This article was written in collaboration with Kairsten Fay, a rotational software engineer at Meta.
Conferences play a major role in the growth and development of any technologist. They are the place where you meet like-minded individuals, learn from each other, identify and adopt emerging technology and grow holistically as an engineer. All Things Open (ATO) is one of the largest open source conferences in North America, and it offers a unique opportunity to meet developers from all over the world that are working on open source technologies. With 90% of IT leaders using enterprise open source today, ATO is a conference you don’t want to miss.
ATO is a polyglot technology conference focusing on the tools, processes and people who make open source possible. It takes place in Raleigh, North Carolina and offers a mix of keynote speakers, sessions and workshops on a variety of topics related to “open source, open tech, and the open web.” The conference not only provides an opportunity to learn about current innovation happening in the open source technology space, but it also creates an environment for people to network and get to know each other.
With over 4000 registrations and representatives from over 85 countries, ATO provides a three-day opportunity to meet some of the top technology companies in the world and to learn about their contributions to open source, the projects they build and work on and how so many companies work together in collaboration, forming the essence of open source. This conference has a lot to offer, from keynotes, to panel discussions, to sessions, hallway discussions, and socials that give everyone a chance to know the people behind these amazing open source projects that many of us use in our daily lives.
After almost 2 years of shelter-in-place, ATO 2021 was a bit of a social experiment. It was one of the first conferences to happen in person since the onset of the pandemic. ATO 2021 adapted to create a hybrid event where every keynote and talk was live streamed and recorded. With about 10% of registered folks arriving in person, and a mix of both virtual and in-person speakers, the hybrid nature did not cause the conference to lose its essence. In fact, our spirits were lifted when we saw how the world could still come together to make this event not just possible, but a huge success.
That said, there were a lot of visible accommodations to allow for social distancing and safety while attending the event in person. Masks were required, and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test was strictly enforced at the entrance. Room capacities were reduced by placing chairs 6 feet apart from each other, forming a grid.
Quiet conversations unfolded as we waited in the boarding room for the conference to begin. Starbucks cups dotted the room, and the smell of coffee lingered. Large banners featuring astronauts on the moon shaped the event’s space theme. Red stage lights illuminated every speaker, beginning with Todd Lewis, the ATO conference chair and lead organizer.
Todd thanked and welcomed us. He maintained that this year’s event would still consist of multiple tracks such as Infrastructure, Developer, Data, 101s across different technologies, Case Studies and many more. The highly structured conference had a custom mobile event app with a scheduling tool and conference details. This year they also gamified the experience to encourage people to strike up conversations at the vendor and sponsor booths.
Todd encouraged us to attend talks but also expressed that the “biggest magic of any in-person event happens in the hallway.” Personal friendships, working relationships, and “putting a real face to the hashtags and emojis you’ve been seeing” are invaluable and the core of why ATO chose to host an in-person conference when most others were still fully virtual.
The in-person attendees were as diverse as the talks. College students from NC State University were out in full force, easily identifiable by their school swag. Also in attendance were numerous veterans of the tech field who have been programming since the 1980s. There were also the young, bright, programmers and developer advocates eager to share their learnings, engage with the community, and build a brand for themselves or their companies. Last but not least were the vendors and sponsors. Marketers, engineers, and even C-level employees from small startups and large enterprise software companies such as IBM and RedHat alike comprised a sizable section of in-person attendees.
Our mission at Meta Open Source is to empower diverse communities through open source technology. We were thrilled that the first part of ATO was a single-track, half-day event dedicated to a vital topic in the open source community: diversity and inclusion.
Mason Egger gave a delightful talk introducing people to a gender neutral greeting ubiquitous in the southern United States,“y’all” and followed up with both useful and hilarious ways to incorporate it in daily speech. Two members of RedHat’s Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity (B.U.I.L.D.) ERG, Koren Townsend and Clarence Clayton, illustrated the diversity of backgrounds of people in tech. They refuted the notion that a lack of a computer science degree should hold one back, and they welcomed people of all disciplines to begin their own career journey. DeeDee Lavinder implored moderators to build inclusion in the meetings they hold, exploring ways to break down psychological barriers preventing attendees from participating. DeeDee also encouraged meeting attendees to “interrupt the interrupters'' and to ask for a meeting agenda in advance, following the mantra, “No agenda, no attenda.”
The schedule concluded with a moderated panel discussion. The women on the panel, acknowledging common workplace biases, emboldened other women to lean in and not let anyone take them away from their highly technical roles to place them in roles favoring softer skills. Panelists also encouraged people in their careers to not be prescriptive about their intended track, but to be open to new opportunities.
Following the sessions was an outdoor social event which gave everyone a chance to get to know each other in a more casual setting and generate excitement for the upcoming two days.
This was the first day of ATO keynotes, traditional programming sessions and the day when both of Meta’s speakers had their talks. Due to the multiple tracks, there were many awesome sessions that were running at once, making it difficult to choose “the one” to attend. The day concluded with a RIoT IoT Demo Night. This event, in collaboration with RIoT, consisted of speaker sessions and demos where we could go around and watch some cool demos, and visit the booths. ATO registration was not required to attend this event. The event also consisted of a social where we could get some light food and refreshments.
This day consisted of keynotes and sessions that covered topics ranging from diversity and inclusion and building communities to discussing how to use GraphQL, React or Kubernetes in your applications. Demeris Cheatham’s talk on how we can open source diversity and inclusion mentioned how we can help provide access to open source software for people from underrepresented groups to create a more open and collaborative environment for everyone. Adam Steltzer, in his delightful keynote, explained how he and his team overcame so many obstacles, describing the challenges and the leadership struggles they faced and despite all the uncertainty, how they successfully landed their rover on Mars.
This was the second day for the keynotes, traditional programming sessions and talks. It got off to a slightly later, 10AM start, undoubtedly founded in wisdom considering the amount of socializing happening late into the previous night. We both opted for the “hallway track” on this day. Choosing not to attend most talks other than the keynotes, we spoke to all of the roughly 40 vendors at the conference. For the first time in its 9 years of running, ATO gamified the hallway track with prize incentives like a new MacBook Pro or Linux machine. To compete, one collected points on the mobile app by talking to vendors. While neither of us won any of the prizes, the encouragement alone to chat with every single vendor was a gift in its own way. Playing the game undoubtedly nudged people into discussions they might not otherwise have initiated.
The vendors and sponsors were kind enough to explain what their project or company does, show us demos and even distribute swag. We both spent a lot of time on this day talking to people and just getting to know more about what they do. We learned about open source software companies tackling complex technical problems we didn’t even know existed, like how TuxCare is patching Linux servers with no downtime. We were most surprised by the presence of nonprofits like IEEE and Oasis Open who work in standards setting, and RIoT, a 503(c) startup accelerator and R&D lab that offers educational programs and more.
We also encountered some familiar faces at the booth of Major League Hacking (MLH), a B-Corp and one of Meta’s partners. MLH quickly became widely known for hosting university hackathons, and we’ve since been collaborating with MLH on a 12-week, production engineering apprenticeship for aspiring software engineers to learn industry critical skills.
Apart from the keynotes, sessions and the hallway tracks, the conference also had compelling events such as book signing, a dedicated speaker lounge where speakers could retreat between talks, sessions to relax or prepare for the next sessions and even a dry erase job board, where companies and individuals were free to write about the roles they were hiring for and what sessions or booths you could find them at. It’s also worth mentioning the amazing creativity with which every booth thought about their design and the swag they had to offer.
We were pleased to see the conference organizers enforce a culture of inclusion. From the diverse arrangement of speakers from big names like Microsoft and RedHat, to swag with pride flags distributed by companies like GitLab, the message that “everyone is welcome in tech” was clear.
For those inspired to get involved, Rizel Scarlett, in her keynote, “Overcoming the Fear of Contributing to Open Source”, suggested searching for Hacktoberfest projects on GitHub. While Hacktoberfest is now over this year, there are still a multitude of open source projects looking for first time contributors. She specifically recommended First Timers Only for getting started with open source.
We left asking ourselves, “Whose voice can we elevate?” After ATO’s sessions, we all had a few extra tools in our pockets, from how to build inclusion in meetings, to how to make open source more approachable, to Ali Spittel’s tips on how to become a better teacher from her keynote, “Those Who Can Should Also Teach.” We also walked away with a deeper understanding of the tech industry’s diversity pipeline problem and how it relates to the geographies from which companies are recruiting.
Overall, the 2.5 days of intense socializing felt like the perfect length for a conference, especially after having spent so much of the past two years apart.
A quick summary of this year’s event, along with recordings for the keynotes and photos from the event can be found here. The slides from the conference can also be found on their Slideshare account. To learn more about All Things Open, and to view some of the recorded sessions, visit their YouTube channel and follow them on Twitter.
ATO was an amazing conference, offering a delightful mix of keynote speakers, sessions and workshops on a large variety of topics related to open source technologies. The conference not only focused on open source technologies, but also the communities that make these projects possible. This is evident in their excellent line-up of speakers from various fields of open source software, with topics ranging from diversity in open source and how to build a community, to case studies and demos that show how we use the cutting edge technology that open source has to offer and collectively make bigger strides towards a better world.
We would like to thank the organizers of ATO for organizing this remarkable conference which offers a wonderful mix of thoughtfully curated keynotes, sessions, programming and panels, along with a fun and educational hallway track where people can network and get inspired by the amazing work that all the companies have been doing in the open source space.