by Judith Dinowitz, Master Editor-in-Chief
With the announcement that CFUNITED 2010 (http://www.cfunited.com) is the last one, there has been a lot of talk in the community about why. We figured that an interview with Michael Smith (head of TeraTech and longtime organizer of the CFUNITED event) and Charlie Arehart (keynote speaker at this year's conference and with Michael a presenter at each event since its founding) would shed some light on the subject. So here it is: The inside scoop on CFUNITED.
Michael, you recently announced that CFUNITED 2010 would be the last CFUNITED. There's been a lot of speculation as to why... What made you decide not to continue the conference?
It lost a lot of money last year and I haven't made it up this year. So I just can't continue to do it.
Last year we had the recession and although a lot of people wanted to come, their companies would not let them travel and they had restricted training. I think that affected a lot of conferences; CFUnited was no exception.
Do you have anything to add to that, Charlie?
We should also recognize that changes in technology are making online meetings less expensive. We haven't seen online conferences much yet in the ColdFusion community (though Adobe's done some daylong sessions), but in other programming/tech communities you do see such online conferences, and perhaps managers may see that and are less willing to spend the money on travel.
Some may know I also run the weekly online ColdFusion Meetup (coldfusionmeetup.com). I hope folks don't misunderstand me. I'm not inferring that the CFMeetup might have had anything to do with the demise of CFUNITED. It's not really a
"conference". And I'll add that while some of the speakers who speak at CFUNITED (and other conferences) have spoken at the CFMeetup, really most have not. I'd say that only about 10% of conference topics end up on the meetup, so we're not cannibalizing them.
What are the benefits of an offline conference vs. an online conference?
Well, clearly online conferences can be less expensive, for both the attendees (no travel) and the organizers (no physical space). I'm definitely not saying that online conferences are more valuable. Traditional in-person conferences are certainly valuable for all the networking that goes on, for the chance encounters that happen, etc.
For example, perhaps we wouldn't have had the Adobe ColdFusion Anthology if we hadn't met Steve Anglin from Apress at MAX 2008.
There you go.
Online it tends to be a broadcast kind of thing; you don't bump into people in the corridor. It is harder to get the speaker's attention online. I find that at a physical event, there's more interaction and I tend to meet more people that way. When I meet someone I knew by email in person, it takes it to a whole new level.
And there's also typically more interactivity in the sessions themselves. With online sessions, some presenters and attendees may feel that the available chat pod isn't enough.
Charlie, as a longtime presenter at CFUNITED, can you share some of your feelings about the conference?
Well, I'm disappointed to see it go, of course, because I've been there for every one; indeed, like Michael I've presented at every CFUNITED since the first. It's always been a great gathering for CF'ers. At first, it was just a single day in a single room with just one track. It mostly drew people from the greater Washington D.C. area, but then it grew and drew people regionally and beyond, to being a major national and even international conference. Anyway, it's going to be like we're losing an annual reunion, beyond the loss of the technical content.
Michael, what can you tell us about this year's CFUNITED? What can attendees look forward to?
We have a lot of great speakers, all-day sessions, Adobe, of course, and people from many other companies coming. There is a lot of stuff on ColdFusion, on databases, on Flex and AIR, a lot of experience on how to use these technologies.
You're talking about hands-on experience?
Yes. Many of the speakers are talking about their hands-on experience using the technologies. The things you can not find in books. The gotchas and special workarounds. The real skinny on what works and what doesn't. Also we have two networking events — receptions on Wednesday night and Thursday. There are three bars and restaurants at the event hotel plus many others nearby and people gravitate to these places after hours.
Are these after-hours parties very valuable?
I'd say so. There's a chance to talk to someone in person that you've met online. New connections are made, friendships formed, hard problems solved.
They're always welcomed. I mean, sure, year-to-year sometimes the after-hours reception party may be hit or miss (at any conference) but usually they're great opportunities to meet people. Those, and just time at bars and restaurants is simply a lot looser, friendlier, and fun.
I also want to express appreciation for the speakers we have. They're very open to talking to people. At some events, speakers may not be as willing to sit down and talk when they're not in session. But I haven't found that to be the case in the ColdFusion community.
Amen to the community. That's why I'll be doing the keynote on that very subject. It will be on celebrating the CF community, ways in which people help each other out, highlighting resources. Some people did only come to that conference, so they may not know about others, or about other resources that are there for them in the community.
Do you find that a lot of people just don't know?
Well, I think so, yes. I interact with lots of people, whether on mailing lists, on the CFMeetup, at other events, and especially in my consulting practice (CF server troubleshooting). I find that a lot of CF developers out there really are just doing their job, heads down, and don't know about things like the CFMeetup, or don't get to attend multiple conferences, or may not even know about a local user group in their own town. It's a real shame. People need to be reminded for sure. It makes this, the final keynote, poignant but also hopeful in sending people out to take advantage of this great community we have.
Charlie, do you see other conferences coming to fill the void?
Well, there are of course already other CF conferences existing, sometimes each filling different niches (experience level, region, focus, cost). I think the demand will flow to the other conferences. More regional ones were already popping up on a smaller scale, more local ones that are more focused on specific niches, to counter the costs of travel. By being intentionally small, they can also limit expenses That kind of thing has been happening in other technologies. For instance, SQL Saturdays are frequent one-day events organized by volunteers, offered for free, and announced on a central site (sqlsaturday.com). We haven't yet seen something like that in the CF community.
[Editor's Note: After the interview, I remembered the Flex Camp and CFDevCamp events...]
Michael, I'm curious. Two years ago you expanded the focus of CFUNITED to cover both Flex and AIR as well. Why did you expand the focus of the conference and do you find it helped or hindered sales?
A lot of ColdFusion developers were looking at Flex and AIR and incorporating that into their applications, and also we wanted to reach out to new people who did Flex and AIR. There's a lot of technology on the database, on the backend, that relates to both ColdFusion and Flex/ AIR integration. Also, we wanted to provide better information for people coming, more overlap. Sometimes we are so focused on the language we do, we don't look at other languages and what we can learn from them.
Do you think it helped your attendance?
We certainly got new people from the Flex community. We reached out to Flex user groups and got a great response. I can definitely say that the Flex topics were well attended. Last year and this year, we had voting on topics, and the Flex and AIR topics were very popular.
There's definitely a need, with a big conference, to meet the needs of a lot of people. Just to be clear, when I said that smaller events were more focused, I didn't mean to suggest that that was necessarily better. Bigger conferences can and do cover both introductory, intermediate and advanced topics. There are different needs, and so many different types of events, often with different focuses.
Consider cf.objective(): it's intentionally oriented towards more advanced developers. Even its name conveys a more object-oriented focus, and there's certainly an audience for whom that's appealing. Still, there are of course lots of people still not quite ready for that, or even for the more mature software engineering approaches often touted. We can wish that more would adopt them, but the fact is that for some, an entire conference that only focused on advanced topics would just not be valuable for them. Different strokes.
So CFUNITED clearly tried to serve a wide audience, regardless of their level of experience. There was always a track or several sessions that would be just right for you. Regardless of need or experience, everybody would learn something new. Now, some might bemoan the existence of introductory tracks/sessions, regarding them as a waste of time/space, but of course one person can't attend every track/session at once anyway, so that seems a bit short-sighted to complain about.
But I think that's partly what made CFUNITED more expensive, having to have so many speakers, a bigger place, etc.
I noticed that with every year, the conferences fees kept growing. Was that because the event was bigger?
We grew. There were eventually few locations where we could hold it at. When we started, it was a free event, in just a single auditorium in a government facility. After 9/11, we could no longer use that, so we started going to hotels. But as the event grew, the number of hotels where we could hold it shrunk from hundreds of options to a handful. The expenses for food are also greater in hotels. Did you know that pay $5 for attendees to drink a can of coke?
It's just shocking (and really is universal to all and conference facilities from my experience, if people didn't realize it.)
Well, but that's how these hotels make their money.
What about scaling back and doing a smaller event, limiting attendance?
Maybe someone else could do that. I think cf.Objective() is running into the same problems. As they've grown, their fees have grown too. Unless you have a free location at a university, or a government place, most of the money goes to the hotel and food.
As I said when I blogged this, if someone else is interested in running CFUNITED in a future year, I'd be open to it. If someone wanted to buy the event and run it well, I'd be happy to consider the offer.
And in that blog entry, Michael also left the door open that if there was a sudden influx of registrants and sponsors, this maybe wouldn't be the last CFUNITED.
For us to do it again, we'd have to make up the money we lost last year and break even or better this year. However it works out, I'm sure the ColdFusion community will thrive. It has nothing to do with how great ColdFusion is. I know Adobe is working on a new release of ColdFusion, scheduled to release next year. All of the things people say are bad about CFML are ridiculous. There are several versions of ColdFusion, including Railo and OpenBD. Plus Adobe has an educational version of ColdFusion that is free.
There are sessions at CFUNITED for everyone. This is partly because we have an open selection process. People suggest topics. We have voting from the public and an advisory board who help us select the topics for the conference. I want to thank the advisory board and the public for helping to select such great topics.
And don't let me forget to thank the great staff we have at TeraTech and now at Stellr who are running this event with high energy and great ideas for improvement ... Cara Beverage and Tara Kossari.
Let's not forget to mention that the early bird price is now on until July 15th. There's still time for people to register for CFUNITED 2010.
That's right. When we announced that this would be the final CFUNITED, we also extended the early bird price until July 15th. If you've been thinking about going for years and you haven't gone, here's your chance. If you've been thinking,
"Oh, I'll go to CFUNITED next year," well, this is the last year. Here's your chance.
Also, you can take advantage of the House of Fusion member discount. Just use the discount code HOFCUST when you register at http://register.cfunited.com/.
Thanks for reminding me to thank Fusion Authority for being involved in CFUNITED over the years. You were there since the very beginning...
That's right. We were very involved in promoting CFUNITED when it was just CFUN, and we've been at almost every conference.
Oh yeah, I remember you guys having a table in the hallway that first year.
It's been a great event over the years. Here's to a great CFUNITED this year! Who knows, maybe you'll get an influx of registrations.
Well, thank you both for taking time out and speaking with us about CFUNITED.
Thank you, Judith. Thanks, Charlie, for taking time out of your busy schedule.
Oh goodness, no problem. See you all at CFUNITED!
Judith Dinowitz is the Master Editor-in-Chief of the House of Fusion magazines and journals, where she enjoys serving up ColdFusion and Flex goodness on a weekly and quarterly basis.