Prof. Cristina Lopes Reflects on Producing SPLASH 2011

I had the honor of chairing the ACM Conference on Systems, Programming, Languages and Applications: Software for Humanity (SPLASH/OOPSLA) this year.  That means that I was like a Producer, and got to do all the work behind the scenes to make the conference come to life.  After a year and a half of “programming,” I pressed “run” on October 21.  It’s a little crazy if you believe in agile.  A whole year and a half of designing and “programming,” with no testing whatsoever, no small chunks, just a long process of envisioning, estimating, guessing, coordinating, signing contracts, making decisions; then we unleash the event over 5 days with almost 600 people and hope for the best!

Prof. Cristina LopesSo what’s involved in producing a conference like SPLASH? 

For the most part, there is a huge amount of coordination work that needs to be done.  The producer coordinates with the ACM (sponsor), the hotel/venue, the A/V and Internet people, external restaurants/entertainment, industry supporters, and the registration people, among other miscellaneous services.  This is the administrative, logistic, and operational side of the conference.  For these aspects, I brought in ISR’s Technical Relations Director Debra Brodbeck, who is an absolute maniac when it comes to getting things done.  We’re so very lucky to have her at UC Irvine...! 

There are also strategic and content aspects to producing a conference.  When I accepted the role of General Chair, I realized the conference was in flux trying to find its position in a context that is quite different from that of the 90s, when OOP was the big thing and everyone wanted to go to OOPSLA.  It was this strategic challenge that enticed me.  My goal was to formulate a mission statement for SPLASH that goes beyond catchy, meaningless groups of words, and that truly captures the uniqueness of this community.

So, what is the uniqueness of SPLASH? Why would someone attend SPLASH as opposed to, say, RubiConf, EclipseCon, Goto, Qcon, or academic conferences like PLDI, POPL, and the like?  SPLASH sits right at the edge of these two types of conferences.  Indeed, for about two decades or so, OOPSLA has been right on the edge where academic and industrial research meets advanced development.  It’s a balancing act at that edge, and SPLASH continues in this vein.  This year, the first keynote speaker was Turing award winner Ivan Sutherland; the third keynote speaker was Mr. JavaScript Brendan Eich; the keynote speaker in the middle was a Swiss academic, Markus Puschel, with some pretty wacky ideas on performance/productivity.  Where else could we possibly find this combination of keynote speakers in one conference?!

This edge is not for everyone.  Many people are better served if they go to conferences that have only Eich, Sutherland, or Puschel types of speakers, but not the combination of the three.  And that’s ok. But this is the uniqueness of SPLASH: it’s a hybrid, a melting pot of software development approaches.  As you go from session to session you may have the impression you are traveling between distant planets!

The rest of the [vast] program reflected this hybrid combination, with academic research papers woven with experience reports, idea-papers and demonstrations. Even the three TechTalk speakers were a hybrid bunch: Jesper Richter-Reichhelm geeked out on “How to handle 1M daily users without a cache;” Dave Thomas  entertained with a rant on “Why modern application development sucks!;” and Kresten Krab Thorup told a more personal story of his involvement with Erlang.  Let’s not forget the self-hybrid Guy Steele doing a live demonstration of singing calls in square dancing! The days preceding the main conference were also full of interesting talks and events with the same hybrid characteristic: from the Dart people, who have just unleashed one of the largest programming language design experiments ever over all of us, to Brad Myers, who studies the human aspects of programming in relatively controlled environments, to the AWS Hackathon.

You can probably sense the pride that I have in having been the producer of this wacky hybrid conference.  And I am extremely grateful to the organizers and committee members who helped put this conference together.  As many said before me, the most important thing for a team leader to do is to put in place a great team and move him/herself out of the way!

For more information on Prof. Lopes, visit her research group website.

This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: