EuroOSCON: Head Space

The EuroOSCON conference team are deploying around the Hotel Krasnapolsky (or “the Kras” as we’ve come to call it) and I’m thinking hard about what I expect to see, what I want to learn, and what I don’t know about our first conference in Europe.

The lead-up to OSCON in Amsterdam has been different than the lead-up to OSCON in Portland. With the US OSCON, we have a long history and our marketing could take advantage of that. With OSCON in Amsterdam, we’ve had to begin building the trust that we now have in the US. It hasn’t been easy–for all of O’Reilly’s global operations, the conferences group is still based in Sebastopol, California, USA. From negotiating with the hotel to crafting the marketing, everything is slightly (and in some cases vastly) different than in the US. We’ve been learning those differences every step of the way. For example, the venue here plays a much stronger role in the event than our US venues. When you’re at OSCON in Amsterdam, you’re aware you’re at the Kras–it’s an old hotel with character, tradition, and quirks. When you’re at a US hotel or convention center, the venue recedes into the background and the event dominates. There are a million small things like this that add up to a completely different experience for organizers and attendees.

We haven’t run into language difficulties–no requests for sessions in Flemish, for example. But it will be an interesting experience running a conference where presenters and attendees are communicating in neither’s first language. I don’t know how many attendees we’ve lost because of this: perhaps there’d be 5,000 people ready to attend an open source conference held in Flemish.

At some level, though, worrying about the conference language isn’t productive because I can’t do anything about it. Being a monoglottal Anglo (excepting my high-school French which, when I trotted it out eight years ago in Lyons, earned me a withering look and the offer, “if you try to speak English, I will try to understand it”) I couldn’t produce a program for a conference that wasn’t in English. The human limitations of the organizers, myself included, make any conference what it is. US OSCON, for example, has traditionally been very strong in web technologies, and that’s largely because the program chair happened to be strong in that area. If Miguel de Icaza had built the program for the first OSCON, this year’s would have looked very different.

We’re lucky to have chosen Amsterdam for the venue. We had no trouble interesting American speakers in making the trip there, and it seems a popular place for speakers from around the rest of Europe too. I could see why before I reached the hotel: the people are friendly, laid back, and easy to be around. They use bicycles everywhere and are courteous drivers–our shuttle bus driver had to stop and ask for help getting to a destination because of a lot of closed roads, and he got a small throng of people offering advice and routes. And, most important for your monoglottal correspondent, English is widely understood and spoken. This is the perfect location for our first European conference.

EuroOSCON starts in three days, and I’m going into it with quite an open mind. I don’t really know how things will be different from US OSCON. In terms of the program, it’s clear: the mix of technologies will be different, there’ll be different “stars” on site, we have four rooms in parallel instead of fourteen, and so on. But how that translates into a feel, whether OSCON in Amsterdam will be as much fun to go to as OSCON in Portland remains to be seen. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised, as I was at the first Foo Camp. My brain says “trust your people, the open source community knows how to have fun”. But as anyone who’s taken off in a plane knows, what you know doesn’t completely remove the nervousness.

I’m nervous partially because it feels a little like going on stage in front of complete strangers. I suppose that technically I do that at OSCON in Portland as well, but with OSCON in Amsterdam I don’t have the history. It doesn’t feel like I know the audience in the aggregate, the way I do with OSCON in Portland. I’m planning to mingle like crazy on Monday, tutorial day, to try and meet as many people as I can. Hopefully this will build a rapport.

I have been careful to try not to presume I know what people are interested in, what they’re doing with open source. I spoke to the Dutch, Danish, English, French, etc. hackers I knew, before we began organizing the conference, but until I get to talk to the people who will attend, I can’t get a feel for their concerns and interests. It’s tempting either to say “they’re just like us” or “they’re completely different from us”, and I’ve heard a lot of people saying those things. If a European audience was just like an American audience, then business and IT and TCO/ROI studies would be hot topics. The people who suggest that social activism and political freedoms are the driving forces behind European open source adoption present this as “they’re driven by completely different motivations than US open source users and developers.”

The truth is, as it usually is, somewhere in the middle. There’s no “them”, no “Europe”. The one thing I’ve come to realize (and which Nikolaj Nyholm put words to over dinner at Web 2.0) is that the easy analogy for Americans (Europe:USA :: Countries:States) is wrong. Each country in Europe has a very clear identity and “Europe” is as much of a market as “The American Continent” is. By having a conference in Europe, we have to think of attendees as French, Germans, Brits, Italians, etc. rather than as “Europeans”. Each of these cultures have different values, different priorities, and so our OSCON attendees will have diverse values and priorities too.

My job this year is to get a better feel for what those values and priorities are. I don’t enter the conference with any preconceptions–I tried to schedule sessions on technology, politics, and business–but I hope to leave with a firmer idea of the weighting for any future conferences we do with a European audience. What do the attendees of an OSCON in Europe want from such a conference? Like siblings, OSCON US and OSCON Europe will have similarities and differences, and when the first tutorial starts on Monday, we’ll begin to figure out OSCON Europe’s identity.