Reflections on ZendCon 2016

Reflections on ZendCon 2016 October 10th, 2016, by Matthew Setter

For as long as I can remember, ZendCon’s always been a conference which I’ve wanted to attend. Why? Perhaps it’s because it’s marketed as the top conference in the PHP world. Regardless, here’s my reflections on ZendCon 2016.

ZendCon is a large conference, one which receives quite a lot of promotion, and one where you can meet a wide range of people from throughout the community.

Given that, it was an excellent opportunity, both personally and professionally. And it wouldn’t have been possible without support and encouragement from so many people, one more than any other - Adam Culp. Thanks Adam!

Now, let’s unpack the experience, starting with the host city — Las Vegas.

Las Vegas — The Casino City

Las Vegas By Day

I’ve seen Las Vegas on TV and in films — who hasn’t?! But experiencing it in person is a different experience entirely. Before I went, I asked a number of people who’d already visited what it was like. I received a range of quite mixed responses. By the end of my time there I could understand why.

Las Vegas At 4am

In the day time there was only desert. At night however, there were lights everywhere; whether from the numerous casinos, stores or various other venues along the strip. It was a stark contrast to say the least.

But everything that glitters is not always gold. I’ll be honest, the majority of my time there I spent at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which was the conference’s venue.

As a result I didn’t actually see a lot of Las Vegas. But from the little that I did, it’s not my kind of town. I don’t drink a lot, nor do I gamble.

Having said that, it was a great to get to see it, to be so close to it all, to be in a place which I’ve only ever seen from afar.

What’s more, it was amusing to be propositioned at 4:40 in the morning, on the way back to the hotel. But that’s a story for another time.

The Conference

Adam Culp on stage at ZendCon 2016

The conference was excellent! No doubts about it. There were copious sessions held each day of the conference, on numerous topics, ranging from Zend Framework 3 to branching strategies and API longevity.

A special plug to Marco Pivetta (@ocramius) for teaching me about Poka-yoke.

Given that, there was plenty of opportunity to learn a host of new technologies, as well as to improve upon those I already know.

Then there were the vendors. Quite a large number of them were offering products and services focused around the IBM I series.

But from what I understand, that’s to be expected, as the I series plays such a significant part in the enterprise space in the United States.

I don’t often spend a lot of time talking with vendors. I’m usually far more focused on talks. But I put in extra effort this time. Clichéd as this is, without them the conferences wouldn’t be possible.

So, it seemed only fair to talk with the vendors to find out about some of their products and services.

Meeting Uncle Bob Martin

There were a lot of good ones, but the one I enjoyed most was Clean Coders, because that’s Uncle Bob Martin’s business. It was especially memorable, as I got to both meet and have my photo taken with him.

I’m no groupie or fan-boy by any means. But Uncle Bob is someone who’s taught me a lot over the last few years. So I am a bit of a fan-boy in this case.

He was quite thoughtful, and very accommodating - I was far from the only person to ask him for a photo.

My Talks

It’s fair to say that this part of the conference was where I was both the most excited and the most nervous. I’m still so new to public speaking. So it’s something I’m still coming to terms with.

I gave two talks. The first was titled: Powerful & Flexible SQL Generation — without the hassle. I’ve given the talk a number of times, so I wasn’t nervous about it — much.

But this time was the most memorable, as I received some stellar feedback from two very learned SQL developers. They asked about how Zend\Db\Sql, the focus of the talk, would work with nested queries sub-selects.

To be honest, I couldn’t give a specific answer. But I’ll be looking in to it over the next couple of days. I’m curious to find out.

It’s interesting that they asked that question. As a new acquaintance remarked that doing so, at least in his experience, was a particularly frustrating experience.

The amount of overhead required to get the objects setup, and how you use them, he said, was just too much of a pain in the proverbial to justify using them. However, he was very positive about Doctrine.

I’m not suggesting (perhaps the pitch of the talk inferred it) that Zend\Db\Sql is the right solution to every database-related challenge.

What I am saying is that for the use-case where a legacy PHP application’s being refactored and cleaned up, one which is highly database-dependent, I believe Zend\Db\Sql can be a good solution.

But for overly sophisticated SQL needs, I’d definitely defer to a more powerful library, such as Doctrine.

The second talk was both the newer and my more preferred talk. It was on Building Powerful and Flexible Micro-Applications using Zend Expressive.

As I spend a lot of time using Zend Expressive, it was the one I felt most comfortable with.

It was also the talk which received the best feedback on Joind.in.

There was both positive and negative feedback — yet always constructive. Of all the critiques, the one which stands out most in mind is "death by powerpoint". I’ll be fair, it’s an accurate assessment.

The talk is quite content intensive, yet I appreciate the point about not overdoing it. There was a lot to cover, including:

  • How Zend Expressive works
  • What micro applications are
  • Building a micro application using Zend Expressive
  • Building several pieces of middleware for authentication

Given the feedback, two things spring to mind for the improving it. Firstly, break up the slides with some more light-hearted content.

This could include:

  • Use less technical content
  • Don’t dive as deep
  • Use some funny gif backgrounds to pace the delivery of the content
  • Greater use of imagery providing a contrast to the code
  • Clearly separate the sections of the talk out in to sub-sections

As I’m still relatively new to public speaking, I’m in no hurry. So long as each talk gets a bit better than the last, then that’s fine by me.

It presents so many opportunities to learn and grow. So it’s an amazing position to be in. I also received some excellent constructive, positive feedback. Not only about the talks which I gave, but also about my podcast and blog.

I was exceedingly heartened to hear that either the blog, or the podcast, or both, are on quite a number of people’s must-have lists. Among the forms of validation and support you can receive, this has to be one of the highest.

It really helps when what you do is a labour of love. This definitely helps reinvigorate the enthusiasm for both. As for speaking, the key piece of advice which I received is "show more consistent enthusiasm".

Definitely putting this piece in to action.

Networking, Making New Friends, and Rekindling Old Friendships

Making new friends at ZendCon 2016

This is equally as important as attending talks. Being a freelancer, it’s essential to network at almost every opportunity. And network I did. But not in any pushy, over-the-top or in-your-face kind of way. It’s not my style.

Can you say you’ve made friends with someone in such a short period of time? In my opinion, no. But, you can form the foundation of a long-lasting friendship.

And that was done in abundance. And let’s not forget the old friends. It was great to catch up again, in-person. It’s one thing to chat online, share each other’s posts (as well as read them).

But there’s nothing like actually being in the same space, shaking hands, and seeing the full range of emotions and body language. The conversations are so much more meaningful, so much deeper, so much richer.

ZendCon 2017 Perhaps?

At this stage I’m not planning to submit to next year’s CFP, as I’m becoming a father again early in the year. Given that, my main priority for next year is family. So, I’m planning to stay relatively close to home. But, 2018 could be a possibility. Watch this space!

In Conclusion

Did you attend ZendCon this year? What did you think? What was your experience of it, and of Las Vegas? Did you attend many talks?

If so, did you leave feedback for the speakers? Here’s hoping. I’d love to know what your experience was like. Please tell me in the comments.


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