FOWA Dublin – a Mixed Blessing

I am sitting on the plane flying home from Dublin, trying to summarize my thoughts about the Future of Web Apps conference. While I think that overall, FOWA Dublin was worth attending (because of the speakers, especially David Heinemeier Hansson, who surpassed all my (high) expectations – will post about it later), in my opinion it did not live up to its full potential. The most annoying thing is that just with a tiny bit of more effort it could have been an 5-star conference in every sense of the word – however it missed to deliver this additional plus, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

I have seen blog posts/tweets raving about the conference – in a paradoxical way (given what I just wrote in the above paragraph) I can mostly agree with those posts too. The trick is whether you are judging the conference solely based on the content (in which case I can agree with the above blog posts) – or as a whole, including venue, wifi, organization, socialization, before and after parties, freebies, extras, all the bells and whistles. Using the latter method (and I see no reason why one should not) the conference was mediocre IMHO – a few thoughts why:

* (almost) no wifi – After all, a conference centered around the web full of nerds with iPhones, notebooks and other wifi-hungry devices needs no wifi right? Wrong. (OK, the reality was more complex than that: there _was_ some kind of “home wifi” but in practice that meant constant hunting for the signal which broke randomly after a few minutes)

* crowd – A huge crowd (or too little space, if you put it like that) right from the very beginning; Arrived 30 minutes before the actual start, to experience an episode from the life of herrings in the lobby on my own skin, without the slightest idea of why couldn’t we enter the auditorium or what are we supposed to do (other than brewing in our own sweat and looking around to see more puzzled herrings)

* the way the uni sessions were delivered – no microphone; very noisy from outside; people running around all the time, causing constant distraction;

* no announcements of talks – (like someone running out to the foyer and shouting ‘hey guys we are starting in 5 minutes!’) – half of the people still in the foyer, resulting in slow, continuous trickling into the auditorium, again causing a lot of distraction (probably less distracting the closer you sit to the stage, but at the upper end it was really annoying). The doors were open for some reason, so constant murmuring from the foyer.

* No freebies – for this price, at least a coffee or two (and maybe I am not too demanding to add something like snacks/muffins/mineral water?) would have been nice. Ridiculous prices at the bar (well, quite normal compared to Dublin – 2-3 EUR for a tea, 4-5 EUR for a coffee, 5-6 EURs for a pint of Guiness, you get the idea)

* seats – people standing around; though there were theoretically enough seats, de facto about a dozen or more people have been standing around all the time, which felt weird to me, even though I managed to get a seat somehow during the whole conference.

* no sockets – If you were lucky enough to sit close to one of the few (ok, make it a dozen – for 400 ppl!) sockets in the wall, you could recharge your laptop. Otherwise, you have been out of luck.

* a huge rush – I had the feeling that the organizers wanted to pack as much action into one day as possible, which theoretically sounds great, but IMHO it didn’t work out that well in the practice; I missed the beginning of two talks and one full talk after the lunch break because the breaks were barely enough to accomplish anything, be it buying snacks/coffee, use the toilet (1 working toilet for hundreds of guys – great idea) or to grab a proper lunch at a restaurant.

* it was overpriced for what we got – (or we got too little for an OK price) – c’mon, 400 people at an average price of 150 EUR, is 60,000 EURos, + sponsors like Sun and Microsoft, and not even a fucking cup of cofee? We organized EuRuKo in Prague last year for 20EUR / dude, had Matz, the creator of Ruby as well as a roster of other Ruby celebrities, conference t-shirts and a slew of other conference souvenirs, industrial strength wifi, catering (several tea/coffe/snack breaks, hot food for lunch) for 2 full days, free coffee and beverages, and even some free beers (cheers for Brightbox) all this in the heart of Prague. I repeat it again – for EUR 20!

* Little room for socialization (both in physical and abstract sense) – no before-event party (e.g. compare it with Scotland on Rails – three weeks to go, but I know about almost all the attendees, when and where are we going for a whisky (pre-, during- and post-conference), who is staying where, arriving when, going for a sightseeing tour with an option to join them etc. All the organizers did to make this happen was they set up a google groups mailing list and a twitter account, updated with great info every now and then, enabling the attendees to augment it with their own stuff (e.g. when are we going to have a boatload of whisky))
OK, this is not entirely an organizational problem, but still, all the conferences I went to so far addressed socialization in some way.

* after-party – Some of the guys were raving about the after-party – well, I think it was poorly organized too. I went there on time, and had no idea where the FOWA-party “crowd” is – I have seen random micro-bunches of probably-FOWA attendees scattered around the huge (otherwise excellent) Dandelion bar. Asked a few of them about the party, they were just as clueless as myself. Ok, so I left to grab something to eat to the nearby TGIF, but the situation got even worse when I came back. The dispersion of probably-FOWA-micro-bunches-or-lone-rangers went up significantly, so after a few minutes of strolling around I left. Maybe I was just unlucky and popped up at times when everybody was at toilet / had a quick smoke outside or whatever, but some more info (an A4 sheet of paper with ‘we are here’ perhaps) wouldn’t hurt.

Wow – re reading what I just wrote makes FOWA Dublin look really bad – but unfortunately I don’t know what should I remove from the above. These little (or sometimes not so little) things really added up, and fscked up the whole atmosphere. A little more organization and polishing would have solved 80% of the problems.

I am going to summarize a few of the talks I enjoyed in a follow-up post – now I am too tired for that – spent 6 extremely exhausting days in Dublin so need to get some sleep first!

13 thoughts on “FOWA Dublin – a Mixed Blessing

  1. This is a great list… We’re hosting a conference coming up in a couple of months (, and lists like this really help us to plan. Its the details like these that really make a conference great I think. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Totally agree with you about the general set up. I’ve been to the FOWD in London the past few years and it has been a completely different experience.
    Disappointing day in that respect, but the speakers made up for it.

  3. Most of the issues you outlined above were related to the venue and I agree with you, it was a terrible venue. Sadly, Dublin suffers from a lack of any suitable venue with space for more than 200 let alone 400. The ideal venue is being built just down the river but that won’t be open till 2010. I spoke to Ryan Carson about it afterwards and he agreed that there were problems with the venue certainly and with the fact people had to pay for coffee and such along with other problems such as space. I wonder how much (if anything) the speakers were getting for giving talks, particularly the high profile ones like 37 Signals? Overall, I really enjoyed it. For €150 I got a lot out of the day. Tickets to FOWD in London is a £249 (just conference, non-early bird) or £495 (conference + workshops). I’d love to go but that’s just out of my league. I’d imagine the lovely venue in London is impacting on the ticket price and in my opinion, I’d rather have dodgy wifi and a packed room for a more affordable ticket price.

  4. As said by everyone above, alot of the issues relate to the venue and were quite dissapointing. I really enjoyed the majority of the content of the conference, but the lack of wifi and social space made things difficult. I hope that next time Carsonified run a event in Dublin (and hopefully they will!), some of these issues can be addressed.

  5. You’re right in every respect, but I wonder if you realize how much this posts reads like a rant about trivialities. I can tell you recognize the possibility that you’ve done just that, but you really should have told the rest of the story before submitting, in my opinion.

    Everything you say is true, and yet, none of it really mattered in the end. It was a great experience. I got in a lot of really exciting networking, learned many lessons that I can put into practice immediately, and enjoyed exposure to a lot of new ideas. Sure I blew a few bucks on coffee and had to sharpen my elbows to circulate, but none of those things really mattered to me at the time, or after the fact.

    I hope you shared your post with the Carsonified crew (in case they don’t follow your blog, which they probably do) because these are all issues they can address in the future. I hope that when I organize a conference, criticisms like yours are the worst I get.

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  8. I think you are right about the cost versus what was actually delivered. It was annoying that the talks were not flagged before starting. Poor WI-FI and no coffee annoying too … it definitely wasn’y “Awesome” in some respects (to quote Ryan Carson). The content was good though …

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