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Review: FifthElephant 2015

I attended the 2015 iteration of FifthElephant as part of the Bloomreach contingent. This was special because this was the first time I attended a conference as a sponsor rather than just as a regular participant/volunteer. The whole event was super fun, meeting up with lots of interesting people (both at the booth and otherwise), spending time digging deep into technology stacks of different companies and grokking tonnes of stuff which was all arranged in my head under the *stuff I read on hackernews but need to explore more* category. While I did not get to attend as many of the talks as I would have, I still managed to catch a tonne of interesting talks as well.



My favorite talks from FifthElephant 2015 include:
1) Vedang Manerikar's Dead Simple Scalability Patterns: Vedang is someone I know and admire since quite a while, be it as a developer or as a fellow Mahabharata geek, and staying true to expectation, he delivered a brief, to-the-point talk on scalability patterns. Scaling a system isn't sexy or cool but takes a well crafted approach. This was probably the first talk I attended at the conference, and it was a good refresher on stuff that should be done, but usually is ignored until something goes wrong. [video]

2) Himadri Sarkar's Approximate algorithms for summarizing streaming data: Himadri's talk was a crisp talk filled with nuggets of wisdom on how to do stuff which seems simple on much smaller datasets on datasets that are extremely huge, where you can trade exact correctness for constant memory and inexpensive operations. Starting with Bloom Filters, and heading to more advanced data structures, he did a really good job of explaining the logic behind these structures. I've been following developments like HyperLogLog since Antirez blogged about it, and having read about approximation algorithms through the lovely book by Williamson and Shmoys in college, this talk resonated with me quite a bit. [video]

3) Dr. Shailesh Kumar's keynote: Towards Thinking Machines: Whattay keynote! Dr. Kumar basically taunted everyone at FifthEl into asking the question "Why don't we have thinking systems yet?". It questioned basic premises of thinking such as the meaning of creativity, the concept of thinking, and the roots of semantics. When a system interprets that a restaurant is cozy based on restaurant reviews, is it simply doing NLP and using language rules, or can we reach a stage where machines can actually understand what cozy means? Is deep learning, and throwing a million images of cats at a system to get it to understand what features make a cat the right way to approach learning? Is this how humans think (spoiler: No). The work I did in WSL was very much aligned with this, so I completely loved this talk. The moment he said triples, I had the widest grin in the room :P [video]

4) Viral B. Shah's The many ways of parallel computing with Julia: Julia is a high level language that has been taking the world by storm for being super useful for high performance computing, and who better to speak about it than Viral, who is one of the co-creators of the language. Right at the start he mentioned that this talk was also going to be a State of Julia talk, and he did a great job of getting people interested. Julia is one of those languages that has a very strong research background and as such is generating massive interest. Definitely need to look more into Julia. To get started, you can use the online Julia console JuliaBox [video]:

5) Amit Kapoor's Visualising Multi Dimensional Data [video]: Without doubt the most beautiful slide deck at FifthElephant 2015. Amit used a lovely slide deck to speak about data visualization in 4 quadrants: Small, Big, Large and Wide. He went through challenges and visualization techniques for each of these along with the intricacies that different visualization techniques bring in. I learnt about some visualization techniques that I had never heard about before, such as Trellis plots and Star plots. The importance of interaction in visualizations was also stressed upon. Hat tip for starting off with a mention of Flatland

6) Vinodh Kumar's Building a E-commerce search engine: Challenges, insights and approaches:  Vinodh did a lovely talk on the different challenges in designing and scaling a Ecommerce Search engine. He started off with a beautiful analogy which compared searching the world wide web a la Google vs. searching a Ecommerce site a la Amazon was like comparing searching the landmass of Africa vs. searching the area of Cubbon Park, and then went on to explain why Ecommerce search brings in it's own challenges, and semantics and the problem of choosing "Best among equals". Lots of context, lots of importance on ranking, lots of person-to-person differences, and how exactly you'd come up with a fair algorithm to show results. He ended up with the quote "To search Cubbon Park, you need to learn from techniques used to search Africa". Touche! [video] Disclaimer: Vinodh is CTO of Bloomreach, where I work

A talk which was not exactly technical, but still a fun talk to attend was Steven Deobald's Two Years Wiser: The Nilenso Experiment. Steven spoke about Nilenso, a worker's cooperative, which means that everyone working at the company owns the company. He began by describing the talk as "Disaster Porn", and went deep into how the company learnt, through others' experience and through their own mistakes with a company structure which is very unorthodox, to put it lightly. I loved the fact that Nilenso, as a company, ideologically supports openness and sharing and aren't afraid to not just make mistakes, but take steps to ensure no one else makes the same mistakes as them. [video]

Part of the Bloomreach contingent at #fifthel

On the whole, FifthElephant was an excellent event to be at. Tonnes of brain food, lots of interesting discussions, and overall a lot of fun. Kudos to HasGeek, who have matured to the stage where events like this usually go off without any hitch. The guys from SumoLogic were super fun to be around throughout the conference. Same applies to the guys from Aerospike as well. Anand from Mad Street Den also popped by for some fun discussions. The random discussions that happened outside of the conference halls were just as awesome as the talks going on inside. Definitely a event I look forward to being a part of again next year. :)

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Prologue

Finally after all these years, here's to the beginning of what was there, what is there and hopefully what will remain!! So here are my thoughts & words -Online!!