Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Reflections on Alt.Net.UK

altnetukI spent last Friday night and Saturday at the Alt.Net.UK conference here in London. Based on the "open spaces" philosophy, it was an event quite unlike anything I've ever been to...

Actually, that's not quite true. In a strange way, it was the geek equivalent of a really good jam session. If you've ever seen a bunch of musicians get together with no rehearsal and no sheet music, and just improvise a couple of hours of free-form, creative, spontaneous music, you'll know what I mean. Now imagine they're not musicians, they're software developers, and instead of grooving away in D minor they're having a variety of open and unstructured discussions about REST frameworks, MVC, mock objects, evolutionary database design, the .Net user community and suchlike.

Personally, I thought it worked very, very well. The Friday night kick-off was a great idea; an hour or so to get some idea what to expect, then a few hours of beer & chat to break the ice and generally get things moving, meant that by the time we started off on Saturday morning the feeling of standing in a room full of strangers was pretty much gone and apart from a couple of rather severe hangovers, things got moving really quickly.

I'm posting the actual technical content of the sessions on altnetpedia, but there's a couple of things I'll add here.

Firstly, a big thanks to everybody who put this together - especially Ben Hall (for sorting me out with a last-minute place after I completely missed both rounds of tickets - thanks Ben!),  Ian Cooper, Alan Dean, and Conchango and Red Gate are also providing support. (Red Gate not only make the best database tools I've ever used, they've now given me free beer as well. You guys rock.)

Second, thanks to everyone who attended. It was a pleasure meeting you all; the discussions we had were engaging, informative and enlightening, and I generally found the whole thing to be an incredibly worthwhile experience. Knowing that there's so many real people out there who''ll give up a Saturday to hang out and talk about how we can improve the whole software development process is genuinely inspiring, and I'm hoping to see you again at one .NET event or another over the coming months.

The session on improving the developer community, in particular, had some really great ideas. In particular,  Zi suggested one-off afternoons or days of "pair programming" - employers and security permitting, inviting another member of the .NET circle to spend an afternoon working with you on something you're doing, and vice versa. Given that, at any given point, I think most of us are normally working at a level slightly beyond our comfort zone (that's what keeps it challenging, right? - or is that just me...?), I think this would be a great way to share knowledge, develop skills and generally improve as developers. I'm looking forward to seeing if we can make something like this happen, and I'd be interested to hear from anyone out there who's done anything similar.

Finally - on a purely practical geek note, next time we do this, can I suggest we transpose the rows and columns on the planning board?

This (which is what we did)

  Track A Track B Track C Track D
09:30-10:30        
11:30-13:00        
14:00-15:30        
16:00-17:00        

means you've always got at least four people trying to see the entire width of the wall (that's what's going on in the photo above...), whereas if we'd done it this way round...

  09:30-10:30 11:30-13:00 14:00-15:30 16:00-17:00
Track A        
Track B        
Track C        
Track D        

everyone starts at the left - where they can see all four choices for the 09:30 session - looks up & down, picks their first track, moves to the right, picks their second, and it all just unfolds a lot more... elegantly :)

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