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The Road to True North PHP ... Reflections

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As you may or may not know I have been planning a conference called True North PHP with my friend Chris Hartjes. I wanted to blog about some of my experiences in planning the conference and reflect back on what brought me here. This blog is especially important to me since this is the first time I am organizing a conference and would appreciate all the feedback I can get.

First I want to go over some background of how the idea for the conference came about and how I got involved. This post may be a bit lengthy but hopefully it is an enjoyable read.

I have been programming PHP for about 10 years and I had been organizing a meetup group called the East Toronto Web Design Group since 2006, so I knew what it was like to participate in a community. However it was not until early 2011 that I started attending PHP meetups. This is mainly because Toronto had never had a good PHP meetup group until the GTA PHP User Group came into existence.

From the time I attended my first meeting with GTA PHP I was blown away by the size of the group, the knowledge level of the attendees and the quality of the speakers. I had held several good meetings with the Web Design group, but I guess the PHP topics were more up my alley. Rapidly I grew more interested in attending the PHP meetups than organizing the Web Design ones, and eventually I stepped down as organizer of the East Toronto Web Design group and volunteered to be one of the organizers of the GTA PHP group.

In late 2011, with a renewed interest in PHP and my eyes newly open to the fact that indeed there was a PHP community in Toronto I started seeking out ways that I could live, learn and talk about PHP and software development in general. I started using Twitter and started following all the interesting PHP people I could find. I started listening to podcasts on my drive in to work. I listened to the Pragmatic Programmers’ Podcast, Cal EvansVoices of the Elephpant, Manuel LamosLately in PHP, EngineYard’s Cloud Out Loud especially the Liz Naramore episodes, Chris Hartjes and Ed Finkler’s /dev/hell, The Changelog and The Dev Show (note, I have just about listened to every episode of those shows so need more material. If you can recommend something else to me in the comments it would be great). Even though several of them are Ruby centric and I don’t speak Ruby, I have thoroughly enjoyed all of these Podcasts.

Through going to the meetups, following people on Twitter and listening to the podcasts I became more and more interested in going to a developer conference for the first time. I looked around and was surprised to find that there were no PHP conferences happening in Toronto. The closest one I could find was Confoo in Montreal which is about a 5 hour drive.

Since conferences, hotels and travel are not free, I asked my manager at the time whether the company would pay for me to go to Confoo since it was something that was relevant to my career. I was told that if the conference were happening in Toronto they would have paid, but since it was in Montreal I would have to pay for it myself. This sucked, but I really wanted to go so I bought my ticket anyway and took the train down to Montreal with Guilherme Blanco whom I knew from the meetup group.

On the train I talked with Guilherme about the fact that it would be great if there was a conference in Toronto. He agreed.

I won’t go into too much detail about Confoo because there is too much to tell but let’s just say I had a great time, met many really great people and heard some fantastic talks. I was especially surprised and delighted by the fact that many of the speakers were world renowned builders of tools and products that are used by millions of people, yet they were very approachable and happy to chat, hang out and drink a beer with me. I attribute a lot of that atmosphere to the organizers of Confoo, Yann Larrivee and Anna Filina and I cannot say enough how deeply I respect them for organizing such an incredible event and for their tireless efforts to further the programming community in Canada.

While I was at Confoo it became clear to me that someone had to bring a conference like this to Toronto. At the time I didn’t realize it was going to be me. Instead I was pitching the idea to people hoping that they would take it on and do it and I would offer my full support. A lot of people expressed interest in seeing a conference in Toronto, but no one really stepped up and offered to run it. I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised seeing that there were only a small handful of people I met there who were actually from Toronto.

All too soon, Confoo ended and I returned to my life in Toronto, but the thought of a conference in Toronto would not leave my mind. At the next meetup I brought up the idea with Chris Hartjes and he thought it would be great and even said he would help out if I wanted to do it.

I still hadn’t made up my mind to move forward with a conference until a week or two later Jeremy Cook mentioned on Twitter that he was interested in doing some sort of PHP conference. Chris picked up on his tweet and mentioned that I was talking about doing one, so after some back and forth tweets and emails I went out to Guelph (which is about 1.5 hours from Toronto) to meet with Jeremy and attend a Guelph PHP Meetup. While there I ran into Marco Tabini of PHP Architect, who coincidentally was one of the organizers of php|works in 2006, the last PHP conference held in Toronto. I got some good advice from Marco and hashed out some details with Jeremy. When I got back to Toronto I emailed Chris and filled him in and together Jeremy, Chris and I decided we were going to start a conference.

True North PHP was born.

I hope you enjoyed this reflection as much as I enjoyed thinking back and remembering a few of the great people who may not even realize they inspired me to do more and help foster this great community. Please take some time to share your thoughts in the comments below and let me know if there is anything else related to the conference you would like me to write about in the upcoming weeks.