"no fluff just stuff" day two

Posted by anton
on Saturday, May 27, 2006

day two started with neal ford's talk on practical agility. i feel that this is one of the areas i am lacking in - all of my daytime job experience has happened in the environment where very few agile practices took place. i am interested in these cookbook-like recipes that give one a tangible feel for the steps in the process.

no revelations here, but a nice talk reaffirming the facts. his subsequent two-part talk on sunday was far more interesting, actually showing the artifacts produced by the project managers, and telling real-life war stories. it turned out to be more of an introductory talk, but some quotes did stick (or perhaps resurfaced again):

if you are afraid of a piece of code, refactor it
agile methods expose poor developers
maximize the amount of work not done
agile development is a form of risk management

in fact, risk management is probably the best selling point of agile methodology (which neal constantly emphasized).

next was the talk by bruce tate, titled where agile meets argyle: new processes in established companies. sadly, almost nothing there was new to me, or particularly exciting. bruce is not an engaging speaker, compared to justin or venkat, but he is nevertheless a very nice guy to talk to, as long as he is not in the "speaker" mode. i really do enjoy his books and value his opinion, as well as his drive and energy. perhaps i just heard the same arguments over and over again throughout the whole weekend (not to mention reading various books on the subject), so the overall impression was a bit muted. i suppose i really never did stick up to the higher-ups, selling agile, so some of the points seemed somewhat irrelevant to me.

a couple of times i snuck out and dropped by glenn's talk on jvm performance. in retrospect i wish i spent more time there - although most of the subjects on paper looked like something i alerady knew (mostly through personal performance tweaking experience on developement and admin sides, as well as the classic java platform and java performance books), but there were a few points that were news to me (cost of uncontested serialization for instance). talking to him afterward i realized how thorough and how knowledgeable he was when it came down to the innards of java platform.

next talk was justin gehtland's ajax architecture. although i went there mostly for the entertainment value, i still got out a lot from it - just clarifying my own understanding, and, most importantly, learning to talk about this topic, and seeing how well he can engage the audience. him and venkat are complimentary - venkat is a better all-around speaker, but justin comes across a bit livelier, filled with a sort of boyish energy and eagerly stuffing a multitude of other topics into his talk.

talking to neal ford the night before, i was curious to see his "productive programmer" talk (especially since there is a book in the works, scheduled for this fall). i stopped by a couple of times during this talk, and saw all the right things in place - cygwin + unix + command-line tricks, scripting languages for automation, etc. it was a good basic talk, and there was nothing really that i learned (except reminding me the pain i felt when i first switched from norton commander to windows95 gui).

however the topic itself warrants a longer rant, and i am really glad neal brought it up. first of all, i make a difference between a programmer and a developer. i've worked with both kinds (and even extreme examples of both kinds), and for the most part programmers are only useful in a big organization, coding to the tight, verbose spec, perhaps outsourced. a developer is someone that has a toolbox and knows when and how to use the tools at hand. i've seen too many consultants or narrow specialists that do wonders in their respective app development gui/ide, but freak out when it is minimized and they face an OS in front of them, or a task that is done best with something else (just ask me sometimes about the "laptop boy" or "tight guys"). i used to wonder whether the knowledge of the OS and productivity tools is important to a developer, and these days i see it almost as a requirement, better yet - a sign of common sense. a good argument that neal brought up - developers know more about the underlying OS, the way it works, and the way to tweak it to maximize their productivity.

however, there is a difference between GUI/OS productivity tricks (shortcuts, "getting around in a hurry", note-taking apps, etc) and development tools. both are needed, but the former is a bit tricky, since one could use many machines, and tweaking the environment at that point becomes painful (i myself have four machines, and i used to run heavily customized litestep and the likes, but now i just stick to minimal customizations: mostly firefox and cygwin + a small list of IDEs/productivity tools). when it comes down to development tools in one's toolbox, i want to see common sense and knowledge of a wide variety of tools. unix background generally puts people in the right mindselt - given the famous "grep question" from stevey's list of five questions, i want to see a sensible response; and this sort of response comes from a developer well-versed in basic unix tools.

after i switched groups at work about a year ago, i found myself in the environment where all of a sudden i could really help less-technical folks out by a few quick scripts - be it data imports, creating test data, loading some stuff from LDAP, merging a bunch of spreadsheets, etc. it is surprising how much energy is spent on these tasks, only because there is no versatile developer around that could quickly whip up a bunch of scripts. this is when the unix ideology really pays off - a bunch of small tools that read stdin, print to stdout, and could be chained together using pipes in cygwin/unix. this is when the value of a simple for i in `ls *blah`; do stuff; done could not be overestimated. incidentally, someone in my environment that showed a great ability to help the folks out (not just business users, but certified thought-leading architects) was a testing guy - a great example of someone that can build scaffolding around a product if needed, understands why and how stuff works - anything from OS to the end-user product.

my personal acid test for the developer would include a few questions on pragmatic automation - know the scripting languages, know the OS scripting, understand when a 1000+ lines of Java code could be replaced with a few lines of shell scripts. this is when the books like data crunching from pragmatic programmers and "pragmatic automation" come in handy (but a good developer knows all that already, right?).

to conclude this rant, this is why i enjoy the "back to the unix basics" mentality switch that was brought by the rails community. rake/capistrano + linux/mac os x; back to the bare metal and hacking mentality (as in building small, simple things and taking advantage of the basic concepts, but pushing them further).

the last talk of the day was "three technologies to watch" by bruce tate. a very anticipated topic, although he gave away some of it during his previous talks or personal conversations. he started with rails' active record and the way it takes advantage of metaprogramming in ruby. i've already seen most of the talk, since his blog entry on the topic was posted on artima just a couple of months ago. great stuff nevertheless, i wish i've seen it a year ago. next set of slides was on continuations and their applicability in the web servers world. once again, i have already read bruce's article on developerworks. this time it made me acknowledge (once again), how much i am missing because i am not familiar with functional languages (lisp in school and incidental readings on haskell do not count). the idea is great, and i am yet to grasp all the implications of it. a takeway - take a look at continuation-based web frameworks (rife, webwork2, seaside). finally, bruce talked about erlang, yet again exposing my lack of knowledge about parallel systems and the math behind it. instead of my poor interpretation of it, i will suggest reading yet another passionate rant by stevey yegge that talks about parallelism as it applies to CS.

the day was a bit disappointing, since a lot of the talks were based on the blog entries i have read earlier; i guess this is the drawback of being too close to this community and mindset. but if nothing else, these guys are very good speakers, and it helped me to clear up a lot of things in my head which hopefully would allow me to be a bit better at relating this stuff to others.

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