Why XTech?

XTech was fun; most of the talks were informative, I met many interesting new people, and it was great to see my colleagues from the Mozilla Corporation and my Amsterdam friends again. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling I got when I looked around in the “Browser Technology” track room, where the Mozilla crew spent most of their time, and found that it contained on average 50 people, the vast majority of whom were being paid to be there.

I can see why that might be. XTech is not cheap. A full registration for the conference only (no tutorials) is £935, and if you want to stay at the conference hotel, it’s another £834, even if you skip the £24 breakfasts. A cheaper, albeit less convenient hotel nearby might still be £300. £1235 is a lot for anyone who is on their own dime. I’m not the only person who has noticed this.

I actually felt quite guilty staying at the Kras. Despite having the usual “protect the environment” notices in the bathrooms, they changed the towels every day, left the lights on all afternoon after cleaning the place, and replaced bars of soap after five seconds use. In the conference area, water glasses were replaced regularly, and I must have used three plates at every lunch because it became too much effort trying to defend them from being cleared away by over-eager waiters. And I couldn’t bring myself to spend £24 on breakfast, even when it’s not my money. If I go back to Amsterdam, I’m definitely staying somewhere else.

Of course, this is a free market. The XTech organisers charge what people are willing to pay (although I noticed there were fewer people and exhibitors than last year, when it was in the Rai). But it can’t be denied that the price is exclusive. The European Mozilla community is large and thriving, but the only representatives it had there were people who have a corporate sponsor – Axel, Gandalf and me.

XTech is the main European Mozilla conference of the year, the one to which the Corporation sends everyone from San Francisco. Given the lack of European community members, it’s almost as if we are trying to make sure that the two halves never meet! In contrast, many of the European community come to FOSDEM, but we had (I think) only two America-based Corporation people there this year.

So why have we, the Mozilla organisation, chosen XTech? This is a genuine question – it could be that important people we need to meet and talk to (perhaps from the W3C) don’t come to anything else. It could be that it’s a convenient time of year. It could be that the content of the other talks is unusually good. But I confess I can’t see the reason.

If there isn’t a good one, I assert that XTech is the wrong conference for us. Actually, I think that FOSDEM is also the wrong one, but for different reasons – there is so much other cool stuff going on there that I sometimes feel trapped in the Mozilla room. We need to find something that is browser-focussed, but cheaper and more accessible to our community.

Technorati tag: xtech

25 thoughts on “Why XTech?

  1. If I go back to Amsterdam, I’m definitely staying somewhere else.

    I can recommend The Shelter Jordan, which is about €20 per night — including breakfast!

    Yes, it’s a hostel, but if all you want is somewhere to sleep I found it adequate — and at a conference you don’t spend much time in your hotel room anyway.

  2. I would recommend doing a major technical Mozilla conference in conjunction with OLS in Ottawa. OLS is already low cost and cheap lodging is available. Canada is much easier to enter than the US. There is plenty of space available, OLS is only taking 1/3 of the conference center. It would be very easy to expand OLS in a more web oriented direction.

  3. I agree with Gerv. Last year, I wasn’t very impressed with XTech; the best thing about it was the Mozilla people. That’s not worth shipping people across several time zones and spending 1500 euros each (and excluding anyone who can’t get sponsored). Attendance is low and they don’t get much press attention.

    It would make much more sense to hook up with a free software conference, or a Web-focused conference that Web designers actually go to.

  4. > it could be that important people we need to meet and talk to (perhaps from the
    > W3C) don’t come to anything else.

    I think not. Besides, the W3C has its own events that we have people going to.

    > It could be that it’s a convenient time of year.

    This time is no more convenient than any other.

    > It could be that the content of the other talks is unusually good.

    Based on my experience last year, that is certainly not true.

  5. We should organize a yearly a mozilla meeting in the Paris area where Mozilla Europe is. We would probably be able to organize it at a much much cheaper price for people attending, maybe in collaboration with a computing school or university.

  6. Shaver,
    I can’t see any mud-slinging from Gerv’s side. At least from his first paragraph he seemed to really appreciate it. Is asking a simple question like “So why have we, the Mozilla organisation, chosen XTech?” and complaining about the high costs already mud-slinging in your book?

    I also can’t help but notice some “Foundation vs. Corporation” sentiment from your side here (especially in your last paragraph). That’s not a road I’d like to see anyone walking on.

  7. Mike, if XTech is run on a cost recovery basis, why hold it in such expensive places? (Paris isn’t cheap either.) It’s not such a huge conference that it requires a massive conference center.

  8. And how is it that OLS and FOSDEM and the academic conferences I used to go to have much lower fees? Is money poured into them from some other source?

  9. FOSDEM takes place in unoccupied university rooms during a week-end (thanks to the Cercle Informatique, a student association), that must be far cheeper that a five-star hotel.

    AFAIK, they’re also heavily sponsored by O’Reillys and the like, that’s how they can advertise the entrance as free (but I challenge you not to buy anything during the event – even a tshirt or a beer).

    I don’t know what would be the best for Mozilla, try to push XTech further in lowering its costs (something like ten times cheaper if possible :)) or organize something of its own. But I know personnaly at least three people who would have loved to attend XTech and were immediately rebuked by the fees.

  10. In general it isn’t easy to push some other conference into your own image; you are better of just running your own. Don’t start big. Start small and support what works. You have the cash to make some mistakes, so just do it and learn what works.

    I’m a definate fan of low cost events, as only when you get the up and coming small companies / single entrepreneurs do you start to see what’s really going on. Most of the good stuff happens in areas where people struggle to afford the price of the air ticket, let alone the conference price. To avoid the “sales” trap you have to find a way to meet that need.

    (Mr Shaver, one of the hardest parts of running a conference is working out what is really working, and what is nonsense from those who sing from the same prayer book.)

  11. So I guess France, the Netherlands and Finland aren’t part of Europe anymore. I counted at least 9 members of what I consider to be the European Mozilla community (Henri, Anne, Hans, Tristan, Martijn, Axel, Gerv, Gandalf and me). Of those, I think only one didn’t have a corporate sponsor, but I don’t see much wrong with corporations sponsoring people to go to a conference.

  12. Mike: I didn’t feel compelled to attend against my better judgement. The post above was the result of a realisation I came to while I was there. Perhaps I should have arranged alternative accommodation; I’m willing to put my hands up and say that I was in a rush, and just did the easiest thing.

    I’d be the first to admit that I am asking a question, not proposing a solution. I don’t know of any better conferences myself; this could be because my knowledge is limited, or because they don’t exist. I want to start a conversation here.

    I did appreciate and value the talks at XTech – I don’t know which part of my post implied that I didn’t – I am merely questioning whether this valuable interaction could possibly happen at a cheaper cost to all concerned.

    Perhaps others have a different view, but I don’t see the money that the Foundation and its Corporation subsidiary are making from Firefox as “ours” – we are not doing a startup – but as being held in trust for everyone who has worked hard on that success. This is why I’m so excited about the grant-making programs we are setting up. And why I feel we don’t have a right to spend it unnecessarily.

    I must confess I missed the very end of the closing keynote Q&A, due to having to go to the airport. (I had an important personal commitment in London the following day.) So I missed Ed’s announcement about Paris. I did talk to him during the conference about the cost, and got valuable input from him which changed some of my initial opinions. I am very grateful for that.

    Let me ask the question from another angle: do you think it was unfortunate that there were (to a first approximation) no European contributors at the conference? Or do you think everyone was there who needed to be?

    I’m sorry if you think my choice of venue was inappropriate. As I said above, I wanted to start a discussion about our involvement and, because some of the people I want involved in that discussion are European community members, I thought the best place was a public forum. I’m hope you and other MoCo XTech organisers can explain to everyone what you would have said to me, had I asked during the conference.

    One related implied subsidiary question which I’d like to bring out explicitly: are you able to speak to why the Corporation didn’t feel it was valuable to send more than two people to the Mozilla European meeting at FOSDEM?

    I must confess that, like roc, I think the tone of your last paragraph is unfortunate, with its implication that the “Mozilla community” in Europe is a bunch of timewasters and bikeshed painters, rather than those fine upstanding All-American Corporation folk who do all the work. As it happens, Frank, Axel and I have had preliminary discussions about doing a European Mozilla conference in Spring next year, because there is a general feeling that keeping our yearly meeting attached to FOSDEM is unfortunate because people can only go to one or other, as it were. But perhaps we have the wrong vision – perhaps we need to be thinking bigger. Your thoughts are appreciated.

  13. Peter: You are right; I’ve under-counted there (and in my follow-up comment to Mike). I apologise to everyone I’ve overlooked. But I still think the attendance was low compared with FOSDEM, and that my points still stand.

  14. Gerv, peterv : where are we based, Laurent Jouanneau and I ?!? Another planet or what ?

  15. Grauw: right, and I’m sure there’s others I missed (Daniel and Laurent for example). I don’t see a lack of European Mozilla contributors at XTech.

    I also fail to see the interpretation that’s given to Mike’s last paragraph. I totally agree with him, there’s multiple possible targets for a conference and targetting just the “Mozilla community” members (whether they be volunteers or paid employees, European or not) is not what being at XTech is about. It’s about interacting with and reaching a broader set of people, in this case from the Web and XML communities, to get them involved in some way in Mozilla. I don’t see a better venue in Europe for that, but if I’m wrong I would love to hear about it. I know WWW rotates through Europe once every three years, but I have never attended it, so I’m not sure how appropriate it is (it’s just as expensive as XTech).

    Having more interaction across continents is nice, but I’m not sure what the point is of sending more Corporation employees from the US or Canada to our annual FOSDEM meetings in Europe. Do you really think that that is a better usage of resources?

  16. Peter: Don’t you think there’s value in people who collaborate meeting face to face? If not, should we not bother doing either Mozilla-at-FOSDEM or a European Mozilla conference next year?

    Maybe the answer to my question is: “XTech is not about getting the Mozilla/browser community together, it’s about something else.” That would be a reasonable answer, certainly. But it then raises the question: do we need a worldwide community meeting? Most other projects of our size consider them to be very important (OLS, Gnome Summit, aKademy, Ubuntu Below Zero etc.)

  17. Of course I think meeting face to face is valuable. We’ve had opportunities to meet face to face in Mountain View at the end of last year and at FOSDEM and XTech this year already. A lot of the people in the community (both volunteers and employees) have met face to face over the last year, a lot more than I ever remember in the life of this project. Opening up to the communities outside of that (relatively) small circle is still valuable and important, and worth spending resources on imo.

    Daniel and anyone else I forgot: I’m sure there’s more people I forgot, that’s why I said ‘at least’.

  18. While part of this is clearly a debate the Mozilla community needs to have among itself, I will make the following points:

    * Price: getting this down is a major aim for me next year. We’ll still be hotel-based, but I want to reduce the cost of entry. Delegates are free to stay wherever they want, of course.

    * Mozilla presence: it’s an enormous advantage for Mozilla folks to have a place where they interface with the rest of the web community. That’s where I see the value from XTech. Some of the disappointment I’m picking up on is coming from Mozilla people who expected to have a Mozilla conference, not a web conference to which Mozilla gave a strong contribution.

    I’m paying attention to every bit of feedback I can find about XTech. Anyone who wants is free to send me mail of course, and that does make it more certain I’ll see it than trying to gather snippets from various places around the web.

  19. I wanted to briefly give my thoughts on this topic (well, as briefly as I ever can manage :-)

    First, the Mozilla Foundation sponsored a few people to attend XTech; I didn’t attend myself, but judging from the reports of people who were there (including Gerv himself) I have no reason to regret that decision. The issue of whether it would be worthwhile doing other conferences than XTech, or even hosting a dedicated Mozilla-related conference, is a separate issue (which I address below).

    Second, from my point of view there’s no point in the Foundation and the Corporation working at cross purposes. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in having the Foundation going off on its own to sponsor conferences, etc., without having the Corporation involved in some manner, and I’m happy to have the Foundation participate in events that the Corporation initiates.

    Finally, I think the fundamental problem is that there are multiple goals and target audiences for possible conferences, and no single event is likely to achieve all those goals and satisfy all possible attendees. Here are some different possibilities for such goals and audiences:

    1. The goal is to promote better working relationships among the core Mozilla contributors: module owners and peers, other key Mozilla developers, QA people, localizers, tech writers, etc., with the audience being the members of those same groups. As I understand it, this is what the Firefox summit last year in Mountain View was all about, and this is presumably also the model that Gerv and Axel were thinking of for a possible “Mozilla Europe” meeting. Since a lot of Mozilla contributors (e.g., the localizers) are volunteers or are otherwise not employed to do Mozilla-related work full-time, such a meeting should be relatively low-cost to the attendees, with costs subsidized by the Foundation and/or Corporation as appropriate.

    2. The goal is to promote Mozilla products and technologies to people outside the Mozilla community proper, e.g., web developers, creators of “Web 2.0” applications, enterprise IT folks, etc. Here the audience would mostly not be Mozilla community members. I wasn’t at XTech so I’m not sure how well it fit this model, or whether there are other conferences that would serve this goal as well. Such a conference might shade into being more business-focused than technical-focused, and if so like other business-focused conferences it would not be cheap. An extreme example of this tendency is O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference, which AFAIK is more expensive that XTech and is definitely more exclusive (requiring attendees to ask for an invitation).

    3. The goal is for key Mozilla contributors to exchange information with other people involved in the development browsers and other web-related technologies, including specifically people outside the Mozilla community from whom Mozilla contributors might learn useful things, and to whom Mozilla people could evangelize standards and technologies in which we’re interested (e.g., JavaScript 2, the WHATWG stuff, and so on). Based on Daniel’s comments on his own blog this seems to be the particular niche that XTech is filling right now. I suspect most people likely to attend a conference like this would have some sort of formal organizational affiliation that could provide sponsorship for their attendance (e.g., they work for the Corporation or for a Mozilla corporate contributor), and thus there’s less incentive to make the cost as low as possible; for people without such affiliations the Foundation and/or the Corporation can provide sponsorship where appropriate.

    4. The goal is for Mozilla to exchange information and experiences with other people involved with free software and open source projects, with the audience being FOSS contributors in general. This appears to be the niche filled by OSCON, EurOSCON, FOSDEM, etc.

    I think it’s useful to have a public discussion about which conferences we might best be involved with as attendees or sponsors, as long as we’re clear about what are goals are in each instance. Otherwise we’re just going to be talking at cross purposes. Based on the results of such discussions I’ll work with the folks at the Mozilla Corporation to determine which conferences the Foundation should focus on, and what the extent of our involvement should be.

  20. Edd: The sole issue I can think of with the organisation of the conference itself is the price, and we’ve already discussed that in person. If I think of any more, I’ll certainly let you know by mail. But my perception was that it was very well organised.

    Frank: Your characterisation is very useful. Perhaps I was expecting XTech to be in category 1, when in fact it’s in category 3. For that matter, perhaps I have been expecting FOSDEM to be in category 1, when in fact it’s in category 4.

  21. If you’re worried about the maid service wasting resources, the simple solution is to leave the Do Not Disturb sign on your door. Then you conserve not only material resources like towel washes, electricity, and soap, you also conserve maid labor. Of course, you also don’t get your room cleaned, but how dirty and messy can it really get in a week?

  22. Myk: Good idea. That’s one of those really simple “I should have thought of that” things :-) Thanks for pointing it out.

  23. I agree for the most part with Gerv’s comments. I’ve never been to XTech, but it sounds like a developer’s meeting as opposed to a vendor conference where the big players show off their wares. And what developer conferences need to be successful is for a lot of developers to show up. And in the Open Source world especially, price is an issue. I’m lucky enough to get paid to work on Mozilla projects, but many contributors are volunteers. The pricing of conferences like XTech just shuts them out. Yet cost is not the only issue. The talks, BOFs, hackathons and the like have to be compelling enough for you to give up your time to go there.

    Personally, I’d love to see a Mozilla Conference in Europe. The attendance in the Mozilla room this year was huge, and if we could build on that momentum I think it would be a huge success. I’d certainly go, talk if needed, and help evangelise and organise it.