Release the Geek – Blackboard Developers Conference 2013

Blackboard’s annual users conference kicked off with its technical and geeky side first as The 10th annual Blackboard Developers

From Left to Right: Mike McGarr, Stephen Feldman, David Ashman, and Gary Lang (Image from Blackboard)

From Left to Right: Mike McGarr, Stephen Feldman, David Ashman, and Gary Lang (Image from Blackboard)

Conference started with a day and a half of sessions focusing on four major tracks:

  • Extending Learn using Building Blocks
  • Performance/Security/Monitoring
  • Cross-platform and the Cloud
  • Enterprise Integration


It began with a morning keynote led by Stephen Feldman Vice President of Development, Performance and Security Engineering and Infrastructure at Blackboard and Mike McGarr Director of DevOps for Learn at Blackboard playing co-hosts at the conference’s keynote events. The opening keynote offered insight into the company’s push to implement a new directive from last year that leveraged building blocks to deliver and manage tools that have normally be built into the core.


The first big announcement was the move from the current website to Mark O’Neil has been heading up this project and the move over to the new URL won’t be swift, but will build on the important documentation and resources that many admins and developers have come to expect. The next announcement was the four different tracks within this year’s conference: Extending Learn using Building Blocks, Performance, Security, & Monitoring, Cross-platform & the Cloud, and Enterprise Integration. Gary Lang, the new Senior Vice President of Product Development took the stage. As of that day, he had been with the company only about ten days. Lang discussed his vision for Blackboard Learn and the creation of a “developer surface area” which will allow developers to integrate with all the different product platforms within the Company.


David Ashman, Chief Architect of Blackboard Learn, came to the stage next to talk about the work that the product team has been doing over the last year. If you have been under a rock or haven’t been following the changes within the Blackboard Learn product. The company has started to make changes to the way tools are integrated by using Learn’s APIs to make changes and improvements to the product without major upgrades. This gives institutions to implement the new tools without major downtime to upgrade all the code within the application. This is a big relief to many, however it still has its teething troubles as programmers have to increase what APIs are available and how building blocks can communicate with the product and other building block tools. In the end, the opening keynote really launched the conversations a bit more for attendees.

Jeremy Wiebold talks with attendees during a presentation. (Image from Blackboard)

Jeremy Wiebold talks with attendees during a presentation. (Image from Blackboard)


One of the best presentations, in my humble opinion, was Nick McClure’s presentation to beginning Blackboard admins (see the presentation online thanks to Blackboard & Echo360). I have always said that empowering and educating the system administrators and support teams for Blackboard Learn instances greatly improves the end users experiences with local support and helps Blackboard’s support personnel quickly diagnose the issues that they face. This is one presentation that should be a requirement for every new admin and should be repeated every year.


The next session was my co-presentation with Jeremy Wiebold about the SIS Integration at the University of Missouri (Presentation Video). The room was much bigger than what I expected and our session was well attended. We got a lot of questions about how we made the move from our snapshot environment to the new SIS Frameworks. There were a few other presentations about SIS Frameworks at DevCon and Blackboard World, each presenter having their own spin on the topic which gave attendees a wide range of views and opinions on how to implement SIS Frameworks. Below is a copy of our slide deck from that presentation. We had a lot of questions from that presentation and I spent quite a bit of the afternoon discussing the SIS Framework process to other attendees.









After lunch, we then got the chance to hear Gene Kim, co-author of The Pheonix Project (Available on and the first 170 pages for free.)
and The Visible Ops Handbook (Available on give our afternoon keynote. Gene has given many talks and he is an engaging and thought provoking speaker. Below you can find a sample of his presentation recorded by my VIP blogger and colleague Melissa Stange on her Google Glass. He also gave a similar speech during PuppetConf which can be found here on YouTube.



While I haven’t had time to start on the book. Reviews (available at tell the too often repeated situation in IT departments of an urgent project, a set in stone date, and a lack of planning. The book’s narrative follows the failure and lessons learned from the project’s ashes. In the end, Kim’s point is that many IT Division find themselves in the middle of projects or implementations with timelines that don’t include all effected parties in the conversation. This creates products that have bugs, issues, and force teams to make shortcuts. In the end, Kim’s talk really touches to the need for more Kumbayah than silos within IT. Kim’s publisher gave away 100 copies of The Pheonix Project, one of those copies is mine and was signed by Kim.


The afternoon included a presentation by Matt Saltzman who is a member of Stephanie Tan’s Security team for the Blackboard Learn product. Both Stephanie and Matt are my security heroes when it comes to Blackboard Learn. My presentation was up against Stephanie’s this year so I missed hers (you can see it online), but I wasn’t going to miss Matt’s (See his presentation online). Matt discussed securing your Blackboard Learn environment. This was one of the chapter topics in my book. While Matt did go over a lot of what I discussed in the book, I was able to learn a bit more about port scanning and what information can be collected just from a port scan. He also helped me have more confidence in the recommendations that I made to readers. Which always makes an author feel a little better.


We ended the night with a few laps around the racetrack.  The indoor track at Pole Position Raceway took me on a ride which I can say I’ve never experienced in my life. The event was enjoyable for most with video games, food, and an open bar (unless you were racing – no D&D). The evening ended early with a bus ride back to the hotel and prepping for the next day.


Day two started with much more collaboration. I found myself missing out on presentations to discuss options and issues with other attendees or catching up on some emails back at work. One presentation I did get to sit in on was the MBeans exposed! presentation (video available here) by Noriaki Tatsumi and Danny Thomas. They gave a great presentation on how to monitor the Blackboard application with MBeans and JConsole. These situations make me so thankful for the partnership with Blackboard and Echo360 who record many of the presentations given during DevCon and Blackboard World. It was great to see this tweet from Dan Rinzel (dan2bit) on Twitter.



The final keynote announced the winners of the Catalyst awards along with the introduction of a new track for next year, User Experience. It also included some rehashing of things discussed during the event. Mike and Steven both asked for more client presentations for next year’s event and announce the planning for an un-conference which should happen in Winter 2014. The event will be a virtual conference so more people can participate.

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