NodeConf 2013

For the last 4 years, NodeConf has been a groundbreaking and innovative community conference unlike any other. I’ve been impressed and honored to be a part of it every time.

One of Mikeal’s goals with running conferences, and his approach to open source in general, is to make the entire community more egalitarian and welcoming. That’s why there’s always been an “opening party” rather than a “speakers dinner”; all the attendees hang out together, there is no “speakers lounge”. Yes, there are celebrities in any community, the visible people who are highly engaged with the core technology and help keep the wheels turning. But the entire community feels unwelcoming and strange when those people are treated as a separate class of untouchables. We’re all just humans.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Walker Creek Ranch. This was my third time at the place in as many years. The last two years, Mikeal’s arranged a NodeConf Summer Camp there, which was like a scaled down unconference-style meeting of people who came and discussed where the core of Node would go next. Without much of an agenda, it was very free-form, and the comfortable setting allowed for some intense debates about stuff ranging from putting zlib in core, to domains, to the needs of our Stream interface, and so on.

Walker Creek Range is magical. In the woods, we’re all animals. We’re all of the same tribe, all on the same team. When you jump in a lake with someone, or sit under a tree, or make smores by a campfire, you are bonded in a way that email and IRC can never achieve. There are no podiums or stages. You don’t need to save your seat or worry about someone running off with your bag (where would they go?)

When Mikeal said he was going to just do a single conference this year, instead of a traditional NodeConf and then a separate NodeConf Summer Camp, and that it’d be at Walker Creek Ranch, I told him it was a great idea. When he told me that I’d have to teach the same class 8 times, I winced. I told him, “Sure. I’ll do that. I don’t think you’ll find 7 other people who will, though.” That is because I can be cynical.

Time and again, this community surprises me, and Mikeal surprises me. Not only did he find plenty of people to staff all the 8 sessions, he somehow managed to trick everyone into actually attending every session, even though I’m sure many of them came in thinking that most of these sessions would be way over their heads.

So, enough gushing. Here’s what was in the How To Node Core session that I led with Bert Belder, who was a tremendous help.

How To Node Core

As people walked in, it’s important to remember that they usually had no idea what session “6” was going to be. Also, because the schedules were randomized, they weren’t seeing the same people that they’d met in their previous sessions. Strangers! Surprises! Oh no!

When they saw me and Bert in there, and the first slide up on the projector, a few people took a noticeable gulp, like they accidentally signed up for Calc 3, but should have been in Algebra 1. This is exactly the reaction that we were hoping for. The point of NodeConf this year, the goal, was to expose people, in an accessible hands-on way, to something that they never would have thought that they could do.

(Of course, a few people saw which session it was, and were not fazed, since a bunch of people at the conference had already landed pull requests before.)

Here are the slides:

The first thing we did was make sure that everyone had the Node.js source code checked out, and could build it. Typically there were 3 or 4 people who needed help getting to this step, and Bert would run around for the first few minutes with USB sticks getting people up and running.

A few people noticed the “nodeconf2013” branch in the github repo already, so they had all the examples and source code already written.

When I got to the “example” portions in the slides, I’d stop and do the Substack-style vim *.* and then use :next and :prev to move between files.

The first example was this.

The second was this. For many people at the conference, this was their first ever experience editing a C++ file, and compiling the program with their changes.

And here are the diffs for the exercise. Not everyone finished it, and many probably implemented it somewhat differently, but the exploration was the point of the work, not the destination.

Takeaways

The results were very encouraging. A lot of people mentioned that they’d alwasy felt like Node Core is this really intimidating thing, and never even bothered to look under the hood to see how it was all wired together. They were genuinely surprised to find out that Node’s internal modules are very much like a plain old Node program, with require() and everything.

Also, ironically, I found that when I went faster, there were fewer people who fell behind. I don’t know if the energy of the speaker makes them feel more motivated, or if the fear of being left behind makes them pay more attention, or what. But when I slowed down to let people catch up, they fell behind worse, which surprised me.

If you ever want to run an event like this, the value of having another set of hands there really cannot be overstated. Without Bert running around to keep people following along, it never would have went as smoothly as it did. I did most of the talking, but he was absolutely essential.

All in all, I think we had a big effect on many peoples’ level of intimidation about contributing to Node core. The first step is to realize that you can do it, so it’s worth trying.