linux.conf.au should rethink how they present hardware content at linux.conf.au

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I was originally going to pursue this as a bit of a project in 2019, but that’s no longer possible as I resigned from the linux.conf.au papers committee late on Thursday to spend more time with my family. So instead I’ll just throw this out there and maybe something will come of it, but also maybe not.

Should hardware events such as the Open Hardware miniconf or this year’s Home Automation workshop be part of linux.conf.au? Certainly they’re very popular, often selling out and having to maintain waiting lists in case someone cancels.

Let me take you on an journey and explain why is hard to take hands on hardware content for the conference… I feel qualified to have an opinion on all this having served on the LCA papers committee since 2004, and having been on a conference core team twice.

Complexity

Hardware assembly sessions are much more complicated to run well than a conference talk. While we expect conference speakers to be well researched and have depth in their field, we don’t expect them to perform flawlessly in an environment with a lot of variables. A static slide deck or maybe a demo or two is all we ask of them.

On the other hand, we do expect hardware assembly sessions to take a group of people with varying skill levels, and get them to assemble non-trivial hardware and have it work at the end. These devices have now reached a level of complexity where they have surface mount components, microprocessors equivalent to to the one in your phone, and software stacks often as large as that on your laptop.

Under recognition of the number of people involved

I haven’t asked the Open Hardware miniconf how many people hours were spent preparing for this year, but I am sure it was a lot. I know that Alastair D’Silva spent a truly huge amount of time on his preparation — think all his spare time for several months while having a small child.

How do we reward that preparation effort? With a single conference ticket. This discourages there from being a team contributing to the project, because at the end of the day only one person can be rewarded with a discount to LCA. This happens because the conference has budget concerns, and can’t give away 20 free tickets to a miniconf without running the risk of failing to break even. It is also because the assumption in the past has been that miniconfs are “conference light” and require less preparation than a main conference talk, and therefore the reduced subsidy for the event was justified.

Lead time

The conference papers review process is fairly complicated these days, with a lot of effort put into promoting the event so that we get the widest range of speakers possible, as well as a diverse review team attempting to ensure that we have good representation of the topic areas you expect to have covered at LCA, as well as diversity in our speaker population. This means that while we normally advertise our call for papers in July, we don’t normally inform speakers that they have been accepted until September.

So, we have complicated hardware projects with a lot of variables, and we give the presenters three months runway to prepare.

One of the obvious ways to lengthen the runway is to just assume your proposal will be accepted, and start preparing earlier. However, that brings me to my next concern…

Out of pocket expenses

Let’s assume you start preparing for your hardware event earlier than September. Let’s also assume that because your hardware is a little complicated and involves surface mount components, that you’ll go through a few prototype rounds and get the final board partially fabricated professionally. This is how things work at the moment.

Guess who gets to pay for that? The organisers of the event. One of those organisers this year was personally out of pocket over $10,000. If the event doesn’t go ahead, or if no one registers for it, then that money is gone. That doesn’t strike me as fair when Linux Australia has $800,000 in the bank at the moment.

The registration process is a nightmare

I don’t know if you noticed, but the registration process for hardware events is also a mess. Again, its up to the individuals running the event to collect money from participants and ensure that there is a fair registration process. The first indications of the level of interest from conference attendees are in the few weeks before the conference itself, when its way too late to course correct if that’s needed.

This is harder than it looks, and comes at a time when the team is flat out ensuring the event runs at all. Worse, then people get annoyed and complain.

Finally on registration, the events are too expensive. In an attempt to simplify registration, there’s only one option — buy the hardware. However, if you already own a Raspberry Pi, why would you buy another one? That’s an extra $60 or so that you’re charged for hardware that you probably don’t really want. If you do want another Raspberry Pi great, but it should be an add on to the event registration.

In summary

Conference organisers generally phrase things in terms of risk versus reward when trying to run a conference. So, the hardware events we have at LCA are high reward for those who attend them, but hugely risky for the conference. Failure of such an event would reflect poorly on LCA, which has worked for 20 years to have a reputation as one of the best technical conferences in the world.

So this is why we shouldn’t run these hardware events — they’re risky, as well as being a super hard slog for the people running them.

But…

But… They’re also hugely popular and an important part of what LCA has become. In a way, LCA is what it is because it embraces a diversity of interests. Without the hardware events, LCA would be diminished from what we have today.

So instead…

If we can’t accept not having these hardware events, we’re only really left with one other option. Let’s blow up the status quo and find a better way of running them.

That’s what originally wrote this post to do — propose something concrete that minimises the impact on the conference organising team while reducing the risk of these events failing and hopefully making life easier for the event organisers.

So here’s Michael’s simple plan for hardware events at LCA:

There should be a separate call for hardware content from now on, for a specific small number of hardware slots at the conference. This should be done really really early. Like stupidly early. As in, opening next month for 2020 and closing in in March. One of the things which holds the call for papers for the main conference up is having the conference web site ready. So let’s not do that — we can use a Google form or something instead. The number of proposals is going to be small, and we can use a “higher touch” process for the review and approval process.

Linux Australia should provide fiscal sponsorship for seed funding to accepted events, based on a proposed bill of materials that is submitted as part of the proposal, on similar terms as is provided for LCA itself and other conference. In other words, Linux Australia should bear the financial risk of failure. Linux Australia should also directly fund conference tickets for hardware event organisers — obviously, we need to somehow validate how many people actually did some work and there need to be limits, but that can be worked through without too much pain.

The LCA website itself should offer registration for hardware events. I see this as relatively trivial in that we can just treat these events as new types of t-shirts and the code to handle that has been around for a really long time.

And finally, we as a community should recognise better the huge amount of effort that has gone into these events in the past (and hopefully in the future) and make a point of thanking the organisers as often as possible. Sometimes there might be warts, but these are human beings like most of us working hard to do something complicated and exciting while still holding down day jobs.

As I said at the start, I had intended to have a go at fixing these issues this year, but events have overtaken me and that will no longer be possible. Hopefully someone else will have a go.

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