Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A modest proposal: SOSIGCOMMOBIXDI

I have a problem: there are way too many conferences to attend. Even worse, the degree of overlap between the systems, mobile, and networking communities means that I am basically running into the same people at all of these events. You have a problem, too: You are paying money (and time) to attend all of these separate conferences.

Conservatively, there are five "top tier" conferences that are "must attend" events every year: SOSP/OSDI, NSDI, MobiSys, MobiCom, SIGCOMM. (Not to mention excellent venues like USENIX ATC, EuroSys, CoNext, SenSys, the list goes on.) And then all of the "smaller workshops because we don't like how big the conferences are but you pretty much have to go anyway": HotOS, HotMobile, HotNets.

Realistically, nobody makes it to all of these events (unless you're, say, a poor junior faculty member going for tenure and have to show your place in as many places as possible). So you pick and choose based on whether you have a paper accepted, or whether you have enough travel money laying around, or whether you just have to get away from home for a few days.

Consider the costs of running all of these separate events. For the attendees, there is the high cost (and time investment) for travel, registration fees, and taking time away from work and home to attend each conference. A single conference trip probably costs $1500-2000, more if you are traveling overseas, and anywhere from three days to a week of time away from home. Especially for those with young children at home each trip takes a serious toll.

Organizing a conference is also a huge amount of work, regardless of whether it's a workshop for 50 people or a big conference for 500. This is especially true for the poor general chair who has to work out all of the details of the venue, hotel, meals, A/V setup, finances, etc.

You know where this is going: Why don't we have one, big, annual conference spanning the systems, networking, and mobile research communities? (And, while we're at it, why not throw in databases for good measure?) SOSIGCOMMOBIXDI would run for, say, 5 days, with parallel (yes!) sessions covering each of these major areas. It would happen at roughly the same week each year, so people can plan their travel and vacation schedules well in advance. It's like FCRC, for systems!

I can hear the objections now! Let me take them one by one.

But won't it be too big? SIGCOMM and SOSP/OSDI already have something like 600 people in attendance; these are hardly close-knit communities. Given the amount of overlap across these various conferences, I estimate that there would be no more than 3,000 people attending SOSIGCOMMOBIXDI, although I'll grant I might be underestimating -- let's be generous and say 5,000 people. Organizing an event for 5,000 people is no big deal. Most large cities have hotels and convention centers that can comfortably handle events of this size. Hell, medical conferences typically have 10,000 or more (way more) attendees. It is understood how to run conferences at this scale. It's not something a typical professor has experience doing, so best to rely on a professional events organization like USENIX.

I have been to 5,000-person conferences and if anything, it's more energizing -- and there is much more to do -- than these 500-person events where everyone is expected to sit in the same room listening to the same talks all day long. You have room for smaller breakouts and workshops; a larger, more interesting industry presence; and greater draw for really interesting keynote speakers.

But I want a single track! Get over it. The single-track "constraint" is often cited by senior people who remember what it was like in the early days of the field when conferences were 1/5th the size that they are now, and every PC member read every paper. The people who complain about parallel tracks are often the ones who spend most of the conference out in the hall chatting with their colleagues -- they're not listening to every talk anyway. Even if they sit in the room all day they're probably on their laptops pretending to listen to the talk, or writing blog posts (like I'm doing now).

Ever been to the morning session on the third day of a conference? Crickets. Where are all of the "single-trackers" then?

Moreover, the single-track "constraint" severely limits the number of papers a conference can publish every year. Most 2.5-day conference can take no more than 25-30 papers to fit in a single track model. To squeeze more papers in, we've gotten rid of the more memorable aspects of these conferences: keynotes, panels, breakouts. It doesn't scale.

Removing the single-track requirement also opens up a bunch of possibilities for changing up the format of the conference. Sure, you want some large plenary sessions and a few tracks of papers. But hosting a few mini-workshops, working sessions, or BoFs during the day is possible too. Squeeze in poster and demo sessions here and there. Even set some space aside for an industry trade show (these are often really fun, but most academic conferences rarely have them).

Worried you're going to miss something? The papers are all online, and USENIX even posts videos of all of the talks. So, I claim that the single-track model is outdated.

But then there's only one paper submission deadline a year! Not necessarily. We could have rolling submissions for SOSIGCOMMOBIXDI, much like SIGMOD and some other venues do. Since SOSIGCOMMOBIXDI practically consists of multiple federated events, each one can have its own set of deadlines, and they could be staggered across sub-events. Paper submission and evaluation are only loosely coupled to the timing of the conference itself.

But ACM and USENIX won't get as much conference registration revenue if there's only one event! Oh, I hadn't thought of that.

Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.