environments. We can be quick to write a hurtful or snarky remark that lend themselves to misinterpretation.

Growing communities make mistakes, many of us have made missteps. In many of those cases however that is out of our failings and not bad intentions. As mentioned earlier hallways tracks are a great way to meet people. They are also an amazing way to find out that people are much nicer in real world than their Twitter profile might make you believe.

We also in some ways are victims of our own success. We are too large of a community to be able to come to a consensus on everything. But we can respect each other, in particular when we are of different opinions.

This leads me to the most important aspect:

The Rust Project Needs an All-Hands

EuroRust's partial failure is the shared failure of RustConf. The people that go to those conferences are geographically split, and some of the folks that did the most for the Rust project are not going at all. This is not good.

The combination of the “graduation” of Rust out of Mozilla, the pandemic and just a lot of churn in the Rust project has left a void. I wish that a goal of the Rust Foundation would be to help finance regular get-togethers of the core Rust project (and maybe former influential members), key players in the community. The best solutions for problems are found when a group of people meet in person with a goal and desire to hash things out.

Things are Okay

Rust has never been so successful and it never has been as enjoyable as today. It's a great language, there are amazing people in the community. More and more people are using the project and many communities are looking up to the developer experience that we enjoy.

The conference was great, I had a good time. It's a really good starting point for even better conferences going forward.

This entry was tagged rust and thoughts