Stackoverflow Dev Days D.C. 2009 Review

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

At $99 and just down the street, it was hard not to go. The State Theatre is a very cool venue, a restored old theatre turned into Rock club. In Falls Church, VA, my wife's home town, it was just about as close as close could be for me. I sat front row like I was at concert or something, and, as I was reading Twitter on my G1, I noted a tweet by Liz Frederick from Adobe who was also at Dev Days and sitting right behind me. Cool! It was nice to meet her, we had a pleasant chat, and I learned some things about how Adobe is reaching out to developers.

Executive Summary
: It was totally worth it for this local guy. I left wanting to buy a Mac, do iPhone development, manage my projects with FogBugz 7 (and figure out WTF bayesian statistics are), get more serious with Python, finish my Google App Engine projects, and front end all my web apps with jQuery. I met some super smart, nice, interesting people, had a good time, and left inspired. One cool thing was that most of the speakers were local folks. Not sure about Bruce Eckel, but the others were all from the general D.C. area. I think this was a good thing to do for everyone involved - the conference, the attendees, the speakers, and the community.

Here're my notes:

Joel Spolsky Opening Keynote - Great warm up video - I got a real good laugh right off the bat. Great slides. Joel is a skilled and entertaining presenter. Joel's keynote was about Simplicity vs. Features, with specific emphasis on usability. Spend that extra time doing things for the user. Don't interrupt them for stuff your app should be doing. Dialogue Boxes == bad. User's don't care how much work you did to make the app; be humble enough not to show off your effort. Hide the details of how it was built. Get out of the way and strive for elegance. Elegance always looks like it should be more than it is. He showed some an example Python spell check app that I remember seeing earlier this year - it was like 150 lines of code or something - spell checking in 150 lines?! Elegance. I get it. Thx.

Oh... here's a grin. I'm sitting in the front row and Joel is making a point about usability and he points to me and says, "Pick a gender!" ... huh? Me? ... "Yeah. Just say 'male' or 'female'" Me: "uh ... male". Then he goes into a story about "Bill" who's having an affair with his secretary who wants to blackmail him for $100K while Bill's wife is walking down the hall getting ready to bust them and Bill needs to cut a $100K check with QuickBooks but doesn't have the time to answer the stupid dialogue about upgrading the software because Bill's wife is about to open the door on the two lovers. Then Joel must have realized my name just might be Bill, so he asks, "Is your name, Bill?". Well, yeah, not that you could read my scribbled name tag in a dark room from 20 feet away ... But Joel's a pro and rolls with it no problem. I wasn't bothered by any of this at all, by the way. I was stoked to be out of the office around smart people.  I guess he remembered me later, because again he gestured towards me and used "Bill" to exemplify an idea. Ok, now if I can just figure out how to get some cool product front row to buyers ...

Dan Pilone : iPhone  - Dan says Objective C is not as bad as people say. It takes Apple 2 weeks to approve/disapprove an app, and they will test it and make sure it complies with rules and regulations. Even if it's been approved for release 1 and they missed something, like a minor licensing violation, it can get kicked out again in future releases. In short, you need to plan on this 2 weeks and dot your T's. There's money to be made but you have a short window of time to grab it and leverage the Apple store presence. There's a boat load of iPhone customers, so, lots of opportunity, but also lots of competition (like 100K apps in the iPhone Store) and it's growing rapidly. You can do the $0.99 app, which needs volume sales to succeed, of course, or your can go with the $20 app, which has less sales but might be more stable.

Scott Allen ASP.NET-MVC - Scott is clearly a great coder. Anyone who can write code on stage in front of 200-300 of probably the smartest developers in D.C. and beyond gets a big hand from me. This is me holding up my lighter for an encore - more! I don't code in C#/.NET but if I get the opportunity, I can only hope to be as skilled as Scott. And I will go right towards the MVC framework he described. One thing I personally would have liked to see, which he mentioned, was unit testing. Apparently, MVC generates test stubs and allows you to test in some interesting ways, like, defining a "context". I'll need to look into it, but I sensed an interesting approach to testing.

Joel Spolsky on Fogbugz 7 - I had no idea it did all those things - much much more than issue tracking. Evidence based scheduling ... bayesian something or other statistical intelligent learning (like I have any idea) with cool graphs ... wow. They're integrating their own version of Mercurial, too, which looks like Git from the command line, and it integrates well into FogBugz with code review capabilities and task management. Having an enterprise tool like this available where I don't have to administer it, just makes sense. I'd rather focus on getting my project organized and tasks completed vs. that AND learning to administer the beast. The usability that was emphasized in FogBugz is very attractive. Joel said he wants it to be as easy to enter tasks as typing in Notepad, and he have some good demonstrations. It also supports and seems to be geared towards Scrum.

I also "got" the idea of Stack Exchange as a way to capture domain specific knowledge. Joel's view is that the corporate wiki can fail because it's document centric and experts don't really want to write documents nobody reads. However, with a question-based environment, like Stack Exchange, specific questions can be answered and aggregated into a knowledge base. I like that idea. It's more like pull rather than push.

Lunch - Cheap box lunch & fine by me. Groups for various discussions were set up during lunch - agile, free software, start ups, etc... I wanted some sunshine and the seating did not really lend itself to round table discussions, for me. So, I sat outside in the sun, walked around the block, and talked with a PHP developer from Chicago on the corner of Washington Blvd.

Bruce Eckel Python
- Bruce talked about why Python makes sense and how the language develops vs. how Java/C/C++ evolved. Basically, it can do what Java/C/C++ do but with a lot less effort and do it dynamically. Also, the fact the Python is community driven and not the product of a company, makes it an appealing choice. He's working on a version on Thinking in Python, only it's under a different title. The interesting thing about this book is that it will be community driven. It sounds like an interesting idea.

Bruce is a forward thinker, to say the least, and when pinged he talked in abstract terms about what he sees as part of the future - human computer interaction and machine symbiosis. Not in a sci-fi machines taking over the world kinda way, but we are clearly dependent on machines today, and the future will be focusing on how this interface grows. I agree. Typing a keyboard is one weird way to communicate for a human. Speaking and audio with visual cues is how we, as humans, do it.

I think that might be Mr. Hankey's brother hugging the python.

The last time I heard Bruce was in 1998 at my first ever tech conference - SD '98. I worked as a volunteer so I could get free admission and one of my assignments was to support Bruce's Thinking in Java talk. I was so excited at the time when he said, "Hey, can someone go get some audio tech help?" I was on it, man ;-)   

Jonathan Blocksom Google App Engine  - I think everyone could identify with Jonathans' down-to-earth style. As humble as he was, it was clear to me that he is very smart ... Google smart. This was the one topic that was a review for me. I had covered all this with some App Engine prototypes I did over the Summer. But Jonathan discussed the AppEngine architecture, quota/pricing model, and how to get up and running. It was very cool that Jonathan could do an entire talk about distributed applications and not once use the term "Cloud". Good job.

Richard D. Worth , JQuery - A very well organized and detailed presentation. One of the main things I took away was a simple phrase about JQuery architecture: "Find Something, and Do Stuff". I love JQuery and it's been my goto for about a year, yet I never saw it like that. But it makes perfect sense. Richard clearly is passionate about JQuery and is willing to teach. He just created a poll (Poll Daddy) for a 1 or 2 day JQuery talk in D.C. in Nove,ber or December, so, keep an eye out. It will be well worth it. I'll be there.

Wrap up: There were a lot of people who flew in from out of town and came from more than an hour away. I felt fortunate that I could wake up and drive 20-30 minutes to do a cool 1-day conference. What strikes most about this, and it's not Dev Days specific, but it's about the concept of a cheap 1-day event that's on the road, vs. a multi day conference in some place like Vegas. I kinda like the idea of 1-day, but I'm not sure if I would do a road trip for just 1 day, maybe that's what surprised me about the number of folks from out of town. I spoke with a PHP developer who flew in from Chicago. I also connected with a Python developer originally from Northern Ireland and living in Philly. Chatting with Liz Frederick from Adobe was also a breath of fresh air. So, for this developer, getting out is important. But for me,I question whether or not the multi-day big events with evening schmooz-fests are the best environment for learning. They're fun, for sure, but I sense a better way to learn new stuff ...

It's funny, but I posed this question on Stakoverflow ... whether or not micro conferences like Dev Days are a good place to do peer-2-peer learning, and the Stackoverflow zealots quickly shut my question down, closed it, as "Non Programming Related". Whatever... So, I'll ask it here: How do you learn best and grow, and what inspires you?


Raj said...

ah.. I missed this one. Hopefully next time. So have you bought your Mac yet?..

Marc Esher said...

GRRRRRR, those StackOverflow zealots. I'll tell you man: for me, those asshats are killing the experience. It's like the f'n Nazi Youth Squad. "Not Relevant!" "Belongs on Server Fault!" "Belongs on Super User!"

I DO NOT GIVE a FLYING FUCK what site it belongs on. I'm smart enough to know that my question about something programming related doesn't belong on the same site as a question about the average core temp of a xeon chip. If there's a blurry line, let it alone you a-holes.

It's funny, because you see Joel out there with dev days, and I think like you that this is where things need to move. I don't advocate a replacement for the larger conferences (they're my vacation, for pete's sake!), but in terms of learning, they are going to take hold. And then you contrast that with the thing that started all this -- the site itself -- and what I'm seeing is the site take on a tone that I do not like at all, so much to the point where I've developed a "fuck this site" attitude. It's harsh, but I'm just a touch too egotistical to be told by some punk I don't know that I should post my questions on some other site, or that my programming questions aren't good questions.

It's both interesting and sad that such a seemingly innocuous thing can be so fair and foul.

bill shelton said...

marc, ltfol! for real. yeah, man, who needs fogBitch_88 to vote them up for personal validation? here's another thing that'll get . i posted this review on and it got voted down to -1. gotta laugh. i guess i wasn't a dick-ish enough ... obviously, the anonymous coward who voted me down has never stood up in front of 200+ peers and try to say something insightful. rather she just clicked a button and ran away, hiding in the proverbial bushes of the Internets ...

re:conferences in general, i love 'em, too. they're just expensive and inconvenient. on a side note, they produce way too much junk that ends up in landfills. i like the dev days approach of a road show and doing it on the cheap. not that this would replace the big conferences, but it's a good compliment. i would also like to see some more "open sessions".