Back in October 2010, I was amazingly lucky, and won a ticket to the PHPBenelux 2011 conference! stuff like that doesn’t often happen to me, infact, phpnw is one of the few places I’ve ever won anything, the previous year I won a copy of PHP Object Oriented Solutions.
With much excitement, I arranged to travel with Rob Allen to the conference, as we are in (relatively) close proximity, and traveling with someone is always better than traveling alone.
As the months quickly passed by, the conference schedule was soon posted, and I became immediately impressed with the lineup, with speakers from America making an appearance along with the big names in PHP from Europe, this was going to be a great conference.
As quickly as I got my voucher to book my ticket for the conference, I signed up to an extra session of tutorials, after all I was going to be there anyway. with that and the hotel and flights booked, anticipation was the state of mind for the next two and a half months leading up to the conference. Once the tutorial sessions were announced, I discovered that I was in for a treat, Solr was on the agenda, a tool which I’ve only worked with from the outside, that is being involved in a team using it, but not working with it directly myself, so finally I was to get the chance to learn something more about it, so I booked my seat in that tutorial, and resumed my previous state of anticipation.
Finally, came travelling day. Leaving nice and early in the morning, up the M5, I stopped off and picked up Akrabat, and we headed for Birmingham airport, where what would turn out to be a long day began. Little did we know what we were in for, we were supposed to be flying at 10:50am, we eventually took off at 8:30pm! Thankfully, having a traveling buddy paid off, and the time passed quickly in the bar, and the beer began!
When we finally arrived at the hotel, many tweets later, and being kindly picked up by Michelangelo van Dam, we headed straight to the bar, to begin consumption of some fine belgian beer! (and very fine it was)
The conference begins
Kicking off with a tutorial on Solr, was Paul Borgermans, who has extensively used Solr in his work before, and gave an excellent introduction for those of us who were new to the subject, while managing to easily move on to some of the more complex subjects without causing confusion, and explaining everything with just the right amount of detail, not to little to leave you with dozens of questions, and not too much to take in at once. I came away from the session confident that I could set up and get running with Solr without much hassle, and without needing to spend a whole day in google. An excellent start!
Next up, after an excellent meal, was the Keynote. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Lorna or Ivo speak at a conference, and have enjoyed their talks where I have seen them before, so to have the two of them together was a real treat! Titled ’27 Ways to be a better developer’, and interspersed with humour and wit, were some really good messages, some new, some re-enforcing things that every developer should really know already, but overall a balanced talk about how to improve yourself as a developer. The Supreme Allied Commander (Matthew Weier O’Phinney) was even featured when discussing the idea of finding a mentor, and also passing that knowledge on in return.
Derick Rethans was next on my journey through the schedule, With a presentation on Geo-Location, and mapping, Mostly seemed to be aimed at using OpenStreetMap, but explained some of the nuances of how to present mapping data, and was a really interesting presentation. Perhaps less PHP involved than I expected, but had plenty of great information, and opened my mind to the possibility of not using google maps next time I need an interactive map in a website, it seems much simpler, and less restricted by google’s licensing (you can even use the data without using a map at all).
Next up for me from the schedule was, ‘Making software development tools work for you’ by John Mertic of SugarCRM, discussing pretty much exactly what it said on the tin! talking about how to choose your tools, and how to get the best from them, covering tools from issue tracking to continuous integration, source control and more.
Then ‘Designing HTTP interfaces, and RESTful web services’ by David Zülke of Bitextender. I really enjoy seeing David speak, he manages to fully inject his character and humour into his talk, and at the same time get right into technical details, and convey his point.
The Drinking Continues
At the end of the day came the closing Messages from Microsoft, and an introduction to Azure from Maarten Balliauw, and Katrien De Graeve, with Michelangelo van Dam giving us some insights into how PHP is maturing on windows. Michelangelo’s presentation promted a good deal of chatter on twitter, with his demonstration of how phing can be used to deploy the same codebase to different servers, (and deploying to linux is 2 lines and a few seconds in rsync, deploying to windows, 50,000 lines and a minute in ftp!). One feature I was sorry not to see discussed more, is Azure’s cloud simulator, which looks like a really cool tool to have, and would be nice to get running some linux vm’s in.
After this, we had a good spread of food laid on by Facebook, and the time to spend the beer vouchers given kindly by github! so over the road to the hotels second complex, where there was bowling and beer, a good mix by everyone’s standards!
First up for me, Paul Jones, talking about benchmarking frameworks. This turned out to be totally not what I was expecting. instead of Solar Framework, trouncing the world, was a balanced and informed look at how to meter your own environment to see how different frameworks may perform for you, and how to take the steps to bring in control to ensure that you know what your framework is costing you, and what the application you build upon it costs. At the end, I think everyone came away better armed to know how to get the most from benchmarking their applications, and to take a balanced look at their systems.
Following Paul, was a talk from Scott MacVicar, talking about HipHop for PHP, which I have been following with interest for a while, and it was very interesting to see the developments since he gave a talk on this subject back in phpnw, I wasn’t sure at first if I should attend this, or another talk, but i’m glad I did, having learnt some more about what they have been doing, and learning a little more about some of the challenges that a site such as facebook faces from a technical perspective.
Then it was time for Rob’s talk on Zend Framework 2, where he announced publicly for the first time that Zend Framework 2 in Action was to be written, and that I would be working with him on it, the talk went down well with the audience, with lots of questions and curiosity from the audience, and Rob appeared to be surrounded when it was over with people asking his advice and opinion.
Next I attended an excellent talk by Keith Casey, entitled Project Triage and Recovery, which while he discussed the challenges of forking dotProject for web2Project, also went into some interesting concepts such as managing the complexity of a codebase, interacting with users, and dealing with issues which were really applicable to every project, not just getting on top of an out-of-control codebase. I came away from this brimming with ideas to take back to the office!
At the end of the day, was the closing keynote, brought to us by Elizabeth Naramore, and while it had chocolate chip cookies in the title, it was really about building a community, being the glue, and keeping it motivated. overall an excellent presentation mixed with humour, interaction from the audience and a confident speaker who left a great impression!
Closing the conference, were the raffles, and prizes, thanks for the sponsors, the speakers, and the crew, all of which brought together an excellent conference experience, and the hospitality from the crew was second to none! everybody at the conference was warm and welcoming, crew and other delegates alike, and every speaker was pleasant and approchable.
I know it seems like a bit of a theme now, but the drinking is a very important aspect of a conference in this community. Not only do you get the chance to get drunk and have a good time, but you also make new connections, share experiences and ideas, and make friends. You could even say, that a good chunk of the magic of a conference, happens at the social, if you have not attended a conference before, try as hard as you can to make sure you can hang around for it when you attend your first one, you wont regret it!
After the close, and a quick call home, those of us who were staying at the hotel one more night, and some of the crew headed into Antwerpen for amazing pizza! and of course more beer, with the conference crew again demonstrating their hospitality driving us into the city center in their cars.
I had a fantastic time at PHPBenelux, and fully intend to be there again next year, (who knows, maybe they will accept me as a speaker!) and I’ve come back full of ideas and refreshed, and perhaps more importantly, the new faces I have met and some of the people I have met before, has also given me more leads and potential for my day to day life, so Im closing this with a huge thank you to the conference organisers, the speakers, and everyone I met for a great time!
Since the conference, new opportunities have already arisen for me, directly as a result of the social elements of the conference, what a great community we are lucky enough to have as PHP developers!