Make Web Not War 2010 – a recap

With guitarpick dogtags, military paraphranalia and a notebook with the cover text “Why the f@&#* is Microsoft doing this?” Make Web Not War set a new standard for conferences.

The first words out of my mouth as I stepped off the plane in Montreal Wednesday afternoon were “What the Fuck!” (yes, I’m a real class act). Crossing the threshold from plane interior to airport gangway was like walking into a furnace. It was, at least to me, unbearably hot and I was in a rush to get out of the plane and to a washroom to blow my nose. Five hours earlier I found myself on a WestJet flight crossing the great Canadian landscape on my way to the almost mythical French portion of Canada. In my bag, my camera, my laptop and the bare necessities. As I made my way through Trudeau International Airport on the hunt for a cab all I could think was “I hope this cold doesn’t claim my voice as its victim” interspersed with “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”. The plane had taken a good 1 hour extra on its leisurely trip across the prairies, rush-hour was fast approaching and I knew that somewhere inside this Francophone metropol Angie Lim and her crack team of Microsoft event planners were waiting for my arrival.

And now for something completely different

Make Web Not War has been pushed as a conference that falls well outside the norm from the start. And with good reason. Entering the in itself fascinating location of Espace Reunion in the Outremont district I was met with military paraphranalia interspersed with glossy tech. There were gas masks, Dell laptops, ammunition cases, cammo clad couches, Beatles Rock Band and a huge green screen. I’ve been to quite a few conferences and I can tell you this is not common fare. But it set the right tone right off the bat.

This was Wednesday afternoon and the place was alight with frenzied activity. Microphones were being tested, screens hung, gear placed, names checked, I felt like I had walked right into a finely tuned machine room. The Master of Events Angie popped up to greet me but was soon pulled away to deal with a technical issue and before I knew it I was wisked away to a delightful dinner with the crew and the other speakers. Never mind the tech test – there was networking to be done.

Guitar picks and code languages

First impressions are vitally important, especially for public events like this. And the registration process often sets the tone for the entire conference. Make Web Not War was no exception, and that’s a good thing: When you are handed a dog tag chain full of colourful guitarpicks and a notebook with the cover text “Why the f@&#* is Microsoft doing this?” you know instantly this isn’t going to be yet another one of those boring conferences. Each attendee was handed a set of 5 guitarpicks, some of them doubles, and told that to get into the after party they needed to trade picks with the other attendees to get a complete set of 5 picks, each representing an open source code languages Microsoft supports.

Microsoft = Interop

The guitar picks were more than just nifty party tricks to force some interaction between the attendees: The whole point of the conference was to tell people that Microsoft is now 100% committed to interoperability. In other words you can now run open source languages, apps and software on Microsoft platforms without any problems. The web is platform agnostic and Microsoft has heard that message loud and clear. Now they want you to know they are in full support of it. Which is why they had Joël Perras, a dev for CakePHP and Lithium, as the keynote speaker, why the FTW (For The Web) contest was featured around Open Data and why they had me presenting my talk on developing WordPress sites using Microsoft applications. Like Joël said, “Interoperability is not a feature, it’s a requirement”. And we all got it.

Open communities

As usual I spent more time talking to people and soaking in the atmosphere than I did actually attending sessions at Make Web Not War. What I walked away with was a realization that the Montreal dev community is an astonishingly open one. In general I find people who work in the online realm to be cliquy to the point of isolationist, but not so in Montreal. Maybe it’s the Francophone culture, maybe it was just the overall air of the event itself, but I found more people open to frank discussions and inclusion than what I’m used to. Which was awesome. On top of that Microsoft had sent out a score of great people to further interaction. In all the sense of openness was everywhere and I was left with a feeling of inclusion, of being part of a greater community.

“Nice to finally meet you IRL”

Having put on a couple of events myself, most notably the 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon, I can tell you it’s no small feat. Which makes the hitch-free Make Web Not War all the more impressive. And for that mad props go out to the whole Microsoft team and in particular the aforementioned Angie Lim. I’ve dealt with her on several occasions in the past, but only by email so to me it was an added bonus to finally meet her in person. Or as Angie so geekfully put it “Nice to finally meet you IRL”. (Seriously, she is the only person who can say stuff like that without coming off like the biggest nerd ever).

Make Web Not War was filled with interaction, technology, knowledge and a sense of positive development. I left feeling like I was part of something bigger, that working with the web means I’m working with some of the brightest and most original people on the planet. And for that I am honoured.

FTW contest – going beyond the obvious

The FTW (For The Web) contest was a subset of the conference and it deserves special mention. The mandate was simple if not vague: Make an application using Open Data. It’s the kind of mandate that drives me insane, but other more focussed people were able to make some truly amazing stuff out of it. The finalists, TaxiCity – a student project from the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver created by Mohamed El Eryan, Dashan Yue, Seth Marinello, Jordan Braun, Sagar Datta, Dhruv Adhia, and Ryleigh Kostash, Find-a-Home created by Timothy Dalby, and Project Tholus created by Francois Mazerolle showed that Open Data can be used to create surprising and original applications that go way beyond the standard data feeding and map overlays we are used to seeing. The winner, Find-A-Home, was especially impressive and I can see almost endless applications for this novel yet original idea down the road. I only wish I had come up with it first.

Further reading

Make Web Not War (official site)
Dan Menard’s recap
Cory Fowler’s recap

Brendan Sera-Shriar linkfest

@WebNotWar on Twitter

My Web Not War photoset on Flickr
The official WebNotWar Flickr Pool