Deserted Island DevOps was held on April 30, 2020, in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It was the first tech conference held in Animal Crossing, as far as I know, and was streamed live on Twitch. The conference organizers have broken out videos for the individual talks and I’ll be linking to those for each one, but you can also view the entire recorded stream on Twitch.
Austin Parker tweeted a joke about hosting a conference in Animal Crossing, and then it became a reality. His tweet led to an event that featured some very well known speakers and had over 7000 viewers on Twitch. The TL;DR is that this was a virtual event that could have been gimmicky but turned out to be very authentic feeling while conveying great information. The people involved seemed to love Animal Crossing, which is what steered the conference away from the potential gimmicky outcomes, at least for me.
For many people Animal Crossing: New Horizons (which I’ll be referring to as ACNH) has been the perfect video game for the moment. People have felt isolated, anxious, and a host of other emotions, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ACNH is a video game that’s about as chill as a game can be. You hang out on an island and perform some very Zen activities, and there’s no pressure to advance. You can visit friends and exchange items with them, or just do your own thing. I find it very relaxing, and I think it has helped me manage my stress levels.
The way the conference actually worked was fascinating. The speakers and organizers gathered on an island in ACNH. The speakers stood at a podium with a laptop in the game but were also in a Zoom conference where they shared slides and audio. All of that was streamed to Twitch. The conference also had a Discord server, and some people hosted viewing parties where people could come to their ACNH island and hang out while they watched the talks. It was all very well thought out and executed. My one complaint was that I got some device fatigue trying to juggle all of the different communication platforms happening (including Twitter). Eventually, I ended up narrowing my focus and not paying much attention to the Twitch chat or Discord. But I suppose that having more options for communication let the participants use the ones they preferred.
The conference started at 7 AM Pacific Time, and honestly, part of my brain was having trouble with the whole concept at that hour:
But I managed to get it together and headed right for the Twitch stream.
The day started with some intro from Austin and Katy Farmer. I’ve known Katy for a while, and she’s a delightful person. She also did a great job as the MC for the day. There was a big focus on making the event inclusive, which I appreciated. That reflects the kind of energy that’s in ACNH for me.
The opening keynote was by one of my favorite people in the Kubernetes and DevOps communities, Ian Coldwater from Heroku (view the video here). I saw Ian do a keynote in front of 10,000+ people at KubeCon San Diego from a few rows back, and now I’ve seen them do a keynote inside of a video game. Both were very different experiences, but a lot of fun.
Ian’s talk was about building bridges between DevOps folks and security teams, and they did a great job of explaining the different perspectives that people operate from.
DevOps people want to ship infra and applications, while security teams are sometimes seen as the team of no.
People build silos on both sides of the equation.
One thing this talk had in common with Ian’s KubeCon San Diego keynote was the focus on thinking like attackers. DevOps people often don’t share the attacker’s mindset, and they can learn how to think more like attackers from security folks.
Breaking down silos and improving communication is something we talk a lot about in DevOps, but that idea of learning from the security teams is one I don’t hear discussed nearly as much. It was great to see, and this talk was a fantastic way to kick off the event. I know Ian loves ACNH, and I think that made their presentation even better. The many ACNH references during the day were super fun for me, as someone who plays the game.
The second speaker of the event was Nočnica Fee from New Relic, or Nica for short, with a talk titled No Dev is an Island: How to do serverless together (video here). Nica talked about the fact that serverless is easy for one person to do, but more problematic as teams scale in size. Some hard truths were spoken:
Testing with serverless also came up, which is something I was happy to learn more about.
Experimenting came up as well.
One of the ways to do that is with canaries:
I enjoyed learning some new things about serverless from Nica’s talk.
David gave some examples of pain he’d felt using new tools, like Envoy, Linkerd, and one with a fantastic name:
When I was working in infra and SRE, I often felt the pull to use the new shiny tool. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Etsy “use boring technologies” model. To me, the sweet spot is somewhere in between, and it will be different from org to org. I wouldn’t want to be running the LAMP stack right now, but there also can be a lot of pain with running tools that are missing obvious features, aren’t stable, or have poor documentation. This is what David was referring to with his talk’s title. If your team has time to wait on using a new tool, he suggests you do it.
I loved this point:
This was another great talk and super timely. A lot more digital communities are cropping up, and there’s a lot of experimentation going on. One thing Mia mentioned is that you shouldn’t try to do this alone.
I’ve helped run a meetup and helped organize a few conferences, and this is very true. Not only is this all a lot of work, but if you’re the only organizer, you’re potentially a single point of failure.
There was also some talk about tools.
And this is so true:
Moving people to new tools and platforms is very difficult. When you try to make one of those migrations, expect only a fraction of the community to come along for the ride.
There were even tips for community members.
If you are interested in virtual communities, you should definitely watch this talk.
The last talk before the lunch break was a very fascinating talk about mob programming, by Tori Chu from Nationwide (video here). I’m a bit familiar with the concept of mob programming (I spoke at an event last year where Woody Zuill gave an amazing talk about it), but I’ve never done any actual mob programming. I’m sure I’m not alone there. Tori started by explaining the concept:
Tori works on a team that acts as consultants in their company, helping other teams learn. They don’t use contrived examples in their work.
And then due to COVID-19 her team had to adjust to suddenly working from home.
Soon the talk turned into an interactive mob programming demo, with Tom Nook as the driver.
Tori explained that mob programming allows the entire team to learn and solve problems together. I had only heard about it, but I got much more of a feel for it from the demo and think it’s very intriguing. The demo was super cool, and my tweets won’t do it justice. You should watch the video and see if your team wants to try it out.
Next was the lunch break, where I took some time to hop into ACNH and mess around, which is something I tend to do on lunch breaks anyway.
Up after lunch was Adrienne Tacke from MongoDB with a talk titled, Embrace the Wasp Sting: Why Failure Helps Your Team (video here). I love discussions about failure, and it seemed super appropriate for the time we’re in. We need to be patient with ourselves and our teammates, as we’re all dealing with stress and cognitive load.
Adrienne used the metaphor of the wasp stings in ACNH, and how they helped her learn more about the game. And she explained that failure helps us collaborate better with our teams.
This was super cute:
I loved all the ACNH references. Some of the speakers went all out.
Kat Cosgrove from Jfrog was the next speaker, with a talk titled Snakes on a Car (video here). This was one of the more technical talks of the conference, and it was very interesting. As an aside, I really enjoyed the mix of culture and technical talks in the program. It reminded me very much of a DevOpsDays program, which I thought was very appropriate.
Kat’s talk was about a demo her team built for an event to show how you’d do updates on a car’s software over the wire.
This is a topic I find super interesting. Cars are very much computers at this point, and there’s a lot of risks involved with updating their software. Kat’s team built a racing simulator for the demo.
This is another topic that’s of interest to me, as I’ve been playing a lot of F1 2019 recently and looking at simulator gear. Kat’s team used the very popular Logitech G29 racing wheel to build what is known as a Donkey Car.
Kat also mentioned that there was scope creep as they worked on this project, and that she would do a better job of pushing back on that if it happened today. Scope and feature creep are things that every team deals with at some point.
Super fun talk and demo. Some of the software is available on GitHub, as well.
Matt Stratton from Red Hat, or Matty to those of us who love him, was up next. His talk was called Kick Em or Keep Em - Collaborating on our own Deserted Islands (video here). I saw Matty speak recently at another virtual conference, Failover Conf, and here he was with another great talk. One thing I very much appreciated was the talk selection that the Deserted Island DevOps organizers did. They did a great job finding content that was super relevant to what many people are experiencing right now.
Matty started out talking about psychological safety, and why it’s crucial.
Many people have experienced being shamed or punished in the workplace, or have seen it happen to others. We know pretty instinctively that it’s harmful, but there’s data that shows that psychological safety predicts productivity.
Matty also talked about Nonviolent Communication, which is an area that was new to me.
He said that compromise isn’t the goal, as a compromise can leave everyone unhappy.
And he ended with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
This talk was so timely. Collaboration can be difficult under normal circumstances, but it will be even more challenging for many teams right now. People are working remotely that don’t normally, and they are stressed and distracted. I was pleased to see this topic covered, and I learned some things.
Up next was Jacquie Grindrod from Hashicorp, with a talk titled You Will Not Go To Space Today (video here). Jacquie’s team built a game as part of a hackathon.
It turns out that computers are hard and terminal colors are even harder.
A lot of this talk was about the decisions that the team made along the way of the project. It’s pretty common to launch into a project and find out some things aren’t going to work the way you want them to. Jacquie’s team had to make some changes to their expectations. It was great to hear some frank discussion of the struggles they had.
This talk was very fun, and Jacquie may have had the best look of the day:
The last talk of the conference was one of my favorites, by my friend Aaron Aldrich of Launch Darkly. I saw Aaron give one of the most amazing talks about mental health in tech that I’ve seen, at DevOpsDays Portland 2019. He’s also a very kind and smart person, and I was happy to see he was on the program.
Aaron’s talk was titled Sticking Together while Staying Apart: Resilience in the time of global pandemic (video here). It was another talk for the moment we’re in. Aaron started off explaining some of the terminology of resilience.
A core concept of Resilience Engineering is that humans are a key part of systems.
Aaron talked about some ways that we can build better common ground on our teams.
Then he circled back to our current situation.
I loved his point that local action is critical right now.
And I managed to make an appearance in the talk, from an ad hoc Zoom chat right that happened right after Failover Conf, where some of my friends were pulling background shenanigans.
Aaron’s talk was very powerful, and I recommend watching it if you didn’t attend the event. I think ideas from Resilience Engineering are beneficial in looking at how we can navigate the COVID-19 crisis.
After Aaron finished we got some final words from the organizers (video here). First, Katy stepped away from her MC duties and gave some thoughts about how to cope right now. I thought she was spot on.
I’ve been saying for a while that I think self-care is critical right now. Aaron mentioned it in his talk as well. The analogy I’ve been using has been the pre-flight airline safety instructions. You put your mask on first so that you can then be able to help others.
Katie ended with another great reminder:
Austin spoke really briefly about how amazing it was to see the event come together. Having helped plan a few conferences, I can only imagine how fun and rewarding this one was to pull off. He’s since published a postmortem of the event that has a ton of interesting information. I’m not used to seeing public postmortems of conferences, so kudos to him for that as well.
I had an amazing time at Deserted Island DevOps. I want to thank all of the speakers and organizers for putting this event together. It was novel and also very impactful. I expect I will be watching some of the talks again, and I’m already hoping there’s another iteration of the conference down the road. In the meantime, I’ll likely be in ACNH buying turnips from Daisy Mae and contemplating yet another mortgage so I have more space to store them.