#ServerlessConf Austin 2017

This year I attended ServerlessConf Austin, which was hosted in the Zach Theatre in downtown Austin, TX. This was the first conference I’ve been to since WWDC in 2012, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While WWDC was massive, it also felt like that college course you took that was in the big auditorium and you didn’t actually get to talk to the professor or learn anything because it was more of a demonstration. ServerlessConf is just now up to about 430 attendees, so it still has a small conference vibe, even though it’s growing massively really quickly. Additionally, there were workshops put on by acloud.guru that you could attend before the event. These gave you 1-on-1 time with the conference organizers, as well as a lot of great experience with working through a tutorial with other members of the Serverless community (and some folks who were brand new to Serverless but just wanted to see what it was about).

Workshops

The Workshops were held in a separate venue, where the organizers were promised solid WiFi. Unfortunately it was Hotel WiFi, and as was a common theme throughout the conference, you had to realize that you can’t trust someone else when they just say something is “Magic” (thank you Charity Majors, who we’ll get to later)!

However, despite the issues with the WiFi, the actual tutorial I followed (building a Serverless chatbot) did prove somewhat helpful. It was slightly less advanced than I had hoped, and it weren’t for the WiFi issues I would probably have completed the entire task in a few hours (as it was I finished by Noon and cut out a bit early to hack on it a bit more in my hotel).

Still, working on the same tutorial with others there to help through, and getting some time to ask questions of the staff while working on something was pretty neat. I do wish they had a more advanced course though, as I already had a good working knowledge of the underlying technologies, I just wanted to see how to adapt them to the Serverless framework a bit more. Next year, my recommendation for acloud.guru would be to offer an “Advanced” track (and perhaps partner with a college or university in the area to get a better venue with better WiFi).

Day 1 Speakers

Day 1 of the Serverless Conference was filed with quite a few fun talks. Serverless Conference was organized similar to a BarCamp conference, where normal average people were speaking, but on a much more grand scale. They also had a committee to approve talks, and there was a lot more talking from sponsors, but in general it had that small-conference feel that we all love about something like BarCamp.

Austen Collens did a great job opening up for the conference. He started off with a short explanation of how Serverless Conference (and acloud.guru) evolved from a little home office in his mom’s house, to a warehouse in Brooklyn (with no AC in the middle of august!), all the way to the 430+ attendees that were occupying the Zach theatre, and being introduced with more of “the dubstep”. It was a really great way to get to know the audience and it showed just how far Serverless has come from an idea to being used by fortune 500 companies.
After the two opening Key Note presentations, we had a quick break for a snack, custom made donuts, and then on to the normal talks. Many of the remaining talks from Day 1 were similar re-hashes of the same topics, talking about how their specific company uses Serverless (mostly all Lambda), or showing off a fun new tool that they just launched. The theme of the day though was that live demos shouldn’t be done, because the WiFi was terrible and the Demo Gods were not with anyone. There was an unfortunate incident too with one of the Demos that proved not to work at all, but everyone felt bad for the presenter and most of the other presenters quickly made sure they had a backup plan. Normally I wouldn’t bring this up, but it’s important for what happened later on Day 2 with Randall Hunt (more on that later).

After the lunch break, they split the conference into two “tracks” with half of the speakers in the same main theatre, and the other half in a smaller theatre on the other side. I mistakenly read the schedule wrong and thought Chris Munns was speaking in the second theatre, so I ended up missing his excellent talk on CI/CD with Lambda, but fortunately it should be online soon. Even so, I learned a bit about how iRobot manages thousands of Lambda functions to control their Roomba army, and how switching to Serverless helped them innovate much more quickly and handle features like custom mapping of your house. It was also quite interesting to see some more pragmatic approaches to Serverless like GreenQ in Israel is doing. It was also very exciting to see that Serverless is global, not just something us Americans are playing around with.

After a quick snack break for a custom made ice-cream Sunday, we headed into the last portion of talks. The highlight of the last section was hands down from Lynn Langit. I believe it was her who gave my favorite quote of the conference: “Legacy is just another word for code that already works”. It was pretty interesting to hear her take on big-data analytics with Athena and Google BigQuery. It was refreshing to hear someone basically say that Amazon isn’t the king of everything, and you shouldn’t go into it as a Fanboy, but instead be practical and actually look at the differences between the two services. While I have no direct use for Athena right now, it’s certainly an interesting topic and made me think a little bit more about how I store some of my data on S3.

The after-party was also on Day 1 for some odd reason, and was a typical nerd party. It was mostly for networking, of which I did a little bit, but I actually met more people in between sessions and through lunch/snack breaks. Overall I took quite a few cards from people and even found a fellow Clevelander.

Day 2

The opening act for Day 2 was supposed to be Tim Wagner from AWS, however he got stuck in an airport somewhere and didn’t make it until the end of the conference. Instead, the folks at ServerlessConf had to quickly shuffle around and moved three of the “lighting talks” to open up. My old colleague and fellow RIT and CSH alumni Ryan Brown was second, and gave a pretty decent talk about how to integrate Legacy (there’s that word again!) stuff with Serverless applications. It was another interesting take because most of the other talks were entirely on how to build a new application, but Ryan was more focused on existing companies that obviously aren’t all-in Serverless (yet). He made it clear that you don’t have to be all-in or brand new to get started with Serverless development.

After the lightning talks was a Keynote by Jason McGee from IBM, who discussed how they helped create OpenWhisk, and focused a lot on portability within Serverless. It was interesting to see the big folks like Amazon, and Microsoft focus on why you should use their unique features, but IBM focusing on why you could switch to them, or any other provider and avoid lock-in.

After Jason’s talk, we had a quick snack break, nothing as fancy as the custom donuts this time (just Snickers and Kit-Kat bars) after which we moved into the second section. The highlight of this section was obviously Charity Majors, who did an interesting and unfiltered talk from an Ops perspective on what Serverless really means to the Ops community, and what Devs really need to learn to do. Her slides were as colorful as her talk, and you should really go check it out sometime after it’s posted. It was a good way to add a little bit of humor and lighten things up after a long day and a half of pretty deep technical talks.

After Charity we went back into some more serious technical talks, the most interesting to me of which was Firebase. They showed how you can use their platform tools almost as a replacement for the Serverless Framework, running directly on Google’s platform. This was the most surprising thing to me and quite an amazing learning experience. I had never looked into Firebase as a platform very seriously, but now I’m certainly going to.

After lunch, we again split into two different tracks, the first of which was started off by Jared Short, who talked a little bit about Single Page Apps, specifically on how to render some code behind the scenes using Serverless Technologies to help with speed and Bots/scrapers. He even made an interesting comment about “some little startup named Facebook” and showed how they don’t work without JavaScript enabled, but his very rich SPAs do (with a little magic from Serverless). It was an interesting take on how to optimize for platforms that might not have a lot of compute power, and how to really leverage the power of the Serverless Cloud.

After Jared, I quickly bolted over to the second track to wait for the talk from Forrest Brazeal on SWF and Step Functions. Before that, however, was a really unexpected surprise from Marcia Villalba from toon.tv who had probably the most artfully designed slides of the conference. The trend of the day here was humor and keeping things light, and Marcia and Forrest both held up to that task (Forrest even did an interesting “Rap” on Serverless).

After both Jared and Marcia, I sat through the hands-down best talk of the entire conference, put on by Randall Hunt. Remember I mentioned that everyone else was avoiding demos? While that was true, Randall decided it would be a good idea to do about a dozen demos all at once. He even SSH’d into a server to upload thousands of images to S3, all while in the middle of frantically typing and showing a ton of interesting code. His entire talk was very light and just very well presented. He showed himself as from AWS, but more of a developer and like the rest of us than most of the other presenters.

it all started with his laptop not working, which he then did a cold reboot to get working, and while that was going on he decided to do another demo by taking a selfie with the crowd to send to @AWSCloudNinja to show off some of the Lex and Rekognition features. After his laptop started up, he went even more off script with showing parts of his slide deck, but then jumping right into real-world coding problems: how to keep his mother updated on his status. His overall presentation was very well done, and even though it seemed like he was a disorganized mess it flowed very smoothly and he crammed a lot of information into a small presentation. Most of the things he went over I already had worked with, but seeing how he hooked them all together was pretty nifty.

The conclusion by Tim Wagner

Perhaps it was the build-up by Randall, or perhaps it was because there was so much hype about Tim, but when Tim Wagner came on to close out ServerlessConf, I was not very impressed. He was much more corporate AWS than the rest of the day had been, and his presentation style was slightly boring to me. He talked about some great information about adoption of API Gateway and Serverless in general, but he was speaking more from a manager position than from a developer.


In the end, he blended parts of a server (a stick of RAM, a CPU, etc) and that was his “big thing”. I understand the concept of destroying servers as a show of Serverless, however it was quite a bit of build up to something that wasn’t really that impressive. Sorry Tim, but Randall stole the show this time.Yeah 
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