Why start a new database conference?

Published 2021-12-17

Somehow I am organizing a conference called Have you tried rubbing a database on it?

This isn't what I planned to do this year. How did this happen?


The answer is that I drank too much coffee before breakfast and ended up on twitter, where I saw someone joking that the solution to thinking that everything is a compiler problem is to learn about databases - now you have two problems.

Which hits a little too close to home. But while we're thinking about it...

Are these actually two separate problems?

Fundamentally, every computer system is about storing, moving and transforming data. The line between operating system, database and programming language is somewhat arbitrary - a product of specific problems, available hardware and historical accident.

But today the problems and the hardware have changed dramatically, and as a result we're starting to see people experimenting with redrawing the lines.

Here are some of the changes:

Here are some of the directions people are exploring to deal with these changes:

I don't know what the future is going to look like, but a rewarding avenue of experiment is to take the tools and techniques developed in the database world and recombine them in new ways and on new problems - redrawing the lines between operating system, database and programming language.

But those lines are still encoded in the structure of our fields. Database people go to database conferences. Programming language people go to programming language conferences. Game engine developers are not going to either of those conferences.

What if we tried to get all these people in the same room?


Well, 'room'. This isn't exactly the best year for international travel. So it will have to be online.

And at first that felt like a problem, because I usually go to conferences to meet people and only later watch the recorded talks at 2x speed, because most people talk too slowly and rehearse too little. A conference where I just watch the talks at regular speed and then don't get to talk to anyone doesn't sound that appealing.

Passive lectures aren't an effective way to convey information anyway. So I prefer the model used by eg !!con - all talks are ten minutes long, and they're treated as a starting point to get people talking rather than as a complete lecture.

You can pack a lot of ideas into a heavily edited, well rehearsed 10 minute recording (I've been using medc as my favorite example). And we can show a lot of those 10 minute recordings in one day and still reserve half the time for discussion over text and video chat.


Many tech conferences end up being a series of hour-long ads from software vendors. Which is fine. Sometimes people need to buy software. But that means that it's all about the immediate future - things that you can already sell. It doesn't leave much room for people doing things out on the fringes. So I wanted to run a conference that wouldn't accept talks that are just 'doing boring task X with expensive SaaS Y'.

But then how do I get sponsors to pay for the conference?

This year I 'went' to handmade. It had no ads and no sponsors - supported entirely by ticket sales. How did they do it? They just... didn't spend loads of money.

And handmade was a hybrid event. They had to book a location, hire staff to sign people in etc. Plus they live-streamed and live-captioned everything. That's expensive and difficult.

Fosdem this year was online-only. They estimate the hardware costs for 30k attendees at a few thousand dollars.

If I cut out the live-streaming too and do entirely pre-recorded talks, what costs am I even left with? Video hosting. Captioning. Text and video chat. Maybe hiring moderators, if there are a lot of attendees. That's it.

So I expect the costs to be low enough that I can go out on a wing and set the ticket price to pay-what-you-want.

(There's also labour. A lot of labour. But that's already been paid for.)


I thought that the hard part would be finding speakers, but a week after publishing the site the lineup is already pretty exciting. Turns out you can just email strangers and ask them to give a talk at your just-recently-invented conference and they'll agree. (Track record so far - 8 yes, 3 maybe, 1 no reply).

There is also a form to propose a talk. There have already been a few solid proposals, some of which for projects that I never would have heard of otherwise.

One of the nice things about being an purely online conference is there isn't a capacity limit. So rather than thinking about accepting or rejecting talks, I'm thinking about it as a curation problem. I'll add the talks that I think people will be most excited about to the main schedule, but I'll also intersperse it with choose-your-own-adventure blocks where attendees can individually choose which of the remaining talks to watch. And all of the talks will be available publicly after the event.


If this sounds like something you'd enjoy you can sign up here to be notified when tickets are available:

Or you can submit a talk proposal here:

Propose a talk