Dev8D 2012

This post was written 13 years ago.
Thu, 16 Feb 2012

Today I got back from three days in London, where I attended this year's Dev8D. Dev8D is quite a remarkable conference (or more accurately perhaps, a conference, unconference and workshops all in one). It is aimed at developers in Higher Education, but open to anyone interested. It offers a great opportunity to learn new skills, get a feel for what is being discussed and important in certain areas, and meet people with the same interests as you.

I went last year for the first time (it has been running for four years now), and I was very happy to go back. The format of the event seems to have changed slightly every year, but what remains constant is the focus on hands-on-learning, and the informal atmosphere.

As there was so much going on at once, I can only write about a fraction of the sessions from first-hand experience, but for anybody interested in the event I would recommend reading the relevant DevCSI blog posts (there's lots of videos and interviews in there).

message board at dev8d

Some of the sessions that were held were decided on only during the event, through votes from all participants. Out of the fixed events, I had chosen to attend the Python and Javascript sessions. There was also a session on Coffeescript following the Javascript one, but I eventually decided against it as I would rather first know Javascript very well (also I'm not sure about having a language on top of another language; but people seem to have been impressed by it, and I remain curious). Then I learned there was an Arduino workshop on, something that I had missed out on last year. It turned out to be a great experience. We worked in pairs, and I did more of the software part, but mostly followed what my partner was building. And it was nice seeing the results immediately, LEDs flashing, varying potentiometer strength being translated into sounds, and the "grand finale", turning a motor in a certain pattern of slowing down, then picking up speed again. This must be great to do with children.

arduino workshop

There is a lot one could say about the Arduino, and also about the "other guy" that was used for embedded programming in some sessions, a much more powerful microcontroller whith more periphery, including analogue-to-digital translation, though not open-source like the Arduino (or Freeduino, which seems to be what we were using). There were also 3D-printing machines in the room, but I did not attend the session on that unfortunately. Anyway, you can watch a talk about the Arduino workshop by its organiser Gary Bulmer, and here is 3D Printing with Graham Klyne. I see the ST Micro Cortex-M4 STM32F4 (that's the full name of the other microcontroller) had its own workshop, and there's lots of information in the description if you are interested.

The Python and Javascript "Core skills" sessions were also very good. The Python session was billed like this: "It will be presented as a Coding Dojo, with pairs of programmers operating the terminal, being assisted by the rest of the room." That was exactly what we did, with Richard Jones, who ran the session, either dictating what was to be written, or setting up little exercises. I found that this format worked very well, because you could follow along well with people typing, and it was also a good experience being in the "driving seat". I had previously started learning a bit of Python, but it is just so valuable having the particular aspects of a language being pointed out to you by somebody in the know, and then especially in this interactive way. Also, after the session, some of us were shown briefly how to use in a development environment, and we created a mini web application, a calculator taking input from a query string. If you are a Python beginner, check out the Cottage Labs Python Cheat Sheet.

dev8d basecamp

I also got a lot out of the Javascript session. There were two presenters, Juliette Culver and Graham Klyne, who took it in turns presenting a whirlwind tour through the Javascript language, and jQuery respectively. All the examples were available as files, so it was possible to recap afterwards. On the way to the conference I had started my third read of "Javascript the good parts", and it was useful hearing some of the main points being explained again (e.g. what 'this' means in different contexts; don't use a constructor function directly, only in a wrapper). It looks like I'm going to do a lot of Javascript in the coming months, so this is a good starting point.

On the last day I went to a session about ebooks. While I probably won't be needing this soon, I still found it very interesting that creating something in .epub or .mobi format is not actually that difficult. Although I feel that creating something looking nicely formatted and presentable might be a different story. I did not stay till the end of the session and don't know if authoring iBooks got covered in any detail, but it seemed to me that there was not all that great an interest in the class.

There were lots of other things I would have been interested in (there was a session on git for example) and I regret a little that I did not go to any of the panel sessions this year. Maybe next year!

This post was written 13 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Plans for the rest of 2011

This post was written 13 years ago.
Thu, 19 May 2011

For various reasons the start of this year was not that easy for me, and something I wanted to become a tradition already got left behind: To write down what I had done each year, and make plans for the new one. After postponing it a lot, I have decided now is a good time for plans, as I am between projects, and I start to see a little more clearly where I might be going.

2010 + five months of 2011: How did it go?

2010 was a good year overall. New possibilities opened up, I met inspiring people and learned a lot. And it became really clear that web development was what I wanted to continue doing.

As for web projects, I mainly worked for the Centre for Deaf Studies at Bristol University, and in September 2010 I started working on a directory of Bristol and Bath therapists, commissioned by a group of local therapists. They were for my standards quite big projects, and given my restricted working times, I am happy with what I managed to do.

It was a great experience for me doing the therapists' directory. I was solely responsible for all the development of the site - including the design. There are some specific features to this directory that make it quite complex. Where previously SilverStripe had been a CMS for me, this time I made heavy use of its underlying application framework. My programming skills have improved a lot! (There were a few moments of despair, too.)

Find-a-therapist, this is now live after a 'soft launch'

First version of 'MyFriendCentral' - originally it was required to fit onto a netbook, vertically. Something I whish I had challenged more..

I almost forgot that I did another thing, a site for a German Saturday school in Croydon, similar to the one I did for Bristol, based on TYPO3, using a YAML-template. That was interesting as well, as it turned out the site was to reside on a server that somebody ran privately. I had to access it remotely and do all kinds of command line stuff, which I actually started to enjoy after a while. I would really like to learn how to administer a server, and I have toyed with the idea to get a bytemark server running symbyosis, but it is just the one thing too much. There are other things that I need to learn first.

Apart from creating websites, one nice thing I did was taking part in an SVG (scalable vector graphics) course run by the W3C. I have to admit that I have not used SVG since, but I think I will at least try it out. The course was quite challenging, there was a lot of ground covered in just 5 weeks. It took a lot of time to do the coursework as well. But there is something about these courses (I did the mobile course the year before) that I totally relish. They somehow lift me up, and it is just nice to be given some structure in your learning for once, and not have to do it all yourself. One nice effect of this course was that my final coursework that I built using the unofficial Google wheather API, was mentioned on the w3c blog, alongside with that of Sylvia Egger whom I admire. It was also rewarding in itself having been able to build this little 'app'.

The conference I didn't blog about

As a consequence of the w3c mobile course I did in 2009, I learned that its tutor, Phil Archer, was going to be in Bristol as a speaker at a one day free workshop about the "mobile web". It was an event organised by DevSCI, targeted at developers in Higher Education, but other developers were welcome to come along, so I did. I wrote a blog entry about it, and there are some video recordings including one where two lovely female freelancers give their expert opinion. This event was great. It was great hearing people talk who worked each day with the mobile web and were building projects for it. And I really got a good impression of the different aspects of mobile web development that I could use as starting points in case I wanted to do something similar.

Following on from that I was alerted to another DevCSI event, Linked Data hackdays. So I attended that as well, and it, too, was extremely interesting. I learned things beyond Linked Data as well. We used the commandline quite a bit. We installed a Triple Server, and we learned about the different notations that Triples could be expressed in. And much more.

Dev8D in London

And then there was this one: Dev8D. The developer happy days. Hugh? Look at the logo, it is meant to be an emoticon, a happy face. I only learned that at the very end of the conference. This two-day conference took place in London, in the ULU building. And it blew me away. Again, from the contents there was so much I enjoyed hearing about. There were "Ask the experts" sessions about the topics I had heard at the workshops, the mobile web, linked data and open data. There were also a lot of familiar faces from those workshops. Then I sat in a long introduction to Python and tried out writing some scripts. This was followed by an introduction to the Molly framework (which itself is based on Django). On the next day there was a hands-on session where you got to look at the framework in detail. Unfortunately I could not install the required Virtual Machine on my netbook (who uses a netbook for developing!), but I did follow along nevertheless. One thing I didn't do and the significance of which I discovered only gradually, is give one of the challenges a try, sit at "basecamp" on a round table with the laptop in front of me, and.. hack. Program, build something. Just like that. I would not have been able to, even if I had wanted.

Flip-Flop circuit obtained at Dev8D from Chris Gutteridge - brought this home and the children loved playing with it

It was only when I had left the conference that I suddenly got this uneasy feeling. Why had I been there, why had I been allowed to be there? These were all proper developers. Some of them not even web developers. They had studied this at university, unlike me. And a lot of them were, as I had just previously seen Margaret Atwood describe it, "so sharp their brains poke through their skulls like the pins in the Scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz". What on earth was I doing there? But then I kept telling myself: I had been welcome there, and those developers were very happy to share their knowledge. (I had even over lunch been let in on some 'political' issue at one of the universities, which I will keep quiet about though). There had been some other people there who did not work in HE (and with whom I had some nice conversations). I could just enjoy being in their presence, without necessarily having their expertise. And then this: It would be my challenge to come back to this conference and tackle one of the programming challenges. Maybe not in one year. In two? In any case I really want to learn some more programming, and it would be nice to go back there. It was just a shame there were no other 'commercial' developers there, as it was open to everyone. I think they would enjoy it, too.

A conference that I did blog about, if only briefly: DConstruct. That also blew me away, the quality of the speakers, the originality of their talks and their thoughts. It was like somehow you suddenly felt why you had this urge to do all this. Why web development? As if somebody was suddenly giving you a reason, and gave you some kind of belief system to go with it. I will also always remember the trip back to Bristol where among a lot of other interesting stuff I learned that the Paddington bear comes from Peru.

Then I also went to a few Bathcamps, and also a very enjoyable 'Tweetup'. Until writing it all down, I had not been aware how many things I had actually attended!

Next stop - mobile apps?

I really need to finish this post off. It is unbelievable how much time I have spent on it. And it has been more about what I've done than actual plans. But it has been quite therapeutic, and it will be great to have this record in years to come. A record of the year 2010 and a half.

So, finally, here are my goals for the remaining 7 months of this year:

There is one general thing I have decided. After the big (for my standards) project for the therapists, I would like to have some time to learn some new things, and also build many small personal sites where I try out the things that I have learned. There is also the portal website for bilingual families that I mentioned in the post last year. I am not sure if I will manage to do it, but it would be nice if I could. 

I could be accused of enjoying it too much, to just do this as some kind of self-indulgence, more like a hobby. But I don't really believe this to be true. A lot of people are passionate about the web, and there is nothing wrong with it. I also expect to occasionally do things I don't like, I still want to earn at least some money and then I can't always decide what to do.

But now the concrete skills that I would like to learn:

  • Learn more advanced programming (design patterns, architecture, testing)
  • Learn to work with APIs and data sets
  • HTML5/CSS3
  • Javascript/Ajax
  • Mobile apps

There is such a hype around mobile and responsive web design at the moment that it almost puts me off. And yet I feel strongly that that is the direction to go in for me. But I could also say, it is part of the direction. What I really want to learn is to build applications. I have really developed a love for programming. This might turn out a tragic love, because it can be a world full of pain. Still, it is a great feeling to be able to just build some new functionality. But I will only be able to tell what it will be like when I start doing it.

One thing not to forget is that I carry a massive responsibility as a mother. And as I have recently realised, as the children get older, they will actually need me more, not less. So all of this is really about finding a way of doing web development in a meaningful, but somehow... contained way. To be clear, of course fathers carry that same resonsibility, but the actual practical side of it still mostly falls to the mother. And in my case, I am fine with that, I am grateful that my husband goes to work everyday and earns enough money for us to live on. That is also a massive responsibilty. And I love being with the children, too, I wouldn't want to send them off to after-school club everyday - at the moment they go to none, which admittedly puts quite a strain on my work-days.

The many brilliant web developers here in Bristol, the underscorers, I think I just can't use them as my role models. I can admire them, but I should maybe not try to become like them, because I can't. (Apart from my being a mother, there is also the age question. How would I ever catch up with them, I started so late.) An interesting question here for me is the quality of my work, and especially what degree of complexity I can achieve. I have come to love programming, but I probably do it at a sort of 'embryonic' level. Still, I just have this feeling that I could get quite far with it. I mean the generic concepts of programming that are not tied to a specific language, I already know quite a bit about that, and I have grasped the concepts of object-oriented programming. I think it should be possible to slowly slowly get to more complex levels. I have been programming things I never thought I would be able to, maybe it could continue that way?

What I have often thought - and everytime I manage to think that way, it actually makes me feel good - is to see it all like a game, a challenge. I will just learn, and produce as much as I can, at a level as advanced as I can. And if I can produce something really good along the way, all the better. And if I managed to become good enough to even start earning some serious money with it, that would be fantastic.

I had some general goals, too, and one was to clarify my professional situation, which I think I have done. A second one was being more 'grown-up', which I would define now as: Move from analyzing and worrying too much, to just focus on the work I am doing, doing it the best way I can, be approachable and responsive to people and see how I can best be of help to them. In web development, but should apply to other areas as well! While I have moved a bit towards this goal, there is still much room for improvement. And finally there was this: Write more! I did write a few blog posts, and I think they weren't too bad. But I would like this here to be the start of something more regular. I just love to write, and it really is worth it!

  • Excellent blog post Katja! You write very openly and honestly, it's lovely to hear your inner thoughts.

    I'm really into learning more about those 5 things you mentioned, maybe not so much the mobile apps, but definitely design patterns, APIs and datasets, yum yum :D

    You said, "I have been programming things I never thought I would be able to, maybe it could continue that way?". I reckon that's true!

    Posted by tom, 20/05/2011 6:44pm (5 months ago)

  • Thanks very much, Tom! That's very encouraging!

    Posted by Katja, 20/05/2011 7:02pm (5 months ago)

This post was written 13 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: webdev / dev8d / uni /