Friday, 16 September 2011 11:23

Taking LCA to places never explored


Is it really a good idea to head the organising of a major technical conference when you have a young wife and child at home? Is it wise to take on this kind of a load when you are a full-time worker and commute a few hours some days of the week to get to your job?

And above all, is it prudent to head the organising team of such a conference when you are located in a regional area, with the inherent disadvantages that come with such a location?

It is doubtful that any, or all, of these considerations went through the head of Josh Stewart (pictured below) when he and a group of his friends started throwing around the idea of hosting the Australian national Linux conference in Ballarat.

This was back in 2006, at the LCA in Dunedin. Stewart's first conference was 2005 in Canberra and he came to like it a great deal - as has been the case with many others.

"The idea of Ballarat was first jokingly thrown around when a group of us were out one night during the conference in Dunedin," Stewart told iTWire. "I'd been attending since 2005 and loved it every year, but at the time our group was really nothing more than a few guys barely out of uni, laughing about how crazy you'd have to be to try and run the event in Ballarat. There was no Linux User Group and the size of the conference would make it one of the largest ever held in the city."

But then things slowly changed. "Following that though, the Ballarat Linux Users Group was founded and after a strong core of members started to build up, the idea of hosting LCA began to surface again at one of the installfests that was run jointly with Linux Users Victoria," Stewart said.
Josh Stewart
"Instrumental in this was the encouragement and continual pokings from the 2008 conference director, Donna Benjamin, who was great for bouncing ideas off and generally seeing whether the idea was as crazy as it sounded. There's no way we'd be holding the conference in 2012 if it wasn't for Donna."

But the idea stayed an idea until 2009 when the conference was held in Hobart. "It wasn't until LCA Hobart that we got serious about planning and one night the seven or eight Ballarat people attending all got together and started hammering out ideas for what would become our bid to host LCA in 2011," he said.

"While we were unsuccessful that year, we learned a tremendous amount and this was put back into a bid for 2012 and really, the rest is history up to this point."

Stewart's CV does not indicate any major involvement in FOSS on the professional front. Yet he finds himself at the forefront of organising one of the three Linux conferences that matter.

"FOSS was something I first really fell in love with when I was at university. I'd played with Linux prior to that, but never really had a purpose for it until I got into programming in my first year. My first LCA in Canberra was what really sealed the deal though as the atmosphere and community were simply amazing. Every time I've attended since I've come away with a head full of ideas and new things to try," he said.

But after he finished his studies, he found himself in employment that was not FOSS-related. "Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, graduation is the biggest killer of open source projects and upon leaving university I found myself in a primarily business oriented role at IBM. While professionally my job is much more pointy-haired boss than bearded geek, I'm still definitely a heavy user and advocate of FOSS. I still get (or did get prior to winning the LCA2012 bid) time to hack away on various bits of code, eg the iView app for Boxee, various Arduino projects etc, but its really only as a hobby.

But he says there are still many ways to contribute to FOSS. "And if I can help out by assisting to put together a conference as amazing as, then its really just a small way to give something back from a community from whom I've got so much."
LCA 2012 logo
Stewart's interest in computing he attributes partly to having a father who was an electronics engineer. But he also says that as long back as he can remember, he was always interested in computers and gadgets. "My dad was always bringing home nifty bits and pieces or taking me on Institute of Engineers tours, so I think that all played a part. I don't think there was really any doubt in either my mind or my parents that I'd get into a computing field, if you're the right (or wrong?) kind of person it tends to be clear from an early age."

Stewart commutes twice a week to Melbourne to work and the remaining three days he works in Ballarat. The burden of organising the LCA means he has to be careful about how he budgets his time.

"Purely for my own sanity, I try to keep work and conference fairly separate if I can and so most of the conference is organised of an evening and at weekends," he said. "IBM, though, has been a fantastic long-term supporter of the conference as a top-tier sponsor for many years now. Playing the role of organiser for 2012 (as opposed to simply being a delegate in previous years) has given me new respect as to just how valuable the companies that support linux.conf,au are, so we're tremendously appreciative of IBM being the long term partner that they are."

The LCA has its own distinctive characteristics No organiser likes to discard the trademark features, but every organiser also likes his/her conference to be remembered for something unique. Stewart is no different.

"The conference has been growing every year and while it is fantastic to see the event go from strength to strength, we felt there was a trap of certain aspects being retained each year when the conference may be better served by something else," he said. "In this regard we've made a few alterations to the structure that has been used over the past few years.

"Firstly we've decided to drop the open day typically held at the end of the conference. This has been a great advocacy platform for the last few years of the conference, but for it to be successful it requires large public turnout. Unfortunately, we felt that being in a place like Ballarat such numbers of people would be hard (or impossible) to get. Instead of asking people to commit their time to holding a stall all day, we've got some more social plans coming together for the Saturday following the schedule that we're sure any delegates staying on for the weekend will love.

"We've also decided to mix things up a little with the schedule and extend the formal part of the conference from three days to four. This allows us to reduce the number of concurrent talks so people get to see more of the presentations that they're interested in. This also gives us the opportunity to bring back the 'Best Of' talks, which will be occurring on the final day of the conference. These have proved very popular in the past and give people a second chance to see the very best speakers if they missed them the first time around."

As the first regional centre to host LCA, there are extra pressures on Stewart. He says that hosting an event such as in Ballarat poses a few unique

"The obvious thing that everyone thinks of straight away is transportation and how to get that many people from Melbourne. However, once you start investigating the various options we have available to us, this isn't as difficult as it first appears. Much more of a challenge is actually getting the message out there to potential delegates that Ballarat isn't a remote country town and that getting here doesn't involve hours and hours cramped on a bus. We honestly believe that no one will find it hard or tedious to get to Ballarat, but if anyone does have any concerns we are more than happy to help out.

"Other than transportation, we have had to ensure that we have dinner venues and accommodation sufficient for the number of delegates we hope to have in January. The university has residences large enough to cover as many people as we need, but for those choosing to stay off-campus we will be running buses every morning and
afternoon to and from hotels/motels so this shouldn't worry people either."

But there are upsides to being in a regional centre too. "For all the extra challenges in running the conference in Ballarat, there are a number of things that work in our favour as well," Stewart said. "Hosting an event of this size in Ballarat is a significant thing for the city and so the support we have received from local departments (such as Tourism Ballarat and Ballarat Business Events) has been much greater than what would be forthcoming if the conference was in a capital city."

His family has been extremely supportive of the hours he has to keep until the conference is done. "Things are certainly pretty busy getting everything ready for the conference, but I'm lucky enough to have an amazing wife who not only tolerates me staying up to all hours and having the house invaded regularly by the organising team, but has even put up her hand to help out organising the accommodation side of things at the university," Stewart says.

"She's also great at keeping me in line and making sure the conference doesn't invade family time with her and our son, Spence, for which I'm extremely grateful."

The conference will be held at the University of Ballarat from January 16 to 20, 2012.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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