The first thing you see is an unattended and otherwise empty folding table holding a Sharpie marker and a roll of duct tape. A strip of tape reads "Nametag Station" and there is an example. Remember that this is a conference for people who learn fast, do things their own way, and use what they have on hand.
Welcome to EntConnect 2010.
I briefly described the conference in my February 22, 2010 entry. It was a piece of early community building by the founder/owner of Midnight Engineering magazine, the other Bill Gates. Bill originally pitched it as a ski outing, but it grew from there into go karting, skeet shooting, and ultimately conference sessions--and has long outlived Bill's poor magazine, which like my own has been gone for a number of years. The 2010 gathering was the 19th, and I was no more than ten minutes into the first session when I was kicking myself for not having attended years ago.
It's not a huge group. I'm guessing 35 people came out, and an amazing number have been there for most and sometimes all of the previous conferences. Nor is it an especially young crowd; I'm guessing a median age of 45 or 50. Nearly all of them own their own technical businesses, and some have owned (and sold) several. That's the core mission of the conference: to leverage the collective experience of the attendees in working on their own and making a living thereby. The presentations were a good balance of technical and life-experience descriptions. (Here's the schedule with the names of the sessions.) I shared a table in the conference room with Jack Krupansky, who was a long-time advertiser at PC Techniques and very much a kindred spirit, and met a great many others cut from the same rugged and mostly self-organizing cloth. The dinner conversation was dumbfounding, with ideas and insights whizzing past my ears far faster than I could internalize them.
The sessions were superb, and some were so high-energy that I felt a little drained when they were over. The keynote session from Dave Grenewetzki was like that. Here's a guy only a little older than me who has lived life at a dead run, having had careers in aerospace engineering, early computer software (back to the CP/M era) and computer games, with several startups to his credit and a longish stint at the helm of Sierra Online. He's also one of the world's most accomplished geocachers. His message: Follow the fun. Well, I try, but most of the time the fun runs a lot faster than I do.
Lee Devlin presented a technical and economic overview of 3-D printing, which was not all new news for me, having loosely followed the field since I began studying nanotechnology fifteen years ago. It was, however, the first time I was able to hold in my own hands and examine some ABS parts created on a professional 3-D printer. The parts were much less "fuzzy" than photos I've seen online, granting that they were produced on a $32,000 machine (the Stratasys Dimension SST1200es) and not the $1000 Cupcake CNC gadget we've been seeing on the Make Blog recently. I have been hoping to learn 3-D CAD for many years, and seeing the Alibre Design parametric CAD software pushed that item up my personal priority list a few dozen spots. Lee persuaded me that this technology is coming into its own (I had been thinking it was still a sort of stunt driven by mechasmic Extropian dreams) and I would love to give it a shot in the reasonable future.
Some of the sessions presented topics worthy of their own entries here, and I'll come back to them eventually--especially Bill French's presentation on auditing your own Web site for customer accessibility. I saw some things I probably won't pursue (like the Flash-based prezi.com presentation software) but think may be useful to others; certainly take a look. Digital photography loomed large (several of the attendees are professional photographers) and a great deal was said about the practical challenges of starting businesses, running businesses, and (courtesy Jeff Schmoyer) getting free of them when you have to move on.
The intensity of the conference was remarkable. Everybody who spoke spoke with the kind of passion that makes problems run screaming. I recall that passion from my early days with Keith launching The Coriolis Group and PC Techniques, and I miss it. The passion didn't end with the sessions, and in fact I don't know precisely when it ended because I had already collapsed into bed long before the lights in our conference room went out.
The next EntConnect will take place March 24-27, 2011, at (as best I know) the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Denver, right off the famous 16th Street Mall. It's already on my calendar, and I'd love to see you there.