Reflections on Systems We Love

December 21, 2016 - by Bryan Cantrill

Last Tuesday, several months of preparation came to fruition in the inaugural Systems We Love. You never know what’s going to happen the first time you get a new kind of conference together (especially one as broad as this one!) but it was, in a word, amazing. The content was absolutely outstanding, with attendee after attendee praising the uniformly high quality. (For guided tours, check out both Ozan Onay’s excellent exegesis and David Cassel’s thorough New Stack story — and don’t miss Sarah Huffman’s incredible illustrations!) It was such a great conference that many were asking about when we would do it again — and there is already interest in replicating it elsewhere. As an engineer, this makes me slightly nervous as I believe that success often teaches you nothing: luck becomes difficult to differentiate from design. But at the risk of taunting the conference gods with the arrogance of a puny mortal, here’s some stuff I do think we did right:

  • Emphasizing the love. When a technologist is explaining their love for a technology, there is a level at which it’s irrefutable: even if you yourself abhor the technology being described, you can’t deny the presenter’s affection for it. Indeed, that you find a love perplexing may make it that much more compelling — and many of the most interesting moments at Systems We Love came when presenters described some delightfully strange wart of a technology (e.g., record locators!). This is the breakthrough that is due to Papers We Love: people want to talk and hear about the things that uplift them and the ideas that inspire them! And when this desire is the unifying principle (rather than the use of a particular technology or the fealty to a particular company), the hallway track becomes much more diverse and fascinating, as attendees have shared values but not necessarily shared experiences.
  • Presenting the technologies of others. Many (most?) conferences consist of presenters explaining their own technologies (or that of their company or whatever) — which inevitably has a sales-y undercurrent, even for technical or academic presentations. (And I myself am certainly guilty of this!) To avoid this implied superiority of particular systems or ideas, we deliberately guided submissions away from one’s own technology and rather towards one’s own narrative: why do you love this system? This allowed presenters just enough distance to speak earnestly of a technology, giving their love that much more weight.
  • Single track, single day. I (personally) like single-track conferences not only for the obvious reason that it doesn’t force painful choices for the attendee (a choice that I always seem to make incorrectly myself), but also for the slightly more subtle reason that it creates a shared experience among attendees: everyone sees everything, providing for ample discussion fodder for the hallway track. This is also the reason that I prefer a single day: with the conference only running for one day, everyone makes an effort to be there — and when people go for drinks after the event, everyone is relaxed: no one is apprehensive about the talk they need to give in the morning! (Or, if you’re like me, the slides that still must be written!) So while this decision constrained the amount of content (and forced very hard decisions on the part of the program committee), I think it was a huge win.
  • Twenty minute talks. I was apprehensive about the length of the timeslot, for a reason that I acknowledge is personal and somewhat petty: I’m a bit of a TED talk malcontent. Yes, I like the spirit of TED talks (and there are certainly some great ones!) — but to my way of thinking, they often come across as just a little too pat, leaving the listener more with an illusion of understanding than a desire to ask more questions. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried; the twenty minute length worked perfectly, with many attendees explicitly praising it — and I loved that many (many!) of the talks ended with suggestions for further reading! So as it turns out, twenty minutes actually is enough time to get to depth in a way that is captivating and compelling yet open-ended — and it’s short enough to encourage presenters to be tight and to allow for a wide variety of content.
  • Big, diverse, awesome program committee. A program will reflect its program committee, so carefully crafting a program committee is essential. Systems We Love was blessed with an absolutely outstanding program committee, joined by a love of systems but otherwise representing many different perspectives and backgrounds. Because the talk submissions were pretty short, everyone could review everything — and because we did everything online, there was no need to meet (in person or virtually). This allowed for the PC to grow essentially without bounds, which paid off with not only diverse perspectives, but also diverse submissions. In terms of composing it, I decided to shoot the moon and simply ask the people who I thought would comprise my dream PC — and I was pleasantly surprised when everyone I asked accepted! I hope that members of the PC found it to be an uplifting experience — though the high quality of submissions and the low acceptance rate definitely induced some amount of mental anguish!
  • Double-blind selection process. One thing that I felt strongly about going into Systems We Love was having a double-blind selection process. I have personally witnessed how an unblinded process can lead to terrible decisions, and a welcome change in the past five years in academic computer science has been that many more conferences have gone double-blind. Just in case I had any doubt about being double-blind, it was obliterated by hearing of the experiences of Kathryn McKinley: she has personally seen the difference it has made in the diversity of accepted work, and she makes an emphatic and compelling case that anything less than double-blind is irresponsible. For Systems We Love, I think being double-blind worked very well, and it had its intended effect in that some of the selected talks were from new faces with new perspectives. (It also must be said that when we de-blinded as a final check, we saw some of the rejected proposals were from some well-known names; everyone needs to bring their A-game to a double-blind process!)
  • Mechanics. Mechanics can’t make a conference, but they can certainly break one: if the venue is terrible or the food doesn’t show up or the vibe of the space doesn’t match that of the conference, it can have a serious adverse effect. Thanks to the hard work of Brittany Berry at Joyent, I think we did well on this front: modulo an early morning coffee crisis with a vendor, all went smoothly: the space was great (even when packed), the A/V team very accommodating (especially given our monster of a schedule!), and the food was tasty and plentiful. (I also particularly like that Brittany found a way to donate the excess food at the end of the day!) We also made the decision to livestream the conference and (perhaps more importantly) to leave the entire livestream up; while not inexpensive, it allowed many more people to feel the love — and also allowed all of our content to be online from the moment it was presented.

Okay, so that’s a pretty long list of things that worked; what didn’t work so well? I would say that there was basically only a single issue: the packed schedule. We had 19 (!!) 20 minute talks, and there simply wasn’t time for the length or quantity of breaks that one might like. I think it worked out better than it sounds like it would (thanks to our excellent and varied presenters!), but it was nonetheless exhausting and I think everyone would have appreciated at least one more break. Still, there were essentially no complaints about the number of presentations, so we wouldn’t want to overshoot by slimming down too much; perhaps the optimal number is 16 talks spread over four sessions of four talks apiece?

So where to go from here? We know now that there is a ton of demand and a bunch of great content to match (I’m still bummed about the terrific submissions we turned away!), so we know that we can (and will) easily have this be an annual event. But it seems like we can do more: maybe an event on the east coast? Perhaps one in Europe? Maybe as a series of meetups in the style of Papers We Love? There are a lot of possibilities, so please let us know what you’d like to see!

Finally, I would like to reflect on the most personally satisfying bit of Systems We Love: simply by bringing so many like-minded people together in the same room and having them get to know one another, we know that lives have been changed; new connections have been made, new opportunities have been found, and new journeys have begun. We knew that this would happen in the abstract, but in recent days, we have seen it ourselves: in the new year, you will see new faces on the Joyent engineering team that we met at Systems We Love. (If it needs to be said, the love of systems is a unifying force across Joyent; if you find yourself captivated by the content and you’re contemplating a career change, we’re hiring!) Like most (if not all) of us, the direction of my life has been significantly changed by meeting or hearing the right person at the right moment; that we have helped facilitate similar changes in our own small way is intensely gratifying — and is very much at the heart of what Systems We Love is about!