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Opinion: NI Dev Conf makes the NI tech industry something special

  • Almost everyone in the tech sector will attend at least one event or conference throughout the year, whether that means jetting off to a foreign country for something truly massive such as the Amazon AWS Summit conference or just attending meetups closer to home.

    Meetups, events, and conferences have become an essential part of the tech ecosystem, a way to keep up to date on everything happening within your field and meet people with similar skills and career interests.

    Tech conferences in countries with well-developed tech sectors can be highly corporate platforms on which large companies show off their latest innovations or aggressively scout for new talent and acquisitions, but Belfast's rapidly emerging tech sector has managed to retain a much more down-to-earth style of event.

    The NI tech events calendar is littered with hundreds of smaller meetups each year on a wide range of topics, and even huge events such as Digital DNA have a distinctly more community-oriented feel to them. One of the most anticipated events in the NI tech calendar is the Northern Ireland Developer Conference (NI Dev Conf for short), and this year I went along to find out what it's all about.

    (Photo: NI Dev Conf 2019 sponsors)

    What is NI Dev Conf like?

    NI Dev Conf really sits somewhere between a meetup and a conference, bringing together hundreds of people from the NI tech scene to give talks on the exciting work they've been doing at their companies throughout the year. The event gets bigger each year, and the latest one filled out practically every room in the Riddel Hall event space thanks to sponsorship support from local tech companies.

    Maurice Kelly from Anomali, one of this year's platinum sponsors, told me that NI Dev Conf was "almost like the meetup of meetups," and I saw exactly what he was talking about when I attended my first ever NI Dev Conf this year. All the familiar faces were there from every meetup or major event throughout the year, with the AI and machine learning crowd mixing with web developers and data analytics specialists.

    It's a special kind of event that can bring together people from so many disparate disciplines in one place, and I think that's essential for cross-pollination of ideas. It helps to expose people to new concepts and technologies that they don't get to use in their day-to-day work, and gives them a taste of a different perspective.

    (Photo: Anomali, a platinum sponsor of NI Dev Conf 2019)

    Accessibility at NI Dev Conf

    While many tech events and meetups draw in a diverse crowd, I seriously have to commend NI Dev Conf for its continued commitment to providing accessibility for the event. The event was held on a weekend to maximise the number of people who could attend and the organisers ran dedicated childcare facilities for those with children who wanted to come. Children and carers could also be brought to the event free of charge.

    The standard ticket price was cheaper than most conferences at just £45, with a discounted £15 tickets for students and those otherwise not employed. The discount was applied by a simple code on an honour basis, with no questions asked and no need to prove that you couldn't afford the full price.

    There was even an "honesty" ticket that allowed people to enter whatever price they can afford, again taking people at their word and avoiding the social stigma around financial accessibility. The message this sent was very clear: Money should not be a barrier to getting involved with the local tech community, and everyone in tech should be able to attend.

    (Photo: SmashFly, a platinum sponsor of NI Dev Conf 2019)

    Wide representation in talks

    Local tech conferences provide an important platform for companies to show off their latest innovations and to help them attract new graduate applicants for tech jobs, but what really strick me about NI Dev Conf was the wide range of talks from all levels of industry. In total, over 60 speakers gave talks on topics ranging from cyber-security and blockchain tech to startup advice, encryption, artificial intelligence, and even game development.

    The primary sponsors and other major players in the NI tech scene gave talks on the tools and processes their company uses, from the deployment of microfrontends for web development or using Akita JS as a state management tool to using machine learning to help interpret medical scans. These highly technical talks gave companies an opportunity to let their staff take ownership of their achievements and present them to peers.

    On the other end of the scale were talks from individuals and hobbyists in the tech field on projects they'd worked on, and presentations from educational organisations and charities. We saw some impressive work from the kids at Banbridge CoderDojo and VR demos courtesy of local hackerspace and charity Farset Labs, and guest Kenigbolo Meya Stephen opened some minds on the problematic language we sometimes use in tech.

    (Photo: Flexera, a platinum sponsor of NI Dev Conf 2019)

    While the big global tech conferences around the world won't be going away any time soon, it's refreshing to see how openly Belfast's tech scene has embraced local community-driven events such as NI Dev Conf. When we interviewed this year's platinum sponsors (Smashfly, Anomali, and Flexera) ahead of the event, all of them said that the local event scene was important to their company values.

    Events like this show that tech doesn't have to be sterile and corporate, but can instead be a celebration of the diverse community of local developers working in our local industry. There was a very positive gender split for the talks and a diverse range of backgrounds and specialities were represented. If Northern Ireland can keep this level of accessibility and inclusivity as the tech industry grows, it will be an incredible place for tech companies to thrive.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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