Back in January I had the pleasure and privilege of attending THAT Conference Austin as a workshop presenter, and I thought it would be cool to share my review.
One thing I noticed about the THAT community when I first learned about it was the emphasis on community. They really set themselves apart by making the entire experience extremely family-friendly and welcoming. I could tell that many of the attendees had been coming back for years. And I can see why.
There’s plenty of clear communication before the event, which makes it really nice to set expectations and make sure everyone has what they need. The check-in process was very warm and welcoming, and I noticed two things that stood out in particular. They had color-coded badge lanyards to indicate folks’ comfort levels for greetings (hug, handshake, wave). They also had various bits of flair you could add to your badge to indicate groups you were a part of (speaker, 5k, local, veteran). I thought both of these considerations added a nice touch to help people connect on a deeper level, and in a way they are comfortable. We’re all nerds, but it makes it easier to find someone that is local, likes to run, and is presenting.
The community focus continued throughout the conference, with dedicated spaces and activities to encourage connection beyond the normal conference topics. They had spaces for folks to work on puzzles together as well as some extracurricular activities on the calendar like a game night in the evening, 5k runs every morning, or happy hours. Of all the conferences I’ve been to so far, this one definitely provided the most encouragement to connect with others.
It was all very well organized and presented, but one small criticism I have as something to improve upon was sticking to the schedule. I think this conference is intended to have a little more of a relaxed vibe, but some of the keynotes started late and ran longer than scheduled. As a result, some of the other presentations had to shift a bit. This isn’t a huge deal, but it did throw off the way I had planned my day and caused me to miss out on some interesting “open spaces” or have those run short, which was disappointing.
The conference was structured a bit differently than most that I’ve been to. There was a keynote and a closing talk each day, but all the time in between was filled with smaller breakout sessions. The content was not exclusively focused on tech. Some of this was probably by design to make it more approachable for a broader audience. I like that they take this approach of making things more accessible to different folks, but I personally prefer content to be a scoped to specific topics.
Something that really stood out was the “open spaces”. They set up big boards with grids where folks could book a specific table and time slot to talk about whatever they wanted. It didn’t have to be tech related. One person asked to be taught to play chess.
I had to miss a couple of the talks I was looking forward to due to meeting conflicts, but the “open spaces” more than made up for it because I was able to book two open spaces. In the first one, I sat with several other individuals to talk about edge, edge compute, CDNs, and firewalls. Some of them had a lot of experience to share, some had great questions, and others were hearing about it for the first time. We started by describing latency issues on a basic website, introduced the edge via CDNs, then added edge compute and it’s pros/cons, and ended with what I consider today’s big challenge, integrating databases with edge technologies.
The second open space I hosted was more like a workshop. I wanted to show people how to set up their own servers. We walked through setting up a VPS on Linode, then connected it to a domain name through their DNS providers. Of course, we also needed something to host there, so we followed the same steps I’ve written about to deploy a project with Coolify.
I also attended a couple of interesting open spaces, and I hope to see other conferences offer this sort of thing. It gave me more space to talk about the things I’m interested in and listen to others share their interests during the time between talks or when there isn’t a talk I’m interested in. The open spaces format is also much more intimate and more of a conversation than a presentation where only one side shares.
As I mentioned above, I missed some talks I was very interested in, but of those I attended, one that stood out was “Building the tech for the world’s largest restaurant company” by Erik Andersen. Erik works for Yum! Brands and his talk was about their architecture and infrastructure. It was really cool to see how huge enterprise companies build software, but the part that really stood out to me was that they use Akamai’s Web Application Firewall (WAF) to protect their sites.
It was validating to see others provide positive, unsolicited feedback, and it gave me some good insight into how customers architect things. I also had a chance to speak with Erik in more detail after the talk, and I asked about some of our other products, but the WAF was the only one he was aware of. But even without my biased reason for being interested, Erik’s talk was great. It’s not often you see how things work for some of the world’s largest brands, and he did a great job presenting it. He even entertained the crowd’s suggestions for various Taco Bell + KFC flavor combinations.
I have mixed feelings about my workshop. There really weren’t a lot of people there (not at any, really) and that’s ok, but it’s hard not to feel like I could have presented it better. And due to some miscommunication, I had prepared eight hours worth of content for a four-hour time slot. As a result, a lot of the content was rushed, and some we did not get to.
On a positive note, this was my very first workshop, so I can’t expect it to be perfect, and I learned a lot of great ways to improve it. I also went around to everyone that attended at some point to check in with their experience, and everyone had very positive things to say. The only complaint was about it being rushed and that I should allow more time for folks to play around on their own.
The other good news was that despite the low attendance, I had plenty of other good opportunities to engage with developers and share knowledge.
The THAT folks are starting a podcast and asked me to participate. We mostly talked about the content of my workshop, but we also touched on some other things. And once again, I want to say that the “open spaces” were awesome. Chatting about edge compute and running a micro workshop on setting up a server was awesome. I hope more conferences provide that sort of interaction.
The conference was hosted at a Kalahari resort. If you’ve never been to one, they’re pretty impressive. This one had a full water park, arcade, several bars and restaurants, and the conference center all inside the resort. It’s probably the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a conference. And the fact that THAT Conf covered two nights for speakers was awesome.
Unfortunately it also was about thirty minutes (two hours by public transit) north of Austin, in Round Rock, and there wasn’t really much around. Austin is one of the coolest cities in the country, so it would have been cool to incorporate it a little more.
Conferences are a great place to exchange ideas and meet folks from different places. If I had one recommendation, it would be to not only get local folks into the conference, but to also take the conference out into the local community. It probably doesn’t make sense for every conference, but for the places that are also major tourist destinations, it could make for an even more memorable experience for attendees.
Some Weird Things Happened
There were a couple of things that happened during the event that are probably not noteworthy enough for their own sections, but I want to include them anyway because it’s kind of random/funny.
Firstly, I showed up at the hotel on the day of my workshop, but because it was a half-day workshop, I was able to grab lunch first. Lunch was pizza, and I had underestimated the size. As a result, I had some leftovers which would serve as my dinner at the end of the day.
Or at least, that was the plan, until I got back to my room and found everything as it was when I left it, with the exception of a missing pizza box. I was so sad and confused. Most likely, it was the housekeeping folks that came in and just threw it away, but why? It was the day I checked in, sometime in the afternoon, so there was no need to even check the room. And why would they throw out a pizza box that isn’t anywhere close to the trash bin that clearly still has pizza in it!?!?
I brought my concerns to the front desk, and they comped me a new pizza, so it all worked out, but I’m still baffled as to what happened. A question I will likely never know the answer to.
Then on the third morning of the conference, I participated in the 6 AM 5k run. It was great, but with such an early start, I decided to wear a sweater down to the meeting spot, then leave it there until I returned. Another runner left a drawstring backpack with my sweater (beneath a big giraffe statue).
We returned thirty minutes later and found our things missing. There were some employees cleaning up nearby when we left, so we assumed it was them, but when we checked the lost-and-found, nothing was turned in.
The front desk also said it could have been a security team. In which case, it would have been placed somewhere else. They checked there and did not find it. For three days, I went back to check in at the front desk, but it never turned up.
Again, this was not a major issue, but just so weird that within a thirty minute timespan at 6 AM, our things were taken, almost certainly by employees, and they did not get turned in to the lost-and-found.
My biggest takeaway from the conference was a huge sense of gratitude for the opportunity to present. I could tell that THAT Conf is not just another conference, but a tight-knit community, and being invited in to share was truly a privilege. I’d encourage other folks to check out their conferences, especially if you have a broad range of tech/nerdy/hacker interests or if you want to be part of a community.
Also, my advice for any conference is to attend as many of the extracurricular activities as you can. The most valuable part of this conference was the time spent at the end of the days with big groups of folks around a fire pit sharing knowledge, jokes, advice, and authentic experiences. It’s almost always the most rewarding and valuable time I spend at a conference, and you never know where those conversations and connections may lead.
Check out their flickr page for more photos.
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Originally published on austingil.com.