Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

OOPSLA is on a downhill slide

In Computer science on October 30, 2009 at 12:40 am

I hadn’t been to an OOPSLA conference for several years. The last time I went was when I was working for Rational Software, before they were acquired by IBM. OOPSLA was the conference to attend if you wanted to be on the bleeding edge of object technology. Companies were there showing off their new products and it was just a lot of fun. I remember it was somewhat like Java One, in terms of the fun, but not so vendor specific.

If you could only afford to go to one conference, this was where you went. Academics, researchers, and industry thought leaders came together to exchange ideas and learn a lot from each other. They went back to their respective homes filled with things to try out until the next OOPSLA.

I was really excited to get back to an OOPSLA this year. It coincided nicely with our school calendar and a colleague was nice enough to take my first two classes of the new term (WPI has seven week terms, which makes it quite unique in terms of its academic schedule). I signed up for two tutorials, one on Erlang programming and one on Model Driven Development. Both of these topics are ones that have recently caught my interest (well, not Erlang specifically, but parallel and concurrent programming) and it seemed a good opportunity to find out about them. I’ll talk more about the tutorials in another post.

So, after shelling out $1300+ for the conference and tutorial registration, a couple of hundred dollars for the air fare, and about $500 for the hotel (half the price of staying at the conference hotel), off I went to Orlando, FL. It was nice visitng with my son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids for a bit before the conference, but I could have done that for a lot less than the conference cost.

Other times I’ve beento OOPSLA, I found it almost impossible to see everything. There was no down time with interesting sessions all day, every day. If I took a tutorial, I found myself missing some really interesting session or panel. I felt like a kid in a candy store—too much to get and not enough time. This time there was more down time than up time.

The tutorials were not bad, but they were very poorly attended from what I could tell. I’m not sure if any of them were full. The printouts for the Erlang tutorial  never got published so we had to get the slides from a USB stick they passed around. This was not a big loss.

I went to some of the workshops. They were okay. Not as high quality as ones I remember. Some were canceled due to lack of interest. Many of them were, in my opinion, quite off the mark of what OOPSLA is about. Some of these were not actually part of OOPSLA, but part of collocated Onward! conference. In fact there were six collocated conferences. WIth about 800 attendees, this comes out to about 130 per conference if they were equally distributed, but that is, of course, not the case. Still, it was quite a low turnout.

The keynote and other invited speakers were high quality. At least that hasn’t changed. Barbara Liskov treated us to a repeat of her Turing Award speech. She has had a tremendous career (thus far) and took us through some of her accomplishments and how they came about. Jeanette Wing talked about opportunities for research funding through the NSF.

I was most impressed with Dr. Liskov and the way she graciously responded to, what I consider, extremely rude behavior. After her talk was the usual Q&A. Most people came up and congratulated her or asked for some advice or insight—Guy Steele even asked her if she had some crumbs to throw his way on a problem that’s perplexing him—but there were the handful of others who I found to be embarrassing. They had no question but only wanted to tell the audience and Dr. Liskov how they have a better solution to what she had done or how she made a mistake in her presentation (when, in fact, they didn’t pay attention to what she said).

Now, these are really smart people, but they seem to lack common courtesy. I don’t know if this comes from some deep-seated insecurity or a superiority complex. I do know that given the opportunity to study from them or collaborate with them, I’d probably decline. Some folks, many of whom I worked with in industry, acted like this. Some organizations value this in your face approach to getting things done. They like to put people together and let them fight it out (sometimes literally) and then whoever is left standing at the end is the one whose idea gets adopted. This is very different from the collaborative and supportive approaches that are popular today, especially with the Agile community. While I don’t agree with everything in the Agile community, I think their emphasis on collaboration instead of confrontation is extremely important if we want people to develop to their potential.

I did leave before the last day of the conference. Perhaps it was the best day, but I don’t think so. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be attending OOPSLA for a long time, if it’s still in existence a few years from now. It’s very sad to see a conference that used to be the gold standard lose its glitter.