Report on the first Pittsburgh TechFest, 2012

Pittsburgh TechFest 2012

I was excited to attend the very first Pittsburgh TechFest, held at LaRoche College.

This was my first local programming conference since some Perl conferences years ago!

Why attend?

In the past couple of years, I have increasingly explored Pittsburgh’s growing programmer meetup scene, but I wanted to expand beyond that to start attending some local conferences, so of course I was going to attend this one. (I had to cancel a hiking/camping outing in order to make it!)

The venue

LaRoche College is in the North Hills, about a twenty-minute drive (in light traffic conditions) from the city of Pittsburgh. This was the first time I’d been in LaRoche. They had a decent amount of space for all the sessions for the conference. I think the venue worked out great, and we were also provided lunch in the cafeteria.


The keynote speech was by Michael “Doc” Norton of LeanDog. He talked about our shared goal, as evidenced by attending the conference, of becoming an “excellent software developer”. He emphasized the polyglot nature of the conference, which was organized by members of various local communities including .NET and Java, among others. “We don’t work alone today,” he emphasized. He urged us to broaden ourselves at the conference, and go to talks about topics outside of our own comfortable experience. He used the concept of the “T” as something to aspire to: having deep knowledge in something but also having broad knowledge of other things.

I enjoyed the keynote speech and resolved to check out ideas new to me that I might be able to use. The speech actually caused me to spontaneously change some of my original marked-down preferences for which sessions I would attend!

(Update of 2013-06-01)

“Doc” has in the past year moved to Groupon.

Overview of sessions

The problem I (well, all of us) faced for this conference was that there was a huge number of concurrent talks on all kinds of topics in any given time slot. There were over 30 speakers and over 40 sessions, all in a single day.

This meant having to decide what to attend and what to miss. Topics came from areas such as:

Sessions I attended

User Experience Maps for Agile Modeling (Maria Emerson)

The first session I attended was completely outside of my usual world, involving “user experience” (UX). I chose it because it was a hands-on workshop. I freely confess that I am usually not very excited by sitting around listening to someone talk and put up code on slides; I feel I could do that at home by myself.

Maria led us through a simulation of the kind of work she does. We broke up into teams, we were told to design a mobile app for rowers who rent from a boat house, and used sticky notes, a whiteboard, and “butcher paper” as we went through an abbreviated version of the work flow of figuring out what the app should do and what issues it should address. I thought it was a fantastic workshop.

Creating Your Own Software Company (Kendall Miller)

The second session was, again, about something I’m not currently doing and is new to me.

It was by a .NET guy from Gibraltar Software who talked about the nuts and bolts of starting, and especially sustaining, a software company. I learned a lot from his presentation and the discussions, about handling such resources as time, funding, pricing, and especially the psychology of the customer, as well as self-psychology.

For example, he emphasized looking at the market first, when coming up with a conscious plan to achieve “deliberate success”, rather than get carried away by idealism or fuzzy hopes. He argued that marketing is what it’s all about, and that all business is about people relating to people.

Very informative and fascinating session!


Lunch was surprisingly high quality and filling, in the campus cafeteria.

You say Tomato, I say Pomodoro (Joel Cochran)

After lunch, I went to a session about the Pomodoro Technique of time management. I had heard about the Pomodoro Technique for some time, but it sounded bizarre, and I never experimented with implementing it myself.

I took some notes, but left not really feeling convinced that I would try the technique.

Introduction to Actors using Scala (Josh Suereth)

I first met Josh almost two years ago, when he gave a talk in October 2010 for PittJUG, “Why you want to learn Scala”. After that, he has periodically come to more PittJUG meetings, such as a nice “open spaces” one we had last year. Josh had this morning given a talk “Introduction to Functional Programming using Scala” that I had skipped, but I attended this one because I had always meant to look into using actors for concurrency.

Josh gave a nice presentation that left me knowing that I definitely wanted to look into actors (and Scala) further.

Oh, and he was plugging his new book Scala in Depth. I went and bought the ebook when I got home! It’s good.

Hypermedia API Design (Steve Klabnik)

The final session I attended was an unusual one. Steve Klabnik gave a fairly philosophical rather than technical talk about hypermedia API design. He spoke about the need to make sure the Web remains open and flexible. His point of view is that “everything is politics”, so when we’re talking about how applications can and should communicate with each other, we have some implicit political vision in mind.

The presentation was kind of abstract for me, probably because I don’t currently do much with Web application design. He spoke of metadata, interpretation, and dynamic contracts. If I end up in the Web world again sometime, I’ll try to figure out exactly what Steve was trying to say!

What next?

I took a lot of notes that I hope to study and use in my career as a software developer. Also, I’m inspired by seeing so many people I know giving talks. At some point, I should start sharing what I know by giving presentations also.

Here’s another participant’s review of the Pittsburgh TechFest.


I’d like to thank the organizers of the very first Pittsburgh TechFest, and the sponsors who made the conference so inexpensive and accessible. And of course, I appreciate everyone who signed on to give a presentation. I learned a lot over the course of the day, and look forward to another Pittsburgh TechFest in 2013!

(Update of 2013-06-01)

I went to Pittsburgh TechFest again in 2013, and had a great time, despite being sick. Also, as I had promised myself a year ago, I gave a presentation there! Full report here.

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