Cloud And Open Source Can Reinvent Tech Conferences In The COVID-19 (And Carbon-Negative) Era

(NOTE: this article includes no medical or related advice, which, in any case, the author is completely unqualified to provide.)

It is a time of significant change, which none of us can predict. First reported from Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is beginning to change personal and work lives around the world. Considered by the World Health Organization to be less lethal but more contagious than its cousin SARS-CoVid, COVID-19 is making its presence felt in ways that we can see, and in many ways that we can’t, yet.

Technology conferences represent an interesting case study: forward-thinking companies and communities, with vast technology resources, can take this time to reevaluate some of their strategies with regards to face-to-face events. More importantly, this transition can help countries, corporations, and humans everywhere to reduce their carbon footprint, tackling the greater challenge of our times.

Empty airport terminal
Empty airport gate area PHOTO: ERIC PROUZET ON UNSPLASH

Storm Corona Hits Tech

The software industry, amongst others, has seen immediate effect in the cancellations of many prominent large tech conferences. The first cancellation many noticed was the mammoth and vendor-neutral annual telecoms event, Mobile World Conference in Barcelona. The latest ‘victim’ in the vendor-neutral conference space has been Kubecon/CloudNativeCon EU, which has so far been delayed to July.

In the face of COVID-19, large tech companies have been in many cases first movers to cancel company-run conferences: Facebook with F8, Google with Google I/O and Cloud Next, Microsoft with its Ignite Tour, and more. This was part of a wider initiative by large companies in tech as well as other industries to curtail inessential business travel—which in itself would have a severe effect on the attendance of some of these events.

An Introvert’s Dream?

It is the beginning of a very difficult era for anyone in sectors which support events (events management, travel, hospitality, photography, catering and more), while those who support virtual interaction stand to benefit.

The stereotypical aversion of some developers to face-to-face human interaction has been the subject of many research papers, articles, and online memes. In that light, it could be that the virtual model will in some aspects prove to be more effective for engagement and content delivery.

If the aim of some of these events is to educate developers and disseminate information, do they need to be physical events at all? As many conferences pivot towards a virtual model in the coming months, we are about to find out. Consider that a huge majority or open source contributors do so remotely anyway, so in that space at the very least, the ground is ready.

Challenging Old Assumptions

We might not see some of these conferences return at all: as suggested recently on tech strategy blog Stratechery, Facebook’s success depends more on management of its digital real estate than on its F8 developer conference, especially as it invests significant resources in security and privacy (also, it helps to avoid the shadow of Cambridge Analytica at F8).

A UK-based CISO asked recently on one of my chat groups, “we’re pulling back on travel, beefing up remote working capability and handing out hand cleaning gels. Anyone doing anything non-obvious?” Actually, we could start with the obvious, and look at successful tech events that are already virtual-only. Events such as All Day DevOpsGlobal Devops Bootcamp, and HashiTalks point the way for developer-focused events run by communities and vendors alike.

The technology is there. As an employee of HP in 2006, I regularly participated in Halo Room meetings, which felt uncannily like face-to-face (so much so that we would have fun watching newbies rush towards the screen to shake digital counterparts’ hands). Halo was prohibitively priced at the time, and was rooted in hardware pricing models—as was Cisco’s TelePresence. In 2020, backed by cloud infrastructure and software monetization models, I imagine that vendors can take similar solutions to market for a fraction of HP’s then-upfront price, offering an up-market alternative to Zoom.

A True Opportunity To Survive And Thrive

The events crisis triggered by COVID-19 may prove to us all that many of the events we attend (and on rare occasion, enjoy) are not crucial. More importantly, if, all of a sudden, it is possible for corporations and governments to restrict travel to safeguard their public, then that can teach us an important lesson for the much more existential threat that is already here: climate change.

In a report issued in November, 2019 by a team of world-class climate scientists, it was said that, “almost 75 percent of the climate pledges are partially or totally insufficient to contribute to reducing GHG emissions by 50 percent by 2030”. As corporations come under increasing pressure from governments, investors, and employees to accelerate their efforts to reduce carbon emissions—reinventing cloud, open source, and software engineering conferences seems like a great place to make a real impact.

(Originally posted on