by Ben Nadel
As my train pulled away from New York's Penn station, the butterflies in my stomach began to settle down; I had gotten on the correct train with the correct ticket headed for the correct city. My destination: CFUnited, the world's premier ColdFusion conference. This year, not only did I attend the conference for the first time, I was charged with the task of reviewing my experience. And, what better place is there to start, as they say, then at the beginning.
When I got on that train, I was nervous about so many things – about traveling, that I wouldn't make friends, that people at the conference wouldn't like me. I was nervous that my clothes would be too tight or that I might sweat too much. I was nervous that I would get lost going from Union Station to the Bethesda Marriot. But I think, more than anything, I was nervous that CFUnited would not live up to the image I had in my head.
CFUnited is more to me than just a ColdFusion conference; it's a milestone in my ColdFusion career. While I've known about CFUnited for years, I've always been reluctant to attend. In the past, I've scoffed that it was too expensive or that I didn't have time to set aside or that it was simply too far away. The truth is, I've always viewed this conference as being reserved for "real" ColdFusion programmers. This was no place for an amateur like me. This was a ticket that I'd have to earn.
With my years of hard work and diligent self-education constantly being underscored by this feeling of self-doubt, CFUnited slowly became a symbol of success. I'd think to myself,
When I've made it, I'll be there. When I'm at the top of my game, at the right job, doing the right work, of course I'll attend CFUnited. When I've earned it, everything will just fall into place. Before I knew it, CFUnited had become my Shangri-La; it had become my "Good Life."
The problem with this kind of self-doubt is that the more you work to eradicate it, the farther away your finish line seems to be. When what you do has no influence on how you feel about yourself, what you do ceases to matter, and no success can be had.
And then, a little over a year ago, I started my personal blog, Kinky Solutions: A Student's Perspective. Through it, I was hoping to create a platform on which I could methodically explore new coding techniques while sharing my joy and passion for ColdFusion and web development. What was meant to be a continuous journey of self-education very quickly became something much more important – a reality check.
Whereas in the past, feelings of self-doubt could run unchecked by reality, suddenly these feelings had to compete with the power of written word and the reflective nature of public reaction. With every completed experiment, I felt more healthy. With every "Ask Ben" question answered, the feelings of self-doubt became more and more overpowered by the sheer joy of the pursuit of knowledge. In a short time, my blog had completely transformed the way I approached learning; what was once tainted by deep feelings of inadequacy was now super-charged by a pure love and respect for information and understanding.
With this new mentality came new feelings of entitlement. Suddenly, having a strong desire to learn entitled me to take advantage of every learning opportunity that presented itself. No longer did I have to prove myself worthy before attending a conference like CFUNITED. The new me, the healthy me, understands that CFUnited is there for everyone who wants to learn - it's not just there for those who have already learned everything.
So there I was, sitting on the DC-bound train, healthy in mind and spirit, but finding myself nervous. I felt like I was about to have dinner with a woman over whom I've fantasized for far too many years. Her high pedestal has been replaced with feelings of unease. What if she's not as pretty in person? What if she doesn't like the things that I like? What if she's not "The One"? What if CFUnited was not everything I've built it up to be? I was nervous that a previously unhealthy outlook had already set me up for failure.
Describe an orgasm without using the feelings of any physical sensation. This was a question posed to me as an in-class assignment for my Love and Sexuality course. I remember what a frustrating experience it was to feel so strongly about something and yet, to be completely unable to describe it at anything but its fundamental level. Having to tell you about my CFUnited experience, I find myself in a somewhat similar situation. I'd love to tell you that CFUnited feels like being shot naked out of a pink Champagne bottle (an answer one student volunteered for the question above), but I doubt that would be very helpful. As such, the best that I can do is break the conference down to its fundamental parts and let you form your own vision.
Walking into the conference hall was like finding myself suddenly in front a Mann's Chinese Theatre movie premier – celebrities everywhere! I don't think you could hurl a laptop without braining at least three Gurus. Ben Forta, Ray Camden, Sean Corfield, Hal Helms, Charlie Arehart, Sandra Clark, Joe Rinehart, Michael Dinowitz, Peter Bell, Mark Drew -- and that's just the beginning. It seemed like anyone who had ever written a book, taught a class, developed a Framework, or spoke as a conference was there in the same building, walking among us. It was crazy and nerve racking and highly intimidating.
But, after a few minutes, I realized that I wasn't just staring at these people wide-eyed, but actually having conversations with them. And these conversations were easy and two-way and these celebrities – for lack of a better word — were enthusiastic about what I was saying. I found out that they're just great people who happen to love ColdFusion, the same as I do.
Now, I've always been a huge believer that the ColdFusion community is the best, most caring and helpful community out there, but experiences like CFUnited really drive that feeling home. Not only are the Gurus out there talking to you, everyone is out there talking to you. Sit down at a table of people you've never met before and you'll find yourself among friends; you'll find yourself with people that are genuinely interested in who you are and where you work and what you're looking forward to in ColdFusion 8.
One of the most refreshing things about being among these people was that they were all so very much into ColdFusion. When I was sitting on the bus headed to the special event at the National Zoo, I took a moment to just sit quietly and listen to what everyone else around me was saying. The people behind me were talking about database transfer techniques. The people next to me were talking about using RDS in CFEclipse. The people in front of me where talking about the design patterns session they had recently attending. In fact, everyone on the bus was buzzing about ColdFusion or some related aspect of web development.
Having come from an environment where it can be awkward to start a conversation about ColdFusion, it was almost like a fantasy dream to finally be in a situation where it felt awkward to start a conversation that was not about ColdFusion. It reminded me of that scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich crawls into his own subconscious, only to be surrounded by 100 copies of himself. Outside of CFUnited, there are so few people that I can talk to about this stuff. At CFUnited, I felt like I could talk to anybody about how exciting ColdFusion was. I'm not sure I can even get across to you how freeing that felt, but I?m sure that many of you will understand.
In addition to feeling so free, I also felt quite accepted. Before I left New York, I had posted a blog entry asking people to come up and say Hi so that I wouldn't feel so out of place being at CFUnited for the first time. I didn't expect much to come of it, but I can't tell you how many people actually came up to me to introduce themselves, specifically wanting to make sure that I was doing OK, that I felt welcome and that I was having a good time. It was so touching that people I had never met before actually cared to come up and see how I was doing. It was very nice, but of course, it wasn't that surprising; anyone who has spent as much time dealing with the ColdFusion community as I have and seeing the quality of people that it encompasses would not only expect that kind of reception, but would be surprised if it had, in fact, not happened.
While this was my first time dealing with many of the people there, this was my second time attending a TeraTech ColdFusion conference. My first experience with them was at the CFUNITED Express held in New York City a few months ago. The Express was much, much smaller but it was an excellent event. It was nice to see that TeraTech's outstanding and professional level of presentation scales to handle a conference as large as CFUnited. With the exception of some audio/visual glitches, everything was run so smoothly and so efficiently. Michael Smith, Liz Frederick, and the rest of the CFUnited conference team did quite an incredible job.
And the food! The food was so good it gets its own special mention. In the morning, they put out some fruit and snacks, nothing very special – maybe even a little bit lacking. But the lunch was extremely tasty and somehow it kept getting better each day. Chicken, steak, potatoes, bread, fish, soups, dessert. Lots of dessert. Lots of very tasty, delicious dessert. In fact, I think I ate better at the conference than I do when I'm in the office.
Ok, but enough about the conference environment; let's talk about education and sessions. I have mixed feelings about the sessions. I certainly came out of every single session with new ideas and new inspiration for code and blog entries. But, at the same time, I felt like some of them fell a bit short. I understand that the conference is catering to hundreds of people at many different skill levels, so the sessions can't be too esoteric. I also understand that my skill level may be a bit more advanced in some areas, so that information that was familiar to me would still be providing Eureka-type moments for others in the audience.
In the end, my expectations for the sessions were not appropriate. I went in thinking that the conference was going to be like taking classes in school, but in retrospect, these sessions were not meant to be classes, and perhaps the classroom environment cannot be achieved at a conference. In the end, the sessions were more about inspiration and the introduction of new ideas than anything else. Did I learn a ton in the sessions? More no than yes. Was I inspired to then go out and learn a ton more about the topics covered in the sessions? Absolutely!
Ironically, the most valuable sessions for me were the ones that were less about programming and more about interfaces and usability. Sandra Clark?s "CSS Back To Basics" and HotBanana?s "What Search Engines Want – A Developer?s Guide," provided me with the most "ooh-ahh" moments and precipitated the most hand-raising.
This just goes to show that conferences like CFUnited are really all about the introduction of new ideas and less so about the mastering of existing skills. The usability and accessibility topics grabbed me because those are some of my weaker areas. Likewise, the object-oriented programming and framework sessions were also very good because these are two aspects of programming that I?m finding very difficult to understand, let alone master.
The serious flaw with my session choice was that it catered to my strengths and not so much to my weaknesses. Instead of selecting "Using Structures With CFCs," which I understand quite well, I should have chosen "Leveraging ColdSpring To Build A Robust Flex Application," about which I know almost nothing. Instead of choosing "Hands-on Regular Expressions," which I both know and love dearly, I should have chosen "Are You Cashing-In On Caching," which would definitely have helped me improve my application efficiency.
If I had one piece of advice to give those thinking about going to CFUnited for the first time (other than book now – what the heck are you waiting for?), it would have to be: Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Don?t pick topics that sound very familiar; those are the things you already know. Find topics that sound completely foreign and scary. Those are the topics that are going to expand your horizons and make you a more valuable developer.
I went down to CFUnited nervous that it was going to disappoint me. I left CFUnited ready to pre-register for next year's conference. I can't quite explain my overall feelings about the conference, other than to say that they are very positive, so I hope that my descriptions above will help you see what it is that I am seeing. If nothing else, I hope that my words will encourage you to take that leap, if you have not already, and come check out CFUnited for the first time. If you love ColdFusion, I can guarantee that it is not an experience you'll regret.
The "boy with the spear" is a reference to Ben Nadel's article on CFUnited Express NYC, which you can read at http://www.fusionauthority.com/community/4668-cfunited-express-nyc-march-8-2007.htm.
Ben Nadel has worked with ColdFusion for eight years and is a super ColdFusion enthusiast. He blogs regularly about all aspects of web development on his personal site, http://www.bennadel.com, and does his best to give back to the ColdFusion community through online code demos and his "Ask Ben" blog posts. He is also a Certified Advanced ColdFusion MX7 developer and is one of the lead programmers at Nylon Technology.