A Look Back at SRECon20

Written by: Amy Tobey

When this year started, I had big plans to spend a lot of time with my community–the SRE community. 

When this year started, I had big plans to spend a lot of time with my community–the SRE community. For the last few years, the event I always looked forward to the most was SRECon, where I could catch up on what my peers around the world are up to and talk to them about it over hors d'oevures and drinks. This year was different. SRECon EMEA became a SRECon Conversations virtual event, while SRECon Americas went with a virtual take on the physical conference. I spoke about Emerging from Burnout for the EMEA event and attended Americas as a regular attendee for the first time in a while. 

SRE for SREs

Planning and programming a conference the size and visibility of SRECon is a daunting task, and having to do it without our colleagues nearby is even harder. This year's Americas event saw a record-breaking 1120 active attendees. From scrambling to select a virtual venue to reselecting the whole program, many people had to work together in unpredictable circumstances to make this happen and they deserve our applause. 

SREs everywhere maintain that perfect is impossible, and that we are all engaged in ongoing growth and adaptation. In incident analysis, I might admonish a peer, maybe you, to spend more time considering the 99.95% of the time when things go according to plan. When reflecting on writing this post, I found I was also in need of that reminder myself. There are things I feel strongly about doing better next time, but we should start with the overwhelming success. 

SRECon at Home

I feel like it's important to start with how different this experience was, but, surprisingly, some things were the same. It has been a long time since I've slept through a conference opening by accident, but while I got the right time in my head, I did not get the timezone. I could have done dozens of things differently, but analysis must stop somewhere. 

The first day of SRECon started like every other day since the pandemic started. I woke up in my own bed, and prepared for the day. Instead of having to fumble through my makeup bag, or fight my hair because I used hotel conditioner, I stumbled down to my kitchen and went through my routine of groggily caring for my dog and making tea. Tea made and pet maintenance complete, I carried my tea to my work desk, raised it to standing height, looked at my screen and swore soundly when I realized I messed up the timezone. 

After some calming breaths, I signed into Intrado and started looking for the conference chatter in Slack. I found myself facing mental dissonance between the virtual conference hall, how quiet Slack channels were, and my expectations. This wasn't my first time running into Intrado, and I was disappointed to see it hadn't changed much. After scrolling a bit in the chat there, I mostly saw vendors announcing things, and faint discussion among attendees. 

Equinix Metal was a diamond sponsor for the conference, so I had a role to play in the vendor hall. We chose to focus our booth on being available to answer questions and had a Zoom open for folks to connect with us. In various discussions about the vendor experience, we noted that it now took intent to visit vendors. The hall felt empty and frankly, boring. All of us on staff love talking to attendees whether we talk business or not. We missed the serendipity of seeing and meeting people in the chaos of the vendor area at SRECons past. Hopefully next year we can implement some of the ideas we kicked around, a few that I hope are fun surprises. 

The Hallway 

In a physical setting I might have twiddled around on my phone during sessions, but largely stay present by virtue of being in a room full of people doing the same. Instead, I was using my work computer with its myriad options for distraction at my fingertips. Besides fending off messages from work asking for things, I wanted to engage with my community. I'm not a patient person so after a short while hanging with my coworkers in the vendor Zoom, I struck out on my own. 

First I tried a Zoom call on my personal account, but immediately discovered I couldn't be in two at once. Then, thinking back to the pleasant experiences with the San Francisco Reliability Engineering meetup on Google Meet, I tried that and thankfully, it not only worked in parallel, it worked great with simultaneous video and audio to both apps. I posted about this call in one of the Slack channels and on Twitter. 

It's times like these when I'm so glad we have abandoned human error as a concept. A few people hopped on and within a few minutes of the announcements, I was feeling clever with the mod tools in Google Meet so I briefly tweeted out a link. 

I don't understand the motive for screensharing unrated movies on video calls, but after deleting the tweet–and about half an hour–the spammers stopped bothering us and we continued in peace. Excitement handled, I was joined by a number of folks from Twitter and the conference Slack. At some point we got through a round of introductions, which seemed to keep going as people joined and left the call and we went on digressions. Over the time we had together, we talked about how much we miss hanging out and covered a wide range of SRE and tech topics. This time together was a welcome reprieve from the isolation many of us are experiencing. 

The next day kicked off with J Paul Reed's talk about When /bin/sh Attacks: Revisiting "Automate All the Things"–a lovely talk about how we build and think about automation as joint-cognitive systems. Sometime into my second cup of tea, I started firing up the second hallway track call. Many of the same folks showed up, and we were joined by a few new faces too. Again, we got to enjoy talking in an open and unstructured forum. I was having so much fun I didn't pay as much attention to the sessions, which happens at physical SRECon too, when a good discussion gets going. I had to take my girlfriend to a medical appointment, so I had to drop early, but I was excited by the prospect that we would try for a post-conference happy hour. 

On the third day of SRECon my true love gave to me... incident commanding a 4AM database maintenance at work, so I was up very early and already at my computer a couple hours by the time sessions started up again. I posted the day's link in a couple channels and DMs to folks, and we got up to 9 people for lunch and hovered there through the end of the conference, when we posted again about our unofficial happy hour and got up to 18 people at one point. 

We talked a lot about our community, how much we miss seeing each other in the hallways and vendor gauntlets, and what more we want if there's another virtual conference. A few folks commented that the virtual hallway we made together added a lot to our experience. Even the time when we all sat quietly listening to a talk felt better than doing so alone. We got to be a conference crew for someone's first SRECon, who joined our little call on chance. We shared ideas, rants, stories, pets, our homes, and our lives. And, while it maybe wasn't as fulfilling as being in hugging range, it was something more than text channels, Intrado, and talks. I hope the next online event brings us better ways to connect. If it doesn't, we're SREs, we'll adapt.