Bath Ruby Conference 2015

Friday, 13th March a small cadre of developers from the the Money Advice Service development team traveled to historic Bath to attend the first annual Bath Ruby conference.

Organised by Simon Starr the conference was held in the beautiful chandelier-lit Assembly Rooms, generously donated to the conference by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This is the first year for Bath Ruby and as a homegrown conference it attracted 500 attendees, selling out completely. With six main speakers and two sets of lightning talks there was a lot of food for thought, and we left Bath on the Saturday inspired.

As a developer it is easy to get smothered by deadlines, complex feature requests, and the constant challenge of keeping up to date with the industry. However, it is useful to take a step back and remember what we do as engineers, and to be reinvigorated by how other developers are using their skills, outside of our own specific projects to, in the words of one speaker, “create worlds”.

At Bath Ruby two specific talks by Linda Luikas and Saron Yitbarek, helped to highlight both of these points, and I’d like to talk about them briefly.

Linda Liukas – Principles of Play

Linda Liukas is most recently known in the Ruby community for successfully kickstarting the book, Hello Ruby. Hello Ruby teaches children up to age eight how to write code and understand the basics of computer science. In her talk Linda spoke about what we do as developers, but she spoke about it from a different perspective.

She spoke about the “principles of play” and how we can look at learning to code and the disciple as a whole as an “experience that goes beyond just learning logic”, an experience that involves curiosity, joy and wonder. She underlined that if we are to encourage a new, and perhaps more diverse community we should start with teaching from the same perspective that children explore other creative endeavours, namely curiosity.

Conference talks can often take the shape of instructional tutorials on an interesting aspect of a programming language. I, however, have always enjoyed inspirational over instructional talks as they often leave you intrigued and ready to tackle a new challenge when you return to work. Linda’s talk stood out as a refreshing reminder for why many developers (myself included) changed careers from something dry (developer pun intended) and lacking creativity and into development. I made the move from corporate law into frontend development because I had a need to be creative that was not being addressed printing out template contracts and wrestling the Chinese government. It turned out to be the best decision I have made, and so I resonated with Linda’s explanation of how we harness curiosity and the desire to build in encouraging future developers.

Additionally, in an often busy development team who are scrambling to develop features and to complete user stories, it is easy to forget that we are not simply applying programmatic logic to a user need but we are being given the opportunity to “build worlds with our words”. I think this is important to reflect on.

Saron Yitbarek – Learning Code Good

Similarly, Saron Yitbarek spoke on how we as developers progress from curious newcomer to established expert. Her talk, “Learning Code Good” outlined how even intensive programming courses (eight weeks from nothing to computer science guru) often lack the depth of knowledge required to take a fledgling developer from curious hacker to effective (and employed) and working on complex features.

This is not a surprise. My own experience moving from casually tinkering with HTML and CSS (in an attempt to help a friend of the family develop a small website) to building products for the Money Advice Service taught me that knowing how to code is the very first rung on a very tall ladder. Whether it is understanding the concept of an Agile development team or being part of immersive user-testing, there is always something new to learn and grapple with.

In her attempt to move from eager newcomer to expert Saron utilised her fellow students and knowledgable friends in her now well known Code Clubs. Small groups that come together to review code, pick it apart and see how it works. Saron emphasised the importance of sharing our knowledge, and how much we can learn from digging into a codebase and talking about what we find with those around us.

Personally, I have learnt a tremendous amount from reviewing the code of the Ruby developers I work with and trying to understand what a line does, is trying to do, and why it would be written as it is. Furthermore the Frontend Team at the Money Advice Service regularly get together to share knowledge and to hack at a problem together and this has helped me become a better developer and see programming problems from a different perspective.

While keeping up to date with the fast moving tech industry can seem daunting (to give one excessive example, JavaScript frameworks…) Saron reminded me how it can be both manageable and enjoyable when done with friends and colleagues.

Sidenote: Codebar

Along with the main speakers and various interesting lightning talks given by members of the audience it was good to see Kriszta, Dorothy, Jarkyn and Rosa speak about Codebar.

Codebar organises workshops for people currently underrepresented in the tech industry. We got to hear from Jarkyn, a former student (now regularly coaching other students) how formative the workshops had been in her development. Having learnt a considerable amount from the experienced programmers I work with I understood the conviction she spoke with. I felt that this built upon Saron’s earlier talk on how we learn and showcased the merits of Codebar and their pursuit of helping those who would not normally dabble in programming.

The Money Advice Service has hosted two Codebar workshops in the past. We hope to host many more and to continue to support increased diversity amongst developers in our industry, as we learn and help others learn.

Closing thoughts

Trent Walton, one of the founders of Paravel wrote the following in an article on unitasking. It is a quote that I am fond of and I think it rings true as a way to sum up my thoughts in this post.

“Stop. Pull everything together into a single stack, take a breath, and enjoy the work. *We’re not tarring roofs in 100° heat. We get to build for the web, and life is wonderful*.”

As developers we are regularly faced with challenges. Whether it is as simple as how to keep up to date or whether it is as complex as balancing user need with business goals. Linda Luikas and Saron Yitbarek both reminded me that neither of these challenges need to be too daunting and that we must remember why we decided to build worlds with our words. After all “we get to build for the web, and life is wonderful.”

This post also appears on my website.

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