Posts Tagged ‘Conference’

27
Nov
2013

Full Frontal 2013

by Stephen Fulljames

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When assessing conferences for myself, I tend to break them down in to “doing conferences” and “thinking conferences”. The former being skewed more towards picking up practical tips for day-to-day work and the latter being more thought provoking, bigger picture, ‘I want to try that’ kind of inspiration.

Despite being pitched as a tech-heavy event for Javascript developers, Remy and Julie Sharp’s Full Frontal held at the wonderful Duke of Yorks cinema in Brighton has always felt like more of the latter. That’s not to say the practical content isn’t very good. It is, very very good, and naturally the balance has ebbed and flowed over the event’s five year history, but the general feeling I get when I walk out at the end of the day is always ‘Yeah, let’s do more of that!’ It’s been that way right from the start, in 2009, when Simon Willison ditched his prepared talk at a few days notice to speak about a new language in its infancy – a little thing called Node. So I was hopeful that this year’s conference would provoke similar enthusiasm.

High expectations, then, and a promising start with Angus Croll taking us through some of the new features in EcmaScript 6 (ES6), aka “the next version of Javascript”. Presenting a series of common JS patterns as they currently are in ES5, and how they will be improved in ES6, Angus made the point that we should be trying this stuff out and experimenting with it, even before the specification is eventually finalised and brower support fully implemented, as David commented that if you’ve done Coffeescript you’re probably well prepared for ES6, and really one of the aims of Coffeescript was to plug the gap and drive the evolution of the language, so its hopefully something I will be able to pick up fairly easily.

This was followed by Andrew Nesbitt, organiser of the recent Great British Node Conference, demonstrating the scope of hardware hacking that is now becoming possible using Javascript. As well as the now-obligatory attempt to crash a Node-controlled AR drone into the audience, Andrew also explained that “pretty much every bit of hardware you can plug into USB has a node module these days” and demonstrated a robotic rabbit food dispenser using the latest generation of Lego Mindstorms. Being able to use Javascript in hardware control really lowers the barrier to entry, and the talk only reinforced the feeling I got after the Node Conf that I need to try this (and ideally stop procrastinating and just get on with it).

Joe McCann of Mother New York gave a high-level view on how mobile is increasingly reshaping how we interact with the web, with the world and with each other. Use of phones as payment methods in Africa, where availability of bank accounts is challenging, has reached around 80% of the population with systems such as M-Pesa. And SMS, the bedrock of mobile network operators’ revenue since the early 90s, is being disrupted by what are known as “over the top” messaging services that use devices’ data connections. These are familiar to us as iMessage and Whatsapp, but also growing at a phenomenal scale in the far east with services such as Line which is offering payment, gaming and even embedded applications within its own platform. Joe’s insight from a statistical point of view was fascinating, but it didn’t really feel like many conclusions were drawn from the talk overall.

Andrew Grieve and Kenneth Auchenberg then got down to more development-focussed matters with their talks. The former, drawn from Andrew’s experience working on mobile versions of Google’s productivity apps, was a great explanation of the current state of mobile performance. It turns out that a lot of the things we often take for granted, such as trying to load Javascript as required, aren’t as important now as perhaps they were a couple of years ago. Mobile devices are now able to parse JS and selectively execute it, so putting more effort in to minimising DOM repaints, using event delegation, and taking advantage of incremental results from XHR calls and progress events are likely to be better bets for improving performance.

Kenneth spoke about the web development workflow, a subject he blogged about earlier in the year. His premise was that the increasing complexity of browser-based debug tools, while helpful in their purpose, are only really fixing the symptoms of wider problems by adding more tools. We should be able to debug any browser in the environment of our choice, and he demonstrated this by showing early work on RemoteDebug which aims to make browsers and debuggers more interoperable – shown by debugging Firefox from Chrome’s dev tools. By working together a community on projects like this we can continue to improve our workflows.

My brain, I have to admit, was fairly fried in the early afternoon after an epic burger for lunch from the barbeque guys at The World’s End, a spit-and-sawdust boozer round the corner from the conference venue. So the finer points of Ana Tudor’s talk on some of the more advanced effects you can do purely with CSS animation were lost to struggling grey matter. Suffice it to say, you can do some amazing stuff in only a few lines of CSS, in modern browser, and the adoption of SASS as a pre-processor with its functional abilities makes the process much easier. It’s also brilliant that Ana came on-board as a speaker after impressing Remy in the JSBin birthday competition, and a perfect demonstration that participating in the web community can have a great pay off.

The last development-orientated session was from Angelina Fabbro, on Web Components and the Brick library. Web Components are a combination of new technologies which will allow us to define our own custom, reusable HTML elements to achieve specific purposes – for example a robust date-picker that is native to the page rather than relying on third party Javascript. This is naturally quite a large subject, and it felt like the talk only really skimmed the surface of it, but it was intriguing enough to make me want to dig further.

The finale of the day, and a great note to finish on, was Jeremy Keith speaking about “Time”. Not really a talk on development, or at least not the nuts and bolts of it, but more of a musing about the permanence of the web (if indeed it will be so) interspersed with clips from Charles and Ray Eames’ incredible short film, Powers of Ten – which if you haven’t seen it is a sure-fire way to get some perspective on the size of your influence in the universe.

Definitely a thought-provoking end to the day. As someone who has done their time in, effectively, the advertising industry working on short-lived campaign sites that evaporate after a few months (coincidentally Jeremy mentioned that the average lifetime of a web page is 100 days) it has bothered me that a sizeable chunk of the work I’ve done is no longer visible to anyone. On the other hand I have worked on projects that have been around for a long time, and are likely to remain so, and I suppose in the end its up to each of us to focus our efforts and invest our time in the things that we ourselves consider worthwhile.

(Photo: Jeremy Keith recreating the opening scene of Powers of Ten on a visit to Chicago)

14
Oct
2013

Robots, pedal bins and dTrace: The 2013 Great British Node Conference

by Stephen Fulljames

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If there’s a common theme from the popular London Node User Group evening meet-ups, from which the Great British Node Conference has evolved as a full day event, it’s that the Node.js ecosystem appears to be approximately 50% useful production tooling and 50% wonderfully insane hacks – with both sides of the personality aided by Node’s asynchronous nature and ability to process data I/O very quickly.

This ratio felt like it was also borne out during the conference, the first big event to be held at the brand new Shoreditch Works village Hall in Hoxton Square. The event space itself was great; fashionably minimal with rock-solid wifi and on-site coffee shop. The only slight niggle being that the low ceiling height meant the presentation screens became partially obscured by those seated in front, but with two projectors on the go you could usually get a clear view of one.

So, on to the talks. As mentioned there was a definite split between “useful” and “wtf?” and also between micro and macro ideas. Paul Serby of Clock kicked off with a review of his company’s experience of Node in production use for clients over the last 3 years, which was high level but a great introduction to the philosophy behind adopting Node and some of the successes and pain points along the way. It was interesting, and pleasing, to see that their journey has been similar to our own switch towards Node at Red Badger with many similar learnings and changes to our respective programming styles.

Performance was a big theme of the day, both in Paul’s overview talk and in examples much closer to the metal, such as Anton Whalley’s forensic examination of a memory leak bug in the node-levelup module (a wrapper for LevelDB). Usually hand-in-hand with mention of performance was the use of dTrace – not a Node tool in itself but a very useful analysis tool for discovering how applications are running and identifying the source of problems. The overall picture from this being that while Node can offer great performance advantages, it can also be prone to memory leaking and needs careful monitoring in production.

Other talks at the practical end of the spectrum included Hannah Wolfe on Ghost, a new blogging platform built on Node which is looking like an interesting alternative to WordPress and after a very successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funding should be available generally very soon. Tim Ruffles also took us through the various options (and pitfalls) to avoid the callback hell which asynchronous programming can often fall in to. There are a few useful flow control modules available for Node already, but as the Javascript language develops native features to help with async flows – known as generators but acting in a similar way to C#’s yield – will start to become available both in Node and in browsers as they adopt ES6.

Over on the hack side, we were treated to the now obligatory sight of a Node-driven quad-copter drone crashing into the audience and then a brilliant demonstration by Darach Ennis of his Beams module, which attempts to give compute events the same kind of streaming behaviour that I/O enjoys in Node. The key difference being that compute streams are necessarily infinite, and the Beams module allows you to filter, merge and compose these compute streams into useful data. The demo was topped off by an interactive light-tennis game adjudicated by a hacked Robosapiens robot which not only reacted to the gameplay but also ran the software which drove the game.

Probably the highlight for me, although its relation to practical application at work was close to zero, was Gordon Williams talking about Espruino, a JS interpreter for micro-controllers. Running at a lower level than the well-known Raspberry Pi or even Arduino boards, micro-controllers are the tiny computers that make all the stuff around us work and typically have RAM measured in the kilobytes. For anyone who ever tried to write games on a ZX Spectrum this may bring back memories! Gordon showed real-time development via a terminal application, also hooked up to a webcam so we could watch him create a pedal bin which opened based on a proximity sensor. Maybe not useful in my work at Red Badger, but I could instantly see loads of applications in my personal interests and thanks to the immediate familiarity of being able to use Javascript in a new context I’m definitely going to look in to Espruino some more.

Overall this felt like a conference where delegates were looked after probably better than any I’ve been to for a long time, with plenty of tea and biscuits, great coffee and chilled water on hand and a catered lunch and evening meal nearby. Whether this was down to the smaller scale of the event (around 150 attended) or the care and attention to detail taken by the organisers I’m not sure, but either way I came out of it feeling enthusiastic for Node (both practically and hackerly) and eager to go back next time.

31
May
2013

Thinking Digital

by Sari Griffiths

I have attended the Thinking Digital conference 2013 in Gateshead for the first time this year, having read a review comparing it to TED. And all in all, I think it lived up to my expectations. One participant I met even told me that he preferred it over SXSW!

There were around 30 speakers packed into two days. I’d say 80% were absolutely fantastic – that’s a pretty good hit rate.

Here are some ideas I found particularly interesting. I won’t go into too much detail but have provided links for you to explore. I heard that the videos will become available in about 6 months time. Or you can watch the past talks on their site.

Be collaborative, be creative, be agile

This may sound a bit self-congratulatory, but I found that we’re already implementing most of the ‘best working practices’ that the speakers were advocating. It was mainly about being collaborative, being creative and being agile.

The very first speaker Eddie Obeng kick-started the conference with an energy packed talk (wearing a very bright green shirt) that stressed the importance of working collaboratively.

Maria Giudice talked about being a DEO (Design Executive Officer). Aral Balkan talked about the need to put creative and user centred design thinking at the heart of business, showing many entertaining bad/evil user experience examples from the world around us – I was practically crying with laughter.

View from Thinking Digital
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but there is nothing left to take away” Antoine De Saint-Exupery (introduced during Aral Balkan’s very entertaining talk).

Mike Bracken showed how his team changed the government’s perception of the web by using a more agile approach to their Gov.uk project. I was already impressed by their design principles and how they have actually managed to do it given that it IS a government project after all. Imagine the bureaucracy! During the talk, he shared a chart showing all government transactional services, and told us that they were understandably bringing the most popular services online first. The chart had a very, very long tail – the one at the end was ‘To obtain permission to scatter ashes at sea’ – so you know when that becomes available online, they’ve done it all!

There were many other speakers that touched on similar points. As I work in a company that works very collaboratively, creatively and in agile, it was great to hear that we’re on the right track. And we’re finding that it works for us.

Inspiring next generations

Many speakers talked about how they wanted to inspire their kids and the next generations of technologists. And it struck a chord (or code) with me, as a mother and an auntie.

TeenTech was introduced by the one and only Maggie Philbin, (what would be the modern equivalent of Tomorrow’s World?) bringing teenagers and experienced developers together to make something happen. Let’s get them excited!

Sugata Mitra‘s Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) was also very inspiring. It is basically about creating a self-organised learning environment without teachers present (but you need grannies and a teacher posing the right questions). A group of kids are given one computer (with internet connection) to share, and a question to answer together. Say if you want to teach them ‘cell differentiation’, the question will be ‘why can’t women grow beards?’. A teacher is still very important as you’ll need a right sort of questions. And a granny is important to give the kids some encouragement and positive feedback to keep them going. It is amazing to see how effective these approaches are.

There were two teachers, Jo Fothergill & Tara Taylor-Jorgensen from New Zealand, who talked about how they successfully used MIE to teach their pupils. Sugata himself is also setting up 7 schools (5 in India, 1 in Gateshead, 1 in Durham) to implement the approach. It will be interesting to see how they get on.

In a different talk, Julian Treasure was raising awareness of noise pollution. He said it was a serious problem, second only to air pollution, but no one was doing much about it. In a typical modern classroom, pupils that sit at the back of the room only catch 50% of what their teacher says because of bad acoustics. He also pointed out that playing music while you are studying definitely reduces efficiency as music are inherently created to be listened to, despite what teenagers claim!

Things are happening up North!

There were a few reminders that the North East has become the second largest tech industry after London. And that it’s being happening largely under the radar. There is a good reason that the conference was taking place in Gateshead! I will definitely keep an eye on developments up there.

And…?

Above are just a few ideas I found particularly interesting. There were loads more thoughts discussed that were nothing short of amazing.

If there was any thread going through entire conference, it was probably humility. Think about users. Think about people. Think about emotion. Considering the name of the conference was ‘Thinking Digital’, it was very interesting that it was as much about ‘Analogue’ as ‘Digital’, as one of the speakers said.

And I can’t wait for next year. I’ll definitely be there.

23
May
2012

Red Badger – BizSpark European Startup of the Year?

by Cain Ullah

Microsoft are entering their 8th year of doing the BizSpark European Summit which provides an opportunity for some of the best startups in Europe to present their business ideas and products to a panel of investors and expert judges. I’m presuming that if you are reading this blog, you know what BizSpark is.

Red Badger has been a member of BizSpark pretty much since it’s inception in May 2010. It has provided us with an excellent platform to grow our business by not just providing us with free Microsoft tools but also providing our business with key support through networking, events and key advice (particularly through Bindi Karia).

Anyway, back to the summit. We are incredibly pleased to have been nominated by Microsoft as one of fifteen startups in Europe (and one of two in the UK) to present our business ideas at this year’s summit to be held on 7th June. You can see who all of the other nominees are here. On the day there will be a number of keynotes and panel discussions with the day being MC’d by David Rowan, editor of Wired UK. Presenters and participants include Bob Dorff (co-author of the Startup Owner’s Manual), Professor Jerome S. Engel, last  year’s Summit pitch contest winner Alessandro Rizzoli (CEO of Mobapp), plus Microsoft’s Dan’l Lewin, Corporate Vice President, Strategic and Emerging Business Development.

Startup Coaching

In the afternoon the startups will get their opportunity to present to the 250-400 investors, expert judges, and other guests. They will get a slot for a 5 minute lightning pitch followed by 5 minutes of questions. This is not a lot of time to sell your business idea so Microsoft have provided all of the training and advice to make sure our presentations are as sharp as possible. This includes some high level coaching on our presentations from Mike Sigal, an entrepreneur and startup coach who has been performing this coaching role at the BizSpark Summit for the last 3 years. Having gone through the first iteration of advice from Mike (the second iteration is to follow), I can say his advice is very inspirational. Combining this with the constant coaching from Bindi and a full day of rehearsals on 6th everyone should be well prepared come the 7th. Supporting the coaching is the PR activities surrounding the event being co-ordinated by Maxine Ambrose and Daisy at Forgather ensuring all the startups are meeting their several deadlines leading up to the event.

Our Pitch

What we are pitching is an interesting question as we are slightly different to the other nominees. From what I can gather, the majority of the other nominees have a fairly mature product for which they might be asking for investment for. We are slightly different in that we have a product idea and ultimately want to move in that direction and fairly soon. However, we are currently an early stage product company. What I mean by that is that we want to self fund the product arm of the company through profits made from the client services arm with the two running side-by-side. We’re just not quite there yet. So, our pitch will be geared toward presenting what problems our idea will solve and how the world will be different once it is built. An interesting challenge.

Previous Winners

Previous winners of this event have had great success as a result, gaining lots of recognition as well as some key investment.

Stolen from this page – “In 2009, Swiss company KeyLemon wowed the judges with its face recognition technology and has enjoyed steady success since.  In 2010, the joint winners were Artesian Solutions and Kobojo.  Last year, French games company Kobojo secured over 5 million Euros of investment, has expanded into other countries worldwide and has reached over one million active daily users.  Early this year, Artesian Solutions announced that investor firm Octopus was investing £2 million in this successful young British company, which focuses on sales intelligence.

Last year’s winner is Mopapp, whose CEO Allesandro Rizzoli impressed the judges with his ingenious mobile appstore aggregation service.  Alessandro has since relocated the company from Italy to London and the company continues to grow.”

People’s choice award

This year there is an additional award, The People’s Choice. This goes out to the public vote and is entirely based on people clicking on a Facebook like button. It largely depends on how active you are at promoting your company to all of your personal and company Facebook friends. Not my favourite method of voting but if you have 10 seconds spare, do go and like Red Badger on our Finalist Page.

Summary

That pretty much sums it up. I’ve now got more work to refine the 5 minute presentation, some rehearsals and then the big day. Wish me luck!