Linux.conf.au: First timers Guide

Please note this document is not an official publication of Linux Australia or the Linux.conf.au Organisers. You should read the official website first before reading this. This document is designed to cover everyone from corporate "suits" and 17 year old smelly geek types, so while some of the advice seems obvious to you, it might not to others. Please email me with corrections.

Introduction

Linux.conf.au (or LCA) is a large Linux orientation conference that takes place in Australia each year, usually in late January. The next LCA will take place in Perth, Australia from the 6th to the 10th of January 2014. Around 500-800 people attend each year.

According to Wikipedia:

"The conference is one of three major, international, grass-roots open-source conferences world wide. The other two are the Ottawa Linux Symposium (commonly known as OLS) and Linux Kongress. "

I've attended ten LCAs so far and I really enjoy the conference, it is a great way to learn new stuff, meet interesting people, network and generally get twice as much out of a week as you normally do.

Shortly after attending LCA 2007 in Sydney I read some blogs entries of those who attended and realised that many people who attended for the first time don't quite know what to expect and so didn't get as much out of the conference as they could have. I thought I'd write a little guide to hopefully give some future first timers some information beforehand rather than have them find out the hard way.

Beforehand

Presenting

A call for papers will usually be issued sometime in July with a deadline of around 2 months later. Competition is pretty tough and only about 20% of proposals are accepted. Here are some blog posts for people of the programme committee(s) to give you an some tips on getting accepted:

If you don't get accepted you have options of presenting at the Miniconfs or Lightning talks but only the main conference speakers will get their travel subsidised, get to go to the speakers dinner, and have an extra symbol on their badge (see below about badges). As one former speaker said:

"LCA treat their speakers much better than other conferences, and this is a large part of why so many interesting people keep coming back."

Have a look though the miniconfs nice and early for separate calls for presentations. The miniconfs usually do not or cannot publicise their CFPs as widely as the main conference.

What days to Attend

In the last few years the conference has run from Monday morning to early Saturday afternoon.

In the programme the Monday and sometimes Tuesday are given over to Miniconfs which are themed streams covering things like Debian, Gnome, Systems Administration, Vitualisation, Open Source Databases, etc which are organised separately from the main programme and the Saturday to "Open Day".

You should really attend at least Monday though Friday and probably Saturday as well. Many first timers make the mistake of skipping the Miniconfs and find they have missed out on half the conference. The whole week is filled with opportunities to make friends and learn interesting stuff, and there may also be lightning talks or 'best of conference' repeats on open day.

To catch everything you should probably arrive during the day on Sunday and leave on Saturday. This gives you time to get settled in on Sunday night (and catch dinner with other people) and to stay out late on Friday night.

If you want to do touristy things or visit long lost relatives you should do it before or after the conference. The conference activities run from around 8am to after midnight all though the week, so if you try and fit things in beside that you will be a wreck, or you will be missing out.

Sometimes other small conferences will be held just after or before LCA in the same area. Keep an eye open for these also.

Accommodation

LCA is usually held at a University, and usually during the January summer holidays so the main accommodation option is student halls. These are cheap ( $50 - $70 per day ) rooms, usually single with shared facilities although better options can be available. Breakfast is usually included in an attached dining hall.

The main thing to remember is that while things are a little spartan you will not be doing much more than sleeping in the room. The big advantage is that there will be 50-100 other people from the conference there so there are lots of opportunities to sit around and chat or plan evening excursions. Free Wi-Fi should also be available.

I would recommend staying in the halls if possible. Also if you are planning to stay in the area a few days before or after the conference it might be possible to stay in the hall for the extra days. Contact them to see if this is possible.

Unfortunately the student dorms are usually not as suitable for couples or families as they are for people coming alone or with friends. They have no facilities for children and couples will usually be assigned separate rooms. Sometimes there are options for double/large rooms with ensuites however.

Registering

There are a few tricks to the registration form.

1. Don't forget to specify any dietary requirements, the main conference dinners tend to have limited menus so if you are vegetarian, vegan or whatever you need to say so here or you'll be stuck with the default. The vegetarian and vegan options are usually good so you won't (generally) starve.

If you need room accessibility of various sorts, such as wheelchair access or a hearing aid loop then check with the organisers before registering. In 2007 several of the lecture theatres were not wheelchair accessible.

Also say if you have difficulty walking long distances, sometimes the conference dinners are 10-20 minutes walk from the main venue, the accommodation may also be a similar distance. Talk to the organisers and they should be able to arrange transport.

2. You can mix and match Miniconfs at any point, the main reason they are listed here is for room size allocations.

3. If you go for professional then you get your main conference dinner included in the price and you get to go to the professional networking session plus an extra goody or two in your bag. Hobbyist and Concession registrations can pay an extra $60 or so to go to the penguin dinner. You can also buy a ticket for a guest or two.

4. The favourite shell, editor and "description" (something like "a distortingly volatile type" or "a widely illegal expert") will appear on your badge. See Badge below for details.

The description changes every time your reload the page or you can hack the page to make it display what you want.

5. Don't forget your T-shirt size and sign up for the attendees mailing list. It can get a little busy (perhaps 700 messages across the whole week) but it can have some useful information, just filter the messages into a separate folder for skimming when you have time.

6. You should save and print out the registration summary in case there are problems later.

7. Don't forget to pay, your registration is not confirmed until you pay the required money. Even if you register early you can miss out because the conference fills up with others who have paid.

Partners Programme

The partners programme is run at the same time as LCA for partners (and accompanying children) of attendees who don't want to attended a multi-day Linux conference but want something to do in the city during the conference.

The programme usually consists of a semi-guided tour of nearby tourist attractions. Places like parks, the zoo, vineyards, shopping and tourist areas are common.

If you have a partner who is not a Linux geek then this programme can be well worth it. They get an interesting look at the local area in the company of a bunch of other people who are all also partners of Linux geeks.

The conference venue is usually the start and finish for each day and partners can hang around and possibly attend a couple of talks.

Visas

Australia does not have visa free travel from any country except New Zealand. However it does have an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) for countries like the USA, most EU members and Japan. ETA's can be applied for online and cost just $20 Australian and take just a minute to obtain online.

See the website for details and to apply for one. You must do this before you leave from your home country.

If you are not eligible for an ETA or Visa-Free travel from New Zealand then make sure you apply early for your Visa. The conference organisers can produce a letter for Department of Immigration documenting you are attending the conference if this is required.

Once you are in Australia you do not need further Visas to travel anywhere including Tasmania. However New Zealand is an independant country and has seperate immigration requirements.

See the NZ immigration website for requirements to visit New Zealand, if the conference is being held there, or before or after the conference.

Getting there

You will normally have to fly to the city in which LCA is being held. If this is your first visit to Australia then consult general travel information as to what to expect.

Note that it takes days rather than hours to drive between Australian state capitals and in the case of Tasmania (the site of LCA 2009) you need to fly or catch an ocean going ferry to the island.

What to Bring

See below for dress. You can usually count on getting at least 1 or two additional T-shirts during the conference.

Besides the usual travel stuff you might need:

  • Business cards (Company and/or personal).
  • Proof of age with photo (passport, drivers license etc), the drinking age in Australia is 18.
  • Laptop (see below).
  • USB flash drive.
  • Pen and notepad.
  • Printout of registration confirmation
  • A printout of the campus map (to find your way to register on Sunday).
  • Phone numbers for the organisers and your accommodation.

At the conference

Dress Code

Dress code for the conference is casual for all events. Most people wear a T-shirt, jeans or shorts and casual footwear. "Smart Casual" puts you in the top 10 percent, a suit and tie is way over dressed.

Don't go too casual however. The conference is not the beach and you should have at minimum shirt, medium length shorts and footwear on at all times which should be all in good condition.

Since the conference occurs during the Australian summer the weather will almost certainly be hot, humid and sunny most days so wear sunscreen and a hat when outside for more than a couple of minutes. Don't forget to wash, clean your teeth, use deodorant and change your shirt and underwear every day. Australia is hot in January, and you'll be near a lot of people.

However cold weather can happen so you might wish to pack at least one set of warm clothes, and a warm jacket.

Signing In

Sometimes there will be signs or chalked arrows between the accommodation and the registration desk helping you find it. If not a printed map may be useful the first time or follow the pack.

If possible you should try and sign in on the Sunday afternoon, usually the crowds are a little long on the Monday morning so it may take a while to register. The conference sometimes runs out of T-shirts (especially larger sizes) or other sponsored items, so getting in early can secure yours.

Conference Gear

When you sign in you will receive a bag with various stuff inside like pens, paper, toys, a conference guidebook, and advertising along with your conference T-shirt (better each year) and badge. Badge image - click for larger size

Your badge should be worn (on its lanyard) at all times in the conference area. Besides the conference logo, your name, company, description, shell and editor (see registration above) there are some other symbols on the badge:

  • A local map means you come from the area and visitors can ask you questions like what to call a large glass of beer.
  • A "Y" (antenna) means your are a professional attendee
  • A "Fish" symbol are the total number of tickets to the penguin dinner you have.
  • Speakers usually get a different coloured badge outline.

Organisers

Each year LCA is held in a different city with a completely different set of organisers. Usually there will about half a dozen "hard core" people running around and not having any fun plus about dozen or so "helpers" manning the desks, looking after rooms, filming and otherwise doing the boring stuff that makes your conference fun.

These people are all unpaid volunteers who miss out on most of the conference so be nice to them. Usually they will be in a different coloured shirt from normal attendees.

If you have problems go to the registration desk for advice. If possible talk to the "helpers" rather than the core organisers.

Online

Online aspects of the conference

Laptops

Most people at the conference will bring a laptop. This is to enable them to do work while they are at the conference, keep up with email, chat online, prepare their presentations, browse slashdot, follow updates to the conference program and event, and sometimes even collaborate with other people at the conference on projects.

Having a laptop is very useful but not required and some people don't bother. If you own a laptop you should probably bring it. Also, bringing extra batteries is a good idea. Access to a power points is limited, and often nil in the theatres. Many people bring extension cords and double adaptors or powerboards to try to get around this; it might work. Oh, and if you have 2 laptops, bring the light one. If you are from outside Australia then check to see what adapters you need to use the local power.

If you do bring a laptop remember try not to spend all your time online while ignoring the people around you.

Also be careful with your laptop, keep with with you or secure at all times. Don't just leave it in a room with other people and assume they will notice if somebody else picks it up.

Wifi

The conference and Halls should have Wifi in most areas. Details on this will be in the conference booklet and/or online. Remember to be careful with security of your wireless connection. Wired access may not be available.

Attempting to crack the conference network or other people's computers will result in you being thrown out of the conference or even arrested.

IRC

There are several IRC channels which people hang around in. During talks there will usually be a channel for each room to which people can post a commentary or questions. #linux.conf.au on freenode is usually the main channel.

Websites

There are several websites that may be separate or combined. The main conference Website will contain details about the official conference program, official talks and the like.

Each Miniconf (see below) will have it's own website or area with details about it's programme and participating.

There will also be a Wiki-type web area which can be updated by many people. This can be used for ad hoc updates or information.

A Planet is often setup which collects the RSS feeds from conference attendees and combines them into a single site/feed.

Mailing Lists

There will usually be an announce and a attendees mailing list. Keep an eye on these for useful information. Try to only reply to the mailing lists if your comment is likely to be useful to everyone (and reply directly if not).

Terminals

There will normally be a room or area with a few Internet connected machines your can use to access the Internet (gmail etc). Be careful to clear passwords from these after you use them and always assume sniffers could have been installed on them.

Blogging and twitter

If you want to blog or tweet about LCA while your attend you should use the recommended keywords (usually "linux.conf.au" and "lca<year>"" ) and the planet so others can easily find your posts.

The Conference itself

The conference will usually run for 5-6 days (Monday to Friday or Saturday), starting at around 09:00 and finishing at 18:00 with an evening event most days.

Most sessions will be recorded and downloadable via the Web after the conference. Note that the recording will usually only pick up what is said directly into a microphone so it is normal when asking questions to either use a central mic, pass one around or have the speaker repeat any question.

Welcome / Keynote

A Welcome will be held on most mornings in the main hall. The event organisers will welcome everybody, say any announcements, etc and then either go to the first sessions or a conference keynote.

Do not skip this. Starting in 2005 the conference has during some of the welcome sessions drawn a name from the attendees and given the person drawn a new laptop or similar prize. If the person isn't there then another name is drawn until somebody present is found.

The keynotes are usually by a "Big Name" person.

After the welcome/keynote the conference will split into several talks in each time slot.

Miniconfs

Monday and Tuesday are Miniconf days. Whats happens is that a group apply to run a programme of talks, sessions for half, one or two days and the LCA organisers give them a room to run this in. The programmes for the Miniconf sessions will usually be designed to appeal to people interested in the topic with say someone who is a Gnome developer only attending that Miniconf.

However people often will go from Miniconf to Miniconf depending on their interest in the individual talks.

Normal Talks

Wednesday through Friday are a series of normal talks that make up the main part of the programme. There will normally be 4-6 going on at once so usually there will be at least one of interest.

If this is your first time at the conference it's a good idea to chat with some old-timers about which talks they are going to. Sometimes the most arcane and uninteresting sounding topics will actually turn out to be the most mindblowing, the funniest or the most educational.

There is usually a talk on the first day about the state of the Linux kernel which will provide a good overview of which kernel-related talks you may want to attend.

Most sessions last 45 minutes and usually have somebody talking to slides and then answering a few questions.

Tutorials

In theory tutorials are or a more practical nature than normal talks. People may be talked though how to use a tool or library to create applications, websites or pretty pictures.

What you actually get can vary, Some are hands-on sessions where you need to bring a laptop and even do some homework before you turn up. Others are just long (up to a full day) interactive talks between an interested audience and a clueful guru.

Carefully check the programme and keep an eye on the mailing list to find out what exactly will be covered, what the sessions will involved, what skills you will need as well as preparation and special software required to participate.

Hackfest

A series of programming puzzles will be set and a limited time will be given to solve (some of) them. A computer and good programming skills are required. This is streamed opposite other sessions.

Open Day

Since 2007 the Saturday has been an "Open Day" where local members of the public are invited to attend presentations and stands from various groups (distributions, LUGs, projects, companies, etc).

Key Signing

Where you can sign each others GPG keys. Usually a key-list will be created several days before the actual keysigning (through keysigning.org) so you need to ensure you are on that beforehand. There are usually a number of CAcert assurers at the key signing. The keysigning is usually streamed opposite other sessions.

Lightning Talks

A series of Short Talks (1-5 minutes) with hard time limits. Up to a dozen talks can be in the session and all sorts of topics. This is usually streamed opposite other sessions.

Linux Australia AGM

Linux Australia will usually hold their AGM during the early evening of one of the conference days.

Breaks

There are normally long breaks between each session. This is to allow people to mingle and talk. Snacks (juice, coffee, tea, fruit, cake) will normally be served for morning and afternoon tea.

For lunch the venue will normally have a foodhall open so there will be a choice of normal foodhall food. Universities seem to be a little healthier than most foodhalls however.

There is usually also sufficient time to leave the conference venue for a quick meal in a nearby pub or cafe.

Evening Events

In the evening there are various dinners planned. There will usually be time between the last session of the day and when these start to go back to the halls and get changed or cleaned up. You will need photo ID in an acceptable form (Passport, Driver's licence/permit, POA card or Keypass) you wish to drink alcohol.

Speaker's Dinner

All official speakers are invited by the organisers to a dinner in order to meet each other. Sometimes this has an "Adventure" element. In 2007 there was a speaker at the speaker's dinner giving tips on presentations.

Professional Networking

Professional delegates are invited to all get together at a venue and "Network". Nibbles and drinks are provided. There is usually also an "Un-Professional delegates Networking Session" which is a less-formal alternative

Conference Party

A major sponsor will invite all attendees to a venue for beer and food. Soft drinks and cheaper beers will be covered by their tab.

Penguin Dinner

The is the main diner and is a large sit down dinner held at a nearby venue. Choice of food is usually limited, here is a menu from 2007:

Menu - click for larger size

During/After the dinner there will usually be a couple of speeches:

  • The major sponsors will get up a chat for a bit
  • There will be a charity auction for a signed t-shirt or similar, it is common for this to go for several thousand dollars. Sometimes this gets dragged out by matching funds, side auctions and the like.
  • The organisers will be thanked, a bunch of flowers will be given to the females and alcohol to the males.
  • The "Rusty Wrench Award" may be presented.
  • Next Year's conference organisers will do a presentation.
Due to the size of the venue you may want to try and sit close to the stage if you want to hear everything or away from the stage if you don't.

No rules are set in stone, though. The 2008 conference dinner was held at the Victoria Markets in Melbourne as a general free-for-all social evening with no speeches, awards or auctions, some of which were moved to the Open Day on Saturday.

Ad hoc dinners

From Sunday evening though Saturday evening ad hoc dinners will be arranged on days when nothing official is arranged or by those not going to that night's official dinner.

You should keep an eye on notice boards, websites, IRC and mailing lists to find what is happening or alternatively ask suspicious looking groups of attendees. Saying you're new will no doubt get invites, not laughter - we're friendly.

Semi-private dinners may also happen for groups working for one company or involved in a project.

Social

The social aspect of LCA is a big feature. The conference is attended by several hundred people which gives you a chance to meet people involved in all aspects of Linux from kernel, application developers, political activists, students, sysadmins, spooks, newbies and even non-computing partners.

The breaks between each session and the evening activities are intended as an opportunity for you to network with all these other people.

Remember to talk to people, Opening lines could include

  • Asking what sessions they have been to so far
  • asking what sessions they intend to go to later
  • Asking What their company does or what they do there.
Remember not everybody is a high-end programmer, don't be afraid to talk to people if you are not an expert. Most people are happy to explain things or even talk about non-technical topics. If there is a group you can just listen and absorb.

Do talk to people who are staying near you - they're probably cool - this is a good way to meet people.

Don't talk to the same people all the time or worse still just your friends or co-workers from outside the conference.

Don't hassle people, especially women or famous people, be polite and have something to say. Don't stalk famous people just to brag to your friends later.

Don't talk nerd all the time. Talk to people about politics, geography, traffic lights or artificial sweeteners.

Avoid immature behavour, most of the people at the conference are grown adults with jobs. Some of them might have children your age, be your future boss or name and shame you on a blog that is read by thousands of people in your industry of choice. Jokes or activities that are funny around your friends might not be appropriate for the audience. People have been thrown out of the conference in the past.

Evenings

Go out to evening events, they are a great way to meet people in a informal environment.

Pace yourself each day, you will need to get up before 8am most days so staying up till 3am for 5 days in a row might be a little hard.

Don't drink more than you normally would. Many events feature alcohol but try and limit yourself to what you can handle, remembering that you have to get up early the next day.

Try to listen more than you talk. There are luminaries at this conference who know a lot, and you can learn much in a conversation with them. Don't overdo it in either direction, though: your own ideas and opinions are more likely to be thoughtfully discussed than to be ridiculed out of hand.

Misc

Other stuff
  • Keep an eye open for a newcomers session. They are often held on the Sunday.
  • The Wireless often won't work on the first day and some of the halls will always have blackspots.
  • A lot of attendees at the conference work for Hewlett Packard.
  • Don't just go to stuff you know about
  • Not everybody is an unfit geek, many conference people are into cycling, martial arts, or other physical activities, if you want to do these send email to the mailing lists.
  • The above probably doesn't include "romantic" activities.
  • The main organiser will usually start acting odd under the pressure after a few days.
  • There have been problems with outbreaks of illness or food poisoning in the past, be sensible.
  • People will often wear shirts from previous years to show they have been coming to the conference forever.
  • The accommodation venues always carefully take photos to look nice. In reality you'll be staying in the "old" wing next to the busy road while the photos are of the new wing overlooking the park.
  • A lot of people own Thinkpads or Macs
  • Some people run Windows on the computers, usually because it's a company laptop and they have to.
  • Some people at the conference will be different from you, try to leave your hangups at home.
  • A list of professional attendees at the conference is usually available from the Organisers.

Thanks to

Original author Simon Lyall .
  • Greg Banks
  • Bryant Patten
  • Anshul Gupta
  • Vesselin Kostadinov
  • Mary Gardiner
  • Andrew McMillan
  • Ewen McNeill
  • Akkana Peck
  • Ted Percival
  • Jeremy Visser
  • Stewart Smith
  • Joshua Hesketh and the LCA 2009 team
  • Chris Neugebauer