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Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Tweet button

Here’s the thing: Twitter sucks for arguments:

  • It is almost impossible to follow conversation threads
  • People favouriting quite agressive tweets leaves you puzzled as to the reasons
  • People retweeting parts of the conversation out of context leads to wrong messages and questionable quotes
  • 140 characters are great to throw out truisms but not to make a point.
  • People consistenly copying you in on their arguments floods your notifications tab without really wanting to weigh in any longer

This morning was a great example: Peter Paul Koch wrote yet another incendiary post asking for a one year hiatus of browser innovation. I tweeted about the post saying it has some good points. Paul Kinlan of the Chrome team disagreed strongly with the post. I opted to agree with some of it, as a lot of features we created and thought we discarded tend to linger longer on the web than we want to.

A few of those back and forth conversations later and Alex Russel dropped the mic:

@Paul_Kinlan: good news is that @ppk has articulated clearly how attractive failure can be. @codepo8 seems to agree. Now we can call it out.

Now, I am annoyed about that. It is accusing, calling me reactive and calls out criticism of innovation a failure. It also very aggressively hints that Alex will now always quote that to show that PPK was wrong and keeps us from evolving. Maybe. Probably. Who knows, as it is only 140 characters. But I am keeping my mouth shut, as there is no point at this agressive back and forth. It results in a lot of rushed arguments that can and will be quoted out of context. It results in assumed sub-context that can break good relationships. It – in essence – is not helpful.

If you truly disagree with something – make your point. Write a post, based on research and analysis. Don’t throw out a blanket approval or disapproval of the work of other people to spark a “conversation” that isn’t one.

Well-written thoughts lead to better quotes and deeper understanding. It takes more effort to read a whole post than to quote a tweet and add your sass.

In many cases, whilst writing the post you realise that you really don’t agree or disagree as much as you thought you did with the author. This leads to much less drama and more information.

And boy do we need more of that and less drama. We are blessed with jobs where people allow us to talk publicly, research and innovate and to question the current state. We should celebrate that and not use it for pithy bickering and trench fights.

Photo Credit: acidpix

I don’t want Q&A in conference videos

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

I present at conferences – a lot. I also moderate conferences and I brought the concept of interviews instead of Q&A to a few of them (originally this concept has to be attributed to Alan White for Highland Fling, just to set the record straight). Many conferences do this now, with high-class ones like SmashingConf and Fronteers being the torch-bearers. Other great conferences, like EdgeConf, are 100% Q&A, and that’s great, too.

confused Q&A speaker

I also watch a lot of conference talks – to learn things, to see who is a great presenter (and I will recommend to conference organisers who ask me for talent), and to see what others are doing to excite audiences. I do that live, but I’m also a great fan of talk recordings.

I want to thank all conference organisers who go the extra mile to offer recordings of the talks at their event – you already rock, thanks!

I put those on my iPod and watch them in the gym, whilst I am on the cross trainer. This is a great time to concentrate, and to get fit whilst learning things. It is a win-win.

Much like everyone else, I pick the talk by topic, but also by length. Half an hour to 40 minutes is what I like best. I also tend to watch 2-3 15 minute talks in a row at times. I am quite sure, I am not alone in this. Many people watch talks when they commute on trains or in similar “drive by educational” ways. That’s why I’d love conference organisers to consider this use case more.

I know, I’m spoilt, and it takes a lot of time and effort and money to record, edit and release conference videos and you make no money from it. But before shooting me down and telling me I have no right to demand this if I don’t organise events myself, let me tell you that I am pretty sure you can stand out if you do just a bit of extra work to your recordings:

  • Make them available offline (for YouTube videos I use YouTube DL on the command line to do that anyways). Vimeo has an option for that, and Channel 9 did that for years, too.
  • Edit out the Q&A – there is nothing more annoying than seeing a confused presenter on a small screen trying to understand a question from the audience for a minute and then saying “yes”. Most of the time Q&A is not 100% related to the topic of the talk, and wanders astray or becomes dependent on knowledge of the other talks at that conference. This is great for the live audience, but for the after-the-fact consumer it becomes very confusing and pretty much a waste of time.

That way you end up with much shorter videos that are much more relevant. I am pretty sure your viewing/download numbers will go up the less cruft you have.

It also means better Q&A for your event:

  • presenters at your event know they can deliver a great, timed talk and go wild in the Q&A answering questions they may not want recorded.
  • people at the event can ask questions they may not want recorded (technically you’d have to ask them if it is OK)
  • the interviewer or people at the event can reference other things that happened at the event without confusing the video audience. This makes it a more lively Q&A and part of the whole conference experience
  • there is less of a rush to get the mic to the person asking and there is more time to ask for more details, should there be some misunderstanding
  • presenters are less worried about being misquoted months later when the video is still on the web but the context is missing

For presenters, there are a few things to consider when presenting for the audience and for the video recording, but that’s another post. So, please, consider a separation of talk and Q&A – I’d be happier and promote the hell out of your videos.

New chapter in the Developer Evangelism handbook: keeping time in presentations

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Having analysed a lot of conference talks lately, I found a few things that don’t work when it comes to keeping to the time you have as a speakers. I then analysed what the issues were and what you can do to avoid them and put together a new chapter for the Developer Evangelism Handbook called “Keeping time in presentations“.

Rabbit with watch
White Rabbit by Claire Stevenson

In this pretty extensive chapter, I cover a few topics:

All this information is applicable to conference talks. As this is a handbook, all of it is YMMV, too. But following these guidelines, I always managed to keep on time and feel OK watching some of my old videos without thinking I should have done a less rushed job.

The full stackoverflow developer

Friday, July 17th, 2015

In a few talks and interviews I lamented about a phenomenon in our market that’s always been around, but seems to be rampant by now: the one of the full stackoverflow developer. Prompted by Stephen Hay on Twitter, I shall now talk a bit about what this means.

copy and paste

Full Stack Overflow developers work almost entirely by copying and pasting code from Stack Overflow instead of understanding what they are doing. Instead of researching a topic, they go there first to ask a question hoping people will just give them the result.

In many cases, this works out. It is amazing what you can achieve by pasting things you don’t understand, that people who know what they are doing put out there.

I am not having a go at Stackoverflow here. It is an incredible resource and it is hard to create a community like this and not drown in spam and mediocrity (trust me, I am admin on several technical Facebook groups).

We had that problem for a long time. I challenge anyone learning PHP not simply copying the code examples in the notes. W3Schools for years gave us the answers we wanted, but didn’t need. Heck, even Matt’s Script Archive is probably the source for many a spam mailer as people used without knowing what it does.

I am, however, worried about how rampant this behaviour is today. Of course, it is understandable:

  • Creating something is more fun than reading up on how to create something
  • Using something that works immediately, even if you don’t know how it does it, feels better than encountering the frustration of not being able to fix something.
  • You feel like you cheated the system – shortcuts are fun, and makes you feel like you’re cleverer than all those chumps who spend all this time learning
  • Our job is mainstream and there is a massive need for developers. The speed of how we are asked to deliver has massively increased. People want results quicker, rather than cleaner.

We, as a community, are partly to blame for breeding this kind of developer:

  • When we answer questions, we tend to give the solution instead of analysing what the person really needs. This is much more work, so we tend to avoid it.
  • Posting the “one true solution” and winning a thread on StackOverflow feels great – even if we have no plan whatsoever to come back to it later if it turns out not to be such a good idea any longer as the environment changed
  • Getting recognition, Karma and upvotes for giving the solution is much easier than getting it for being the person who asks the right questions to get to the source of the problem
  • It is easy to lose patience with getting the same questions over and over again and a “just use jQuery” is easy to paste

So what? Why is it a problem if people are faster and more effective in releasing products?

Of course, you can call me a grumpy old so-and-so now and tell me that the concept of learning the basics in software is an outdated concept. The complexity of today’s products makes it almost impossible to know everything and in other, highly successful environments using lots of packages and libraries is par for the course. Fine, although we seem to be understanding that software as a whole might be more broken than we care to admit, and this might be one of the causes.

There are several problems with full stack overflow development:

  • It assumes the simplest answer with the most technical detail is the best. This is dangerous and can result in many a copied and pasted example which has a lot of issues surviving for years and years on the web.
  • The most copy-able answer being used, upvoted and linked to means that better solutions that fix its issues are much less likely to succeed in replacing them. There is no “digging deeper”, so even important fixes will fall under the radar.
  • Any expert community is most likely to have a lot of assumptions as to what makes up a “professional environment”. That means that answers giving in those communities are very likely to work in a great, new and complex developer setup but are not necessarily useful for our end users out there. It is very easy to add yet another library or npm package or bootstrap solution to a project, but it adds to the already full-to-the-brim landfill of outdated code on the web.
  • It perpetuates the fondness we have for tersity over writing understandable code. The smallest solution – however unreadable – is always the one that wins the thread. As people copy and paste them without understanding, that’s fine by them. For debugging and maintenance, however, it is the worst solution. A great example for this is the use of || for default parameters. Short isn’t better, it is just less work.
  • It cheapens our craft. If we, as the people delivering the work, don’t have any respect for it and simply put things together and hope they work, then we shouldn’t be surprised if our managers and peers don’t see us as professionals.

The biggest problem, however, is that it is bad for the developers themselves.

Finding pride in your work is the biggest reward

Going on the web, finding a solution and copying and pasting it is easy – too easy. There is no effort in it, and it is not your work – it is someone elses. Instead of being proud of what you achieved, you are more likely to stress out as you don’t want to be found out as a phoney who uses other people’s work and sells it as your own.

Repetition is anathema to a lot of developers. Don’t repeat yourself (DRY) is a good concept in code, but for learning and working it is a terribly idea. We need repetition, to build up muscle memory. The more you repeat a task, the easier it gets and your body does it without you having to think about it.

When you started driving a car, you probably sat down on the seat and got utterly overwhelmed by all the gears, levers, pedals and things to pay attention to. After a while, you don’t even think about what you are doing any longer, and even switching from UK to other cars is not an issue. Failing and learning from it is something we retain much better than simply using something. We put more effort in, it feels more worthy.

Dan Ariely’s TED Talk “What makes us feel good about our work” has some incredibly good points about that topic:

Recognition is what we crave as humans. And we can’t get recognition if we don’t own what we do. You can totally get by copying and pasting and using solution after solution and abstraction upon abstraction. But, sooner or later, you will feel that you are not achieving or creating anything. Many developers who worked like that burned out quickly and stopped developing, stopped caring. And that is a big loss as you might be the person to come up with the next great idea that changes things for a lot of us. That’s an option you shouldn’t rob yourself of. Don’t be a full stackoverflow developer. You deserve to be better.

7 Reasons why EdgeConf rocks and why you should be part of it

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Having just been there and seeing that the coverage is available today, I wanted to use this post to tell you just how amazing EdgeConf is as a conference, a concept and a learning resource. So here are seven reasons why you should care about EdgeConf:

Reason 1: It is a fully recorded think-tank

Unlike other conferences, where you hear great presentations and have meetings and chats of high significance but have to wait for weeks for them to come out, EdgeConf is live in its coverage. Everything that’s been discussed has a live comment backchannel (this year it was powered by Slack), there are dedicated note-takers and the video recordings are transcribed and published within a few days. The talks are searchable that way and you don’t need to sift through hours of footage to find the nugget of information you came for.

Reason 2: It is all about questions and answers, not about the delivery and showing off

The format of EdgeConf is a Q&A session with experts, moderated by another expert. There are a few chosen experts on stage but everybody in the audience has the right to answer and be part of it. This happens in normal conference Q&A in any case; Edge makes sure it is natural instead of disrupting. There is no space for pathos and grandstanding in this event – it is all about facts.

Reason 3: The audience is a gold-mine of knowledge and experts to network with

Edge attracts the most dedicated people when it comes to newest technology and ideas on the web. Not blue-sky “I know what will be next” thinkers, but people who want to make the current state work and point towards what’s next. This can be intimidating – and it is to me – but for networking and having knowledgable people to bounce your ideas of, this is pure gold.

Reason 4: The conference is fully open about the money involved

Edge is a commercial conference, with a very affordable ticket price. At the end of the conference, you see a full disclosure of who paid for what and how much money got in. Whatever is left over, gets donated right there and then to a good cause. This year, the conference generated a massive amount of money for codeclub. This means that your sponsorship is obvious and people see how much you put in. This is better than getting a random label like “platinum” or “silver”. People see how much things cost, and get to appreciate it more.

Reason 5: The location is always an in-the-trenches building

Instead of being in a hotel or convention centre that looks swanky but has no working WiFi, the organisers partner with tech companies to use their offices. That way you get up-close to Google, Facebook, or whoever they manage to partner with and meet local developers on their own turf. This is refreshingly simple and means you get to meet folk that don’t get time off to go to conferences, but can drop by for a coffee.

Reason 6: If you can’t be there, you still can be part of this

All the panels of this conference are live streamed, so even if you can’t make it, you can sit in and watch the action. You can even take part on Slack or Twitter and have a dedicated screening in your office to watch it. This is a ridiculously expensive and hard to pull off trick that many conferences wouldn’t event want to do. I think we should thank the organisers for going that extra step.

Reason 7: The organisers

The team behind Edge is extremely dedicated and professional. I rushed my part this year, as I was in between other conferences, and I feel sorry and like a slacker in comparison what the organisers pulled off and how they herd presenters, moderators and audience. My hat is off to them, as they do not make any money with this event. If you get a chance to thank them, do so.

Just go already

When the next Edge is announced, don’t hesitate. Try to get your tickets or at least make sure you have time to watch the live feeds and take part in the conversations. As someone thinking of sponsoring events, this is a great one to get seen and there is no confusion as to where the money goes.