Tech Blog

Celebrating !!Con 2018 Not with a Whimper, but a Bang

Blog Post
AppNexus Engineering

This post is written by Adriana Chavez, a writer for AppNexus and former AppNexus Girls Who Code student. When not writing or coding, she can be found reading literary fiction or walking her rescue dog in the streets of New York.

Two weeks ago the fifth annual !!Con (pronounced bang-bang con) was held at AppNexus’s headquarters in New York. Attendees gathered in Flatiron for the two day conference to see some of the most innovative and surprising ways programming is currently being used.

The conference officially began the morning of May 12th and ran throughout the day and into the 13th. I attended the event as a programmer excited to learn more about tech, but also as a writer and a creative who is always trying to find the humanity and intersectionality in the field.

The event broke up throughout the weekend into sessions of lightning talks — 10 minute presentations each on a different subject. This format allowed the audience to hear from a wide range of speakers throughout the conference while not being overwhelmed by one topic for too long.

Keynote speakers Mimi Onuoha and Liz Fong-Jones opened each day of lightning talks on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Mimi — a researcher, artist, and adjunct professor — and Liz — a Staff Site Reliability Engineer at Google — both show how we can bring our own interests and causes we care about to the work we do. Liz’s talk focused on her love of video games and how other unusual forms of experience can be an advantage at work. While part of Mimi’s work is based in using tech as a form of social critique — she utilizes data collection and computational categorization to examine the ways people are categorized and represented. Together they each brought an energy to the event that opened the audience up to a day full of tech and new possibilities.

When I walked into !!Con for the first time I was immediately greeted with posters of stick figures throughout the hall reading “Welcome!” followed by signs for gender-neutral restrooms.

Providing an inclusive and accepting environment for attendees is as vital to the conference’s mission as producing an educative tech event. In addition to gender-inclusive bathrooms, the conference also had amenities like CART live captioning; a lactation room provided by AppNexus; and an alcohol-free, all ages environment. The conference matches these accommodations with a strict code of conduct and no harassment policy.

The result of these parameters makes !!Con feel less like an annual event, and more like a community of similar minded people with the same values and love for tech coming together.

“It’s actually the community that’s the most incredible [part of !!Con]. The talks are fantastic but I think they’re the product of people who think deeply about what they’re doing and enjoy it. So it’s really reflective,” said Aria Stewart, a systems engineer and programmer. This is the third year in a row they’ve attended !!Con.

Talks ranged drastically throughout the weekend, from discussions on how synthetic filesystems work (Omar Rizwan), to the data structure of Pokemon (Jan Mitsuko Cash), to how you can watch Star Wars using Postgress (Will Leinweber).

Speakers captivated the crowd throughout the two days by either showcasing an unexpected way they are using tech, or by connecting tech to a seemingly unrelated topic. The most surprising part of the conference was that these diverse lightning talks all had the same ability to leave attendees viewing tech in an entirely new light.

In the talk, Fast, but not too fast! What 17th century windmills can teach us about database migrations, Walden Hillen connected the mechanics of windmills to the way his company WeTransfer runs. He explained that these 400 year old windmills naturally know to catch less wind during storms to prevent breaking- similar to how the developers at WeTransfer must brace themselves for possible crashes or “storms” while managing billions of file transfers.

Technology is behind everything we see; the way it can be used and the processes behind certain technologies relate more to our everyday lives than we may think. This theme from the weekend especially struck a chord with me because of my mixed background.

One !!Con attendee spoke to me about her takeaways from Emily Nakashima’s talk about visual programming languages.

“I really liked [what Emily said about] looking at life in terms of pictures instead of language and how that… open[s] up your mind to all types of possibilities,” the attendee said.

She connected what she learned about the functions of VPLs to how she thinks of language in her own life. “I’m multilingual… often when I’m trying to switch from one language to another it’s more a feeling I’m trying to transmit.. than an actual word-for-word translation. So [the talk] really resonated because images can do that in some ways more accurately than words,” she said. She told me the talk allowed her to see technology from a more creative and meaningful angle.

Another attendee, Travis McDemus, who’s worked separately in both audio production and in programming, particularly enjoyed Vince Allen’s talk on Sunday. Vince’s talk, The Man Comes Around: and so does his sound!, showed how he employed machine learning to break down the audio of a Johnny Cash song. “That’s actually part of the intersection of music and programming that I’m unfamiliar with… It’s very amusing to see all the ways people are trying to apply technology,” McDemus said.

Between breaks, attendees eagerly huddled into groups to talk about the lightning talks they just heard. Hands motioned emphatically to express themselves during conversations or reached out to other people to introduce themselves. The noise in the room echoed around us and practically made the floor vibrate.

In times when people can feel stuck in the world of programming, !!Con reminds us exactly how fun, creative, and amazing modern technology can be. On Sunday evening, !!Con’s MC Erty Seidohl helped close the event: “We hope !!Con is a reminder of why you became a developer… We hope… that you leave this venue inspired, engaged, and fired up about making the world a better place through the work that you do.”