rob"o*rant, n. A roborant drug; a restorative or tonic.

Java Posse Roundup 2012

The Java Posse is a group of programmers and technologists who produce (somewhat irregularly) a podcast on the subject of the Java programming language and other languages that run on the Java Virtual Machine. They include news, rumors, gossip and trends about the state of the industry and its players. The podcast is not only informative, but fun and personal. It's like hanging out with your friends more than a newscast. If you're a Java programmer, or someone who uses languages that run on the JVM, such as Groovy, Scala or Clojure, then you should be listening to the podcast, it's just good for your professional development.

While the podcast is a lot of fun and sometimes even factual, it's not the most important part of the story. Each year, the Posse throws a conference called the Java Posse Roundup. The Roundup has so far always been held in the spring in Crested Butte, Colorado. Usually (but not in 2012), there is snow and excellent winter sports: skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. Crested Butte is a lovely venue, more about that below.

While the podcast is about the Posse riffing on the news of the day, the Roundup is a completely different animal. The listenership of the podcast is quite diverse and, through some self-selection process that isn't evident to those involved, the group that decides to attend the Roundup is just spectacular. The fifty or so that attend have a wide range of skills and backgrounds, but they range from above-average software developers to absolute rock stars. I don't know how this happens, but there isn't a clinker in the crowd; not one bore or one idiot or one waste of time. This isn't just remarkable, it's an unnatural feat that no one really understands. I'm tempted not to write about it, lest the phenomenon somehow be afraid of introspection.

Bruce Eckel kicks things off

So, for one week, everyone is in a crowd of people where all of the others seem smarter than themselves. It's not necessarily true, I suppose (except maybe for me), but when you're around really smart folks, you just naturally class them above yourself, because your normal experience is to only run into such people on rare occasion. Somehow the culture has evolved so that the most advanced folks on some topic (and everyone there knows something more than everyone else about some obscure topic) will go to infinite pains to explain and teach it to some newbie. No one even tries to pretend they're superior to the rest, I suspect this is because really smart people just don't have to prove it all the time, they're more than happy to learn more from the folks around them.

Agenda for Thursday

The format of the conference is called Open Spaces, which means that the participants themselves set the agenda and organize the time. Using some simple tools, such as a large sheet of paper as a schedule and sticky notes, to define the sessions the participants self-select the sessions and topics. Usually, the mornings are reserved for the sessions (which are really just group discussions, but with the group usually including world-class experts on whatever the topic turns out to be), and the afternoons reserved for hacking, usually at one of the houses rented for the week (or winter sports when there is snow). In the evening lightening talks are held. These are, by design, limited in no way; lightening talk topics range from the physics of driving race cars, to the evolution of zombie movies over the years to demonstrations of projects actually developed by attendees in the course of the conference. These serve in a unique way to allow otherwise introverted individuals to personalize themselves to everyone else.

Lightening talk in progress

The venue, Crested Butte, is spectacular (the conference is held in the town, down the mountain but adjacent to the ski resort). The town is so small you can walk anywhere in fifteen minutes, so there is no need for any vehicles, personal or public, unless it's to take a shuttle up to the ski resort. The townies are friendly and helpful and refer to us as a Bruce's Geeks. The food in town is almost universally excellent. The conference would almost be worth it for the chance to spend a week in Crested Butte alone.

Residents of Crested Butte are great to us

So, the Java Posse Roundup is an almost transcendent experience. It presents the chance to extend your professional development by a year in one week. I've had conversations while walking to lunch that saved me a week of online research. I've learned entire new technologies in one afternoon hacking session. For the entire week, I never saw a TV tuned to a show; every time there was a TV turned on, it was in use as a computer monitor and usually had four geeks sitting around it working on code. Needless to say, the "networking" (a word I find distasteful) is unmatched. Everyone seems to find genuine friends among the group and no one there isn't worth knowing.

By the way, it's amazing to watch geeks self-organize. Before the conference started, individuals took it upon themselves to organize group instant messaging, GitHub space and other shared resources. As the conference proceeded, new tools and resources were shared at every step. By the closing day a contact list had been organized (thanks Joe!) so that everyone could get connected on LinkedIn, FaceBook and Google+. I've never been to another conference where this happens.

Session in progress

Reading this over, it sounds almost utopian and maybe not quite believable, as if I were trying to sell ground unicorn horn or sky hooks, but that's just me not being a good enough writer. I don't understand how it happened, but the Roundup is a unique event that does more than educate, it actually rejuvenates as well. All I can say is: long may it last.