Work

Is it worth speaking at conferences?

I have been reading Twitter more often recently due to Brexit and I came across this mini-controversy that resonated with me.

Should you talk at conferences?

No, it’s a lot of effort that could be better spent on achieving your goals.

Yes you should if you’re from an under-represented background you should because it gives you visibility that is useful for developing your career.

Yes because it’s helpful for consolidating your understanding of a topic.

I certainly recognise this one, until you have to explain something its hard to say to prove that you really understand rather than having a strong intuition as to how something works

Yes because otherwise conferences are all-white boozy brofests.

The interesting point here being the idea that inclusion inherently leads to a loss of prestige in an activity because exclusion and prestige are related.

My lived experience

I did do conference talks to help build my “personal brand”. When I worked at ThoughtWorks it did help my career to be able to point that I was involved in community activity. At Wazoku I did talks simply to make people aware of the company.

At the Guardian doing talks was also important for your career because talking about our work was important to the organisation. In my early years there people at recruitment events were surprised to discover the Guardian had a in-house development team. I’m not sure that is was necessarily expected of everyone but at a senior level it was certainly an important part of the job not just to do the technical work but to ensure people outside the building understood what as a group we were doing.

At GDS doing talks was a complete pain because you had to get clearance for everything you were going to say and also there were various rules about the type of events and the representation at the events you could speak at. The level of bureaucracy around something that was already by this point a bit of a chore meant that I did one prior commitment and then basically stopped doing technical talks.

Stepping out of the cycle of trying to create and pitch talks was great. I just bought my ticket to events like a normal person and it was interesting to look at what value conferences were providing to me.

Relapsing

Recently though I did try doing some talks again. One of them about pop psychology concepts that are wrong was a very personal hobby horse. I don’t want to attend another talk where someone talks about various brain types (neuro-diverse, left-right, female-male, emotional intelligence) so I thought I do a talk about what is currently known about the mind and psychology.

Preparing was easy as I just needed to record various interesting bits and pieces as I came across them. Giving the talk was intense though. After a while not doing this kind of thing, getting up in front of people and aiming to entertain and inform them was a crushing pressure. Proper hand-trembling, mouth-dry, stage terror stuff.

The feedback was generally positive and I thought that while it had been a baptism of fire I was going to get back in the swing of things.

The next talk was to help a friend get their conference going in the North of England. It related to work activity so again preparation was not too hard… until the venue organisers said they needed the talk in Powerpoint format, which is not a program I own. They also needed the talk slides a month in advance whereas normally I will only finalise my content a couple of days before I am due to give the talk.

But I went ahead and cut a version of the slide deck via Google Docs. Fortunately I prefer to try and talk around my presentations and not heavily use slides so I just needed to try and sort out my tentpole slides and submit those.

The talk was reasonably well-attended and I was able to get a few questions going rather than presenting slides (a third of the deck ended up not being used). I genuinely prefer the Q&A format to the normal talk format. I was gratified to hear my talk referenced by other speakers later in the conference. However later in a vote on the most popular talk, my talk came last. I’m not sure anyone voted for it. I knew I hadn’t really gone for an entertaining format but I hadn’t thought it was that bad.

Later in the year I gave another version of that same talk. This time cut down to a running time of 20 minutes which required two weeks of practice. I was able to reuse the slides from the abortive earlier version but they still needed heavy restructuring to fit the new shorter format.

The talk got very little feedback on its second outing, no-one walked out though, which is positive. After the event the conference feedback system provided a score of 3.5 out 4, which I feel might be good or at least some proof that some people found value in it or possibly only a handful of people provided feedback.

The talk came at a particularly busy business time of year workwise and I don’t think I’d volunteer to do such a thing again due to the pressure of having to manage both preparation and regular work things.

Is it worth giving talks?

Giving talks for “personal brand” is essentially about making yourself feel like a known quantity to other people in your industry who you want to influence or have good relationships with. That might be clients you want to sell to, people you may wish to hire or employers who might hire you.

The truth is you want to achieve this as simply as you can with as least effort expended on your part. Talks, unless you are good at extemporising off the cuff, are probably more effort than the value they return.

A lightning talk, well-executed, might well have the same effect as a longer, more involved talk.

Giving a talk about something you care about or what to change in your industry is almost certainly worth it. Although it is the same amount of work, putting together your thoughts and arguments has value to you even if no-one ever hears the talk.

Also to some extent I think passion talks are easier to deliver. You are not really trying to entertain the audience beyond establishing enough rapport to get your message heard.

In terms of career development though I don’t think talks and conferences ever really helped because I’m simply not a good enough networker.

Many people have said that they enjoy talking at conferences because the talk serves as an icebreaker for meeting and talking to new people (as long as it is early in the programme). That has definitely been true for me in the past, and I totally recognise how much easier people find it to talk to me when they can hook it onto something that I’ve presented about.

If you are that kind of extroverted introvert then doing talks makes attending the conference more enjoyable and it makes sense to put in the work they require. Although again you want to limit the amount of effort you put in because the outcome you want is facilitated by the talk but the talk is not the point. You are giving the talk to help you to meet new people and find it easier to build a relationship with them; that’s where the effort should be spent.

So should I still be giving talks? Well at this point I think they do consume more effort from me than say, writing this blog post.

In terms of community or career-opportunities getting into roundtable discussions and breakfast meetings with senior technical people has more impact than talking at conferences with a general developer audience.

But talking and engaging audiences is a skill and a hard one to acquire and maintaining it requires practice. Therefore I probably should keep my hand in, but I should try to choose topics that I feel excited about and I should think about the format and make sure the effort involved is proportionate.

I should also think about the nature of the conferences I am pitching to so that I have a decent chance of succeeding in the selection while having the greatest chance of actually enjoying attending the conference and learning something as a result.

It’s also important who else is attending due to the networking effect. Beginner-friendly conferences while valuable are not going to fulfil my needs.

Therefore I think talking at conferences is valuable but you need to understand what you’re trying to get out of it rather than pursuing it as an abstract good in itself.

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Programming

HyLang: Sorted

Sorted in Hylang reports as being a built-in but isn’t documented in the HyLang built-in documentation. After a bit of head-scratching I realised that this is just the Python built-in sorted.

Hy uses keyword parameters to bind keyword arguments in Python interop so to define a new sorting function you assign a lambda to the key keyword.

So to sort pairs by the second value…

(sorted :key (fn [[a b]] b) items)

This is pretty similar to Clojure’s sort-by except that you can’t define the comparator explicitly.

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Programming

After having checked our privilege, how shall we continue?

I’ve been privileged enough to go to a number of development conferences last year (2018). I know that I’m privileged because almost every conference had a talk or many talks making clear my privilege in attending them.

I have a job where attending conferences makes sense as part of my work and I make enough money to be able to buy my own tickets and pay for my travel and accommodation. I’m often able to combine attending a conference with catching up with friends and family. I have the ability to choose which conferences I attend based on whether they allow me to achieve other things I value in my life.

I’m lucky and well-placed in life, and if I was unaware of that then fortunately every conference will have a speaker willing to point that out to me. Sometimes for as long as an hour.

An hour that I’m not unaware that I have paid a lot of money for, an hour that I have chosen to spend listening to this talk instead of doing something that I might enjoy instead.

Often these conferences talks have no particular point they want to make beside how privileged people in tech are and how little we understand people outside our tech bubble. They have no clear or sensible strategy as to how to change what they regard as disagreeable.

Often they feel very unclear about what exactly is wrong with the privilege enjoyed by their audience. Perhaps eliminating it a worthy goal in itself.

Its certainly not clear what audience the speakers would be happy to address about the topics that might be related to the notional agenda of subject of the conference they are speaking at.

The vagaries of conference programming committee means that there will often be another talk taking about how difficult it is to be a programmer: how prone to stress and burnout we are and how we need to prioritise self-care.

We are self-absorbed and toxic, while also being fragile and in need of nurture. No talk has addressed this contradiction.

Topics such as privilege and the self-absorption of tech are potentially worthy subjects but at the end of a year, having heard variations of these talks many, many times I want to stop.

I’m happy to nurture my privilege checking and think about the technology needs of the emerging world while taking steps to create an inclusive workforce.

In return, what I would like from the conferences that I pay to attend is some attempt to deliver a programme that reflects the prospectus that is laid out when you buy a ticket to say a Javascript conference or a Python conference.

The minimum I would like to have is that in every timetable slot there is a strong technology talk that will be relevant to my work and interests, preferably something informative and provided by a technology practitioner.

If this can happen then I’ll feel as if attending the conference was a good thing in itself rather than the peg on which to hang the chance to visit places and people.

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Programming

Tackley’s law of caching

Tackley’s law of caching is that the right cache time is the time it takes someone to come to your desk to complain about a problem.

If you obey this law then when you open your browser to check the issue the person is complaining about it will already have resolved itself.

Tackers may not have invented this rule but I heard it from him first and it one of the soundest pieces of advice in software development I’ve ever had.

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Programming

Slow SPAs are worse than NoSPA

I got a digital subscription to the Economist for my birthday last month so I’ve started reading a lot more content on their site. As a result I’ve noticed a lot of weirdness with their page loads that was hardly noticeable when I was using the free tier of a few articles per week.

The site seems to be built as a SPA with a page shell that loads quite quickly but takes far longer to fill with content and which has some odd layout choices and occasional pops and content shifts.

The basic navigation between the current issue index and the articles is hampered by what appears to be a slow load or render phase. Essentially it is hard to know whether the click on a link or the back button has registered.

By replacing traditional page navigation the experience is actually worse. The site would be better if the effort going into the frontend went into faster page serving.

I’m not sure if the page is meant to be doing something clever with local storage for offline use but it seems to need to be connected when browsing so I’m assuming that this is something to do with the need for a subscription and payment gateway that prevents a fast server load of content.

It still feels as if the page and the 200 words or so should be public and CDN-cached with the remaining content of the article being loaded after page-load for subscribers.

The current solution feels like someone has put a lot of effort and thought into making someone that is actually worse than a conventional webpage and that seems a shame for a site with relatively little content that is mostly updated once a week.

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Gadgets

The HP Stream as a cheap open-source Chromebook

I really like Chromebooks but I must admit there are times when I’m travelling and I’d like a more conventional offline setup.

Also one of the attractions of the original wave of Chromebooks were their price and I feel that the more recent editions have been price comparable to mid-range laptops.

Finally I read a few pieces warning against slipping into a monopoly of convenience around the Chrome browser so I thought it would be great to have a Chromebook that essentially ran Firefox.

I chose the HP Stream as the cheapest laptop that people mentioned that had Linux running on. It’s plastic and it’s proud of it, I bought one in an aquamarine blue. Trying one out in a store it has a good sized keyboard with only one quirk around the enter key which a bit smaller than the typical UK keyboard and has a hash key right above it.

That plastic shell means it is light but it is durable to have been shoved in a few travel bags and transported round. It has a custom power adaptor which is a pain when you’re travelling. USB-based charging would have been much better.

Installing Linux

I chose Elementary as my distribution, partly out of curiosity but also because people mentioned that it was an opinionated take on what a user-friendly operating system might be.

I had to read how to enter the Stream’s BIOS on the internet and set it to boot from a USB but after that it was pretty plain sailing to get the Elementary ISO onto the USB and for the Stream to load it.

Everything worked first time and I had the new OS completely replace pre-installed Windows and also encrypt the drive, which seems important if you are going to be travelling with the laptop and thus more likely to lose it or have it stolen.

Connecting to Wifi was painless as was the upgrade process.

Elementary

Elementary takes a very different approach to all the other Linux distributions with the UI essentially hiding all the normal Linux details. It has its own app store and upgrades of managed packages are seamless and mostly seem to complete without the need for restarts.

You can get to the terminal and install packages via Debian-style packages if you want to but Elementary mostly shines when you stick to the GUI and the apps.

For the kind of consumer electronic experience I wanted Elementary was an excellent choice. The only real problem I encountered was the classic issue of the OS not suspending when the laptop lid was closed, instead I had to manual suspend and then close the lid. This has subsequently been fixed in a subsequent update and currently the whole OS feels like what you’d expect from a modern system.

Performance

I am an absolute tab monster when it comes to browsers. I rarely have less than 40 tabs open in each browser and I have been known to use multiple windows on top of this.

My Chromebooks have struggled in the past and I’ve had to use the Task Manager to figure out where the CPU and memory are going in terms of the sites I use.

The situation was similar with the Stream. When I run Chrome and Firefox the system struggled and the battery ran flat quickly. I’ve since stuck to just Firefox and tried to limit myself to a set of about 15 to 20 tabs. This has been stable and has given me a few days worth of web browsing per charge.

Conclusions

When I started experimenting it would have been hard to say that I really had a better experience using my setup compared to a Chromebook. As we head towards Christmas, almost a year into the experiment, I’m now starting to think that I’d prefer to take the machine that would allow me to use git and my choice of text editor if I wanted. Firefox is a great choice for most of my daily websites and both of the machines have encrypted drives.

Elementary isn’t quite consumer electronics and the Stream is probably the wrong side of the price/quality divide but its actually the flexible machine I want to talk as I visit family and friends over the holidays.

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Work

Please stop showing me “the data”

This isn’t a reactionary rant against data-driven decision making and it isn’t about nostalgia for gut-driven benevolent dictators.

Instead it is an appeal for reason to play an equal part in decision making.

The seed of this post was planted by a keynote Ines Montani gave at EuroPython. At the time I was more interested in her central argument that paying customers are the most important metric a business can have.

But in part of the talk she talks about the cliche of “show me the data”, a phrase that I think originated at NASA where, in context, it makes a lot of sense but when transplanted to the world of small business quickly becomes expensive, slow and farcical.

In part of her talk Ines mentioned that when making decisions on how to run a small business there shouldn’t be a need to provide data for or against every decision. “Why can’t we use reason?” she asked.

The question had huge resonance for me. The emphasis on data-driven decisions in businesses has not led to improved data or statistical literacy. Instead it has led to the generation of fig-leaf numbers, impenetrable spreadsheets of data as obfuscation and irrelevant but voluminous data collection. I see little evidence that decision-making is better.

It has also exposed the idea that the problem is data collection. The more information we collect then the more it feels like the more any decision can be justified or any course of action advocated or vetoed. Interpretation, selection and analysis of the data is more important than ever, and this at its heart requires reasoning.

Reason is different from “common sense” in that it should be produce self-consistent decision making that can be justified and interrogated. Reasoning is a process applied to instinct, insight, intuition, experience and knowledge.

So please don’t show me your data, explain your decision instead.

 

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