Last month I attended the AWS re:Invent conference for the first time, graciously sent (and paid for) by my employer. This was not only my first time at re:Invent but also my first national tech conference and the first conference of any sort that I’ve been to in about eight years (aside from the very small 8-hour AWS Summit Atlanta earlier this year). It was quite an experience, and one that I definitely want to do again albeit with some changes based on experience. Overall I had a wonderful time both with the conference itself and the whole re:Invent experience. I decided that it’s better late than never to share some of my highlights as well as some of my notes for the next time (hopefully) I attend.
Before I dive into my experience and what I plan on doing differently in the future I’d like to make a few comments about conferences in general and re:Invent specifically. I’m very lucky (as are many of my colleagues) that my current employer as a strong and well-established relationship with AWS and sees the value in sending employees to re:Invent. This was my first employer-sponsored conference trip in my career, and many places I’ve worked would never have given me time off for a week-long conference let alone paid for it. In the past I was unable to travel much because of family limitations, and while I was offered a slot to go to re:Invent last year, at the time I was unable to take on the financial burden of paying out of pocket for everything but the actual conference fee, and waiting for reimbursement. I understand that annual national (or international) conferences make lots of logistical sense and there are few venues large enough for something the scale of re:Invent, I do think it would put the full conference experience within reach of more people if fewer conferences were West-coast-biased in location. It’s not terribly easy to admit publicly that I couldn’t go to re:Invent last year because I couldn’t pay out of pocket for it. But it does really make me reflect on how many people in our industry could benefit so much from the learning and networking that conferences provide but simply can’t handle either a week away from family obligations or thousands of dollars out of pocket. I think we can do much better.
As an aside to those who can’t afford or get approval to travel to a week-long conference: AWS does a great job of live-streaming some events and posting many of the talks on YouTube, as do many other conference sponsors. At previous jobs I’ve cut deals with my boss identify 16 or 24 hours of talks that I was really interested in, and take two or three days “off” of work (no email, no chat, no work) to dedicate to watching the sessions. It’s certainly not the full conference experience, but it can be a happy middle ground for people who want the educational content without a billable cost to your employer.
Overall I found the sessions that I signed up for to be rather hit-or-miss. I’d gotten reserved seating for four or five sessions and waitlisted for a bunch more (and when they removed the waitlisted sessions from schedules the week before, it caused some panic for myself and a good number of my colleagues). Part of my less-than-optimal experience was my own fault for scheduling the way I did; on a number of occasions sessions I’d been waitlisted for filled up before I could get in, and I didn’t have a decent second choice within a reasonable distance (just because they’re in the same venue doesn’t mean you can make it in a few minutes). I attended two sessions that were given primarily by vendors and found the content to be very different (and much less technical) from the other sessions. One, given by a large consulting firm, was a 300-level session in the DEV track on a specific AWS offering but had virtually no technical information - it was essentially a discussion of the business problem this consulting company solved and a demo of their final solution. Furthermore, I found the numbering scheme for the sessions (200-level Introductory, 300-level Advanced, 400-level Expert) to be rather pessimistic. I suppose they don’t want to present content that’s aimed at too small an audience, but don’t think I’ve ever called myself an “expert” in anything (that I didn’t write myself) and I found most of the 400-levels to be less challenging/in-depth than I’d hoped.
Among the sessions I attended there were two that really stood out: NET-404 Elastic Load Balancing: Deep Dive and Best Practices (slides and recording) and SEC-330 Automating Compliance Certification with Automated Mathematical Proof. The former provides quite a bit of information on new features in ALBs and NLBs, some of the existing features that aren’t as immediately clear (especially ALBs compared to Classic ELBs), and in-depth information on how Netflix is leveraging Authentication on ALBs. The latter was a chalk talk on automated mathematical proof for security audits, mentioning Amazon’s own Zelkova and Tiros as well as the open-source Checker Framework.
I didn’t have a whole lot of information about the NPO Hackathon for Social Good ahead of time, but it was at the top of my list and the first session I registered for. The description from the re:Invent website reads:
Welcome to the sixth annual re:Invent NPO Hackathon for Social Good, sponsored by Accenture. This year, we’ve teamed up with Compassion International, GameChanger Charity, Girls Who Code, and Goodwill Industries International to identify specific challenges facing each of the non-profits today. If you’re passionate about applying your coding skills for social good, come join us in Las Vegas to make new friends, learn new skills, and build functioning prototypes to address those challenges. At the end of the hackathon, all teams will present their demos to a panel of judges for a chance to win prizes. In past years, these winning solutions have often been put into production by the non-profits. Open to all AWS skill levels. Please bring your laptop!
Schedule of events:
Nov. 26 – NPO Hackathon Mixer (6–9PM): Get to know your fellow hackathon participants over food, drinks, and games and form your teams during the NPO Hackathon Mixer at Level Up in the MGM Grand, adjacent to Hakkasan. Confirmation of your reserved seat at the NPO Hackathon is required to gain entry.
Nov. 27 – NPO Hackathon @ MGM Grand Studio Ballroom: Doors open at 8AM, and the challenges are unveiled at 9AM. Teams will present their demos at 10PM with winners announced and prizes awarded at midnight. Throughout the day, we will have food, snacks, and drinks, plus Nintendo Switch gaming stations with Mario Kart.
I knew from some cursory research online that at least a few companies sent teams to the event that had even “trained” (with mock time-boxed sample scenarios) ahead of time. So I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into, but it sounded like a lot of fun and a decent challenge; and, more important to me, a challenge in terms of team work and organization as well as technology.
While my team didn’t win or rank in the top four, I had an absolutely wonderful time - very fun, challenging, and a good chance to work under pressure with a few relative strangers. One other person from my company attended the event, so we managed to build the required team of five with three people from another company. At the team-forming mixer the night before a couple of things became really clear (aside from if you have nothing better to do, show up way early and get to know some cool AWS people): some of the people/teams were taking this very seriously, and the UI and product roles were going to be by far the hardest to fill. Teams were supposed to be composed of five distinct roles: DevOps, back-end development, front-end development, architecture, and product management, with each member self-identifying for a role. I’d say the crowd at the team-forming event as probably about 85% DevOps, back-end development, and architecture, with DevOps making up the bulk of the group. As such, teams formed ahead of time with all five roles (I imagine based on previous experience) had a big advantage beyond just the established working relationship.
The general format of the actual Hackathon day was: everyone show up by 9am when the four non-profits present their business problems, teams select a non-profit and start coding at 10am, finish coding (submit everything online) at 10pm and present your solution to the non-profit your team chose, and awards were given out somewhere around midnight. By far the biggest surprise to me was that evaluation of each team’s solution was based entirely on the presentation and demo to the non-profit - and the team’s understanding of the business problem - with really no technical evaluation at all. If we’d known that ahead of time, we would have managed our time very differently and put much less polish on our never-seen code.
A few other things come to mind that I’d do differently in the future:
- It’s a LONG day: I got there at 8am and decided to stay until the grand prize was awarded around 12:30am the next morning. Be well-rested, and don’t take too much advantage of the very-well-appointed open bar at the mixer the night before.
- Have some common building blocks for different architectural patterns ready to go. I spent quite a bit of time piecing together terraform for things that I both could have foreseen ahead of time, and could probably have been done faster without the terraform.
- Have a dedicated AWS account ready to go for the event. Everyone on the team was given AWS promotional credits to cover the cost of pretty much any conceivable one-day solution, but it took me two hours the next morning to clean up everything that was created in the account our team used.
- Teams should probably elect a leader or manager to ensure that everyone stays on task and coordinate work. We had a few instances where miscommunication led to team members doing duplicate or conflicting work.
- Reassess your plan and progress often, and adjust as necessary.
- Have fun! And know that if you want a strong shot for the win, you should probably form a team and prepare ahead of time.
Overall the Hackathon was a wonderful experience, and for great causes too! I imagine that encountering some really well-prepared pre-formed teams would be a letdown for people who showed up solo and hoped for a shot at the win, but everyone on my team was just there for the experience and excitement with no real competitive need to win, and I think we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I’m deeply grateful to Justin Stanley and the rest of the NPO Solutions Architects and AWS folks who worked so hard (and such long hours) to make it happen. The back of my head is even Internet-famous for about two frames of the 24-second video of the event!
I won’t spend too much time on this, but the expo was gigantic. If you want to get a chance to see every vendor and come home with a massive pile of guilt-inducing swag (which I dutifully shared with my colleagues who didn’t attend, of course), plan a good four hours. I came home with an enormous pile of t-shirts, socks (really popular this year), and other normal swag, as well as a few unusually cool things. I hadn’t planned any time for the expo but wandered in after I missed a waitlisted session in the same building. The time certainly wasn’t just about swag, as I got to catch up with a few vendor folks that I know and formed a few new relationships with some of the vendors. I would highly recommend using a dedicated/throwaway email and phone number for registration though; I’ve had to be brutally honest with quite a few salespeople in the past few weeks that I just wanted a shirt.
A few notes/thoughts for next time I go, or anyone who’s interested in a bit of advice:
- Many thanks to one of my co-workers, Ed, who advised me to bring chapstik and a water bottle. Both were life savers. I’d forgotten how dry the desert air is.
- Really good, comfortable walking shoes. I do a lot of hiking, but not being a city person, I easily forget how tough the pavement/concrete is on feet (I walked 23 miles over the 5 days in Vegas).
- Bring a lightweight jacket that packs easily in whatever bag you have. I’m able to strap my jacket in to the flap on my laptop bag, but I underestimated how heavy it would seem after 8-plus hours.
- Use the lightest bag/backpack that you can with absolutely minimal contents. I used my giant carryon-size laptop bag the whole week and was too lazy to remove all of the crap I keep in it, but paid for this (especially when I ventured to the expo).
- Popular sessions had long lines. If you’re waitlisted, make alternate plans as close as possible (i.e. you might not make your second choice if it’s on the other side of the same venue).
- Take the “one venue per day” advice seriously, unless you plan a long interval in between (lunch). I consistently walked between venues in 40-60% of the recommended time (as expected) but lost the difference once inside the building trying to find the right room in a very crowded venue.
- The session levels (100-400) are, at best, an average for the 40,000 attendees. Don’t expect every 400-level to be “expert” content.
- Pay close attention to the session description and speakers; I got little value from vendor/partner sessions, but a lot from people on a product team or tech folks at companies that make heavy use of a service.
- The Hackathon is a very long, intensive day. It was a blast, but plan something light the next day. I’d signed up for Game Day the next afternoon and ended up skipping it because I was too tired and burnt out.
- Set aside some time for doing the expo. There’s a LOT, and vendors I was actually interested in talking to are few and far between.
- Set aside some time for networking. I wish I’d done more of this in informal settings. Honestly I wish I’d had less of a focus on the sessions & organized events, and more on talking with people doing similar work and facing similar challenges.
Finally, and most importantly, set aside some time for yourself. Especially if you’re not used to such long, busy, active days, or you’re not a big fan of giant crowds, make sure you have time in your schedule to decompress. This was doubly important for me since I was just getting over being sick for two months, and by midday I was really starting to drag. re:Invent provided quiet/meditation rooms in most of the venues, but don’t be embarrassed to go back to your room for a midday nap; I know a lot of people who did at least a few times.