Last week was Rails Conf 2021, a gathering of coders, senior and newbie, to talk about the most popular Ruby web framework around. Of course, the coronavirus means I'm using the word "gathering" with some sarcasm. We gathered the same way family members have been chatting on Zoom. There were awkward moments, shaky lighting, and we hoped everyone was wearing pants.

While I focus on the front-end, I've worked with Rails plenty at my current job and quite enjoy it. So I was looking forward to learning about new and old offerings, from Hotwire to service objects. It was also my first virtual conference, as I'm guessing was the case for many people there. It wasn't one of those MMORPG (massively multiple online role-playing game) virtual conferences I've drooled over. But I'm holding out hope for trying one someday!

In the meantime, I thought I'd mull over the pros and cons of my first virtual conference. To save you some time, it was good! There were drawbacks, but it's nothing the organizers can't fix next time. Plus, that doesn't mean virtual conferences can't work for everyone. I'm hoping this post can help people on the fence of whether or not to try out one themselves.

The Pros of Virtual Conferences #

No Logistical Anxieties #

For any conference out of state, I'd be thinking less about what I'd learn and more about how I'd get there. This included plane travel, cars, hotels, meals, and any secret hideaways. The less mental energy I had for the talks, the less knowledge I took away from them. That seems to defeat the purpose of going at all.

This time, all I had to do was log onto a different website in the morning. I could focus all my energy on what talks to watch, and any live events that day.

The biggest perk to this is it opens up the conference for many more people. They're less likely to be blocked by distance, money, or a lack of access to time travel.

People from 61 different countries wound up attending Rails Conf, compared to 40 at the last one. That's a 50% country-wide increase across the globe.

No Frantic Note-Taking #

I can't count the number of times I took notes at a talk so fast, it was more stressful than my actual job (okay, it's at least 47 times). I was so worried about missing the info I'd traveled so far to hear, I couldn't take in or analyze it. Video recordings afterward varied in quality, and I rarely had time to watch them after. So I was so anxious about getting it all written down, I often got high school social studies class flashbacks. Make it stop, Byzantine Empire and Communist Russia!

That's why being able to pause and rewind talks was a Godsend. I could watch at my own pace and note down any important info with a sense of ease. I felt I learned more and kept my heart rate that much lower. The videos even had decent closed caption support!

You Can Scale Your Involvement #

What do I hate most about in-person conferences? It's meals at the conference location, hands-down. I wiped my hands clean of "who do I sit with at lunch" worries after high school, and I don't want them back now. Therapy is expensive enough.

That's not to say there weren't ways to socialize. The conference Discord had channels for talks, Q&A, and many casual and networking chats. But it was easy to join or avoid them at whatever level I was comfortable with. I looked into a few familiar channels to see if I could contribute. I checked some less familiar ones out of curiosity but didn't feel bad by only looking.

One workshop I went to had paired activities in breakout Zoom rooms. I wasn't comfortable with this, but it was easy to decline to enter them as I waited for the others to finish. A virtual setting is great for setting and following your social boundaries. All without much of the fear or awkwardness of an in-person setting.

Another perk of this is I could work other important tasks into my schedule with ease. I took one afternoon after watching one talk to give a company talk on web accessibility. One attendee was able to go to their daughter's birthday and make a family dinner without missing a beat.

Now this is work-life balance badassery.

No Conference Talk FOMO #

Unlike my frantic note-taking, I can count the number of times I wanted to leave after a talk started, and it's still a lot. To be clear, it's not because the talks were bad, but that I misunderstood the focus or level of expertise. But I couldn't just walk out, so I'd be stuck for around an hour. In the meantime, I'd be thinking of the other talk at that same time, and what valuable info I must've been missing.

On the other, virtual hand, when this realization hits, I can stop the video and click another link. No one's feelings get hurt, minimal time gets wasted, and there are no painful talk sacrifices.

This happened with one Rails talk about a case study for an app that talked to the New York Stock Exchange. After ten minutes, I saw the details were going over my head and the focus was much different than I expected. Instead of squirming for 45 minutes, I clicked over to the web accessibility talk. FOMO avoided.

There's Still Photos to be Had #

All conferences I've been to were at least partially about big crowds and famous selfies. That's harder to pull off when virtual, but it's not impossible with some creativity and a sense of humor.

Plus if you miss your chance, it's easy to photoshop two images together and say you chatted with them on Zoom! So everybody wins in the end.

The Cons of Virtual Conferences #

It Takes Even More Focus #

It's good to have so many Discord channels around talks, groups, and interests. The drawback? That's a lot of channels to keep track of. I couldn't count them all, which made it harder to find the ones best suited for me. It's overwhelming when the "unread channels" pile up and the app says I'm behind on dozens of chats.

By the end of day three, I was feeling the drain. I felt as exhausted as I would at an in-person conference. Try and imagine how this would be for someone with an attention disorder like ADHD.

If there were a way to decide on your channels in advance, or at least get a list of recommendations, it would go a long way. Discord can mute channels or change their update settings, but doing this one at a time for dozens is a massive burden for attendees. Some way to help or do this automatically would save a lot of wasted mental energy.

The good news is the virtual format makes it easy to rest along the way as needed. For most attendees, their bed or couch was in the next room for nap purposes. Even if they couldn't sleep, it's easy to walk away, escape the hectic activity, and recharge from the conference.

If you have a sleeping cat, well, that's a bonus.

Videos are the Main Medium #

All the conference talks are in video format, so if learning via video isn't your thing, you were going to have a bad time. I am one of those people, I'm sad to write. I've tried video courses in the past, but something about them never fails to make me drowsy, no matter the topic. Last week, I realized this had not changed.

This meant I had to pace myself a lot. I had to space videos out and move around to keep the lethargy away. This way I could focus on videos earlier in the day to avoid the afternoon slump. Otherwise, I'd get so tired I couldn't take notes or keep info, and often had to nap the fatigue away. Even then, watching too many more videos would still make me sleepy.

Text transcripts of talks could make this easier in the future. Reading makes me less sleepy since I can play energetic music as I go. It's also easier to go along at a pace that keeps my mind engaged, instead of drifting off at a speaker's slower pace. But that's increasing an already heavy load on the people giving the talks, so I get that it can't always be included.

Still A Weaker Sense of Community #

Zoom and Discord helped everyone chat, but I can't deny it's not the same as being in-person. It's hard to get the same sense of community, career comradery, or sudden web celebrity meetings.

We could still chat with these people and ask questions. One could argue the digital format makes it easier to get answers from them. People can read and respond at their own pace instead of fielding them from a huge crowd in one cramped session. But there's no thrill of meeting them in the flesh.

One of my highlights from CodeNewbie was meeting Jen Simmons. She's a CSS industry leader, the front-end equivalent of meeting Zooey Deschanel (or some other celebrity, I'm clueless about them so please don't hurt me over this comparison). I'm worried virtual conferences will take away these chance meetings for our selfie collages.

Less Swag #

This is more of a petty criticism, but I miss the swag bag. I miss getting a conference badge, developer socks, and more laptop stickers than I could ever use. Some developers received stickers in the mail, but it's not the same as everyone gawking at them together.

My CodeNewbie command line socks are getting lonely, people. They need friends in the form of Ruby or Octocat socks! I urge you, world, to find your compassion for my lonely socks!

In Conclusion #

I'd call my Rails Conf 2021 experience a success. There are some elements I need more time to adjust to, like how I pace all the video talks, but I can try that at the next one. I also learned the most important lesson: get someone sweet and something alcoholic to end things on a high note!

With that in mind, while I hope there's soon less need for virtual conferences, I look forward to any I can attend. They don't need to be MMORPG conferences, but a man can dream.