Saturday, 11 February 2012

More from The Digital Barn

Back from lunch and continuing my previous post, here's what happened next at The Digital Barn...

The first session after lunch was Harry Roberts (@csswizardry) on Breaking Good Habits. Apparently this was Harry's first public presentation, but it certainly didn't show with a really confident delivery. The focus was on calling out some common misconceptions in the use of CSS, and providing some simple tips to counter these, such as using CSS classes rather than identifiers to offer greater flexibility (you can choose to use a class just like an identifier, but you can also do more powerful things with it). There were some great points made including "CSS class names are neither semantic or not semantic; they are sensible or not sensible" and "it's better to be pragmatic than pretty".

Fifth session of the day was Bruce Lawson (@brucel) of Opera on HTML5 and Accessibility. I've heard Bruce speak before on HTML5 so I knew some of the content might be familiar, but I certainly didn't expect the 'interesting' photography that had made it's way into the slides! I was interested to learn more about WAI-ARIA since it's not something I've looked at previously; it provides a method to annotate web content with information that can be used by assistive technology to improve accessibility. It's good to see that the method is closely integrated into HTML5 so little or no effort is needed on the part of the developer to apply it.

The next session was Matt Brailsford (@mattbrailsford) on KnockoutJS, a JavaScript library to help create responsive user interfaces. The results of the demo looked good and it seems pretty straightforward to use, but I'll need to play with some prototypes before I can decide whether there's anywhere I might like to use it.

The seventh session was Craig Burgess (@craigburgess) on The Mad Scientists of the Information Superhighway. It's difficult to describe this session, you needed to be there really, but it was pretty inspiring and felt like a keynote. In short Craig suggested we should put the amazement and excitement back in to what we do, from the days when we had an 'Information Superhighway' rather than just 'the web'.

Final session, and we were treated to Kevinjohn Gallagher (@kevinjohng) on The Emperor's New Clothes. This was a brilliant presentation; I can't remember the last time I laughed so much at a conference! Kevin was essentially ranting about pretty much everything from responsive design to client relations, and I certainly like a good rant. My favourite part was a Star Trek themed item towards the end, pointing out how Kirk always asked Scotty how long something would take before demanding it in a reckless amount of time, and suggesting the solution to this was for developers to strangle their managers. Not quite sure I agree with that, but the continuation was better, where we heard how Kirk spent a lot of his time on away missions, communicating with other departments on the starship or having conversations on the viewscreen, whilst Scotty never left the engineering deck. The conclusion drawn from this was logical: trust Scotty (the developer) in the short term, but trust Kirk (the manager) in the long term.

So that's the end of a great day, and I'm really looking forward to the next Barn. A huge thanks to Kimb Jones (@mkjones) and Matt Watson (@mwtsn) for organising an outstanding event!

In The Digital Barn

I'm over in Barnsley today for a new event, The Digital Barn, a web development conference with a bit of a focus on frontend.

Unfortunately I missed the first session, Jonny Allbut (@jonnyauk) on Successful Freelancing. Fortunately my team were keen to let me know on my arrival that Jonny said a Ruby freelancer can earn £1000 per day in London! I'd better check the slides later which are blogged here.

Next up was Martin Beeby (@thebeebs) of Microsoft on The Web As It Should Be. This session certainly got things going on twitter, IE10 sounds great but let's just say the pain of IE6 will take a little longer to heal! Working with the public sector I'm pretty sure we'll be dealing with HTML9 before we see the last of IE6. Microsoft are however trying to redeem themselves by offering a free mouse to the first people to blog about today's event, hence this hastily composed post. They're also focusing a lot more on standards compliance for new versions of IE, which has to be a good thing. I'll let you make up your own mind about their video: What developers think of Internet Explorer

The last session before lunch was Tom Hudson (@tomnomnom) on Writing Testable PHP. In summary, you need lots of unit tests (Tom's favourite kind of test!), fewer integration tests, and a sparing amount of full stack tests. All very interesting, and all the more so because the whole thing was presented using only the command line (my favourite UI!).

So that's the morning done, just about to tuck into burgers with @jamgregory, @lupatria, @b_seven_e and @timd. A quick thanks to our venue today, Barnsley Digital Media Centre, a great space that I always enjoy visiting.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

But I know a man who can...

I've had an interesting couple of days dealing with lots of people and lots of data. epiGenesys is in the middle of a project to replace workload modelling software used by two faculties in the University. The original software was developed a few years ago by students involved in Software Hut, and shortly after was enhanced by students from Genesys Solutions. As always things have moved on, and there is now a need to adapt the software to handle more data, and to enable it to be efficiently loaded with updated data on a regular basis. The outcome of this will be a combination of improving the usefulness of the outputs, and likely adding some automated analysis features, whilst reducing the administration work involved.

We are fortunate that last year we developed software to provide similar outputs, although using a very different approach and much less data, which is being trialled in a third faculty. From this we already had a good understanding of the key domains of data that would be of interest, and knew that all of it would already exist. Unfortunately we also knew that the data would be scattered between local sources in academic departments and across a number of central databases, using a variety of formats, and that nobody would have a detailed knowledge of all of the domains.

It was a straightforward decision for the project team that given the quantity of data involved, and our desire to reduce time spent entering data manually, it was vital that the new software could reliably import from a variety of sources with minimal user intervention. Our challenge is therefore to find people with detailed knowledge of the data, seek their help in finding the best source of the data, and then ensure it can be imported easily. The technical side of this has been relatively simple; the implementation of a reasonably generic import feature, capable of supporting various templates and running some custom pre-processing, has provided the flexibility needed. It probably won't surprise you to learn that the difficultly has been in the non-technical side of the work.

We're currently using a three-pronged approach that involves working with people in academic departments who use most of the data on a regular basis, with people in central services who in many cases are the data owners, and with people in CiCS who are familiar with the content of central databases. This is proving time consuming in some cases, and I've now become immune to the disappointment of hearing that someone is unable to provide the data we need. Fortunately everyone has been more than happy to suggest a colleague who might be able to help, or another data source that might contain what we need, and gradually progress is being made.

It's a little concerning that we're having to rely on our network of contacts so much for this project, although it was flagged up as a risk in the early stages, but on the other hand it's always nice to explore the organisation and meet new people. We're taking the opportunity to consolidate what we learn into the on-screen help within the software which will share the knowledge with people who can really benefit from it. I'm also wondering if we could draw a 'map of people and data' for future reference, although I expect it might look like a horribly complicated version of a tube map!

Friday, 20 January 2012

In The Zone

It's getting late on Friday evening, but I'm only just about to leave the epiGenesys office. In fact, several other members of the team only left a couple of hours ago. As they left I was asked via twitter:

"How have you got such a hard working team? You need to inspire me."

I wasn't sure how to answer at first, and the closing of my reply was:

"Maybe because they're all brilliant?"

I've been thinking about this whilst finishing a few small tasks. I still don't really have an answer that sounds sufficiently inspirational. The best I can come up with is that every member of the team is passionate about what they do.

I work with a pretty interesting team really, with lots of different personalities. There are some members who play by the rules and some who do what they like, some who are very persistent and some who avoid any conflict, some who focus on doing one thing well and some who turn their hand to anything, the list goes on and on. The one thing we all seem to have in common is a belief that our work is important, and what naturally follows from this is a lot of personal effort.

Our work is almost as varied as the team. We generally distinguish it into two parts: business, where we deliver software projects to earn money, and education, where we deliver training and mentoring to students in computer science and software engineering. Many of our business projects are now in the areas of education and research, maybe enabling a university department to operate more efficiently or helping a research study to collect and analyse data more effectively. I've always highly valued education and research, it's vital as humans that we learn and discover, so being able to combine these with my love for software development is perfect. This only gets better when combined with our educational activities, and for me it is genuinely fulfilling that our social enterprise approach means our profits are used to enable these to happen. There's also nothing I find more motivating to develop my skills and experience than having the opportunity to share these with others.

I hope this post was sufficiently inspirational. In short there is nothing at all special about any of us working late, what's important is that we were doing so because we wanted to make something happen. I'm sure there are plenty of other things about the team and how we work that help this along, so perhaps I've just discovered an interesting theme for some future posts.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Hello? Is this thing on?

I had intended to start a new blog in 2011, but despite working on a few drafts I never did get around to publishing anything. This is all going to change in 2012 - hopefully!

My plan is to publish regularly, maybe even weekly, about things I am working on and topics I am passionate about. I expect the outcome to be a mix of posts about the happenings at various groups and organisations I am involved with and the issues I am ranting about on twitter.

So, here we go again...