SCaLE: A Conference Built on Community Feedback



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The Southern California Linux Expo, better known as SCaLE, has captured the hearts of developers, open source innovators, and technologists of all stripes because of its unique grassroots ethos. When planning what topics SCaLE should focus on each year, SCaLE cofounder Ilan Rabinovich follows where genuine excitement and curiosity lead. This approach has turned SCaLE into a platform for community-driven talks that cover everything from popular tech trends to surprising and unexpected topics. 

We sat down with Rabinovich to talk about the origins of SCaLE, the decision-making process for adding new tracks, and memorable moments from previous years. 

Listen to the full episode here. This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

Something for Everyone

Katherine Druckman: How would you describe SCaLE’s personality? 

Ilan Rabinovich: We started SCaLE when we were college kids more than 20 years ago. A bunch of us kids wanted an open source conference about the tech we were interested in. As we grew up and got jobs and did other things, we morphed SCaLE into what we were interested in. 

SCaLE has a middle-of-the-road energy. There are a bunch of events where things are really focused on the commercial side. At SCaLE, we try to strike a balance by bringing as many open source community projects, nonprofits, and volunteers into the mix as we do the commercial side. That balance means it has a different energy. People are there because they want to be part of the community, not just because they want to sell things. People aren’t on their guard as much. It’s more about having genuine conversations. And for me, it’s a reunion of my closest 3,000 friends and family. 

This year, we’ve got a bunch of colocated events that are going to be there. Ubuntu is going to run a conference alongside us called UbuCon. Nix is bringing their US summit, so if you’re into NixOS or the Nix build system, you can come to learn about that at SCaLE. It’s a really fun, community-run event. All volunteers. Very welcoming. If you’re new to open source, it’s a great place to learn. We also have advanced stuff too. We’ve even got activities for kids. We have a whole track where K-12 students demo and share the open source work they’re doing and hands-on activities for kids to get familiar with tech. 

Making Space for the Trendy and the Unexpected

Katherine Druckman: How do you decide when it’s time to add a new track? 

Ilan Rabinovich: We juggle the tracks and the focus areas every year. Some of it is intuition—you kind of look at the conversation and zeitgeist about what’s new and exciting in the open source space and tech world. This year, everybody’s gaga over AI, so there’s an open source AI track because you can’t ignore that. Years ago, it was Kubernetes, containers, and cloud native. 

We can really see the trends each year just by what people submit to SCaLE. When VoIP and Asterisk were taking off, the way I knew VoIP was the new hotness wasn’t just because I was playing with it myself but also because we had a call for papers (CFP), and like 100 of the 400 submissions were about Asterisk—so we thought maybe this is something we need to focus on. The same thing happened with containers. 

That’s kind of it. We look at what we’re interested in as individuals, what our attendees are asking for, and what people submit. The fun thing about conferences is that if the speaker is excited about something, they can get you excited about it too. If a bunch of people are really excited about something, there’s some magic there, and we can build a track or some content around it. 

Katherine Druckman: I find it’s always the unexpected talks that I really get into. 

Ilan Rabinovich: One of my favorite talks from last year was our closing keynote by Ken Thompson, the cocreator of Unix, Golang, and a bunch of other tech we all use. It was fun because it was such an unexpected talk. Everybody came into the room wanting to hear about the lessons of Unix or why he created Go, but he talked about his home hacking project to create a player piano. The year before, we had Vint Cerf talking about the history of the internet and how we got to where we are today. 

My favorite part of SCaLE is running into friends from the open source world and learning about the new things they’re excited about because that’s how I learn about what’s up and coming. The other piece is that I get to meet my computer science and open source heroes, people whose software I’ve used my entire career, or people I’ve read from my entire career, or people who have enabled me to do all kinds of things in my day-to-day life. It’s a lot of fun to meet your heroes, and that’s what SCaLE’s been for 20 years now. 

Katherine Druckman: And sometimes you realize your friends and former coworkers are heroes. You watch them speak, and you think, wow, I know some brilliant people. 

Ilan Rabinovich: I was walking around here at KubeCon, and this guy grabs me. I’m like, I think I know you, but I don’t know from where. We start talking, and he says he’s been coming to SCaLE since he was five years old. Now, he works at one of the companies on the expo floor. It’s been fun to see the community grow—us from being college kids and growing into established careers, but also these toddlers who came to SCaLE the first couple of years and now are here. 

Katherine Druckman: It has to make you feel that you’ve had an impact. 

Ilan Rabinovich: When you’re working on something, it’s easy to have your blinders on and not realize what the impact is beyond you. Those moments when somebody grabs you and shares how your work has helped them in some way. It doesn’t matter if it’s responding to their questions on a mailing list or running a conference. Whatever it might be, it’s nice to get that positive feedback. 

To hear more of this conversation and others, subscribe to the Open at Intel podcast: 

About the Author

Katherine Druckman, Open Source Evangelist, Intel 

Katherine Druckman, an Intel open source evangelist, hosts the podcasts Open at Intel, Reality 2.0, and FLOSS Weekly. A security and privacy advocate, software engineer, and former digital director of Linux Journal, she’s a longtime champion of open source and open standards. 

Ilan Rabinovich, Product and Community Leader 

Ilan Rabinovich is a cofounder of the Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE) and a longtime Linux and open source advocate. He previously led product and technical marketing at Datadog and now advises and consults with early-stage companies on their product and open source strategies.