February 14, 2024 ( Prev / Next )

I went to FOSDEM, the Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting.

I’ve been meaning to do this for about a decade but we’ve always had a work event at the end of January that clashed, or the work event left me sufficiently exhausted to not want to spend more immediate time travelling and listening to talks.

But this year it didn’t clash. I was also asked to give a talk, which was nice, so was even more compelled to go. I ended up giving a short presentation about how we are using Perl at work and what it’s like to use the language these days. Hint: it’s enjoyable, if you’ve been away for a while take another look at it.

I wanted to write a blog post about my experiences at the conference, but decided to distil it into a few observations and keep it under 2,000 words. These are of the personal opinion type and also the literal “here are some photographs” type. Oh, on that, if you’d like to purchase a print of the “Go Gophers” above then you can do so here. It’s a 61x24cm print and it came out quite nice. As a bonus I will donate all profits from any sales to FOSDEM.

Developer Room Capacity

A “Developer Room” being a place where talks, coding sessions, and discussions happen, and from hereon just referred to as a “room”. These are lecture theatres and classrooms at the university. Some of them are better equipped than others, with PA systems and such, some are showing their age: broken desks, missing seats, etc.

A frequent observation by attendees is that the rooms are often at capacity leading to long queues to get in. That’s the reality and the organisers do their best to assign the largest spaces to those tracks they know will be popular, but chances are if you plan to attend a talk on one of those tracks you might not be able to get in.

Some rooms are more strict on numbers than others and some are even strict on “no entry after the talk has started”. I’m quite fine with this. As a speaker it’s very distracting to have people wander in a few minutes after I’ve started presenting, or even half way through. Towards the end I can understand - get in there for the next talk, but try to be quiet if you do so.

I saw large queues to get into the Python, Go, and AI and Machine Learning rooms. I ended up skipping on the Python room but hung around for the AI and Machine Learning room getting in after about 15min, which isn’t too bad. This room wasn’t at capacity, they just seemed to be enforcing “no entry after the start”.


The schedule is absolutely packed. It’s ultimate paradox of choice type stuff. I ended up sitting in the Perl room until it finished, at lunch time on Saturday, then wandered around dipping in and out of those rooms that still had space. I decided not to look at the schedule for specific talks that interested me as I figured those I would watch the recordings of later.

So instead I took the approach of “I’ll stop by relatively random rooms and see if something piques my interest”. I think that might be a better tactic than trying to see what you really want to see, as per the aforementioned room capacity issue. I repeated this on Sunday, and between took the time to shoot photos.

Full Fat vs Lightning Talks

I saw a couple of talks in various rooms that were essentially “we used technology X to do Y”. That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s a full fat 20min or 40min talk. Unless they are a deep dive this kind of content is much better as a lightning talk. Pull out the fluff that isn’t interesting and talk about the core reasons people might want to use X in five or ten minutes.

These types of talks should just be a prompt for people to investigate more and look to the official sources. A lot of these talks are covering tech that is moving so fast, like some I saw in the AI and Machine Learning room, that much of the content is out of date very quickly. It’s the same approach I take with blogging - don’t bother with the technicalities, just link to the manual. Your blog will be out of date quickly otherwise.

The Developer Rooms all seem to feature medium to full fat talks, I think it would be better to have rooms schedule three quarters full fat talks and then one quarter lightning talks. Push the “X to do Y” talk submissions to the lightning talk section of the room schedule. Some rooms do have a short lightning talk track at the end, but it’s more for impromptu submissions.

Live Demos

Don’t do it. Really, don’t do it. Anyone that has been giving tech talks for a while now knows not to do it. Don’t do it. Your network connection will be slow, or just fail. You’ll pick the wrong shell. You’ll make typos. You’ll have made changes that result in the wrong thing happening. If your thing is speaking to a remote thing the remote thing will have changed or be broken.

Nobody really wants to see you struggle on the command line for a few minutes, even though we empathise. So don’t do it. My sample size of talks was small, twelve out of about 800, and only a couple of those had live demos (both of which had issues), but that’s enough for me to think lots of speakers are still trying to give live demos. Again, don’t do it!

If you must do a live demo then fake it by way of a screen recording. If you really have to do a live demo then disable your network connection and ensure everything is speaking to localhost; then practice your live demo immediately before, and still have a screen recording as a backup.

Video Streaming and Post Processing

The setup here is superb. As someone who has been involved with streaming and recording talks at conferences, that stuff needs serious organisation and is still at the whim of the venue and network issues. It can take a lot of money and a lot of time. Of course, FOSDEM have automated it.

Streaming thirty different rooms simultaneously, flawlessly, and having the video available for review by the speaker within a couple of hours after their talk, with the ability to annotate and edit the start/end times in an automated way? Having those videos available to the public just hours after the event? Doing that for almost one thousand talks? Yeah, that’s very impressive.

Oh yeah - said automated system involves a modern Perl application. If you’ve watched a video from FOSDEM these last few years it’s gone through that code.

Just one pointer: if you’re a speaker then don’t forget to hand back the wireless microphone before running off for lunch. No, that wasn’t me…

Food Trucks

These were as expected: overpriced and mediocre, but that’s not unusual. Attend any large event and it will be the same. At least here the university restaurant and cafeteria were open so other options were available. Queues were not as bad as expected but long enough that you might want to skip them and go with an alternative solution.

The advice here from someone who spent a decade going to Formula 1 races as part of another photo project, where it’s nothing but food trucks, is to try to bring a flask of tea/coffee with you and a refillable water bottle. Water fountains are dotted around the campus. If you can bring a small snack as well you can avoid the trucks altogether.

I can’t speak to the ease of booking into a restaurant on the Saturday evening as we attended an organised meal, courtesy of the TPRF. We had no problem wandering into a restaurant in Brussels centre on the Sunday evening either. And, yes, we did go to Delirium.

Hallway Track

Or “everything but the talks”. There’s an unbelievable amount happening around the weekend: social events, hackathons, fringe workshops, birds of a feather meetups, tours, stands. That’s all on top of the 800+ talks. Many people attend FOSDEM for the networking opportunities and to see old friends and colleagues, for the conversation rather than the talks. This is a common thing at most conferences large and small.

I didn’t really do any of these as I wanted to wander from talk to talk and focus on shooting photos. There were plenty of people around that seemed to be striking up conversation with others, so go for it.

Stands and Swag

There were many stands. I think three main locations, perhaps more, of varying types. From job stuff, to companies, to open source communities. Generally something to interest almost everyone. It was nice to see that the swag was mostly limited to simple things like stickers and most of the random crap you used to see like pens, notepads, all that stuff, was rare. Or perhaps it had all gone by the time we got there?

LED badges seemed to be a favourite. There were one or two of these at the start of the weekend, by the end lots of people had found the stand selling them and they were all over the place.


Brussels is like any big city. The public transport was frequent and easy, although the line to/from the venue was somewhat crowded. We stayed relatively close to the venue, about a 25min walk, so ended up walking there both mornings and stopping by a local coffee shop for breakfast.

The tram system didn’t require any faffing around - tap your debit/credit card. There’s a maximum charge per day. It’s probably cheaper if you purchase something in advance but didn’t seem worth it.

One curiosity was that the cash/no cash seemed to be at two extremes. The coffee shop we stopped by had a strict “no cash” policy. A record shop I went to really wanted me to pay in cash. The restaurant we went to on Sunday evening claimed their card machine wasn’t working, despite me having seen them use it with another customer successfully only ten minutes before. “Conveniently” there was an ATM across the street from the restaurant.

I didn’t pry, and I couldn’t be bothered to argue in French. I didn’t even suggest that perhaps we should try the machine and it might be fine again. I work in the payments industry so I know how all this stuff works (or doesn’t work as the case may be). I suspect this was a ruse by the restaurant to get customers to pay in cash to a) remove the card fees, and b) increase the likely hood of the customer leaving a tip. We did not leave a tip.

Will I go back next year? Perhaps. It depends if the work event clashes, if I get asked to present, and if I feel there is value in the things outside of the talks. If it were only for the talks I would probably give it a miss and spend a week or so watching the recordings of those that interested me.

photography, perl