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Socrates 2014 unconference in the UK

June 17th, 2014 2 comments

I was at the Socrates unconference at the end of last week. An unconference is a conference with no prearranged speakers, the attendees turn up and some of them volunteer to talk about a topic of their choosing on the day. The talks were structured as half a dozen parallel sessions of an hour each in rooms dotted around two different buildings.

I had previously been to half a dozen or so of the London Software Craftsmanship meetups (there is a large overlap in the organizers of the two groups) and thought I had some understanding of how the community went about building software engineering knowledge. At the end of the first day this understanding underwent a major revamp (the arts and craft movement struck me as something of a parallel).

Based on the experience of one meeting I would say that the Socrates’ community approach to achieving the goals laid out in the Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship (as exemplified by those present at unconference) is primarily a social one based on personal experiences and shared experiences communicated through meetings and pair programming (yes, pair programming).

A great deal of pair programming was constantly going on and a person’s recent experience of pairing with somebody-or-other was a perfectly natural topic to bring up in casual conversation. I have never seen this kind of widespread community practice of interaction on a detailed before; I think it is great and I hope it spreads.

I volunteered to talk Friday morning about “When is it worth investing in reducing maintenance costs?” (I now have more data than used in my blog post on the topic). The talk did not go well in the sense that while people appeared to understood the analysis they did not seem to understand why anybody would want to use the decision making approach proposed. I got the same impression from people who asked me about the topic during food breaks (I had given a lightening talk Thursday evening with about half the attendees present).

The argument I made was that improving software is an investment intended to reduce future maintenance activities; like all investments the person making it wants receive a worthwhile return on the risk they are taking. The talk derived a requirement on the investment/benefit ratio needed for a code improvement activity to at least break even.

Now I am not always the world’s greatest communicator, so peoples’ lack of understanding may have been down to poor presentation on my part. But, in the evening, thinking about everything I had seen during the day I realised that my proposal for driving code improvement decisions using an economic model ran counter to the spirit of software craftsmanship as practiced by those present. This is not to say that the software craftsman are anti-economics, but that they want to be proud of their work and require that it meet certain personal and community standards, which may mean being less than economically efficient in some cases. At your average developer conference I would have expected zero interest, but here I had made the mistake of underestimating the strong craft influence and the socially derived approach (rather than trying to use experimental evidence) to finding solutions to software engineering problems.

There were a handful of people at the meeting interested in working towards a scientific approach to obtaining solutions to software engineering problems, i.e., using evidence derived from experiments. At one of the sessions a small group of us talked about how the software craftsman community might help researchers interested in experimental research (perhaps by helping to find professional subjects or by being willing to spend time discussing industry problems). I made my usual appeal for data that could be made public.

I suspect that many software craftsman would be interested in monitoring their own performance and that it would be worthwhile providing pointers to tools and techniques that might be used. Watch this space for progress.

The most interesting session I went to was by Steve Hayes who talked about his experience of starting and running a transparent company (this involves making information that companies usually keep confidential, such as employee, public). I had read about such companies before but this was my first encounter with somebody who had done it in practice.

The event appeared to run itself very smoothly, probably as much due to the invisible hard work of the organizers as much as the more visible attendee work. I would recommend the host venue, Farncombe conference centre, to anyone wanting to run a conference with lots of breakout rooms and social spaces. The food was high quality and artistically presented, demanding that both desserts on the menu be consumed.

Anybody who is in a rush to experience a Socrates unconference can visit Germany in August (a contingent from the UK are already booked).