SyncConf 2013

It was a crisp winter’s morning as I took the train across the Essex countryside watching the sun come up on the way to Norwich for SyncConf. The venue was just a little walk down the main High Street in Norwich and had a stage fit for rock-bands rather than a conference.

Kevlin Henney Keynote

However this didn’t seem to put off Kevlin Henney and he sped through his theory of how to make great software using some great examples. His Five Considerations outlined were:

Economy – I liked Kevlin’s point about the fact that developers and architects feel they are considered to be effective and productive by the volume of code they write and not the quantity of problems solved. This leads to rewarding verbosity. He also covered the other considerations of Visibility, Spacing, Symmetry, and Emergence. Kevlin’s told us that he came up with these Five Considerations and his entire book whilst brainstorming them in a bar in Florida, I think it’s a great exercise to carry out for any developer or team, what would your Five Considerations be?

Kevlin also discussed the study  about Team IQ, the findings of which say  the easiest way to increase your Team’s IQ is to employ more women in your team.

“The 90 minute Guide to Agile – What, Why, How”

Next was Allan Kelly’s whistle stop tour of Agile “The 90 minute Guide to Agile – What, Why, How” which was a great overview of the Agile movement based on case-studies of Near-Shoring development work in Cornwall. I particularly liked the IT Alignment Trap study , that showed that a company with effective IT will be more profitable than a company with aligned IT, ie Your company’s profit margin is determined to how effective your IT department is at getting things done, rather than how aligned your IT department is to your business needs and processes.

IT Alignment Trap
IT Alignment Trap

Alan, using his examples also highlighted how expensive it was fixing defects and bugs and that advocated moving across to Test Driven Development, which he said was winning his clients business over competitors who were not offering TDD, he went on to boldly state that in 8 years time and if you aren’t doing TDD you won’t have a job! This makes the case that the old quality versus price argument isn’t actually true, if you reduce quality you actually increase the price of a project (and the time taken) because you spend so much time refactoring and bug-fixing.

Another great concept form Alan was that once a company’s development team had gone Agile, it had been catching and the entire company had switched over, with the other business teams using Kanban boards for their Sales Pipeline so that the entire company could see at a glance what was happening.

Benjamin Mitchel – Kanban

After lunch Benjamin Mitchell gave us a very entertaining outline of his Kanban experiences at a Merchant Bank and then at BBC Worldwide, with a nice small-batch versus bigger batch audience participation game. We had a good discussion about how working under Kanban can feel a bit like working down the Code Mine with a never ending stream of work which had me thinking about alternative ways for rewarding teams. Benjamin finished up discussing coaching and how difficult it can be being a ScrumMaster or a Team Leader but brought in the concept of the Ladder of Inference to help us understand the thinking process we go through from observing something (someone being late to a meeting for example), and taking action (shouting at people!).


Sean Phelan – Endnote

It was great to hear Sean Phelan (my old boss from Multimap) close the conference with a behind-the-scenes look at the business decisions behind Multimap’s successful sale to Microsoft. I especially enjoyed the wry point he made about them having to batten down the hatches in 2004 (about when I left) as the 2nd dotcom bubble burst and move away from carrying out speculative development only for Google’s Mapping technology to leap frog Multimap’s two years later.

Overall SyncConf 2013 was a very well-run event, with some inspiring speakers, and great value. It was also lovely to catch up with so many of my ex-colleagues from Multimap. Here’s to the next one.


Teaching Coding

Sounding out the London tech industry recently it seems there is a shortage of good, experienced coders and developers right now, and those that are around have been snapped up by the financial services industries.

Being involved at my daughter’s primary school and thinking about Eric Schmidt’s comments about our education system I’ve been thinking about my experiences learning to code and how we can find ways to encourage our children to become more active coders.

After visiting Bletchley Park last weekend and playing with the BBC Acorns and ZX Spectrums it took me back to my youth and how I learnt to code. Back in ’82 about 20% of my 150 strong peer-group at secondary school would play and exchange games on these platforms, games like Dogfight, Deltawing, Commando, Turbo Esprit and Elite.

DeltaWing Loading Screen

We were all pretty passionate and excited about the latest release just like my children are today with the latest games. A handful of us got a bit more interested and would go through the laborious process of typing in simple games from computer magazines, and even designing our own games (I remember trying to develop a Spectrum version of Galaxians for example), but the majority were happy just to play games. The few of us who did write were self-taught from the code examples we were learning from as we copied and typed.  IT/ITC didn’t even exist at our schools.  The closest we got to an IT education was programming simple Space Invaders games on our HP programmable calculators in Maths when the teacher wasn’t looking. None of our teachers were programmers and I don’t remember being encouraged by my parents to programme either. It was just exciting, new, and it felt limitless, and the games we were playing were being developed in London and they were cool – that is what inspired me.

So how can we get more children programming?

I think Eric Schmidt was right, we need to stop teaching them how to use applications and start showing them how they are written and can be developed. If we could show children what is possible with a text editor and the right libraries then surely they must be inspired to create their own projects – after all sharing them these days is going to be a whole lot easier too. I’m right behind the BBC and Manchester Metropolitan University’s aim to encourage more people to have an interest in programming – let’s hope it takes off!

(btw I still claim to have developed a basic website back in 1985 by producing a simple paginated text based magazine (about my ski-holidays and local events) and remember sleepless nights working out the business plan wasn’t going to get off the ground because the costs of sending out the content on C15 by Royal Mail was going to be prohibitive – thank goodness for TCP/IP.)

Feeling Local – Sentiment Analysis for Communities

I have the vision for a local website which aggregates all the news feeds from Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and Flickr in the local area and then runs a quick sentiment analysis on the information to decide if the area is overall happy or sad. Using a weather metaphor we then can show the users if the area is sunny/stormy/rainy depending on the emotions captured. We will then encourage users to add their own images and messages to the page to give them a greater feeling of connection, and empowerment over the feelings in their neighbourhood. We would allow users to share their sentiments and comment on the page using existing social networks and to encourage other local users to participate.