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Backstage with the QCon London 2023 Programming Committee

What makes QCon software conferences stand out from other events? The top reason has to be the content, which focuses on innovator and early adopter trends, and presenters who are expert practitioners, sharing their real-world stories. 

Deciding what topics to include in the conference starts with the QCon programming committee. In this episode, we're going backstage to get an understanding of how QCon London came together, and why the trends being featured are important.

Key Takeaways

  • While some conferences issue calls for presenters, QCon hand-selects all the speakers. That process begins with the QCon programming committee deciding which innovator and early adopter trends should be included in the conference, and track hosts creating a carefully curated agenda.
  • At QCon London 2023, the perennial Architectures You’ve Always Wondered About track will include stories of Google’s layer 7 load balancing, one trillion Kafka messages at Cloudflare, and how Zoom was able to scale to meet the remote working needs of the pandemic.
  • There are so many innovations in data and machine learning that it required two tracks: Innovations in Data Engineering and Emerging AI and Machine Learning Trends.
  • Two tracks focus on different aspects of performance–one on making high performance systems, and the other on building platforms to enhance developer productivity.
  • In the past, QCon conferences have covered ethics and social concerns, and this year that expands to a track covering many aspects of socially-conscious software, while another looks at architecture with sustainability in mind


Intro [00:17]

Thomas Betts: What makes QCon software conferences stand out from other events? The top reason has to be the content which focuses on innovator and early adopter trends and presenters who are expert practitioners sharing their real world stories.

Deciding what topics to include in the conference starts with the QCon programming committee and today I'm joined with some of its members. We're going to go backstage to get an understanding of how QCon London came together and why the trends that are being featured this year are important. So we've got a few people joining us today. I'm just going to let them all introduce themselves. We'll start with Chris.

Chris Swan: So hi folks. I'm Chris Swan. My day job is an engineer at Atsign where I'm helping to build a platform for end-to-end encryption and I'm back on the program committee after quite a long break because my last job wouldn't let me do it. But I was on the program committee before for a few years.

Thomas Betts: And the next one is Srini.

Srini Penchikala: Hi Thomas. Hi everybody. It's great to participate in this podcast and share what's coming up at QCon London 2023 conference. About myself, I currently serve as the lead editor for data engineering and AI and ML community at InfoQ website. I have the opportunity to work with great members and great speakers in this capacity. Outside of that, I focus on data engineering and data processing areas as my main focus of expertise. Back to you, Thomas.

Thomas Betts: Then, Sarah Wells.

Sarah Wells: Hi. I'm currently writing a book about microservices. Before that, I was a tech director at the Financial Times. I've been involved with QCon for good few years, speaking, track hosting and on the program committee for the last couple of years.

Thomas Betts: And finally, Werner.

Werner Schuster: Hi. Yeah. I have been on a few of these committees. I think the last count was above 20 or so. So it's been fun. And in my day job, my job title is cloud plumber at Wolfram, so whenever developers create leaks, I find them and tell them how to fix them. That's it for me.

What makes QCon different from other software conferences? [02:03]

Thomas Betts: So let's start with how QCon is different from other software conferences. What are the things that Qcon does differently than the other conferences that people can attend out there?

Chris Swan: I think it starts with us getting together and essentially creating a framework for the conference that we want to attend ourselves. I've been going to QCon since the earliest days and I think it's always been one of my favorite conferences. And so now that I get to help shape it, I'm kind of thinking what do I want and what do I think people like me that come to conferences want to have? And that gets us to sort of the themes for the tracks. And then we go off and find great track hosts who are going to go and find the individual speakers to fit into those themes. Like good software development, there's a lot of iteration goes on in the early days to refine that as well.

Thomas Betts: Yeah. And I know QCon's one of the conferences that doesn't do a big open call for papers to have the speakers show up. How does that make a difference?

Sarah Wells: A lot of it comes from the track host. One of the things I really love about having track hosts is you get a very opinionated view on a particular topic. They get to shape the track. We'll have come up with a theme in the program committee, but the track host can find their take on that and they go to their own connections. And also they can draw on the whole of the committee's connections. You tend to have a mix of experienced good speakers and some rising stars where you want to encourage people who maybe haven't spoken before. So I think that's one of the things.

The other thing that is really interesting about the kinds of talks that get scheduled at Qcon is that it's very much about practitioners. You want to hear people talking about something they've actually done. As with Chris, I was an attendee... Well, so I was an attendee at QCon way before I was on the program committee. I always knew that I was going to learn about things that I'd been hearing a little bit about that I wasn't quite sure about. I'd get that exposure by coming to QCon.

Thomas Betts: And I think some of us have been in that track host role and the program committee. And what are the tracks at Qcon like? I've heard it described as sort of a mini conference within a conference. Is that how you think of that, Srini?

Srini Penchikala: Absolutely. Each track can be its own conference because again, like Sarah mentioned earlier, we want to focus on the attendee as our target audience, what's best for the attendees. I mean not only technologies, but also what should they be aware of in terms of leadership contributions in their companies. Also, the process improvements. So it's kind of a holistic experience when they come to the conference and QCon actually provides that. So it can be seen as a multiple mini conferences. But again, I think all of those gel together because of the programming committee efforts. So if somebody's looking for technology expertise, innovations and the process improvements and not only what they are doing right now but what they should be familiar with going forward. It's all kind of provide in one stop conference.

Thomas Betts: And I think Sarah made a good comment about we've all been attendees before we were involved with QCon. I don't know if that was your case as well, Werner. Were you an A attendee and what do you think the attendees get out of QCon that they don't see at other conferences? Everyone says they love them so much, but what is it that QCon is different for the attendee perspective?

Werner Schuster: Well, at QCon you hear practitioners speak. You don't hear people who just selling something or who are just telling other people, "This is the great solution," but they have never actually used it. And that builds a certain trust where that person that tells me to use this language, they've suffered for that, right? They have the scars and they can show them and say, "Okay, you showed me... Use this language and these are the pitfalls to avoid and so on." So this is one of the big selling points. And of course with QCon, you get to meet people like creators of languages, creators of frameworks that where you think, "I've been using this language for so long, I can get to ask Rich Hickey, "Why Clojure? Why Lisp?" And stuff like that. And he'll answer, "These people are very nice actually. You can talk to them and these are just real people like me." So that's one of the setting points I think.

Thomas Betts: I know at other QCons I've seen people doing the selfies, like meeting your heroes. Like, "I can't believe I get to see that person." And not just up on a stage, but you run into everyone in the hallways and discussing things over lunch. 

Architectures You’ve Always Wondered About [06:00]

Thomas Betts: So QCon does have some recurring tracks. So we talked about how we break up QCon into the separate tracks, but there are some that always show up and there's some that always show up in London specifically. One that I know is a big hit has been around for at least a decade, is the architectures you've always wondered about. And you said, Werner, the chance to... How did they build that thing? How did they hear about... What's in the architectures you wanted to know about this year?

Sarah Wells: I should probably talk about that because I'm the program creating member for that. So the Architecture You've Always Wondered About, it's absolutely the marquee track. We do it on the first day, generally. It's giving you that exposure to tech leaders from leading companies talking about scale. And this year we have talks from Google talking about how they scale their global cloud L7 Load Balancer. We've got CloudFlare talking about handling 1 trillion messages in Kafka. Zoom should be really interesting to hear about how they scaled up in response to the mass move to working from home with the pandemic. And Monzo on serving 7 million customers daily with a huge number of microservices that they deploy hundreds of times a day.

Data and ML/AI tracks [07:02]

Thomas Betts: So Sarah's in charge of that track. Let's go to Srini. What's your track that you're most looking forward to?

Srini Penchikala: Most looking forward to? I have to start with the two tracks that I am serving as the PC champion, the programming committee champion. The first one is innovations in the data engineering, and the second one is AI/ML trends. So I think the attendees are going to get a lot out of these two tracks. They can say that if there is one area that has seen exponential growth in last couple of years, especially last year, would be the data engineering side and the artificial intelligence and machine learning. So there are so many things to share with the audience. And we have the speakers and topics to reflect those developments and innovations happening in these two areas.

So if I can summarize, Thomas real quick, the data engineering track kind of provides a overview of all the different phases involved in a typical data engineering process. We have the data storage topic to show how to store objects on the cloud using Apache Pinot database by Neha. I know that's going to be an interesting topic and how to kind of balance between scalability and performance and the typical cross-functional requirements that all data architects have to experience. We also have streaming data processing talk. Data streaming has been a big topic for last several years, so that's going to stay even more popular for some time to come. And we also have Change Data Capture, CDC when using microservices. So this is an interesting use case when you are using microservices. When they talk to each other, how do you actually manage the data behind the microservices or how do you replicate, how do you reconcile? So we are looking forward to Gunnar Morling is a speaker. So he'll be talking about a couple of different interesting design patterns involving the CDC for microservices. Then we also have the data analytics as well as how to implement these solutions in the cloud also. So those are definitely some of the talks that will be of interesting.

On the machine learning side, again, no other industry has gone through the same growth that machine learning has seen in last year... Chat GPT for example, right? We hear that a hundred times every day. So yeah. There are a lot of good things happening here, whether it's the transformers that are shaping out the machine learning space or the NLP, natural language processing innovations or the infra security itself for AI/ML, how to deploy ML programs on the cloud and ML ops. How to support ML after going to production. So we have these speakers and topics kind of representing all of these different innovations, including the realtime ML pipelines, presentation, Graph Neural Networks, how to apply machine learning techniques on graph data. And we all know graph data is everywhere. Whether it's collaboration platforms in the corporations or those on social media, the connected data is everywhere. So how do we apply machine learning to that type of data will be the focus of this Graph Neural Network presentation.

And we also have ML ops. How to operationalize ML programs in production. This will be actually showcasing the DoorDash real world use cases, which should be very interesting. And also we have a digital twins topic, which is getting a lot of attention in the industry, especially in the manufacturing supply chain and healthcare industries. How to virtualize the business processes where it is very expensive to create the simulated environments in the real world. So can we do that in the digital world? So create a digital twin whether for a car or for a supply chain process. So we have a presentation on that. And finally, probably most importantly, the presentation on responsible and ethical AI by the track host, Mehrnoosh. Will highlight the importance of ethics and doing the AI/ML the right way and show us how to put these ethical practices into real projects and applications. So to summarize, we have great speakers and we have great topics lined up for our attendees this year. The attendees can expect and look forward to learning about the modern data architecture stack as well as the transformative innovations happening in the mission learning space.

Thomas Betts: I appreciate that. That sounded like an entire data software conference all by itself. But that's just two tracks you talked about. The ML and AI and the emerging AI and ML trends and innovations in data engineering. They overlap a lot. So somebody might go to all those sessions or they may say one session's alright. And they go to other things so you can pop on and get what you personally need.

Srini Penchikala: And also we made sure that they are on two different days, Thomas. So if somebody wants to attend all of the data engineering talks and all of the machine learning talks, they can still do that. And that's really good problem to have, right? So which one to attend at any point in the day, also.

Thomas Betts: There's always the problem of there's too many sessions you want to go to. There's only five tracks or six tracks in a day. But you always have two sessions that are at the same time. And I always look for which one can I watch on the recording as soon as possible afterwards. 

Tech of FinTech [11:31]

Thomas Betts: I wanted to back up. So one of the topics that usually shows up in London is FinTech and there's a FinTech track this year, is that correct?

Chris Swan: So we're calling it Tech of FinTech. And if I look at previous sort of iterations of the finance track for QCon London, it's been very focused on, I would say kind of traditional financial services. So talks from people working in the big banks, et cetera. And normally there would be sort of one or two more FinTech talks sprinkled in there. And to liven things up, what we've tried to do is sort of flip it this year. So the idea of The Tech of FinTech track as we're calling it, is to get people from FinTech startups, but also to get people that have adopted the same technology platforms as the FinTech startups. And so we've seen that going on with some cases, banks kind of having a newly launched name and a new engineering team to go with that. But sometimes it is just engineers within a particular team are picking up new approaches and applying them to the stuff that they're building.

So we've been rooting those out as well. I'd particularly call out open source in banking is going to be one of the topics we're touching on. This has been I think a theme where there's been various attempts in the past to do stuff and kind of say, "Well, all of the banks are building kind of all of the same stuff, so why don't we open source it and mutualize it?" And maybe that's now an idea where the time's finally come for it.

Thomas Betts: That's an interesting idea to talk about the technology, not just the companies and what they're doing. Looking forward to some of those. 

Architecture for Sustainability [13:02]

Thomas Betts: So we talked about the headline track, the Architectures You've Always Wondered About and we got all the data and ML. What else for architecture focus? Because a lot of people that attend QCon are either senior engineers or architects or have that technical experience. It's not for the beginner entry level roles. So there's a lot of architecture focus. What's on the architecture track this year?

Chris Swan: So another new one for this year is Architecture for Sustainability. And we've previously had tracks that have been dedicated to sustainability but with a sort of broader approach. So they haven't been focused on architecture. So this time around we're actually focusing on the architectures involved in sustainability. And I think that's been a little more challenging in terms of finding stories, but I think we've found some excellent stories and the track hosts have done a really good job of getting speakers who can come along and talk about real world implementations of stuff in the architectures that lie behind them.

Thomas Betts: So what does the Architecture for Sustainability mean? Because sustainability has a couple different interpretations. There's the sustainable software that's going to live for a while and be maintainable and you can operate. But this is I think is the green environment, the green software principles and how do you make software that doesn't consume more electricity and more energy and carbon than the entire airline industry, for example.

Chris Swan: It's more about the latter. Absolutely. And we find that that flows over into a lot of considerations around performance because if you're using your underlying hardware thoughtfully than that tends to be good from a carbon footprint perspective as well. And so the story that we're getting from Goldman Sachs is really about how they've gone about systematically optimizing their estate so that it's got less of a carbon footprint, but that also means that it's got less of a dollar footprint. And I think that's something that all organizations are interested in. It's not just about environment and social responsibility concerns, it's about the financial concerns that go along with those as well.

Thomas Betts: That sounds easier to project to the shareholders. We're going to increase our bottom line because we're going to spend less on our cloud footprint. Also, our software runs better and we're having less of an environmental impact. So win-win for everybody. Right.

Architecture in 2025 [15:13]

Srini Penchikala: Thomas, I want to highlight one more track on the architecture. The title is Architecture in 2025. So this will be about what does architecture look like in the future? What is the role of software architect, which is I know one of your areas of passion as well.

Sarah Wells: I think he's speaking on the tracks really.

Thomas Betts: Yes, that's my talk. And again, the idea of not just what is architecture, but Architecture in 2025. It is very clearly that opinion of how do we look forward to the future, where are people heading, how are things changing? So how has the role of an architect evolved? Which saying, I've definitely talked about. We've covered things about this on the in InfoQ Trends Report for the last several years. So there's going to be a lot of things that you see on those trends reports that I'm hearing you guys talk about as topics for the conference, the AI trends, the data engineering trends, the sustainability trends. So it's been top of mind for us as innovator and early adopter for the last few years and that's why they are topics at QCon.

Sarah Wells: I think it was interesting when we were thinking about the themes was that we decided that there really wasn't a space for a microservices track. So where we probably would've had microservices as an architectural thing in previous QCons. Now it's like, well, that is just something people do. Where do you go? What do you talk about with the architecture? What's coming next?

Debugging in Production [16:21]

Thomas Betts: So Werner, we haven't heard from you yet. What's one or two of the tracks that you're most looking forward to?

Werner Schuster: I'm biased because the ones I'm looking forward to are the ones I'm managing. And talking about microservices. The one I'm looking forward to is debugging in production. And one of the problems with microservices is of course always you can't just attach debugger to 50 services and then step through all of them. So you need some better ways. In this track, we are looking at observability and tracing and things like that. And just generally how do you debug a system with all of these things happening at the same time? I'm not going to go into details. We have a great website and there's some really exciting stuff on there. 

Performance: Designing and Tuning [17:00]

Werner Schuster: And then the other track is somewhat related. It's sort of our second sustainability track except we call it performance because we're old school. Because as Chris just mentioned, to be green, he can just do less or do it with fewer cycles. And we have a really exciting track. It's hosted by Justin Cormack. He found some amazing speakers there. Just to highlight one talk, we have speakers from Red Panda, which is a re-implementation of Kafka with a strong, strong focus on... I guess, as Martin Thompson calls it mechanical sympathy. Really writing the software so that it works with the hardware. It maximizes the hardware. And that's just one of the exciting developments recently to see people really focusing on this. Yeah. The performance track is another one that I'm really looking forward to here.

Socially-Conscious Software [17:48]

Thomas Betts: Chris, you already mentioned the architecture with sustainability, there's another socially-conscious software. I think Srini mentioned ethics a little bit. That's one of those topics that has been at QCon for several years. We've always had this kind of nebulous, maybe one talk, maybe whole track. Is that what the socially-conscious software is getting into?

Chris Swan: Yes. And I think that track from a sort of title and abstract perspective gave us scope to go beyond just ethics. So we have previously had an entire track of ethics and I think that was an interesting approach, but also we don't want to be having the same people doing the same talks again and again. So we've changed it a little and given ourselves scope to get some different speakers telling some different stories.

Culture & Methods tracks [18:33]

Thomas Betts: And then the last category of QCon, and InfoQ has these same topics across the personas, is the culture and methods track. I know people are probably familiar with Shane Hastie as the other InfoQ podcast. He'll be there running the on conference. But there's two tracks that I thought were under that culture and methods is one is the staff+ engineering and the other one is remote and hybrid work. And again, these have been around for a couple years. What's the current trends that we're expecting to see and why are those two topics important at QCon?

Sarah Wells: So staff plus, it's interesting because I think it's still... Particularly in the UK, perhaps individual contributor path hasn't been talked about as much. People last year who came to the talks on that track were really interested to work out what does it mean? How do I shape a career that doesn't involve going into management or leadership? So I think that it's still early and I'm not actually overseeing that. But the talks I think will cover a variety of things around what skills do you need to stay on the technical track and what can you expect? Where are the challenges that you're going to have as a result of doing that? And a lot of that comes down to how do you influence when you are not actually someone's manager? You don't get to tell someone that they need to do something. How do you as an individual contributor effect change?

And then the other one was remote and hybrid work. Well, that's just interesting at the moment every year because two years ago, three years ago it was how do we all work from home? Well, but now it's like, "What's come next?" And you've got lots of companies that were doing fairly remote work and starting to look at hybrid, starting to call back people back into the office some part of the week. I think that's incredibly difficult to do. So it's really interesting to hear from people about how they've made something like that work.

Thomas Betts: I don't know if anyone else had this experience at the QCon San Francisco last year and some of the QCon Plus that have been online. The remote and hybrid work sessions, the talks have been the most surprising. I think I go to the technical talks and I have a sense of what I can expect. I'm going to gain some knowledge about a tool or technology I don't know. Those talks have the power to surprise you because you don't know what is going on and I think you can also take it back and use it the next day. I might not be able to implement Kafka next week, but I can say, "Hey, we can try this out." Bring it up in a retro and say, "Why don't we try this idea that I heard about at Qcon?" So that's a great opportunity that the audience can take right back to work with them.

Sarah Wells: I agree. I think it's one of the really nice things about QCon is that it's a conference that covers those kinds of people and culture and process topics as well. And we aim to have one track of that for each day. So if you wanted to spend your time digging deep into culture and methods, you can do it. If you're going to a conference that's about particular technologies, you don't necessarily get that opportunity. So I think it is... Yeah. Totally. People should at least dip into some of those talks because it'll be a different perspective potentially.

Security [21:16]

Thomas Betts: I think that covered all of the main tracks. Is there anything else people wanted to bring up that we didn't talk about for the specific tracks and themes of QCon?

Chris Swan: So we didn't talk about security.

Thomas Betts: We never talked about security until it's too late, do we?

Chris Swan: We brought security back onto the menu and specifically we're talking about building security in earlier. So this whole concept of shifting left and getting some practitioners to talk about how they've done that and what they've accomplished in doing that. And I'm really looking forward to some of those stories myself because I think security's one of those things where if you don't focus on it early in the cycle, then it comes back to bite you later on and it can be annoying and expensive.

Paving the Road [21:58]

Sarah Wells: We also didn't talk about the other track that I'm the champion for, which is about paving the road. So this is about developer productivity and experience. And this is coming at it from an engineering point of view, but obviously it'll talk about culture methods as well. And the host, Nayana Shetty has really focused on user-centric approaches to engineering enablement. So how do you treat your platform as a product? We'll hear from companies like Netflix and the BBC about the ways they've approached that. It's a topic I'm really interested in and I think it's going to be a great track.

Thomas Betts: We've talked about the paved road in the past and how it's good, but this is actually how to go and pave the road and the benefits you get.

Sarah Wells: And to get that product mentality for teams that have other developers as customers. And this is my background, I was a tech director for engineering enablement at the Financial Times. It's like how do you manage to get that product view on things? I think that's an important development for people.

Thomas Betts: I think it started off with a few people saying, "I'm going to write a script to make my life easier." And then that became a Jenkins job or something else and it's just evolved into, now we need, that is a product that people need specific to your company and it's not something you can just buy off the shelf and have exactly what you need. You have to put some time and effort into making it. What your organization needs. Right?

Sarah Wells: I mean, I'd argue you should buy at least parts of it off the shelf.

Thomas Betts: Oh. yes. Yeah. You can't build the whole thing.

Sarah Wells: It needs to be in the context of your organization to make it really work.

Thomas Betts: You need to be able to pave your own road. But yeah. Hire the trucks to bring over the asphalt.

Sarah Wells: Yes.

In-person and online [23:24]

Thomas Betts: I did want to wrap up with some of the logistics of QCon. So I know this is the first one where we're doing in-person and online at the same time. The last few have been staggered by a month. So how does that work for people who might not be able to make it to London but still want to get the content?

Sarah Wells: Well, I believe that the videos for online will go up at the same time as the conference starts, which is a challenge for speakers because that means they have to get their talks ready ahead of time. But should make for a really great experience for whether you're coming in person or online.

Thomas Betts: I'm assuming there'll be online discussions as well, that people can then engage afterwards.

Srini Penchikala: And also there won't be any online disruptions because the recorded video will be available.

Thomas Betts: That's right. It's pre-recorded videos for all of the sessions so you can watch it, but it won't have the... I couldn't turn my camera on and technical difficulties. QCon has done a pretty good job of the online presentation of making sure that those sessions all run smoothly.

Srini Penchikala: I think we can say we have followed a shift left approach for the conference as well, so we're organizing the talks.

Closing [24:22]

Thomas Betts: I think that same plan of the online at the same time is what's going to happen in QCon New York in June and then QCon San Francisco in October. Two more coming up if you can't make it to London. Think about those.

Well, I want to thank all of my guests today, Chris, Srini, Sarah and Werner. And if you enjoyed this discussion of software trends, please leave a comment on the podcast either on the InfoQ page or wherever you get this, because we want to know if we want to have similar conversations like this with the future QCon organizers.

So if you want to know more about QCon London, there's still time to register for the conference, either in person or And registration is open, as I said, for QCon New York and QCon San Francisco. So thanks again for listening to another episode of the InfoQ podcast.

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