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Featured at the Tivoli, a homegrown gathering of software developers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2009 - Tying up loose ends from a busy weekend, I dropped in Friday on the inaugural Strange Loop Conference for software developers. You wouldn’t know it was a first-time event judging from the attendance. Organizer Alex Miller said that roughly 320 people (mostly locals but some from outside the region) had registered for the two-day conference at the Tivoli Theater.

Miller, who works remotely from St. Louis for the San Francisco-based Java clustering startup Terracotta, said he’s not sure how many software developers live in St. Louis. The popularity of his conference in year one is a sign of a sizable community here, which includes people at small high-tech firms and at major companies like Enterprise and Monsanto. The Genome Center at Washington University and the company Carfax were among the employers that sent large contigents to the conference.

“We’re in a really robust economy from a programmer’s point of view,” Miller told me on Friday. “We’re starting to find each other finally. People in the programming world are seeing a community rather than a disconnected group."

Jim Brasunas, who led a panel discussion on programmers becoming entrepreneurs, said software engineers are among the many people who work in technology fields in St. Louis who have long felt "alone in the desert." He said the region still downplays its high-tech sector. "We aren't great about recognizing and promoting the stuff happening here. Different layers of the business community don't know what's happening in other layers."

Brasunas is director of the St. Louis IT Entrepreneurial Network, which aims to help information technology ventures and startups break through the initial stages of development. The group is among the organizers of the Start-up Connection, a gathering that brings together job seekers and employers in the IT and biotech sectors, and is intended to spur innovation in St. Louis. (The next event is Nov. 17).

Brasunas said Miller has "put his finger on an underserved market.”

Sensing a growing interest in a networking group for developers, Miller recently started Lambda Lounge. Earlier this year, Miller began thinking about how to build on the group's discussions. He's a regular on the conference speaking circuit, and had the idea of starting a regular software developer conference here ;to go along with ones that often make stops in St. Louis.

Strange Loop focused on emerging database technology and programming languages. Presentations and panel discussions ranged from highly technical ("Modularity in JDK7," "Polyglot Web Development with Grails") to straightforward, such as a seminar on how to work with colleagues spread across the globe. Then there were talks about astronomy, neuroscience and network hacking during the "strange passions" portion of the event.

"I've noticed that developers have a wide range of interests," Miller said. "I thought, why not let people give non-technical talks about things that have nothing to do with programming."

While programming conferences typically cost hundreds of dollars to attend, Miller set the price at $75 a person for people who registered early. The conference eventually sold out. Miller said he wanted people who are not subsidized by their employers to be able to attend.

I've covered many conferences over the years, but never have I been to one inside a movie house. Inside each theater, rows of people sat in the padded chairs, tapping on their smartphones and laptops and watching presentations on the giant screens. Miller strolled from theater to theater, listening to speakers and helping fix technology glitches. This being a high-tech conference, Miller also paid close attention to what people at the conference were saying about it on Twitter.

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