Belgian Stephan Janssen is the founder of the Devoxx family of conferences and a programming enthusiast. Since the age of 16, he has been passionate about writing code, learning new technologies and developing various platforms and solutions. In the treasury of his experience is the creation of a successful IT company. However, Stefan sold this business and decided to organize his own Java conference in Antwerp, Belgium. Later, it grew into a Devoxx franchise – a profitable family business. And Stephan still writes conference software himself. Next – from the first person.
The beginning of the journey
In 1998, I founded my own company JCS Int. The business grew and developed, but the further I went, the more I felt that I had to make a choice: to be an engineer or to be a CEO. I do not know much about the psychology of working with people, which, in my opinion, is necessary for a manager, and I did not plan to dive into this field (this was reflected, by the way, in the choice of business model for future conferences. Devoxx is a franchise). Therefore, the option to return to the field of engineering looked more attractive. My first conference for engineers was held in 2001 and was called JavaPolis. It quickly became known and I immediately learned a valuable lesson: to think about naming from scratch. The legal team of Sun Microsystems contacted me because it contained the name of their trademark “Java”. We had to turn to a marketing agency to update the brand. From the second attempt, the name Devoxx appeared – a combination of the words “developer” and “vox” (Latin for voice). The conference is the voice of developers, like-minded people who gather to share experiences. It was in 2008.
At first the content was very focused on Java, a little later we started looking towards JVM and adding topics on Scala, Kotlin, etc. Over the past few years, Devoxx has become a conference for the entire developers community, although our Java roots are still evident. For example, this year the topic of conferences in Belgium and Ukraine will be artificial intelligence and Java 21. We gather the best speakers to cover a trending topic firsthand. It will be interesting to the general IT community and Java engineers in particular. After all, it will be about how to more effectively involve AI technologies in your project. I am always inspired by the opportunity to talk about the latest technologies and trends and analyze their impact on work and life in general.
Today, Devoxx consists of large conferences of the same name, smaller events Voxxed Days and events for children Devoxx4Kids. All of them take place independently of each other in different countries of the world. Personally, I am involved in the organization of Devoxx Belgium. It takes about 6 months, the event gathers over three thousand participants and lasts a week. I devote the rest of my time to R&D activities. This is my favorite job.
To be honest, sometimes the organization of the event feels like golden shackles: the community expects the conference in Belgium to happen every year. At the same time, I’m not organizing Devoxx for money, I don’t need it. But I’ll probably be doing these conferences for the rest of my life. It makes me wildly enthusiastic. And for now, I manage the process myself, but I understand that later I will have to delegate it to someone. This is another decision I am preparing for.
Before the covid pandemic, we had almost 20 different events worldwide per year. When the entire planet was covered by lockdowns and quarantine restrictions, I created a platform (Rokkit) that made it possible to conduct high-quality online events. It was necessary in 2020, but we had no idea that it would be necessary again in 2022-2023 due to the full-scale war in Ukraine. It is on this platform that Devoxx Ukraine is held during the pandemic. I always try to look for positive moments, so I believe that the pandemic, with all its limitations, has become a useful experience for us.
In most of the countries where Devoxx takes place (besides Belgium and Ukraine, these are France, Great Britain, Morocco, Greece, Poland), the number of visitors to in-person events has increased significantly after the pandemic. Last year in Belgium, the 1700 tickets we made available in the first batch sold out in 5 minutes. The second batch of 500 tickets was sorted in 2 seconds. We even thought it was a bug on our end. But no. There was a bug, but it was different: due to the speed with which tickets were bought, some invoice numbers were duplicated. This year I rewrote the logic and the problem was solved. The event in Antwerp will take place from October 2 to 6 and we already have a fully formed list of sponsors who will present their stands.
We also see significant interest in events in other countries. During the lockdowns, people missed the opportunity to communicate offline and share experiences with like-minded people. No matter how introverted we are, we remain social creatures. In addition, all organizers keep a very reasonable price of tickets for an event with first-class content and a very high-quality level of organization.
Coding as part of everyday work
I confess: I am a geek. It is important to me that the conference remains a leader in terms of technology. And this applies to both content and software. Plus, I love to track trends and use them on Devoxx platforms as soon as possible. I have a pretty big following on Twitter (@Steph007) and I love reading Reddit. Also, during the 22 years of the conference’s existence, I managed to join many communities and personally meet people who know the news of the world of technology firsthand. Should I learn something interesting from any of these sources, I fall down the rabbit hole and start immersing myself in the topic, asking questions to acquaintances, attending thematic events and communicating. It gives me energy and inspiration.
What helps all Devoxx events maintain a common brand is the tools. I create all the necessary software myself. the only exception is the application for Voxxed Days, which was created by my colleague. Although I must admit that I recently got a new assistant (ChatGPT) – artificial intelligence. Well, if I can’t solve a problem for a long time, I ask the community. Engineers immediately share good recommendations. In general, the latest technologies help to create schedules, collect and rank suggestions of topics from speakers, find photos of speakers from the general mass and add them to the page of the relevant talk, etc. I have been working on the platform for many years and I insist that Devoxx organizers use it to create a common Devoxx online experience.
For several Devoxx conferences, this year’s theme was artificial intelligence. The direction is important, popular and relevant, so the number of proposed speeches is growing before our eyes: the program committees will have to work hard to get the most interesting and high-quality reports on the agenda.
Over the past year, many opportunities to use AI in everyday work have appeared. Personally, I’ve recently been interested in how one programmer from the United States is using LLM on Raspberry PI clusters, researching the Java APIs needed to work with AI, talking to the JetBrains team to learn how they’re adding new capabilities to their products using the AI Assistant plugin, and sharing feedback connection.
Since last year, I have been using AI in my work on Devoxx software and events. So in 2022, we got a 3-minute conference trailer created thanks to artificial intelligence (spoiler: it contains a reference to the drones for which we collected funds during last year’s Devoxx Ukraine).
If the speaker offers his report, then artificial intelligence adds keywords to the description, and it also helps to choose a track that best fits a certain topic. In addition, this year we are experimenting with “blind” selection – this should simplify the review and selection of proposed topics for the program committee. ChatGPT anonymizes the company name and speaker name and provides a brief description of the talk. This approach optimizes the creation of a shortlist of participants. And I also “instructed” the AI to generalize and self-organize the descriptions of the reports.
I try to be an example for all the organizers of our conference: I do not interfere directly in the formation of the topic and schedule, but I want to inspire new horizons during joint discussions and exchange of ideas. By the way, I have no goal to expand the geography of the conference as much as possible. It’s more important to match values, so we conduct thorough interviews with prospective franchisees and, if successful, create large-scale developer-to-developer conferences.
Sometimes we deal with an effect we call “Devoxx blues” – “Devoxx sadness”. It is mostly experienced by engineers from the public sector or those working with rather outdated technologies. After all, during the event, we talk about the most interesting, newest, inspire and encourage to open new programming horizons – and they return to work, where they have to take up old tools again. That’s why every year we look for a balance between trends and what people will realistically use at work right now.
Devoxx and Ukraine
I like to attend all Devoxx conferences personally, in particular I have been to Kyiv once. I like how the events in each country have their own characteristics: in Ukraine, for example, I was impressed by the large prize draws among the guests, the youth of the participants, the coverage of the event by local media, the level of preparation for the conference. It was all quite unusual, but powerful. It was immediately apparent that the IT industry is important for the state and that they are betting on its development here. A similar situation, by the way, in Morocco.
The experience of the pandemic allowed us to easily hold an online conference in case of any unforeseen negative scenario. But in no way did I expect or take for granted that Devoxx Ukraine would take place during a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine. I admire the courage, determination and motivation of the organizers. The fact that they decided to hold a conference despite the situation impressed me pleasantly.
Of course, making the conference a charitable one, giving up my commission in favor of an important meeting, was an obvious decision for me. We did this last year, when we collected money for drones with the Serhiy Prytula Foundation, and we are doing the same now.
This year’s partner of the event is the “Leleka” Foundation. Together we collect money for backpacks for military medics. Devoxx Ukraine’s goal is 50,000 euros. And everyone who wants to can join the collection by purchasing a ticket for a donation of 10 euros or more. Funds and areas of assistance are chosen by Ukrainian organizers from EPAM Ukraine. Still, they better understand urgent needs, because they are physically in Ukraine.
Due to the security situation, we are holding Devoxx Ukraine online for the fourth (2 times during pandemic + 2 times during war) time. But I believe that soon the conference will return to Kyiv in an in-person format. Until then, we will continue to support Ukraine on the way to Victory. We do this despite the exhaustion of war and balance between Ukrainian and world news in order to maintain a sober brain and mental health.
A few tips for those looking beyond the horizon of engineering
My professional path may seem a bit unusual. I suppose that the thought will arise, as if everything turned out this way thanks to the fact that I am an extrovert. But no. Like some of the readers of this article, I am an introvert, as my wife can attest. However, everything changes when I enter the IT environment. Communicating with people who share a passion for IT technologies is a real pleasure and a source of drive.
I always give four pieces of advice to anyone who wants to step outside of their engineering comfort zone and try something bigger:
- Start conversations with strangers. If it is more comfortable, you can start by looking at the interlocutor’s shoes 😉
- Later, during the conversation, try not to look at the shoes, but into his or her eyes 🙂
- Find a small community and try yourself as a speaker. In my case and in the case of other Java engineers, it can be local Java User Groups. It was from such a group, by the way, that my first JavaPolis conference was born. Communication is a very important skill. Without it, you are like on an empty island;
- Try speaking to a wider audience later. Alternatively, submit a paper at the next Devoxx conference or Voxxed Days event.
In general, try to become at least a partial extrovert among like-minded people. I guarantee – you will not regret it