Over the weekend, I was cleaning out old files on my computer when I came across a rough draft of an article that I wrote for (the now defunct) Fusion Authority Magazine 14 years ago. It was a retrospective of my experience as an attendee at my first full-size conference as a web developer: CFUNITED 2007 down in Bethesda, MD. As a throw-back, I thought it would be fun to post it now (especially since the aforementioned magazine no longer exists).
CFUNITED: The Preface
As my train pulled away from New York's Penn station, the butterflies in my stomach began to settle down; I had gotten on the correct train with the correct ticket headed for the correct city. My destination, CFUNITED, the world's premier ColdFusion conference. This year, not only will I be attending this conference for the first time, I have been charged with the task of reviewing my experience. And, what better place is there to start then, as they say, at the beginning.
Plain and simple, I am nervous. I am nervous about traveling. I am nervous that I won't make friends. I am nervous that people won't like me. I am nervous that my clothes will be too tight or that I might sweat too much. I am nervous that I will get lost going from Union Station to the Bethesda Marriott. I am nervous for all the reasons that push me outside of my comfort zone and force me to engage the world of ColdFusion that exists beyond the dual-screen expanse of my office computer. But, I think more than anything, I am nervous that CFUNITED will not live up to the image that I've got in my head.
To me, CFUNITED is more than just a ColdFusion conference; it's a milestone in my ColdFusion career. What you have to understand is that I've know about CFUNITED for years, but I've always been reluctant to attend. In the past, I've scoffed that it was too expensive or that I didn't have time to set aside or that it was simply too far away. But the truth is, I've always viewed this conference as being reserved for "real" ColdFusion programmers. This was no place for an amateur like me. This was a ticket that I'd have to earn.
With my years of hard work and diligent self-education constantly being underscored by this feeling of self-doubt, CFUNITED slowly became a symbol of success. I'd think to myself, "When I've made it, I mean really made it, I'll be there. When I'm at the top of my game, at the right job, doing the right work, of course I'll attend CFUNITED. When I've earned it, everything will just fall into place." Before I knew it, CFUNITED had become my Shangri-La; it had become my "Good Life."
The problem with self-doubt of this nature is that the more you work to eradicate it, the farther away the finish line appears to be. When what you do has no influence on how you feel about yourself, what you do ceases to matter.
And then, a little over a year ago, I started my personal blog, Kinky Solutions: A Student's Perspective. Through it, I was hoping to create a platform on which I could methodically explore new coding techniques while sharing the joy and passion that I have for ColdFusion and web development. It was meant to be a continuous journey of self-education, but very quickly, it became something so much more important - it became a reality check.
Whereas in the past, feelings of self-doubt could run unchecked by reality, suddenly these feelings had to compete with the power of the written word and the reflective nature of public reaction. With every completed experiment, I felt more healthy. With every "Ask Ben" question answered, the feelings of self-doubt became more and more overpowered by the sheer joy gotten from the pursuit of knowledge. In a short time, my blog had completely transformed the way I approached learning; what was once tainted by deep feelings of inadequacy was now super charged by a pure love and respect for information and for understanding.
With this new mentality came new feelings of entitlement. Suddenly, having a strong desire to learn entitled me to take advantage of every learning opportunity that presented itself. No longer did I have to prove myself worthy before attending a conference like CFUNITED. The new me — the healthy me — understands that CFUNITED is there for everyone who wants to learn - it's not just there for those who have already learned everything.
So now, sitting on the DC-bound train, healthy in mind and spirit, I find myself nervous. I feel like I'm on my way to having dinner with a woman over whom I've fantasized for far too many years. Her high pedestal has been replaced with feelings of unease - what if she's not as pretty in person; what if she doesn't like the things that I like; what if she's not "The One." What if CFUNITED is not everything I've built it up to be? I am nervous that a previously unhealthy outlook has already set my experience up for eminent failure.
CFUNITED: The Aftermath
"Describe an orgasm without using the feelings of any physical sensation." — this was a question posed to me as part of an in-class assignment for my Love and Sexuality course. I remember what a frustrating experience it was to feel so strongly about something and yet, be so completely unable to describe it at anything but its fundamental level. Having to tell you about my CFUNITED experience, I find myself in somewhat of a similar situation. I'd love to tell you that CFUNITED feels like being shot naked out of a pink Champagne bottle (an answer one student volunteered for the question above); but, I doubt that it would be very helpful to anyone. As such, the best that I can do is break down the conference to the fundamental parts and let you form your own vision.
Walking into the conference hall was like finding yourself suddenly in front a Mann's Chinese Theater movie premier - celebrities everywhere! I don't think you could hurl a laptop without braining at least three gurus. Ben Forta, Ray Camden, Sean Corfield, Hal Helms, Charlie Arehart, Sandra Clark, Joe Rinehart, Michael Dinowitz, Peter Bell, Mark Drew and that's just the beginning. It seemed like anyone who had ever written a book, taught a class, developed a framework, or spoke at a conference was there in the same building, walking among us. It was crazy and nerve-racking and highly intimidating.
But, after a few minutes, you realize that you're not just staring at these people, you're actually having conversations with them. And these conversations are easy and they're two-way and these celebrities — for lack of a better word — are enthusiastic about what you're saying. You find out that they're just great people who happen to love ColdFusion the same as you do.
Now, I've always been a huge believer that the ColdFusion community is the best, most caring and helpful community out there, but it's experiences like CFUNITED that really drive that feeling home. Not only are these "gurus" out there talking to you, everyone is out there talking to you. Sit down at a table of people you've never met before and you find yourself amongst new friends; you find yourself with people that are genuinely interested in who you are and where you work and what you're looking forward to in ColdFusion 8.
One of the most refreshing things about being among these people was that they were all so very much into ColdFusion. I remember when I was sitting on the bus headed to the zoo, I took a moment to just sit quietly and listen to what everyone else around me was saying. The people behind me were talking about database transfer techniques. The people next to me were talking about using RDS in CFEclipse. The people in front of me where talking about the design patterns session they had recently attended. In fact, everyone on the bus was buzzing about ColdFusion or some related aspect of web development.
Coming from an environment where it can be awkward to start a conversation about ColdFusion, it was almost like a fantasy dream to finally be in a situation where starting a conversation not about ColdFusion felt awkward. It felt reminiscent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich crawls into his own subconscious only to be surrounded by 100 copies of himself. Outside of CFUNITED, I feel like there are very few people that I can talk to about this stuff. At CFUNITED, I felt like I could talk to anybody about how exciting ColdFusion was. I'm not sure I can even get across to you how freeing that was!
In addition to feeling free, I felt accepted. Before I left New York, I had posted a blog entry asking people to come up to me and say Hi so that I didn't feel so out of place being at CFUNITED for the first time. I didn't expect much to come of it; but, I can't tell you how many people actually came up to me to introduce themselves, specifically wanting to make sure that I was doing OK and that I felt welcome and that I was having a good time. It was so touching that people I had never met before actually cared to come up and see how I was doing. It was very nice, but of course in retrospect, it wasn't that surprising; I think anyone who has spent as much time dealing with the ColdFusion community as I have — and seeing the quality of people that it encompasses — would not only expect that kind of reception, but would been surprised if it had not, in fact, happened that way.
While this was my first time dealing with many of the people there, this was my second time attending a TeraTech ColdFusion conference. My first experience with them was the CFUNITED Express held in New York City a few months ago. The Express was much, much smaller but it was an excellent event. It was nice to see that TeraTech's outstanding and professional level of presentation scales to handle a conference as large as CFUNITED. With the exception of some audio/visual glitches, everything was run so smoothly and so efficiently. Michaela Light, Liz Schmidt, and the rest of the CFUNITED conference team did quite an incredible job.
And the food! The food was so good it gets its own special mention. In the morning, they put out some fruit and snacks, nothing very special - maybe even a little bit lacking. But the lunch was extremely tasty and somehow it kept getting better each day. Chicken, steak, potatoes, bread, fish, soups, dessert. Lots of dessert. Lots of very tasty, delicious dessert. In fact, I think I ate better at the conference than I do normally when I'm in the office.
Ok, but enough about the conference environment; let's talk learning, let's talk about education and sessions. I have mixed feelings about the sessions. I certainly came out of every single session with new ideas and new inspiration for code and blog entries. But, at the same time, I felt like some of them fell a bit short. I understand that the conference is catering to hundreds of people at many different skill levels, so the sessions can't be too esoteric. I also understand that maybe my skill level is a bit more advanced in some areas so that information that was familiar to me would still be providing Eureka-type moments for others in the audience.
I think in the end, my expectations for the sessions were not appropriate. I went in with mind-set that it was going to be like taking classes in school; but, in retrospect, I feel that not only were these sessions not meant to be classes, but that such an environment could not be achieved at a conference. In the end, I think the sessions were more about inspiration and the introduction of new ideas than anything else. Did I learn a ton in the sessions. More no than yes. Was I inspired to then go out and learn a ton more about the topics covered in the sessions? Absolutely, 100% without a doubt, Yes.
I went down to CFUNITED nervous that it was going be disappointed. I left CFUNITED ready to pre-register for the next year's conference. I can't quite explain my overall feelings about the conference, other than to say that they are very positive, so I hope that my above descriptions will help you to see what it is that I am seeing. If nothing else, I hope that what I am saying has encouraged you to take that leap, if you have not already, and come check out CFUNITED for the first time. If you love ColdFusion, I can guarantee that it is not an experience that you'll regret having.
Now, in 2021 — 14-years after I went to this conference and wrote this review — one of my fondest memories is still of Scott Stroz. He did me perhaps the greatest mitzvah: he made me feel welcome. The moment I walked into the Marriott hotel, he shouted-out (literally shouted) my name and called me over for an introduction. In that moment, he single-handled eradicated my feelings of insecurity and fear of being in such a large group of people.
It's funny how such a small gesture can leave such lasting impression. It's a great reminder to us all that reaching out to people and making them feel welcome holds a power that can't even be seen or understood in the moment. It's a reminder to always err on the side of being inclusive; and to creating an ever-widening circle.
Epilogue on How Awesome ColdFusion Still Is Today
It's kind of bananas to see how excited I was about ColdFusion 14-years ago; and, how terribly excited I still am about ColdFusion today. The language just keeps getting better and continues to make my day-to-day life simpler, faster, and more efficient. I'm even in the process of modernizing this blog to run on Adobe ColdFusion 2021 - this hits keep on dropping! I'm looking forward to many more years with this wonderful language!