Conf Report: DevConf Cape Town & Pretoria
July 6, 2023 Jamey Alea 0 Comments
This past May, I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time to speak at DevConf! DevConf is a conference that I’ve applied to and been rejected from many times in the past—which I very much respect, actually, because they prioritize speakers from their local community and have only a small quota for international speakers, which I think is a great way to do it. But I was still over the moon to be asked to be one of the international speakers at this year’s event.
But I have to admit that I was also a little nervous. Not only did I have to spend over 24 hours traveling to the absolute other side of the world, but it was also my first conference in a long time where I didn’t expect to know anybody. But I was also excited for all the opportunities to meet new people, in a very different place and culture than I’m familiar with. I was very interested to get a sense for what the tech industry was like in South Africa. What technology stacks are common there? (Answer: South Africa runs on Java.) What tech sectors made up most of their business? (Answer: Fintech has a huge market share there.)
It was fascinating learning about the South African developers community and how the people in it view their own culture around tech. But it was equally fascinating hearing about how South African developers perceive the tech culture in the US. I talked to a few people about the general attitude towards American software companies, and the general consensus was that South African developers are often more apt to trust US companies over local South African companies. A couple folks said things that made me a little sad, to the effect of “South African software sucks.” (Don’t worry, I was sure to let them know that American software sucks too! All software sucks!) They also compared the culture of failure in the US and SA, expressing they felt that failure was more baked into the process in America. Failing in America seemed to be considered more of a learning experience that would help you do better next time, they said, and that South African devs were more risk averse because their tech culture treated failure more like a brand of shame.
The keynote speaker, Haroon Meer, spoke about all of this too in his keynote talk, which was really interesting and candid about how he felt about the state of South African software companies. He called his talk “Make More Stuff” and true to title, he focused on encouraging developers to spend more time making things without worrying too much about if they’d take off, citing many famous tech entrepreneurs and how they worked on many projects before the ones that made them famous. It’s good advice in general, but I learned a lot about how much more relevant it is in other markets—there was a moment that really affected me when he was talking about how a South African physics student would never have a chance to land the Mars rover because they weren’t born American. That hit me in the gut to hear. But he followed it up by noting that technology, as a newer industry, still has room for innovators from all over the world to make space for themselves by having good ideas, and it was refreshing to think about tech as something exciting and new, which in the scheme of things, it still very much is.
There were so many great talks at these events, but there are two others I’d also like to particularly recommend. “The Line of Code That Crashed a Rocket” was Eva Podbrdská’s fascinating talk about the Ariane 5 explosion in 1996. She outlined the elaborate web of cause and effect that allowed this freak accident to happen in order to illustrate how rare it is for any failure to land on a single person’s shoulders. It was an interesting and engaging presentation, and I could hardly believe that Eva was a first time speaker with the way that she captured and held the attention of a crowded room. (Eva and I also sat on a panel together about how to get accepted to speak at conferences!)
And DevConf veteran Allan Pead gave another talk that I really enjoyed called “Create the sustainable home farm of your dreams!” I love hearing people talk about their passions, and it was clear that Allan’s home farm was a real passion project of his. But his talk was also full of great practical advice for anyone who wants to get a little more high tech with their gardens. Plus, it was interesting to hear about sustainability concerns from a South African perspective, and how they intersected with load-shedding issues. (For those who have never heard of load-shedding, it’s a way to reduce strain on the electric grid during times of high demand by doing scheduled blackouts, and it basically affects everything that one does in South Africa.)
I suppose I’d like to mention my own talk as well! The presentation I delivered was called “Achieving Inclusivity Through Remote Work” and it was the first time I had given it since the era of virtual conferences during quarantine in 2020. Obviously, the remote landscape has changed a lot over that time, and it was super interesting comparing the 2023 statistics to the 2019 ones! It’s also my talk that deals the most directly with the trans experience and transitioning while working in tech. My first instinct was, should I be worried? After all, it’s a vulnerable talk and I don’t know the nuance of the culture around transness overseas the way I do in the States. But I trusted that the organizers wouldn’t have invited me to present if they were worried about how it would go over, and in fact, I got a really good response! I got the sense from talking to some of the attendees that talks dealing with topics like mental health and underrepresentation in tech aren’t awfully common in the South African space yet, so I was really happy to be able to help contribute that to the culture.
DevConf represented so many interesting “firsts” for me. Most obviously, it was my first time in South Africa, which was really exciting! (And I was fortunate enough to get to fly in about a week early so I could have the opportunity to do some sightseeing in this beautiful and fascinating place.) But the format of the conference was new to me too. DevConf is only a single day conference, but they do the entire thing twice. We put on DevConf in Cape Town first, on a Tuesday, and then the entire team up and got on planes, flew across the country to Johannesburg, and put on DevConf again in Pretoria on Thursday. This format turned out to be really cool. It was great for the audience, as it allowed more people from more parts of South Africa to attend the conference. It was great for me, as I got to see more of the country while I was here and notice some of the cultural differences between the cities. And it was a cool experience as a speaker, for a bunch of reasons! I got to see more of the other talks than usual, because I had two chances at it and because the Pretoria event was a lot more relaxed after we had already successfully presented in Cape Town 2 days before. The feeling of being “on tour” as we traveled between cities was fun, and it caused me to become much closer with the other speakers than usual, since we essentially spent a whole week doing everything together. It was very cool to travel halfway around the entire world and be immediately accepted into this group of interesting, kind and supportive people.
It was hard saying goodbye, both to my new friends and to the wonderful country of South Africa. I feel like I really grew, as a person and as a well-informed citizen of the world, while I was on this trip and I’m very grateful to the DevConf organizers for giving me the opportunity to bring my perspective into the mix. I think I will always have a special place for Cape Town in my heart now, and I hope to be able to return someday.