If you work in industry, is it worth attending an academic conference or workshop?
The following observations are based on my attending around 50 software engineering and compiler related conferences/workshops, plus discussion with a few other people from industry who have attended such events.
Short answer: No.
Slightly longer answer: Perhaps, if you are looking to hire somebody knowledgeable in a particular domain.
Much longer answer: Academics go to conferences to network. They are looking for future collaborators, funding, jobs, and general gossip. What is the point of talking to somebody from industry? Academics will make small talk and be generally friendly, but they don’t know how to interact, at the professional level, with people from industry.
Why are academics generally hopeless at interacting, at the professional level, with people from industry?
Part of the problem is lack of practice, many academic researchers live in a world that rarely intersects with people from industry.
Impostor syndrome is another. I have noticed that academics often think that people in industry have a much better understanding of the realities of their field. Those who have had more contact with people from industry might have noticed that impostor syndrome is not limited to academia.
Talking of impostor syndrome, and feeling of being a fraud, academics don’t seem to know how to handle direct criticism. Again I think it is a matter of practice. Industry does not operate according to: I won’t laugh at your idea, if you don’t laugh at mine, which means people within industry are practiced at ‘robust’ discussion (this does not mean they like it, and being good at handling such discussions smooths the path into management).
At the other end of the impostor spectrum, some academics really do regard people working in industry as simpletons. I regularly have academics express surprise that somebody in industry, i.e., me, knows about this-that-or-the-other. My standard reply is to say that its because I paid more for my degree and did not have the usual labotomy before graduating. Not a reply guaranteed to improve industry/academic relations, but I enjoy the look on their faces (and I don’t expect they express that opinion again to anyone else from industry).
The other reason why I don’t recommend attending academic conferences/workshops, is that lots of background knowledge is needed to understand what is being said. There is no point attending ‘cold’, you will not understand what is being presented (academic presentations tend to be much better organized than those given by people in industry, so don’t blame the speaker). Lots of reading is required. The point of attending is to talk to people, which means knowing something about the current state of research in their area of interest. Attending simply to learn something about a new topic is a very poor use of time (unless the purpose is to burnish your c.v.).
Why do I continue to attend conferences/workshops?
If a conference/workshop looks like it will be attended by people who I will find interesting, and it’s not too much hassle to attend, then I’m willing to go in search of gold nuggets. One gold nugget per day is a good return on investment.
I went to my first ACCU Conference last week. It was great.
I’d heard about ACCU from Russel Winder several months ago. He recommended I check out the conference (for which hes on the programme board) since I’m a fan and user of the C and C++ languages.
I arrived in Bristol on Tuesday excited for what the week held.
This post contains a section about the talks and a section about my experience at the bottom.
Be aware that some of the photos might not look as good on here as they should, I think Medium has compressed them a bit. All my photos should be online shortly.
We started the conference proper with a fantastically explosive keynote delivered by Russ Miles who jumped on stage to deliver a programming parody of Highway to Hell accompanied by his own guitar playing. His keynote was all about modern development and how most of a programmer’s tools currently just shout information at the programmer, rather than actually helping.
Wednesday’s talks continued with several other good talks and a number of great lightning talks too. Finalising with the welcome reception where delegates gathered in the hotel for drinks, food and conversation.
It was here that I really got the chance to socialise with a good few people, including Anna-Jayne and Beth, who I’d been excited about meeting since I found out they were going to be there!
Thursday’s stand out talks included Documentation for Developers workshop by Peter Hilton. I really enjoyed the workshoppy style that Peter used to deliver the talk. He got the audience working in groups, talking to each other and essentially complaining about documentation. He finished with suggesting a method of writing docs called Readme Driven Development as well as other suggestions.
The other talk on Thursday which I really loved was “The C++ Type System is your Friend”. Hubert Matthews was a great speaker with clear experience in explaining a complex topic in an easier to understand fashion. I can’t say I understood everything, but I certainly liked listening to Hubert speak.
Thursday evening I headed out for dinner with Anna-Jayne and Beth before heading back to my accommodation to write up a last minute talk for Friday.
My talk was covering Intel Software Guard Extensions — Russel announced that there was an open slot on Friday for a 15 minute topic and I took the chance to speak then.
Friday began with a curious but thought provoking talk from Fran Buontempo called AI: Actual Intelligence. I’m not entirely sure what the take away from the talk was intended to be, but nonetheless it was interesting!
Friday morning was full of 15 minute talks. A format I think is wonderful. I really loved that amongst the 90 min talks throughout the rest of the week, there was time for these quick fire shorter talks too that were still serious technical talks (unlike the 5min lightning talks).
At Friday lunch time I took part in a bit of an unplanned workshop on sketch noting with Michel Grootjans. It was essentially an hour of trying to make our notes prettier! It was a lot of fun.
Friday was the conference dinner — a rock themed night of fun and frivolities.
This was by far the high point of the conference for me. It offered a great evening of meeting people and having a lot of fun. I loved how everyone loosened up and spoke to anyone else there.
I met a whole bunch of people, and got on super well with a few people who I would like to consider friends now.
ACCU made it easy to get to know people too by forcing everyone who isn't a speaker to move tables between each meal course. Its a great idea!
Saturday’s talks started with a really fun talk from Arjan van Leeuwen about string handling in C++1x. Covering the differences between char arrays and std::strings and how best to use them. As well as tantalising us with a C++17 feature called std::string_view (immutable views of a string).
Later I watched a talk from Anthony Williams and another from Odin, both of which went wildly over my head, but all the same I gained a few things from both of them.
Finishing off the conference was a brilliant keynote from renowned speaker and member of the ISO C++ standards committee Herb Sutter.
Herb introduced a new feature of C++ that he may be proposing to the standards committee. He described a feature allowing one to create meta-classes.
Essentially, one could describe a template of a class with certain interfaces, data and operators. Then, one could implement an instance of that class defining all the functionality of the class. Its essentially a way to more cleanly describe something akin to inheritance with virtual functions.
I highly suggest you try to catch the talk, since it was so interesting that even an hour or so after the talk there was still quite a crowd of people gathered around Herb asking him questions.
The Conference Environment
As a first time ACCU attendee — this wouldn't be a useful blog post without a few words about the environment at the conference.
As most of my readers know, I’m a young transwomen, so a safe and welcome environment is something that I very much appreciate and makes a huge difference to my experience of an event.
Its something thats super hard to achieve in a world like software development where the workforce are predominantly male.
I’m glad to say that ACCU did a great job of creating a safe and welcoming space. Despite being predominantly male as expected, everyone I encountered was not only friendly and helpful, but ever so willing to go out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Everyone I met simply accepted me for me and didnt treat me any other way than friendly.
I would suggest that offering diversity tickets to ACCU would help make me feel even better there, since I’d feel better with a more diverse set of delegates.
I was especially comforted by Russel mentioning the code of conduct, without fail, every day of the conference. As well as one of the lightning talks being, delivered by a man, taking the form of a spoke word-ish piece praising the welcoming nature of ACCU and calling for the maintenance of the welcoming nature to all people in the community, not just people like himself.
I’d like to especially mention Julie and the Archer-Yates team for checking up on my happiness throughout the conference, they really helped me feel safe there.
I think there still could be work to do about making the conference a good place for younger adults — I was rather overwhelmed by the fact that everyone seemed older than me and clearly had a better idea of how to conduct themselves in the conference setting. However, I think the only real way of solving this problem would be to make the conference easier to access to younger people (i,e cheaper tickets for students, its still super expensive) which wouldn't always be possible. Additionally, the inclusion of some simpler, easier to understand talks would have been great. Lots of the talks were very complicated and easily got to a level that was way over my head.
ACCU was a fantastic experience for me. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in improving their C and C++ programming skills as well as general programming skills. I’ll certainly be heading back next year if I can, and am happily a registered ACCU member now!