CodeMash 2012 Review

Last week I attended CodeMash 2012 as a speaker and gave my talk on building testable PHP applications (don't forget to buy the book that the talk inspired). Held in Sandusky, Ohio in the cold of January it is an interesting conference. Unlike most conferences that I attend, it is multi-disciplinary. There were talks on .NET, Java, Ruby, Python, and two lonely talks about PHP.

For me, this is somewhat uncomfortable. It is only natural that people who use certain tools tend to flock together at a conference. I joked that where were only 3.7 PHP developers (with someone stating that the 0.3 part is part of someone that I cut off for not writing tests) but the fact was that unless you knew members of multiple communities you were going to have to be content to feel a little excluded.

Anyway, I did have a really good time hanging out with my friends and making some new ones. It's a really good idea to talk to as many people as you can, even they are not using the same tools you are using. You can gain some perspective.

Let's go over the talks I attended and my thoughts on them.

It's the Little Things (Brad Colbow)

Brad is a freelance graphic designer from the Cleveland area. He also does an online comic called The Brads so, as expected, his presentation was full of all sorts of awesome visuals. Also, I thought that I talked fast, this guy made me look like one of the Ents from Lord of The Rings.

The main take-away I got from his talk was that it never hurts to pay attention to the little things. I realized that this holds true from both an UI/UX perspective and in your code. A bunch of bad little things always turn out into one huge bad thing.

His slides describing the blog posting he made about how crazy it was to check out an audio book from his local library were awesome.

Vagrant: Virtualized Environments Made Simple (Matt Stine)

Matt took what he said was normally a 3 hour tutorial and crammed it into a very informative 1 hour talk. It did help that I had been considering the use of Vagrant anyway, but I got a better picture of more practical uses of Vagrant. I did not know about veewee as a tool to help you create your own Vagrant boxes.

This is of interest because I had a hankering to play around with an Arch Linux VM but found the existing base boxes out there, well, not working with the version of Virtualbox I had installed. I think veewee will let me pursue that further.

Breaking the Sound Barrier with Node.js on Windows and Azure (Glenn Block)

While sitting in this talk I took a picture and tweeted about how it was time to make myself "personally uncomfortable" by sitting in a talk involving a technology that I don't use running on a platform I don't use. What I was hoping to find out was some more basic information on Node.js and why it is such a big deal.

To be perfectly honest, the more I see Node.js the more I start to understand the allure of it. What really bothers me is that so many people are gambling their applications on a tool that hasn't even reached 1.0 yet. I understand the power of how Node.js gets things done. Evented + concurrency + JS is a platform that has lots of appeal to people who maybe haven't done that sort of work before. Not that I'm including myself in the group that "gets it" but at this point in time I'm still on the "I will use Twisted/Tornado if I need to create event-driven, high-concurrency web servers."

Maybe when Node.js gets to 1.0 I will think differently.

Azure itself didn't really thrill me that much, but I do see the advantage of that environment to people who have already made a large investment on the server side in Microsoft. What is really admirable is that they are making some great contributions back to the open source community. The SDK for running Node.js on Windows is open source, and I must give them credit for that.

Code Kata and Analysis (Jim Weirich)

This was a talk that I went into expecting to be surrounding by Ruby hipsterism. After all, this is the guy who created Rake and works for a well-known Ruby consultancy. Once I saw him I knew I was in for a treat. Older guy. White hair. Unix-style beard. Runs emacs.

I was not disappointed.

A code kata is a programming exercise that serves a few purposes. You do it in order to learn how to implement common algorithms in different languages and learn how to solve the easy problems by habit, with the goal of then freeing up your mind to solve hard problems.

The code kata this time was to create an arabic number to Roman numerals converter. The language of choice was Ruby (no big surprise there) and I was even happier to see that it was a test-driven kata using Rspec.

This brings me around to a topic that makes me super uncomfortable. It seems to me that testing has become an integral part of the Ruby and Python ecosystems. It does not appear to be common at all in the PHP and .NET communities. I care about this sort of stuff so it does pain me to see such opposition in the form of apathy and excuses amongst PHP programmers. I wish I could surround myself with developers who feel like I do about the value of automated testing in delivering solid applications. Maybe in the next life.

It was also good to see someone walk you through the whole TDD practice and refactor stuff after getting a particular set of tests working. In the end we had two great examples of code: an easy-to-understand converter and tests that are easy to understand.

Dealing with Information Overload (Scott Hanselman)

One of the more dynamic speakers I saw, Scott gave a talk to a packed room on tips for dealing with information overload. From him I learned some new techniques I'm going to be phasing in:

  • No reading email until noon, and then "office hours" from a certain time onwards when anyone can speak to you
  • Instapaper is awesome because I can flag things to read later and get them delivered to my Kindle on Friday afternoons for some after-dinner reading
  • If this, then that is an extremely interesting tool that can be used to trigger events that help you delegate things into the future
  • The Pomodoro Technique is a very useful tool to help with short-term focus. Cut out the distractions and concentrate for 25 minutes. Even I think I can do that.
  • Keep your email responses very short (he reccomends Five Sentences) and instead write a longer response to that issue and post it somewhere others can find it, whether it is a company wiki or on your own blog. That way, next time someone asks you that same question you can point them there

Excellent talk full of lots of excellent ideas. I knew it was gonna be awesome when he put this video up to entertain us before his talk.

A Few of My Favorite [Python] Things (Mike Pirnat)

Mike is a long-time Python programmer who shared with us a "series of lightning talks crammed into one presentation". While I have some basic Python knowledge I did see a bunch of really interesting libraries and other tools that I did not know about. He covered so much, so fast that I was glad he was going to post a link to the slides on his blog.

It also reminded me how, coming from the PHP world, languages like Ruby and Python really are more terse. You might not think it matters (or even hate significant whitespace) but for some people the elegance that can be found in Ruby and Python code often makes it easier for others to understand what you are doing. I know that I feel like I'm doing more with less when I write Python code.

Then I gave my own talk. I was disappointed that I actually ran out of time(!) for it. In the scheme of things, 90 slides is about 20 too many for a talk on as dense a topic as unit testing tools, strategies for writing code, and complementary tools to make the whole thing easier.

I have identified abotu 20 slides that I think I could chop out and turn into 2 slides of the "and if you're interested in some tools that I think are helpful" type.

I had a good time (including hanging out at the Kalahari's water park with my kids) at CodeMash 2012 and hope to go back for CodeMash 2013.

Why so little PHP?

I was asked about why I felt that there were so few talks about PHP and what could be done to make it better. Well, when only 7 people even submit PHP ideas I think there is a problem of visibility.

Given that this conference covers a wide variety of technologies I think it is safe to say that there was quite a bit of overlap. 31 .NET talks? Really? There is nothing wrong with .NET but do you really want to exclude an entire sector of the web programming world at your conference?

Also, there is the issue of speaker reimbursement I know that the official policy of CodeMash is "we cannot guarantee speaker reimbursement". That's cool but that will also stop talented people who are not willing to travel from where they are to the Cleveland airport and then hitch a ride to the Kalahari. Maybe in the PHP world we have gotten spoiled by those who run conferences since they tend to cover a significant portion of the costs a speaker might incur to get there.

There is no easy answer to how to get more PHP people to submit talks and to attend the conference in general. It probably also doesn't help that the conference sold 1200 tickets in 20 minutes, making it that much harder to get a ticket.

I'd love for more PHP folks to come to this conference and get their horizons expanded with a glimpse at what other communities, just as full of energetic people but with different focusses, are doing.