ICSE 2019 – Reflections

I attended the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) 2019 edition hosted in Montreal, Canada. For someone who attended the conference for the first time, here are my thoughts. In software engineering academic circles, ICSE is considered a top-tier/premier conference and is generally regarded as a sort of holy grail publication venue. My expectations were therefore suitably high. My overall feeling can be summed up in one word: underwhelming.

ICSE 2019 had about 100 papers accepted in the main technical track. I tried to attend a variety of talks that I was interested in. (The talks happen in parallel sessions). This was somewhat disappointing. Most of the talks were quite mechanical boiling down to a rereading of the paper. I dont blame the presenters – most of them were students and the primary intention is not to dazzle, but to invite the audience to read the actual paper later. This is where I feel the purpose of a conference can be questioned. There was zero value in one being physically present to hear a talk. I found it much more convenient – to glance at the proceedings, pick papers of interest by looking at the abstract and then doing a deep dive if interested. If any questions arise – the authors are but an email away. This can be done entirely offline ! What about live interaction you ask ? At the conference, the 20 minutes timeslot is quite small to sink ones teeth into any topic anyway, so most of the post-talk questions can only be superficial.  I also had a paper of my own which I presented in a workshop.  Given the smaller nature of a workshop, I thought that this could result in some engaging discussion, but time constraints seemed to have gained the better hand.

Well anyway, coming back to the actual content in ICSE – there were few “interesting” topics. But nothing really that got me excited. For a few papers – I want to channel Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park – “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should ! However, I will be charitable and attribute this to the general nature of research.  One always hopes that some of these ideas will somehow germinate into something meaningful later.

The other much touted aspect of any conference is the chance to “network”. This I must frankly say is bullshit. Most of the ice-breaker/mixer events devolve into two minute conversations about ones work and perhaps some polite small talk. I highly doubt if any sort of meaningful connection can be made in a crowd of 1000’s where most of the folks were worried about trying to find food. The amount of time and money I spent – applying for visas, organizing travel and accommodation and actually traveling was absolutely not worth it. Not to mention the staggering carbon costs incurred by a ton of people flying in and out. Watching slickly produced videos online would have made life much easier for everyone. I think it’s time for the research community to seriously rethink conferences.

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