For me, 2020 started out as a great year. A company trip to Marrakesh (where I went ziplining for the first time ever); attending the annual PHPBenelux conference; being accepted to speak at PHPDay in Verona; and giving two talks at ConFoo in Montreal, followed by a week touring around the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Three continents in three months: the world felt such a wonderful place.

It’s true that there were stories on the news about a new virus that was affecting people in some countries; but at the time it didn’t seem that it should be a cause for concern, it would be contained like Ebola had been contained. Within a week of my return from Canada, the company that I was working for decided that there was some risk of contagion from working in the office, and sent everybody to work from home. Then the government issued guidelines recommending working from home wherever possible, and to avoid public transport, for people to limit shopping trips. But even then, it didn’t seem likely that it would be for more than a few weeks.

I was lucky: having replenished the contents of my fridge the day after my return from Canada, and having just bought a big pack of toilet rolls, I could survive a few weeks of working from home. Even in an office environment, we work in an industry where online communication is normal – e-mail and slack channels for team communication; GitLab for the code repository and the CI pipeline; Cloud deployments to GCS; Jira for ticketing; Confluence for documentation; VPNs for secure remote access – so the move from an office to WfH isn’t technically difficult. Just add Google Hangouts for stand-ups and sprint planning/retrospectives and remote meetings. Some people enjoy working from home: I’ve always preferred working in an office, with people around me, but I could adapt for a week or two.

But as those weeks soon became months, and the whole world went into lockdown, it became clear that Covid-19 wasn’t something that would easily be contained.

PHP User groups also stopped meeting, in compliance with national guidelines and restrictions. Around the world, the wave of PHP conferences and events that normally fills the Spring months started to postpone, and then to cancel. Sadly, some of these events may never happen again. The majority of PHP conferences are community events, run by individuals or small groups, just trying to break even on costs to keep ticket prices low, often with the organisers risking their own money in up-front deposits for the venue. And as the months of restrictions lengthened, the conferences that normally take place in the Summer and Autumn months were keeping a close eye on the situation in case they had to cancel as well.

I’ve always tried to attend local user group meetings and conferences when I can. They’re not simply a way to learn about new tools, new approaches to coding, new features of the language, or the framework or CI tools that I use every day, and new skills to apply to my work; they’re also an opportunity to meet with other developers, to share war stories, chat about the problems we all face in work, and perhaps find solutions; a chance to get to know the people behind a social media nickname; and perhaps to work together with others on an Open Source project. Whether it’s attending presentations or participating in hackathons and the (in)famous “hallway track”, I have learned so much from user groups and conferences and met so many incredible people that have helped shape me and improve me as a developer.

2020 seemed to be having other ideas – the year that had started so well was turning into a nightmare – and the months of restrictions dragged on from Spring into the Summer and Autumn.

But as it did so, conferences and user groups began to react to the new normal and to adapt.

I’m based in Amsterdam, and my local conference is the Dutch PHP Conference that normally takes place at a venue about 20 minutes bicycle ride from my apartment. DPC 2020 chose to go online, broadcasting video of the talks (and making tickets free of charge). I did get to give my talk at PHPDay Verona (although sadly I never got to see that beautiful city) through video from my apartment. WeCamp, the intensive week on an island in the middle of a lake in the Netherlands, where I was a coach last year, turned into a virtual one-day online conference (incredibly, still including the pirate game in an online format). And last week I attended SymfonyWorld online.

User groups to have turned virtual, hosting video events. PHPBenelux has been meeting virtually for the last few months, and I gave a remote talk at PHPMinds last month.

We are an industry that works with internet technologies, so it seems so natural that we should turn to the internet as a solution for virtual conferences and user groups. And there are some real benefits as well. It means that attendees don’t have to travel and find accommodation in a new city for an event, but can attend online conferences anywhere in the world (always being aware of timezones, of course).
Event organisers don’t need to worry about the venue and food (which requires large up-front deposits before they know exactly how many people will buy tickets). Events that have been single-track until now can go multi-track online. Of course, you need the bandwidth to broadcast the event (and using a service like Hopin to provide this carries its own costs), and your attendees need the bandwidth to watch and listen. Events can attract speakers from all over the world without worrying about the costs and logistics of international flights, visas, and accommodation.

There are still lessons to be learned in how online events can try to recreate all the best features of an in-person conference or meetup, and these events are still experimenting with ways to improve the online experience, but they can also capitalise on some of the new benefits that the use of technology can provide.

For speakers, there’s no direct feedback from the audience during their talk, no way of knowing if a joke has been appreciated, or whether they are talking at too high or too detailed a level for their audience, to adapt their talk if necessary. Providing a chatroom alongside each talk allows the audience to ask questions, which the “room” MC can feed to the speaker, or bundle up to ask at the end of the talk. And as all presentations can be automatically recorded, they can be posted publicly online later for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend the event live (with the presenter’s permission, of course).
Or talks can be pre-recorded, with the speaker actively participating in the chatroom, answering questions and interacting with their audience; but neither fully recreates the experience of speaking in person in front of a live audience. Pre-recording talks is something new to many regular speakers, and will take some getting used to (at least for me). I’ve already invested in a better webcam, but probably need to get myself a green screen, better microphone, better lighting, and a/v editing software as well.

Group breakout rooms can provide some elements of a hallway track, although it doesn’t have the same “feel”; and it isn’t easy to just break open a laptop and work on something together.

Many conferences pride themselves on their “social”, which is always a good way to meet and chat with the other attendees; although many “socials” revolve around the bar, which isn’t so good for people like me who don’t drink alcohol. In recent years, conferences have often combined the social with something like a games evening, playing board or card games with other attendees; and this is an area where online conferences have an opportunity to excel.

SymfonyWorld ran each talk twice to cater for attendees in different timezones, which meant that it was possible to attend talks that would otherwise have clashed in the schedule (kudos to all the speakers that attended both in the chat to handle Q&A); and also provided a special room that hooked you up with another (random) attendee to chat, making it easier to meet new people. I know that they also ran a hackathon as part of the conference, but I didn’t attend that so I can’t make any comment about how successful it was online.

As we look toward the New Year, and the expectation that Covid restrictions will be with us for several months more (at the very least, despite the announcements of vaccines) then these virtual events will remain the lifeblood of the PHP Community for much of 2021.

The online experience will improve further as events experiment and learn from each other about what works best, discover how to overcome the logistical problems of online organisation, how best to use the new benefits that a virtual event can bring, and how to improve the user experience for attendees. Speakers will learn to adapt their talks to the new medium.

I don’t have any figures to back me up, but I would imagine that the costs to run an online conference should be cheaper. Venue and food is always a large part of the expense for face to face events, together with the travel and accommodation for speakers. Sponsors are always necessary for a community-driven event to help offset those costs. While using a service like Hopin isn’t free, I can’t believe that it would be as high, even with some of the “enterprise” extra features of the platform.

Perhaps community conferences (especially those that still charge for tickets) can start paying speakers to help offset their costs of preparing and giving their talks, to offset the time and effort (and financial investment) of adapting to the online presentation, helping to attract new speakers, and a more diverse line-up… I’ve just received an e-mail from GrUSP (the confederation of Italian PHP User groups that organises PHPDay (and I do still want to visit Verona some day) saying that they will be granting each speaker a sum to cover the costs of preparing and giving their talks. Pre-recorded talks also make it easier to add captioning (or even subtitles in another language), making content easier for both a speaker and an audience who may not have good foreign language skills. While this does add extra cost, I believe that it is a real benefit in making presentations available to a broader audience.

So a big thank you to all the event organisers that have adapted to make their events virtual despite all the difficulties that 2020 has brought, which allow me to keep learning and improving myself. And there are still costs involved when running an online event, especially to provide those additional features that help make the event more interactive; and sponsors are still important to help reduce those overheads, particularly for events that are ticketed as free events. So another big thank you to all the companies and businesses large and small that provide financial support to organisers of online conferences and meetups.

And a final thank you to all those individual members of the PHP Community (who I have met through conferences and user groups) that have reached out to me and helped me survive this year.