Presumably the name is a play on the world famous Mardigras festival which is most widely known in Brazil and the US. However it is more than just a play on words or a clever marketing ploy. Just like that street carnival, the conference has a high quotient of the wacky, the fun, the insightful, the different and sometimes the plain bizarre. This Thursday and Friday around 150 people packed into one of the Shoreditch Studios in London to attend the 2015 edition. It appeared to be a sell-out and I am sure they could have sold many more tickets – especially at the very reasonable fees that delegates were charged.
As this was my first Monkigras I was rather apprehensive about it, not being a developer or software engineer, and with marketing being my metier I may have been seen as coming from the dark side. But I shouldn’t have worried. Although there were a few slides with code on them, the theming of the event helped keep it at an understandable level for a non-techie.
James Governor, the co-founder of RedMonk is the slightly eccentric “curator” of the event. Essentially he is the force behind Monkigras and he runs the event in a seemingly blase and a somewhat rambling professorial manner. But it really works. Especially with this crowd of relatively young and mostly open-source developers and software engineers. As a major influencer in the developer community he commands a lot of respect and therefore is able to attract an eclectic and influential roster of speakers. This year was no exception. Luminaries like the CEO of MariaDB and the creators of the Swedish typeface showed up to talk.
James focused Monkifest 15 on the Nordic tech ecosystem. That might seem somewhat niche and possibly a bit unusual for a London based conference, but as with a lot of things RedMonk, there was method in their madness. The Nordic region has become synonymous with the open source movement ever since a young Linus Torvalds decided that rather than buy the Solaris OS for his Sun server back in 2001 he’d write his own. Appreciating that then, you can maybe understand why a focus on the Nordic startup culture and their success in open source would be relevant to a wider audience. Take the well-known open source stack for example, LAMP, 3 of the 4 technologies come from the Nordic region. Linux, MySQL and PHP all originated there. Indeed one of the key messages from Day 1 was – not every major innovation in open source comes from Silicon Valley. Speaker after speaker emphasized just how successful the region has been in boxing above its weight class. Why? Well seemingly it is the Nordic values and culture that is the secret sauce in their software success.
Presentations from Swedes, Finns and Norwegians all served to reinforce some of the stereotypes that we tend to have about the Nordic people – somewhat anti-authority, resourceful, humble and innovative. All these came out loud and clear. Another common theme was the playfulness in which they gave their Norse neighbours back-handed compliments and made jokes at their expense. But it was all done in a light-heartened and genuinely respectful way. The Norwegians calling Sweden their historic ‘overlords’ and Finns describing the Swedes as ‘stubborn a**holes’ were just two of the many tongue-in-cheek asides. It was high on entertainment value, with every speaker seemingly picked as much for their ability to make the audience laugh as to deliver insightful content – at which they excelled just as well.
Most of Day 1 was focused on culture and code and the tight link between the two. Per Buer, the CTO of , Janne Kalliola CEO & Founder of , Joonas Lehtinen, Founder of the Vaadin Project and the aforementioned CEO of MariaDB, Patrik Sallner all gave great accounts of themselves, of their open source offerings and of their countries. Swedish representatives from more well-known companies like Amazon Web Services added to the rich dialogue.
For a slightly different perspective James had attracted the CEO of Neo Technology, Emil Eifrem to fly over from Silicon Valley to discuss how he is taking the cultural values from his native Sweden and inculcating them into his US start-up (which focuses on graphical databases). “An American company with a Swedish soul” is the way he describes it. Given his hiring cadence, he is certainly seeing success. Since he started it in 2007 he claimed has never lost a single engineer from his 30 or so team to another competitor and that is despite being in the hottest place on earth for cool start-ups. Quite remarkable. He puts that down to the culture – driving ‘good’ consensus, promoting a meritocratic approach and a keen focus on the quality of ideas rather than their origination. It is mandated that as an employee you challenge every other employee, especially the exec management. That way the quality of the ideas are thoroughly tested and made road worthy.
Finally Niklas Gustavsson from Spotify reinforced those cultural norms when discussing how his company has grown from a small Swedish start-up into a global brand and a multinational company. Their way of dealing with hard problems by creating ‘squads’ and ideating through them was an interesting approach.
The sessions are delivered in a single track format in a darkened room and are predominantly PowerPoint based. That’s a recipe that on paper sounds disastrous. One session followed by another after another, after another. But somehow it works. Sessions are limited to 18 mins long (had to be I suppose, not 15 mins or 20 mins) and some of the best Swedish coffee on-tap maybe have had something to do with it as well. Additionally most sessions were laced with humour and unpredictability. For example, who’d have thought a talk on Icelandic knitting would have been so fascinating – and indeed relevant – with analogies to code development being spun (sorry) throughout?
The penultimate session was on a fascinating talk on the history of the Nordic drinking culture – context setting for the evening activity. Nothing like reinforcing stereotypes! Who knew how much of their history was plagued by prohibition. I guess they’ve been making up for it ever since.
Finally we had a short talk on Mikkeller, a so-called “gypsy” beer company from Denmark which has expanded significantly over the last 7 years. What’s cool about them is their business model which basically means that they create the recipes and outsource the actual brewing to other companies around the world. It explains why they have so many varieties of beer and such unusual recipes. Unsurprisingly, these were the beers on offer in the evening – how fitting to have the liquid refreshments from a supplier with a different business model – just like many of the participating companies – and of course like RedMonk.
Day one then – definitely a high ROI both in terms of time and cost.
Day two offered up more of the same. A really wacky presentation from Eucalyptus ought to have come with a TV style warning for anyone with epilepsy. But they are yet another Scandi company doing great things with cloud scaling models. So much so that HP picked them up and added them to their software stable. There was certainly some interesting content if confusingly delivered – but maybe that was just me – the conference had started to get technical.
Other highlights from then included the presentation from the CEO of Adapteva who has been building his start-up in the US from his Israeli-Swedish roots for the past 7 years and is touting his open source hardware chipset/processors, Parallella. Talk about David v Goliath! A company less than 20 persons going up against Intel. Bravery personified. But, as he said, Swedish entrepreneurs are stubborn – and he remains positive about his prospects despite showing us an alarming graph that showed the burn rate of his VC funding. It was a picture which only accountants with nerves of steel could look at sanguinely. His talk on the attributes required to build a start-up were a reality check for anyone starting out with a great idea and thinking of turning it into the next Spotify or Skype.
The CTO of NordCloud Ilja Summala stated that Finland leads the EU in cloud adoption. He made the rather interesting assertion that this could well be a result of the need of the Finns to resolve the housing crisis after WWII when 11% of population needed housing. In order to build houses at record speed an open “house design” was made available so that anyone could more or less build a basic house out of timber with marginal construction skills. An early example of open sourcing a design. But something that helped accelerate that was the existence of ‘talkoot‘, which describes how friends and family all collaborate to hep each other, seemingly a concept common to all the Nordic countries. So the construction of these houses effectively became a collective task. Impossible to prove of course but it is nice to believe that the relatively high adoption rate of cloud services in the Nordics is due to those traits exemplified 70 years ago.
There were plenty of other talks on day 2 and the full agenda and speakers can be found here.
And so there we have it. My respect for the Nordic region is undiminished. It’s a fascinating place to visit and clearly a place with the right conditions to grow technology businesses for Nordic people.
I look forward to seeing Mr Governor’s concept for 2016. One thing for sure is that the basic tenets of Monkigras won’t deviate much and if you are in anyway interested in open source, distributed development, Devops or any cool programming concepts ensure you book your skiing holiday next year in February.