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FOWA: It's like summer camp for coders

The beloved developer conference rolls into Miami once again, and young coders are gushing over the experience. The fact that it's warm and sunny can't hurt.

Nerds hit South Beach: A spotlight hovers over the Future of Web Apps afterparty on Tuesday night in Miami. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

MIAMI--It's not fancy, nobody talks about "monetization," and there are no "breakout sessions" on the schedule.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, dozens of young Web developers swear by the annual Future of Web Apps conference in Miami, an annual winter event put on by tech events firm Carsonified. They came from up and down the East Coast, from local tech start-ups in Florida and even from Europe--for the most part, hailing from locales well outside Silicon Valley, hoping to soak up a bit of that insider knowledge.

Many in the developer community say that Carsonified simply gets things right. This, after all, is the conference that's all about them. Marketing is kept to a minimum, leaving word-of-mouth among past attendees and speakers as the primary source of publicity. There are no panels, only brief lectures, and that's only for the second of the conference's three days: the first is a "beach party" (OK, so it rained) geared toward socialization, and the third is a series of hands-on seminars. If you show up in a suit, people will assume it's an ironic costume. Did I mention it's a block away from the beach?

"This is my kind of conference; lots of developers and entrepreneurs and not much else," venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, who gave the first big talk of FOWA's program on Tuesday morning, wrote in a post on his blog earlier in the week in which he solicited feedback on his talk about the top ten "golden principles" for developing Web apps. "And Miami in February sure adds to its appeal."

The program of each Future of Web Apps conference, both those each year in Miami and their bigger London-based siblings, aims to take the oft-headache-inducing technicalities of programming, pull in some notables to talk about them, eschew the marketing banter that dominates traditional conferences, and give the whole thing a go-get-'em attitude that seems more like summer camp than anything else. Carsonified founder Ryan Carson, indeed, took the stage at the beginning of the day and gives a quick talk that sounds like he should be directing the residents of Cabin 10 to the mess hall--"If you need anything, just shout!"

Typically, there's a talk about launching a company (this year it was from Mint founder Aaron Patzer), a few that pitch different programming languages, a talk about mobile apps, one or two about different slants on marketing--but not too much about marketing.

"I feel like all the marketers here should just walk around with big targets on them," one publicist complained to me at the FOWA afterparty on Tuesday, referring to several talks that had taken obvious digs at traditional start-up marketing. That's about right: This is about the programmers, not the people who tell them how to hone their message to the world.

At the end of the day there was what might as well have been a campfire powwow by FOWA regular Gary Vaynerchuk, who parlayed a New Jersey wine emporium into a wildly popular video blog and motivational speaking series. Looking out at the army of glowing MacBooks in front of him in the auditorium, Vaynerchuk mused, "If you had an Apple in 1984, people were stuffing you in lockers. Today, it's how you pick up chicks."

Music to their ears, I'm sure.

Some may claim that a conference structured like FOWA doesn't do much beyond getting young coders fired up. There aren't many potential clients or investors present, there's no press-friendly pitch angle in the manner of a TechCrunch50, and product announcements are few and far between. And FOWA has lost a little bit of its luster since its original Miami stop two years ago, where Web 2.0's celebrity faces abounded and gossip blogs started to report which girls were spotted canoodling with Digg founder Kevin Rose. Plus, there was no tug-of-war competition this year.

But in a business as regularly frustrating as Web development, sometimes getting budding young minds excited is all a conference needs to do. "FOWA has left me laying on the beach with a million new ideas," conference attendee Matt Vears posted to Twitter on Thursday afternoon. "Almost can't wait to leave paradise so I can get coding."

Many of the onstage speakers at FOWA are far from their days as indie programmers; they come from companies on the scale of Microsoft, eBay, Facebook, and Amazon. But the representatives from those companies don't tend to be the big marquee names who would keynote a Web 2.0 Expo or AdTech; rather, they're the ones who speak the same language as small-time developers, not Madison Avenue buyers or big-time investors. And Carsonified seems to put a good deal of effort into ensuring that it picks speakers who will want to stick around and actually talk to attendees rather than checking their watches to see when they can catch the next plane back to San Francisco.

The event company's successful grip on bootstrapping start-up attitude was invariably behind Twitter's decision to enlist the company to help put together its first-ever developer conference, called "Chirp," which will take place in April. Because of Twitter's high profile, it'll be a few notches up in terms of execution, and may lose a little bit of the chummy camaraderie as a result.

One thing's for sure, though: those developers will still show up.