OSCON 2013

This year, O’Reilly Media held the 15th anniversary edition of their Open Source Convention (OSCON) here in Portland. I first attended the conference back in 2004, and it’s been one of my favorite conferences ever since.

What I’ve always liked about OSCON is the variety of content in one place. Throughout my career, when I’ve needed to pick up a new technology, I’ve frequently turned to O’Reilly’s catalog of books which cover a wide swath of technical topics. OSCON has a similar breadth; you’ll find sessions on programming languages, software development tools and techniques, web infrastructure, user experience, databases, and more. At any given time there are up to 18 of these sessions happening simultaneously, so the big challenge is never finding one that matches my interests but rather trying to decide between 4 or 5 of them.

Over three days, I attended sessions on deployment practices, JavaScript frameworks, user authentication, cryptography, managing development teams, software architecture techniques, text editors… the list goes on. The main limitation on the content is that it has to be related to open source, but my interest is primarily in web development so for me this is not really a limitation at all. Open source software is hugely important to the Web, with many of the world’s largest websites being built on a foundation of open source. The folks who work on these sites love to come to OSCON to share what they’ve been working on and to try to attract interest from potential contributors to the open source parts of their work. As a result, OSCON is a great place to get a quick overview of the state of the art in web development and related tools. Many times I’ve been introduced to a technology at OSCON, only to watch it catch on in a big way and eventually graduate to having its own ecosystem of related conferences: Django, Rails, Node.js… it’s a useful early-warning system for learning about incoming changes in the industry from the people who are driving those changes.

When I first started attending OSCON, a lot of the conversation was around gaining acceptance for the use of open source software in the business world. That is no longer the battle it once was. Recent OSCONs have been more focused on expanding open source techniques and ideals to domains beyond software. For example, this year we heard about:

  • Facebook’s Open Compute project which aims to redesign data center technology from the ground up, from the architecture of the buildings down to the power supplies used in the servers and the creation of open source vendor-agnostic switch hardware.
  • The Open Prosthetics Project which aims to create freely-shareable designs for prosthetics to improve the state of the art and reduce the costs of this technology.
  • Code for America, a non-profit that runs a fellowship program to help city governments create applications to solve their problems and then share those applications as open source with other cities.

In addition to this theme of finding new places to apply open source ideals, the other thing I have noticed in recent years is an increasing sense of maturity in the community. Some examples of this trend from this year:

  • Several presenters addressed the issue of diversity of race and gender in open source and the development community at large.
  • Paul Fenwick and Ed Finkler independently presented sessions on the issue of depression from the perspective of a programmer.
  • Robert Lefkowitz called for the open source community to get more involved in professional organizations such as the ACM.
  • Several keynote presenters identified a growing problem with unlicensed (and therefore unusable) code on GitHub. GitHub announced a new site to help in choosing an open source license (the appropriately named choosealicense.com). During the course of the conference, some 4,600 unlicensed projects added a license.

Although part of me misses the scrappier, more chaotic flavor of OSCON from several years ago, I’m pleased to see the increasing stability and maturity of the community. And it’s very exciting to see open source ideals making their way into some very different industries. What will we be talking about open sourcing at OSCON’s 30th anniversary?

 — David Brewer, Web Technology Lead


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