Haystack, the relevance conference – birth of a new profession?

I’ve just returned from Charlottesville, Virginia and the Haystack search relevance conference hosted by our partners Open Source Connections. The venues were their own office and the Random Row brewery next door – added once they realised that the event had outgrown its humble beginnings as a small, informal event for maybe 50 people into a professional conference for over twice that number with attendees from as far afield as the west coast of the US, Poland and of course the UK. I’ll be writing up each day of the event and what I learned from the talks in blogs to follow, but wanted to start with my overall impressions.

I don’t think I’ve been to any other conference with such a strong sense of community or such a high quality of presentations. It was particularly refreshing to be among a group of people with such a level of search expertise and experience that at no point did anything have to be ‘dumbed down’ or over-explained. The attendee list included open source committers from projects including Apache Lucene/Solr and Apache Tika, experts in commercial search, authors of books I’ve long regarded as essential for anyone working in this field, independent consultants and those working for huge global companies. The talks were well programmed, ran exactly to schedule and covered cutting-edge topics. Between these talks the networking was relaxed and friendly and I had a chance to get to know several people in real life that I’ve previously only connected with online.

I think this conference may also have signalled the birth of a new profession of “relevance engineer” – someone who can understand both the business and technical aspects of search relevance, work with a variety of underlying search engines and expertly use the correct tools for the job to drive a continuing process of search quality improvement. Personally, I learnt a huge amount of useful information, made connections with many others in our field and have pages of notes to follow up on.

Last but no means least is to extend my personal thanks to all at OSC who created, planned and ran the event – as a veteran of many events in both technical and non-technical fields I understand very well how much work goes into them, especially if you’re not an event planner by profession! You opened your doors to us and made us all feel very welcome and you all worked extremely hard to make this one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended.

More to follow on day 1 and day 2 soon.

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