Home Business IT Open Source A peek at the geek heading LCA 2013

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Organising Australia's national Linux conference is hard work. At times, given the vagaries of the climate Down Under, the best laid plans of men go awry and there is double work - as there was in Brisbane 2011, when the floods hit and the event had to be be shifted from one venue to another.


At times, there are unpleasant incidents at the conference which cause friction and leave a bad public impression. With 600-odd people of different types thrown together, it is not the easiest of gigs to manage.

But no organiser I've interviewed - and I've spoken to every one of them since 2008 - ever talks about the sleepless nights and frustrations. They like what they are doing, they do it for the love of it, and most times they come up with a very professional product.

Michael Still (pictured above) is the chief organiser for the 2013 event and has many irons in the fire. Once the conference process gets under way, things keep happening, and take on some kind of life of their own. He has just left a job at Canonical, the company behind the well-known Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, and moved on to Rackspace. And he has never let up his reading. Nevertheless, he took some time out from flitting between cities and family concerns to speak to iTWire.

iTWire: Was the decision to bid for hosting LCA made as a group, or did you decide on your own and then get together a group who supported the idea?

Michael Still: I was on the core team for LCA in 2005, and have wanted to see the conference return to Canberra for a long time. I returned to Canberra in 2009 after living overseas, and had a lot of casual chats with people as part of the process of working out if people were interested in putting together a bid. In the end, though, the final responsibility rested with me.

Originally, there were two individual groups in Canberra interested in bidding for the 2013 conference. In the end we got together and decided to combine our efforts, which has worked out really well.

How long did it take to put together the bid? What were the biggest problems? And what was the easiest thing about it?

The hardest part about the bid process was getting started. Once we got going, it only took about a week to write the bid.

As Linux Australia normally gets just a single bid these days, did that knowledge make it any easier to formulate your bid?

We were aware of at least two other groups who were planning to bid for the 2013 conference at the same time as us, so we certainly felt as though we were up against some stiff competition.

What are the criteria you've laid down to measure the success or otherwise of the conference?

LCA is different things to different people, so "success" of the conference is difficult to measure. When we started the bid process, though, we defined three main criteria for our conference:

A technically deep programme. We had a very large response to our call for proposals, which meant we were able to pick the best and most technical talks.

A safe and diverse conference for all delegates. We take diversity very seriously. We appointed a diversity officer very early on, and we’re putting a lot of effort into ensuring we make the venue as accessible to everyone as we can. This ranges from having a clear Code of Conduct, to making sure that we have t-shirts that suit as many delegates as possible. We have also just announced free childcare at the conference, which a lot of people in the community are very excited about.

A fun and value-for-money conference We’ve worked very hard to keep the ticket cost down this year, while still showing a high level of attention to detail. We've organised a lot of things to try and make things easier for delegates, like shuttles from airports and social events.

Over the last few years, the question of a code of conduct has always raised some questions. What changes will you be making from the code of previous years?

We're using Linux Australia's official Code of Conduct and will be enforcing it in a sensible and respectful manner.

Is hosting LCA in Canberra any easier than in any of the other cities? Like, is the infrastructure any better, given that Canberra is the seat of government?

Canberra hosts a lot of conferences that are much larger than LCA, so we have had ample choice for venues and other infrastructure. Because LCA is a small conference by Canberra standards, though, it does mean we haven't had as much support from government and industry groups as previous years have had.

What drew you towards free/open source software?

I’ve always been a geek, in primary school I really wanted to be an astronaut. I’ve worked in proprietary software (both at a Microsoft ISV and Google) as well at open source companies, but my preference is to work for open source. That’s because the community is compelling, it's just fantastic working with people from around the world on interesting problems. It's also because with complicated systems you need to be able to debug down as many layers as is possible, which is much easier to do in open source.

Any people in the family/relatives who were an influence?

When I was in year 7, Dad got me a C compiler for the Macintosh. My parents have always been supportive but not influential.

You have a fairly full roster - wife, children, and you've had your share of family issues recently. How do you manage to keep on top of things - and also maintain your habit of reading?

I get a lot of reading done on long haul flights.

Anything else you'd like to add?

For anyone who is considering bidding to hold an LCA in the future, I’d like to let you know that while it is a lot of work, it is also a very rewarding experience. The LCA 2013 organising committee has a lot of repeat organisers, and that wouldn't happen if the experience was terrible. Personally, I’ve learnt a lot about people management and how to motivate people without paying them. My hot tip is free breakfasts and t-shirts are surprisingly effective.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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