DEV Community

Dave Smith
Dave Smith

Posted on

That Conference in Wisconsin

I went to That Conference in 2023. No, this is not a recap of my conference experience from 8 months ago. I’m looking forward to the next one. Registration for 2024 is open, and the speaker lineup has been announced. I will be there and I think you should too.

I’ve attended That a few times in the past and was trying to remember which years, but of course I’m drawing a blank. According to my email, I was a camper there in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018 and of course 2023.

Summer Camp for Geeks

That Conference is a tech/dev focused conference at an indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells. They say it is summer camp for geeks. Not summer camp like “Salute Your Shorts” (does anyone else remember this Nickelodeon show from the 90s?) summer camp, but I definitely get a Summer camp vibe when I’m there, with uh, much nicer accommodations. Each morning is a large group breakfast followed by a keynote speaker to start the day (I think this is where I get the summer camp vibe).

Tech-wise, the content is more .NET, JavaScript, Cloud, dev tooling and tech adjacent topics like, communication, leadership, creativity, state of job market, etc. The content is good at following trends as they are current (thing about these - SPA, IOT, Crypto, API, AI), and keeping foundational topics (think about these git, C#, JavaScript, testing), plus a few topics that might surprise you.

What Make That Conference Awesome

Besides the great speakers and content, there is so much more than just learning and geeking out. There is a game night (bring all your cards and board games), a pig roast, a night at the water park, and a morning 5K for all the runners. There is a family track for children, so bring your entire family. There is a water park, they won’t be bored. This is not your typical conference where you sit in your hotel room after the last session ends, you have an opportunity for fun everyday.

Memorable Topics

You know how I said content was more focused on .NET, JavaScript and dev tooling. Those are definitely foundational themes you’ll find quite often, however, some of my most memorable experiences include topics outside of those. There are a few topics that I either first learned about at That, or topics where the speaker did an excellent job of doing a deep dive. Here’s a small sample of topics that stick out in mind, some of them almost 10 years later.

  • Docker in 2014. I remember hearing about it at That Conference for the first time. I had heard the word, but never spent any time trying to learn until then. I went with some co-workers and we questioned how it was different than VMs. I had no idea how big it’s impact would be at the time.
  • I first learned about Elixir in 2015 at a talk by Ryan Cromwell. I was immediately intrigued by the language and the platform it runs on. I have since spent some time to learn Elixir and really find it one of the more fascinating functional languages
  • The same year (or maybe 2014) I listened to a deep dive on the git internals from Ed Thomson, one of the git for Windows developers. At the time, I knew relatively little about git. This really opened my eyes to how a source control system manages files across versions and branches. This is what really moved me away from TFS and towards git.
  • A coworker (Mike Harris) was giving a talk on the next version of C#. I forget the feature he was talking about, but the feature results in the compiler re-writing a goto in the generated. One camper in the room questioned Mike on this, didn’t like the answer and just walked out of the room. I guess the dude was principally against goto statements. I though it was funny and Mike handled it well.
  • Game Development on the NES, by Kevin Zurawel. This might be my favorite talk ever. It has absolutely nothing to do with my job. I knew this was on the schedule and I spent a few weeks prior to the conference reading up on writing 6502 assembly. The talk was so engaging. You could tell the speaker did this out of pure joy and just enjoyed it. I could have listened to this topic for hours.
  • Imposter Syndrome. This was an “Open Space” topic put up by a co-worker. I went to the talk out of curiosity - I don’t feel imposter syndrome very often and wanted to hear how others felt about it. Almost all of the 20+ people at the open space had a chance to speak. It was an amazing 45 minutes of hearing how much of a struggle this is for other. I spent some time reflecting on how I might unintentionally cause others to fall into this feeling.
  • 2023 was the year of Rust for me. I attended an all day workshop on developing at API with Rust and Axum. I still struggle a bit with Rust, but it was really awesome to plug in all the pieces of an API in a difficult language where I was definitely a beginner.

Don’t Do The Typical Conference Thing

Speakers and keynote talks are great, but sometimes the best content at That Conference is at the Open Spaces sessions, and talking one-on-one with other campers. If you aren’t familiar with the Open Spaces concept, its a large conference hall with tables and chairs arranged for small groups to discuss a topic. Topics could be anything - JavaScript support club, NeoVim users, career help, horses, etc. These topics and sessions are not planned prior to the conference. Campers post a topic that is important to them, and other attendees show up. This is your chance to turn the typical conference experience around and become an active participant instead of passively consuming a session (no offense speakers). I highly recommend this for anyone, you’ll probably be out of your comfort zone and that’s probably a good thing.

Find people, make a connection. This is a bit harder for the introverted folks, myself included. Apart from Open Spaces, this is an excellent way to make a top notch conference experience. That Conference refers to this as the “Hallway Track”. Find someone and strike up a conversation. Do this on the first day. You now have someone to compare notes with on sessions for the day past and sessions coming up. Connect on LinkedIn or social media. You might find someone who inspires you or someone who is inspired by you. You might find someone with similar interests. We may all be tech geeks, but even tech geeks like to socialize.

Final Thoughts

Going to a conference is a lot of work. The days extend longer than the normal working day, and you may still have some obligations with your family or back at your day job. That said, tech conferences can be very rewarding. I have been to enough conferences to know That Conference is something special. Yes you will learn, but you can do so much more at That Conference. As a professional software developer, I could not recommend this more. I discover enough new ideas During the conference to fill the time until the next year. I find That Conference rewarding and I find myself leaving each time feeling fulfilled. I will be there this year and hope to see you too.

Top comments (0)