Whisky Web - Not a Normal Developer Conference

I recently attended Whisky Web 2 – the second annual Whisky Web conference for web developers, held in Scotland. The second installment of Whisky Web was held on the 12th-13th of April at Airth Castle in Stirlingshire and in Edinburgh.

As a first-time conference-goer, I am sharing my experience of this new and exciting conference. The fact that I am happily writing this post in vim for a challenge, having never gone anywhere near command-line editors before, is a testament to the adventurous spirit that pervades the Whisky Web conference and all those involved in it.
In the middle of the week before Whisky Web, I was chatting in the pub with my co-worker Max Manders who is one of the organisers of the event. He was clearly very passionate about the conference that he has helped to create and excited to have brought our company on-board as a sponsor, alongside other big names such as Facebook and Adobe. I was keen to know more about the conference and was highly intrigued when I heard the words “whisky” and “castle”. At that point I did not know that I would actually be attending Whisky Web.
The next day, back at work, I received an email from a co-worker giving me the news that my name had come out of a hat in a prize-draw. I had won a free ticket to Whisky Web! The free ticket had been awarded to Cloudreach in return for Cloudreach’s sponsorship of the conference, and I had put my name into a hat the week before simply by replying to an email. I was extremely pleased with my good fortune and determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Friday 12th April, Day One

The opening keynote speech to Whisky Web was scheduled for 9am outside the Parliament Building in Edinburgh. After the keynote, we would travel by coach to Airth Castle.
The two most notable things about the keynote were that it was held outside (a thumbs up from me!), and also that it was within the shadow of Arthur’s Seat – Edinburgh’s spectacular natural landmark. You really could not fail to miss the meeting point, even if you had already failed to notice the high concentration of geeks with their long hair and rucksacks.
I don’t have long hair, but I certainly had my rucksack on as I strolled briskly down the ringroad around Arthur’s Seat, taking in the sights of Holyrood park. Although it was already mid-April, Edinburgh seemed not to have noticed yet and it was a wintery and dull morning. Probably not the best day to hold a keynote speech outside.
Especially when the keynote speaker had cancelled! In the end that did not matter as the minor let-down was quickly forgotten during the creatively-improvised speech and the rest of the weekend. We were glad however once we were onboard the coach and heading towards Airth Castle.
I had already made friends with an easy-going German developer with long hair. I was already learning a lot about the development community, life in Germany and also myself as we exchanged experiences.
We arrived at Airth Castle and checked in to the hotel/spa where the conference talks would be held and where we would drink and sleep. The hotel was a blocky modern building which was located in the grounds of Airth Castle.
After a minor mis-adventure looking for my room, I was directed towards the castle itself and then it dawned on me that along with my free ticket i’d lucked into having a luxury suite inside Airth Castle! I immediately got completely lost in the unpredictable winding staircases and curved hallways. In fact I got lost every time I went inside that castle.
About two hours later I heard two words that would change my life as a developer: “vim adventures”.
As a developer or regular unix user you roughly know what vim is. You even have to use it sometimes, but mostly that is because an application like git (exactly) has dropped you into vim in edit mode as its default editor of choice. Thus I had only ever learned one command in vim up to that point::q! (how to quit).
Vim Adventures is an adventure game that teaches you how to use vim by using vim commands as its controls. My introduction to it occurred early on in my second talk of the day, given by Rowan Merewood – who is a charismatic and fun-loving speaker with a fresh perspective on how we can be better developers. If you like puzzle games of the ilk of (to paraphrase Merewood) “The Legend of Zelda” and also a mild interest in what vim is and how to use it, you should visit
http://vim-adventures.com without a moment’s thought.
Rowan’s talk fired me up for the rest of Whisky Web and I was excited to realise that it would not be all jargon-filled, deeply-technical lectures and that I could expect to have a lot of fun.
Throughout the weekend I was repeatedly reminded of the idea that Whisky Web is as much about having fun and meeting like-minded people as learning cool new things. That evening we had the whisky tasting session, held in a function room on the ground floor of Airth Castle itself.
After freshening up, I left my hotel room and strolled down a winding staircase into the throng. As a big fan of whisky I was pleased to find myself being given advice by whisky experts on how to taste whisky and such. We were given some background information on the whisky we were tasting, and then they brought out the 18-year old single-malt Dewar’s whisky which blew us all away with its intensity. The whisky-tasting was hugely popular.
We enjoyed a brilliant five-course meal back in the hotel, at tables laid with cutlery all over the place. I found myself at a table of good chat and everybody had a great evening, until somebody flew a flying shark into the room and immediately got it stuck in the rafters of the building way above us! – How many drunk developers does it take to get a flying shark back down … ?
One of the things that characterised Whisky Web was the very high diversity of nationalities amongst the attendees – surprising considering this was only the second Whisky Web event and it reflects how much of the spirit of the community that Whisky Web gives off.

Saturday 13th April, Day Two

We left the fine environs of Airth Castle and jumped back in the coach for a trip back to Edinburgh. Amazingly, Whisky Web had booked out the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh for the day’s events.
We were given free reign to walk about and explore inbetween talks, of which there were eight in total – two at a time – so that we still had four hours of talks to listen to.
The talks on the second day were as fun and as varied as those on the first. From each talk I took away at least one tangible piece of information about a new tool or technique that I would later investigate or implement. In fact I still couldn’t wait to get home on Sunday to start playing Vim Adventures!
After all the talks and the closing keynote, the evening was spent partying in the private upstairs room of the Ghillie Dhu pub in Edinburgh – a church that has been converted into a pub. A lot of free drinking was involved and we enjoyed a lively disco and live music. In all, a good way to round off Whisky Web. I felt that the organisers of Whisky Web had done a great job with their highly creative choice of venues for the event.

In Conclusion

I took away a lot from Whisky Web – from the talks, the many lively conversations and the people that I met. I discovered amazing new tools, new ways to think and do things and rekindled my excitement for the creativity and unique challenge of software development.
It was pointed out during the opening keynote that one of the principles of Whisky Web is to keep the number of attendees to a medium size (around 100), so that it would be possible to meet nearly everybody at the event and to feel a sense of shared experience. By the end of Whisy Web I felt that this nice idea had been well-borne out in reality.
Having never been to a conference before Whisky Web, I am now much more open-minded towards the concept. Even from a purely agnostic point of view, I can highly recommend Whisky Web to any developer as a worthwhile way to spend a couple of days and gain a fresh perspective. I absolutely intend to be a paying attendee to future installments!