Wednesday, 6 March 2013

QCon Day One

I like QCon London, I really do.  Not only is it on home turf, but, as I've said before, it doesn't just focus on technology, or a set of technologies.


Full disclosure: I've been involved in planning QCon this year.  So this time I know all the thinking, hard work, planning and last-minute changes that go into a conference like this.  And it's a joy to be able to sit in the audience and see the conference that you've helped build.

There are things I took out of today that I want to get down on "paper" now, because I think the next few days will have different themes.

Let's Not Forget About Computer Science
I'm so pleased to see this in a conference!  After documenting and talking about the Disruptor so much last year, I felt it was important for us to go back to our roots a bit, and have some Mechanical Sympathy.  Some of the sessions today brought us back to the school room and had us thinking about the tools we're using.

In my new role I'm doing something I've never had to do before, and that's writing a library that will be used by other developers.  Barbara Liskov's keynote had me thinking hard about "readability over writability" and "design for the case that is used most often".  I also came out slightly depressed that some things hadn't changed in 40 years.  Martin Thompson's talk made me wish I had written my driver performance tests up front, and poked me to continue thinking about our users' performance needs.  I'd like to say Damian Conway's keynote made me want to code in Latin, but in fact it motivated me to get back to learning Spanish.  But it also (unintentionally) backed up a point I've heard before, which is that programming is at least twice as hard to learn if you don't speak English.  Probably worse if you don't speak a European language.

Overall, the message I took from the combination of these sessions is that it's almost more important than ever to get back to basics.  Stop obsessing about frameworks and tools and different flavoured JVM languages.  Start remembering all these things are tools, that they run on machines that work with ones and zeros.  Whatever abstractions we're using, we will write better, cleaner, more performant, fit-for-purpose code if we understand our tools, and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of these tools is even our own brain - understand how it shapes the information and presents us with solutions.

Art Is Awesome (and Useful)
I went a bit off topic to go to two sessions on visual information.  My excuse is that this blog needs more pictures, and I want more visual ways of representing what's going on with MongoDB/the driver.
Heather Willem's session encouraged us to doodle throughout.  In fact, forced us to.  Right up front she adresses the fact that doodling is seen as a lack of attention, as a waste of time.  And I realised, sitting there in the audience with my iPad and stylus, that I did feel guilty drawing away while someone talked at me.  But it was a brilliant exercise in unblocking some of those creative juices, and letting us see the power in visual information.  Perfect is not important, pictures are powerful.



Fernando Orellana is an artist fascinated by building machines to create art.  It was awesome to see an artist who also builds robots and codes stuff to do what he wants.  He said "code is like paint, I use it to create".  See? I knew coding was a creative activity.  He's done some stuff that I probably would have been tempted to say "is that art?", like aiming to create 40 000 play doh cars.  Or making creepy rodents that live in "dumb little suburban homes" out of singing hamster toys.  Go to his website and watch the videos, nothing else can describe it.  I was blown away, it was inspiring.  And useful too for sparking creativity in all of us.

Here's my "subconscious drawing" from the start of the session.  We need more child-like art in our lives.

These two sessions really rekindled my desire to do arty, drawing-y creative stuff.  And helped me see how fear blocks many of us from using this medium.

And...
Sitting in the audience as an attendee, different things jump out at you.  I was shocked, as someone who's been involved in suggesting and selecting speakers, at how few women there were again on this first day.  My thought was, how could this happen with me on the committee??  So I have more sympathy for conference organisers than I did, when facing this tough problem, but more conviction than ever that we need to do something different to showcase different types of role models.

On the other hand, it might be my imagination or wishful thinking, but the overall diversity of the attendees seemed much greater than recent years, which is a Good Thing.

I'm sorry for bringing up this subject again, but you might consider it blind of me not to notice something in a conference I've actually worked on.

But overall
I've been really impressed with the first day of the conference.  Not only was it, of course, a great opportunity to meet new people, catch up with old friends, and generally network, the sessions that I went to were excellent, and have me excited to be working in this industry, at this time.  And to be in a position to hear about it all.  And maybe, just maybe, contribute something of my own.

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