Final RPG & DB2 Summit Scheduled
June 28, 2021 Alex Woodie
With the return to in-person conferences taking longer than expected, the folks behind the RPG & DB2 Summit have decided to end the popular IBM i event. System i Developer will host the final event this fall, and it will take place online, as it has since the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to larger gatherings last year.
Ending the conference was not an easy decision for the principals of System i Developer, Susan Gantner, Jon Paris, and Paul Tuohy, who have been holding the RPG & DB2 Summit twice a year since March 2007. Despite the headwinds posed by the Great Recession over a decade ago, the group forged ahead and continued with the bi-annual in-person get-togethers, while many other computer conferences tried to shift to online meetings, which by and large were failures.
Over the ensuing years, System i Developer trained more than 2,000 IBM i developers at Summit events. For Gantner, Paris, and Tuohy, knowing that they were helping IBM i developers solve technical challenges, further their careers, and giving back to the community meant more than whatever profit the shows may (or may not) have provided.
“Summit was always a lot of fun,” Gantner tells IT Jungle in an interview. “It was a lot of work. We never liked to try to figure out how much we made on an hourly basis for the event. It would have probably been very sad to think about that. But it was all worth it because it was fun, it was exciting, and it was interesting for us to do.”
System i Developer was just a few days away from hosting a Summit event in Dallas, Texas at the end of March 2020 when it was forced to cancel the in-person event due to the spread of the SARS2 virus. The team scrambled to morph Summit into a virtual event over Zoom, which it pulled off. The first virtual Summit took place the first week of April.
Gantner remembered thinking that it was just a temporary blip, and that conferences would return in the fall.
“At one point at the beginning of all this, I think most everybody thought, okay, we’ll go through a few rough months, and then everything will be back to normal,” Gantner said. “As time went on, I think it became more and more obvious that things were not going to come back, at least the way they were.”
System i Developer hosted a second virtual Summit in late October 2020. By all accounts, the two online events were successful. Although some Summit alumni would wait for in-person events to return, other people who would never have attended a physical event participated virtually. Despite the success, the nature of virtual events was significantly different.
“We think we did a pretty decent job,” Gantner said, “better than we thought we were going to, to be perfectly honest. We tried our best – we still try our best – to bring as much community flavor and feel to the virtual event as we could. But it isn’t the same.”
System i Developer spent considerable effort trying to replicate the Summit experience with the online event. A big part of that was not watering down the technical content that has come to define Summit, so the sessions remained at an hour and 15 minutes.
But it did tweak the format slightly to accommodate the virtual gathering. Instead of hosting four tracks of sessions over three days, the content was delivered via two tracks over a period of five days. Since staring at a Zoom screen for five straight days from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. may dull the senses, Gantner and company elected to start on a Wednesday and end on a Tuesday, which gave attendees time to recuperate over the weekend.
“What we were trying to do is find a way to replicate the Summit in a virtual way,” Gantner said. “We never did shorten our sessions. A lot of other events have gone shorter and shorter. We kept ours the full length, for better or worse. We just thought that that was the way to go.”
At the end of the day, unfortunately, the online experiment failed to replicate the in-person event. Gantner and company tried valiantly, but in the end were unable to capture the intangible aspects of spending time with other people.
Gantner explained: “What you don’t get is the sitting next to somebody else at lunch time and having this conversation of, ‘Well I’ve got this problem. Does anybody else have a similar problem?’ Whether that’s with the speaker or just some other attendees or an exhibitor. It is not just meal times. It’s standing in the hallway. You hear somebody asking a question in the class and they have a similar issue and so you catch up with them after the session. I think that those kinds of things are even more valuable, perhaps, then what happened while somebody was sitting there listening to the speaker go through the charts,” Gantner continued. “Of course, that’s the primary focus of the event. But for me, the biggest part of the value was what you got from being around everybody else”
Obviously, the problem of replicating human interaction in an online environment is not unique to System i Developer. Over the past 15 months, the IT industry has wholeheartedly embraced virtual events. Some companies have put on memorable online shows, while (many) others have done little but contribute to Zoom fatigue. The RPG & DB2 Summit, by all accounts, is among one of the better shows.
But this is an intractable problem that has yet to be solved by technology. Indeed, if System i Developer had cracked the code and figured out how to replicate the intangibles of in-person meetups over the Web, then surely that would have been the bigger story.
“It’s the interpersonal, informal kind of stuff that happens when you’re in person that I think it’s really hard to replicate in an online event,” Gantner said. “We’ve tried to come up with ways to do that in the virtual event, but it’s hard. It’s a much different animal if you’re not sort of standing around talking to somebody.”
While the virtual Summit was delivering value and was a worthwhile endeavor, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t deliver the same experience, Gantner said. For instance, the online Summits lack the sing-alongs hosted by Ted Holt, an IT Jungle technical editor and a presenter at the event. And there is no simple way to get the RPG Five together over a Zoom link.
With the intangibles out of the picture, the Summit experience had changed.
“We stepped back a little bit, and we looked at it, and we said Is it really the Summit? It is the Summit experience that we’re going for, to do this thing virtually, even if we do it well, as well as we can think of to do it? Is it really the Summit experience?'” Gantner said. “And it began to not feel like that for the attendees and to be perfectly honest, it didn’t feel like that to us either.”
Another factor weighing on the equation is the fact that all three principals of System i Developer are of retirement age. Even before March 2020, they were pondering what their retirement years may bring. In the best-case scenario, Gantner said that she and her colleagues would like to have done a few more in-person Summits before, perhaps, handing the Summit off for another group to continue. But instead of continuing with the virtual conference, or waiting for restrictions on in-person conferences to end, they have decided to end the Summit series.
But the RPG & DB2 Summit era will end on a high note. There will host one more (virtual) event held October 20-26. Attendees can expect to get the full hour-and-fifteen-minute sessions, providing time for attendees and presenters to interact across the Zoom link. It will take place live, of course (pre-recorded sessions would be anathema to the Summit experience). IBM i chief architect Steve Will is going to deliver the keynote. There will be some special sessions to enable Summit alumnus to remember the good times. Alas, the RPG Five will not likely convene a concert over Zoom.
The good news is that System i Developer is not folding up its tent. While Summit is ending, the company will continue to host smaller workshops. And it will continue to host its popular Lunch and Learn series, in which System i Developer presenters share the (virtual) stage with software vendors.
“We’ve got so many ideas,” Gantner said.
In the meantime, registration for the October RPG & DB2 Summit is open now. Interested parties can sign up at the Super Saver rate of $495, while Summit Alumni will pay only $395. For more information see the company’s website at www.systemideveloper.com.