Cambridge Stack Overflow dev day

I don't go to a lot of tech conferences - family life tends to make getting away for any length of time fairly difficult. So originally I ignored the banners advertising the Stack Overflow DevDays, thinking I wouldn't be able to make it anyway. But when my employer arbitrarily changed the rules over how much holiday I'm allowed to carry forward into next year, I ended up a couple of days in hand - and a conversation with a co-worker convinced me to go at the last minute. After a comedy of errors regarding the last available ticket for the London event, I finally managed to snap up a ticket for the Cambridge day.

Since this was a Stack Overflow conference, it wasn't surprising that the keynote was by Joel Spolsky. It was preceded by a mildly amusing short film where he satirised his 'treat developers right' reputation by pretending to be a cross between an autocratic boss and a sadistic PE teacher, which was funny enough but slightly pointless. The talk itself was good: it was about the tension between the 'simplicity is everything' attitude of firms like 37 Signals, versus the undeniable fact that people want features, as evidenced by the way FogBugz' sales went up every time they added more features.

Spolsky is an entertaining speaker and I enjoyed the talk, even if there wasn't a particularly coherent take-home message: he was trying to say that you should only give people options for things that are actually important, but the whole point is that what's not important to one user is vital for another, which is why software like Microsoft Word ends up with so many hundreds of options.

Next up was Christian Heilmann talking about Yahoo! Developer Tools. Now this was really interesting - something I haven't had a chance to play with at all, but definitely will in the future. Yahoo has put together a very nice way of querying any of their APIs via REST with a simple SQL-like language, YQL. What's more, it's possible to submit your own data sources which can be linked up via an XML translation table and made available for everyone to query via YQL. Carrying that forward, you can write mini-applications in Javascript that use any of these APIs and soon you'll be able to offer these to be installed on users' Yahoo home pages in much the same way as Facebook apps. I must admit my heart did sink a bit when Christian mentioned the customised markup language, after too much time wrestling with FBML, but it's an exciting possibility.

After a short break, next up was Cambridge University's Frank Stajano. This talk was ostensibly about computer security, and specifically what we can learn from fraudsters to make our systems more secure. But he's a fan of the BBC3 programme The Real Hustle, a hidden-camera show where members of the public are conned in various ways, and he's done various bits of research analysing the cons from the programme and relating them to systems security. So the format of the lecture was to show us various clips from the show, then a couple of slides which were supposed to tell us how this type of con was used in computer terms and how we could avoid it. However, it didn't really achieve that - the links to computer security were not well explained, and although the talk was quite fun I didn't feel I learned much.

Next was Joel again, talking about FogBugz. Now I know you have to expect this sort of thing at conferences (especially at Carsonified ones, or so I'm told), but I actually object to paying to sit through an hour of sales pitch, however entertainingly delivered it is. FogBugz looks like a perfectly competent product, but I didn't see anything that made it shine over a product like Jira, or even particularly over the open-source Redmine that we use these days at work. Plus the demo included a couple of screens that clearly violated the principle Joel had pushed earlier of only giving options where they made a difference.

Lunch, followed by Steven Sanderson on ASP.NET-MVC. I actually found this fairly good - despite my complete lack of interest in any Microsoft technology, I'm not actually hostile, so I paid enough attention to find out what they were doing in this area. As the speaker freely admitted, .NET MVC is quite obviously ripped off from Ruby on Rails. It does offer some nice ways of doing things, but is missing a lot of the things that Django and Rails do - no ORM, for example, because it relies on LINQ; and no real templating system, because you just use standard ASP files. So nothing amazingly revolutionary, except if you're a Microsoft fanboy who's totally unaware of what the wider world is doing, but still good to see that Microsoft is learning things and giving its developers some alternatives. Best part: it's "open source", which in Microsoft language means "we're not going to accept your patches or anything, but you're free to fork it if you want". Great.

Next: Remy Sharp on jQuery. A deeply disappointing talk. Ryan Carson introduced it by asking how many of the audience had used jQuery (about half) and how many considered themselves experts (a handful), telling the latter that they may as well get a cup of coffee. In fact, that whole half of the audience should have done so: this was a very basic introduction, covering only the fundamentals. Remy is not a particularly fluent talker and this was not very well presented.

After another break, we had Michael Foord on Python. This was another fairly basic introduction - I had suspected I wasn't going to learn anything, but got my hopes up when Michael started off by talking about IronPython (he's the co-author of IronPython In Action). Unfortunately this was only a short digression, although it did look very cool (instantiating a Windows dialog from the IronPython console...) and the rest of the talk was a run-through of a clever little spellchecker in 40-odd lines of Python. This was all well and good, but the code wasn't anything particularly special to Python - you could have done it in any of a dozen other languages in about the same number of lines - and it didn't cover any of Python's cooler features. If I'd never dabbled in Python, I don't think this would have been enough to whet my appetite.

Finally, Jeff Atwood talking about Stack Overflow. This was only a short talk, where Jeff spoke about the reasons he and Joel had set up the site, what he hoped and hopes to achieve, and the achievement he gets from it.

So, that was it for the talks. Free beer was offered in a bar in town, but unfortunately those family obligations raised their heads again and I had to drive home.

Overall, a good day. I had about a 50% hit rate on interesting talks, which I suppose is fairly good going, and I did get a chance to meet some new people. It was a shame that most of the talks slightly overran, leaving almost no time for questions.

One surprising thing was that the day wasn't very well integrated with Stack Overflow. I had at least expected us to get preprinted badges showing our SO username and reputation scores, but no such luck. And when Carson asked the audience at one point who thought they had the highest rep, I didn't put my hand up, assuming my 9,000 points would be average in this crowd. But when he tried to work it out, starting by asking who had 1,000 points, who had 1,500, etc, I soon found I did indeed have by far the highest rep - the next highest put his hand down at about 2,500. Made me feel slightly sad (which I am, of course). A shame that I missed the chance to parlay my brief moment of fame into something more long-lasting by skipping the drinks.

On the whole, I'm glad I went, and if nothing else it's convinced me I need to try to go to more of this sort of thing.

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