What Sun won't tell you about JavaOne

Rants, observations, and 10 ways to improve next year's JavaOne experience

As 20,000 JavaOne attendees swept into the Moscone Convention Center in downtown San Francisco last month, I wondered how many of them, underneath their tired-but-wired faces, were secretly mocking the ridiculousness of this developer conference. No one seems to talk about it out loud, but JavaOne is pretty laughable.

Keynote speeches

First, there are the keynote speeches, featuring loud stadium-style rock music at 8:00 a.m. to warm up the crowd to the likes of John Gage, JavaOne master-of-hype and Java cult leader extraordinaire, and Dr. Alan Baratz, president of Sun's Java Software Division, who perfectly exemplifies the nerd-to-cool transition that's so trendy in the '90s.

When you first hear John Gage speak, it's impressive. He commands the respect and attention of a huge high-tech industry crowd like no one else I've seen -- with the possible exception of Steve Jobs. But I've attended JavaOne for three years now, and Gage is starting to sound like a one-trick pony, using and reusing the same old cheap public-speaking techniques. They go something like this:

  • Flatter your audience. Gage tells us how special we are for being Java developers. Twenty-thousand attendees applaud ourselves.
  • Divide the assembled group into smaller groups so that each group can feel special in its own right. Gage asks developers to stand up, look around, sit down, and then asks the "suits" (that is, nondevelopers) to do the same.
  • Reward the people you're addressing for attending, and publicly recognize the leaders in the audience. Gage announces his annual ribbon hand-out, in which Java pioneers, book authors, and other VIPs get a colored ribbon to add to their already bulky badge-holder.

Listening to Gage speak is like listening to a loud bass speaker: What he says sounds bone-shakingly exciting at first, but it soon wears on you like a dull, rhythmic thudding sound reverberating in your brain.

Next up is Baratz, who is not nearly as charismatic as Gage. Baratz illustrates the fact that Java programming is now being taught in universities and high schools by inviting his teenage daughter onto the stage to play the part of "the press." His daughter ascends the stage wearing a tight twin-sweater set, a short-short skirt, platform sandals, and shampoo-commercial bouncy hair. Watch thousands of men in one room drool. She looks at her notes and asks her father when Sun will come up with Linux support. The drool turns into laughter and applause.

It's the parties, stupid

Once you get through the keynote speeches, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the plethora of JavaOne-related activities, depending on what kind of JavaOne attendee you are. There are two essential types: those who are serious about absorbing as much new technical and product information as possible in order to continue their quest for the holy grail of Java applications, and those who treat JavaOne as a corporate paid vacation. The first type of attendee devotedly marks off his preferred technical track sessions and birds-of-a-feather meetings in his schedule, while the second immediately scouts out the free services afforded by this college-campus-like atmosphere of continually running movies in beanbag-chair theaters, free popcorn and Pepsi and Starbucks coffee, a "Hackers Lounge" full of folks reading their e-mail, and lots of late-night parties within a four-block radius of Moscone Center.

Don't get me wrong: JavaOne is a big deal. Even Mayor Willie Brown knows it, and has accordingly proclaimed the week of the convention "JavaOne week" in San Francisco. I'm just acknowledging that the conference organizers know how to appeal to their audience -- all 20,000 of us. They've got it down.

The changing perimeter

Have you noticed something strange about the JavaOne exhibitors' pavilion? Did you happen to walk around the perimeter? I bring this up because, usually, the perimeter of a tradeshow exhibitors' pavilion is reserved for what I usually call "desperation booths," which are the booths vendors can rent for the lowest fee -- or are relegated to if they got a late start signing up for booth space.

But this year's JavaOne Pavilion had no lower cost outer perimeters, no desperation booths waiting for the opportunity to suck away your time. Along all the walls of the pavilion were official Sun Microsystems booths, each booth representing a different aspect of Java or a Java-related product. In an era of fierce animosity toward Microsoft's overzealous market power grab, I find it ironic that Sun seems to be demonstrating that it has the Java industry surrounded.

Advice for the wary JavaOne attendee

JavaOne is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is a waste of time -- at least not if you do it right. After attending the biggest developer conference in the world for three years in a row, I've come up with a list of 10 time-tested pieces of advice for new and returning JavaOne attendees. Here's how to get the most out of JavaOne:

1. Avoid the press

If you have strict orders from your boss not to talk to members of the press, you can easily avoid us with just a little press-avoidance technique. You need to know that you can't always tell who we are just by looking at our badgeholders. The more savvy among us rip the identifying ribbons off our badges in order to get quotes from people who wouldn't normally talk to us. (We stick the ribbons in our pockets so that we can later use them to get front-row seats at crowded tech sessions. It's small compensation for our paltry paychecks.) What you need to be looking for are dead giveaways like tweed coats, out-of-style eyeglasses, and old, worn suits. Think about it: Developers wear jeans and T-shirts and marketing types wear stylish new suits and slick titanium-framed spectacles; only members of the press feel an obligation to dress up but don't have the bucks (or the ego) to do it in style. Also, steer clear of anyone carrying a portable tape recorder, camera, or reporter's notebook.

2. Wield your cellphone

While waiting in the various Disney-Landesque, labyrinthian lines (Attendee Registration, Speaker Registration, Exhibitor Registration, Media Registration, Palm V Purchase Only, Materials Pickup Only, Materials Pickup with Palm V Purchase Only), whip out your cellphone and pretend to make a call, or call someone who doesn't really need to hear from you right now. You're bored waiting in this long line, too shy to talk to the nerd in front of you, and besides, cellphones make you look cool. Still. (Well, not really, but it's nice to have something to do while waiting in all those long lines.)

3. Socialize

I know, I know -- it's scary to find a place to sit in that huge lunch cafeteria with all those people. But no matter how reserved you are, force yourself to sit at a table that's already occupied by at least one other person. You can learn a lot from your fellow lunch-eaters, and you might even make new friends or valuable contacts.

The JavaOne attendee populace is pretty impressive in its internationality. At just one lunch table, I met a Chinese consultant living in Mineapolis, an African marketer living in France, a Russian programmer living in Israel, and a Norwegian mobile-phone developer living in Sweden. I felt as if I were in the middle of a Cisco or IBM TV commercial advertising the "global Internet community." If you're busy pretending to read your JavaOne program guide, you'll miss such opportunities.

4. Pay attention

Don't be absentminded when going about your JavaOne activities: Although it can be a lot of fun, treat this conference as you would any other business event. Take a lesson from my "bathroom incident."

I find JavaOne to be overwhelmingly dry -- physically, and sometimes mentally. So I'm in the habit of drinking a lot of water and breezing through the thankfully line-free women's restrooms throughout the day. On my third full day of JavaOne attendance, my sleep-deprived brain was swimming in thoughts of XML, KVM, J2EE, EJBs, JDBC, CORBA, and every other Java-related acronym you can think of -- so much so that I absentmindedly stumbled right into the men's room. My baffled first thought when I entered was, Why is this bathroom so filthy? My next thought -- and I was indignant about this -- was, What are men doing in the ladies' bathroom? Then, as if a bucket of ice had been dumped into the pit of my stomach, I realized what I had done.

Now, walking into the restroom of the opposite sex is no big deal in other places I've been, such as during my brief stint as a student at Oberlin College, where coed restrooms -- and even (shock!) coed showers -- are commonplace. But at JavaOne, a woman casually walking into the men's room is decidedly uncool.

I blushed hard. In my embarrassment, my legs seized in paralysis. A kindly gentleman looked at me, smiled, and said, "It looks like you're in the wrong place." When my legs finally caught up to the will of my brain, I was outta there like a bat out of hell. The moral of this story is pay attention. How can you get the most out of JavaOne if you're absentmindedly stumbling into places you don't belong?

On the other hand -- and this is my real piece of advice -- sometimes you can get the best information by stumbling into the wrong places. A trek off the beaten JavaOne path might just yield some interesting data, such as what's behind the keynote address stage, or how many electric fire-prevention rules have been broken under the computer lab tables, or the real reason why the infrared Lego-car demo isn't working when you stop by.

5. Pick and choose

Be discerning about the activities you participate in at JavaOne. I know there are lots of fun distractions, but some are better than others for your career. It's okay to play air hockey or pool with a fellow developer you've just met, for example. You can even let him win in order to score professional points. But, in all honesty, it's a waste of time to wile away the hours on a beanbag chair, watching old movies on a bad movie screen or nonstop episodes of

South Park

in the Hackers Lounge. If you really need to get away from it all for a little while, take a walk around Yerba Buena Gardens, or visit the Museum of Modern Art across the street for a couple of hours.

6. Seek out greatness

If you wanted to be where the mental action was at JavaOne '99, the thing to do was check out the KJava Playground, a partially hidden computer lab off the JavaOne Pavilion. This should have been dubbed The Mensa Room, because the average IQ climbed about 20 points within its walls. Here were rows of serious developers pounding out tiny-footprint applications for the Palm V Hackathon, comparing notes on EJBs, and quietly discussing innovative company startup plans. Although it could be hard to pull anyone away from a screen to actually talk to him, it was considerably easier to surreptitiously look over shoulders and witness the Great Things the assembled geniuses were doing. (Next year's version of the KJava Playground will probably be called something else, so don't miss it.)

7. Be outgoing (and influential)

You're around people all day for four days in a row, so it would be a shame not to take advantage of this social opportunity. It isn't necessary to be bent over your snazzy new Palm V during every free minute before the start of a technical session or while waiting in line. Make an effort to talk to people, both developers and people who can get you a job or venture capital. Most people are shy, so they'll be relieved that you're the one starting an intelligent conversation.

Take 12-year-old Elliot Onn, author of Onn-Line, a tech news column in the Canadian Online Explorer, for example. Sporting a new suit, a snappy haircut, and braces on his bottom teeth, he introduced himself to fellow JavaOne attendees around him with ease -- shaking hands, asking questions, and wielding opinions and industry predictions like a pro. You can do this, too! Resolve to win more friends and influence new people at JavaOne 2000.

8. Resist logowear

It's OK to dress casually -- obviously -- but resolve to keep your attire as free from advertising as possible. I've seen guys wearing mustard-yellow JavaOne t-shirts, goofy-looking Java hats, JavaOne backpacks, and carrying even more logo-imprinted items in their hands. And the look on these guys' faces is deadpan serious. Is Sun paying you to be a walking billboard for JavaOne? If not, then take off that t-shirt and save it for your next exercise workout or home-improvement project.

9. Stock up for the holidays

The positive side to the generous giveaway of logo-imprinted products is that you can use JavaOne to save money on Christmas shopping. Sun and many other exhibitors give away tons of free stuff: the backpack, the 8-in-1 "survival" wallet card survey-completion reward, t-shirts, candy, notebooks, pens, and toys -- like that nifty BEA WebLogic rubber ball that lights up when you bounce it. Throw all your loot in a Symantec Visual Café bag and dole it out over the next holiday.

10. Use your hype detector

Finally, treat everything you see and hear with the importance it merits. Sun will never admit this, but many things said at JavaOne just aren't that important. So it's up to you to discern what's valuable and what's not. I know it's hard to wade through all the hype to find the good stuff, but once you find it, it'll make this one week seem more worthwhile in the grand scheme of things.

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