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Attendees listen as Douglas Crockford delivers the keynote address titled "Programming Style and Your Brain" at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday during the devLINK Technical Conference being held at the Chattanooga Convention Center this week.
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Wendy Schott and Stephen Blum set up a booth for their company PubNub during the devLINK Technical Conference, being held at the Chattanooga Convention Center this week.


What: DevLink is a software development conference

When: Established in Nashville 2006, moved to Chattanooga in 2011

Who: John Kellar, former Terenine developer, founded the conference and moved it to Chattanooga.

Why: Conferences allow developers the rare chance to network, learn new skills and job hunt

How big: 800 developers are in town for three days

The hot water wasn't working in the Marriott on Wednesday morning.

Cold showers made waking up difficult, but ultimately didn't deter nearly 800 developers from converging at the Chattanooga Convention Center next door for DevLink -- a three-day celebration of all things geeky.

Though it can be mind-numbing to the layman, the DevLink conference is a major event for any self-respecting software engineer, and a feather in the cap for the city's growing community of developers.

"During the workday, you're in your own little bubble," said developer Kai Yang. "This is a chance to get out of that bubble and see what people are doing in the world around you."

Seminar topics range from the benign, such as taking care of the elderly in the digital age, to the bizarrely named "The Nomadic Monad or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Burrito."

The quirky gathering pulls developers from all over North America, said John Kellar, who brought the conference to Chattanooga from Nashville in 2011. Chattanooga-based companies such as BlueCross BlueShield and Unum also send their developers to DevLink, which Kellar said has grown each year.

"It really raises the bar for people who are local, and makes them sharper," Kellar said. "If you raise the bar, you raise the skill level, you raise the salaries and you raise the profitability of all these companies."

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DevLink lasts through Friday and features more than 50 speakers.

Such highly-technical conferences offer developers a way to advance and standardize the science of software, which has become a fragmented field, said Joseph Chandler, a developer from Nashville.

"In the 90s, when the technology was young, you could easily be an expert at everything," Chandler said. "Now, it's becoming more specialized and specific, and you've got to constantly study to stay on top."

Many companies allowed their developers paid time off to brush up on their skills, and some even paid for the conference fee and cost of transportation.

"This is the one time a year I have to get away and see what I missed while I've been working," Chandler said.

In a nearby room, Chattanooga-based developer Jim Cowart waxed poetic about JavaScript, a popular programming language for the Web.

In another seminar, famous tech guru Douglas Crockford, who helps develop JavaScript on an ongoing basis, spoke about development in general.

"Programming is the most complicated thing that humans do," Crockford told a packed crowd. "I used to think that everybody should learn to program. I don't think that anymore -- there's something wrong with us."

Of course, he's joking.

In fact, it takes a special type of person to stare at code for days on end, tracking down a bug that has flummoxed everyone else in the office, he went on to say.

The social

Unsurprisingly, the ratio of laptops or tablets to attendees was about one-to-one on Wednesday, though not everyone dutifully took notes.

That's because there's a significant social aspect to conferences like this, including a silent frenzy on Twitter as conferencegoers tweet and retweet seminar highlights.

"Networking is a big part of it for me," said Katherine McGhee, a Knoxville-based developer. "I come here for the people."

If they want, attendees can skip the seminars entirely and take part in what's called the un-conference.

Big circles of empty chairs in empty rooms are arranged around the conference center, with blank whiteboards at the ready.

The so-called open spaces are the new hotness among a profession that is known for eschewing tradition in favor of a more democratic and free-form gathering, Kellar said.

"People just come together and talk about whatever," he said.

Not all such conferences have embraced this open behavior, Kellar said, but DevLink has moved to expand the practice.

"It's more grass roots," he said. "In programming, everything's been done before, so when everybody is here you can learn how to solve your problem."

But the gatherings have another purpose, one less pleasing to the corporations that pay employees to attend.

"IT jobs have an average lifespan of three years, so you have to keep up with what's next."