Thoughts on State Of Open Con 2023

Tags: conference, open-source, community


I managed to get a last-minute ticket to State of Open Conference in London - given it’s convenient for me to get there and given my keen interest in open source it felt like I couldn’t say no! This wasn’t my first tech conference but with the others being programming language conferences I didn’t really know what to expect.

My first impression was that it was in quite a fancy location/venue, being right in the centre of London, spread over multiple floors that only seemed to be accessible by the lifts. Looking at the schedule more closely, I realised there were a number of “tracks”, where it seemed the expectation was for people to stay in one room for multiple talks in a row focusing on a single topic. This was unfamiliar to me, where at PyCon UK there was a short gap between every talk to allow for people to pick and choose, but perhaps this setup is more normal than I realise.

The conference started with a plenary session, with introductions/welcomes, and talks/discussions featuring what I’d describe as quite high profile people (although not the kind of names I would recognise), such as Labour MP Chi Onwurah and Eric Brewer from Google. I elected to start off with the ‘platform engineering’ track talks, drawn in by the eBPF talk that came first. I discovered this track was a kind of dev ops focus (I wouldn’t have guessed that’s what “platform engineering” referred to!), which was interesting from the perspective of learning how people are using tools like Kubernetes (since I’ve been using this a bit at work), but otherwise felt like it would mainly apply in medium to large corporate structures such as banks.

I also decided to try the Goverment Law and Policy track of talks, this time being particularly interested in a talk focusing on ethics in open source. These talks ended up being a bit more directly related to my interest in open source, although it felt like perhaps a case of advocating for things that everyone in the room already strongly agreed with. The main controversial point that came up was whether open source maintainers should consider changing their license to prevent bad actors from being allowed to use the software - this was advocated by the speaker but strongly rejected by a member of the audience (breaking the rule of “ask a succinct question, rather than stating your own opinion”) who argued that it’s no longer open source if not using an OSI-approved license that allows anyone to make use of the code. I’m not sure I buy into “OSI-approved” being the best measure for doing open source in an ethical way…

Overall I got a slight feeling of there being a somewhat corporate/political focus to the conference, as opposed to a focus on individual projects or open source development itself. This was the biggest contrast to the Python and Zig conferences I’ve been to, where the content tends to be either quite technical or focused on actual development processes. To elaborate with some examples: the plenary included some discussion about governmental legislation around open source, and there seemed to be a strong representation on stage of people representing companies, often from the perspective of how the company is working in open source. I’m not sure if this was intentionally the focus, whether it should be expected from a conference that isn’t focusing on a specific technology, or whether it just reflects the focus of Open UK (the non-profit who organised the conference). Overall this slightly reduced my interest in some of the content, given I have more of a technical background, but it’s always interesting getting perspectives of other people working in open source and how it can be monetised.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about the conference was being surrounded by open source advocates, and having the opportunity to chat with people from RedHat, Canonical, and other projects/companies I use or have at least heard of and have some interest in. It felt like the scope being covered was very wide (not just open source but open data and open hardware too), which meant there were lots of company stands with varying levels of relevance to me. I would personally have loved to see more representation from projects like programming languages, Linux/Unix-related projects, or container-related projects, as I would’ve had a lot of topics to chat about with people working on these areas!

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