Super Mondays: Lightning Talks

This month's Super Mondays showcased the speakers' dedications to their crafts, ranging from being a design student to creating your own automated lighting system.

It was a lot of talks on offer for this month’s Super Mondays, ranging from being a design student to creating your own automated lighting system. What came through loud and clear though was the dedication that the speakers had to their crafts (be they day jobs or insane hobbies). The level of cross-fertilisation was also apparent as speakers noted that they had given the talks at different user groups or even locations (hi, Refresh Teeside!)

Rails Girls

Fiona McDonald

Not many in the audience had heard of Rails Girls, much to Fiona McDonald’s surprise, as she’d done a local talk at a local Rails User Group not that long ago! So apparently there’s not much overlap between audiences. She talked about the Rails Girls initiative, a series of events which started in 2010 in Finland as has now taken place across the world.

As much as she’s aware of the arguments as to whether there should be female-only tech events, McDonald was impressed at how the women/girls were able to go in knowing nothing about Rails and come out two days later (the events happen over a weekend) having coded an app, using such helper tools as Bento Box.

I’m not entirely sure if I should detail all the benefits of why it’s worth getting involved (OK, a couple of the male mentors started relationships with the girls involved—and are still together today), but McDonald pointed out that we should be doing all we can to get diversity in the rails and more general tech community (she was happy that this wasn’t one of the events where she was the only girl in the room. Oh how I know that feeling).

Code Club

Kamran Chohdry

In a perfect segue from a question to McDonald about getting to girls in schools about coding, Kamran Chohdry spoke about Code Club (yet another person talking about what they do in their spare time).

Code Club has exploded as of late. Its aim is simple: to teach coding to children in primary schools age 9-11—before IT is actually taught in schools—and “get them beyond Microsoft office”. They’re taught Scratch, Hard Scratch, HTML/CSS, and basic Python respectively over the course of a year.

The Club are looking for devs who can volunteer. This involves committing to an hour a week (in the computer lab), a CRB check (the school will usually help—and it was pointed out by an audience member that STEMNET can help you do it for free), and potentially help set up the labs with Scratch or Python. It’s also worth asking as a parent/guardian if there’s a school or Running Club nearby.

As it turned out, an audience member’s son has used a Code Club programme, won a Rasberry Pi and is now planning to become a games developer!

And apparently this is the start of a wider sea change—programming is going to be taught from age 5 up, but there isn’t necessarily the capability in schools in order to teach it.

Git, Bitcoin & Matroyoshka Dolls

Chris Price

“Who uses Git? That’s a change from a few years ago.” There weren’t quite so many that used Bitcoin, or even knew what matroyoshka dolls were (until someone else called them Russian Dolls) but never mind.

His analogy was brilliant: the concept of nesting dolls is how potentially catastrophic changes (changing values in Bitcoin, commit changes in Github) are protected in their systems. Doug Belshaw also pointed the audience to check out trybtc.com to mess around with bitcoins.

From Student to Work

David Ingledow

“Use Github”. More generally, the key theme of David Ingledow’s talk was about how students need to not only capture but share the ideas (and code) they generate. Not that Github or Git was taught at uni. Still, in his discussion of transitioning from being a interaction design student (at Northumbria, yay) to a working designer at a startup, he reflected on after all of the collaboration, preparation, and late nights, it was all too easy for graduates to let their work die post grad show. And that was a pity.

On another note, I was interested to hear what it was like for a designer to move from uni to a startup. Ingledow loves it, thanks to the ‘all hands on deck’ attitude that is needed. Given the growing startup community in the NE, it could well be that more and more grads end up in a similar role as him. Hopefully they learn Git first.

Switching to Jekyll

Dan Richardson

Going from a former student to one that is still one (but did a summer placement), Dan Richardson discussed moving to the static generator Jekyll. Most people have heard about it in dev world (and that it’s based in Markdown), if you’ve used Shopify you’d have used the liquid HTML system.

The lack of database can have issues e.g. you need to use third party plugins like Disqus or Salesforce for comments and forms, and it’s obviously not great for things like GUI text additions. Still, it has a lot of potential, particularly when you can host a small site for free on Github Pages or very cheaply on Amazon AWS.

Some other options are Octopress and Nanoc.

The related blog post is available on the Canddi website and an audience member mentioned the 2010 post by Paul Stamatiou on moving from WordPress to Jekyll.

So much to learn

Ben Cooper

How do you keep going in a world of continuous innovation and Smashing Magazine articles? Ben Cooper (who emphatically calls himself stupid but I suspect the audience would disagree) gave some of his comments from his years of experience. He asked the audience to focus and continually think of your core skills (that old ‘jack of all trades’ mantra) rather than running frantically to learn frameworks and libraries that you don’t need and don’t understand the core code.

I personally don’t entirely agree with discarding superfluous frameworks. However, I do think that it does require an understanding of what you’re doing: e.g. playing with new languages is more of a sense of awareness or seeing if something is a ‘gateway drug’ to a new type of coding. Still, his call to avoid heedlessly following trends is savvy even in other areas such as design trends (flat design anyone?).

When it comes to actually being part of the community, Cooper took the opposite track and regaled people to share (blog/speak) and be enthusiastic: “passion trumps being smart”. Oh, and to to not rise to the trolls. (“Stackoverflow, I’m looking at you.”) In this respect, he reminded me of Wil Wheaton’s mantra “don’t be a dick” and the concept of having “strong ideas held weakly” (a trait that has often been attributed to experience design luminary Don Norman). Again, his concept of having focus or doing things your own way came through: he uses twitter but just as an RSS. Which is fine. But I love using it to share and help.

Home Automation

Steve Jenkins

“Why did I do this? Because I can. Because it’s cool”. With no real logical justification to make a “smart” lighting system (it’s inefficient in all ways) but a burning desire to do it anyway, Steve Jenkins set about buying a Lightwave RF (“It was available from B&Q”) and attempting to make a system to make sense of it. Luckily, he applied for and got access to the API, but it’s still very much a work in progress… and then went down a rabbit hole of ideas and various platforms and roundtripping.

Still, apparently Geofence works reasonably well (“though when my phone comes out of Airplane Mode every morning it gets confused”).

He’s keen to see what happens with SmartThings though. He looked at Lockitron “but I figured I’d wait and upgrade my house”. John McClaire did a similar project on Kickstarter.

The hours and time to date? About 2 days spread out over time (though “with very hacky code”) and about £400. And counting….

Has it made a difference? “Well, it’s made me more lazy”.

Of course, there are questions about proprietary software: there’s a horror story of a guy in IBM replicating his house in Second Life only for Japanese and American people to turn his lights off and on at 4am! He’s used his own server and the like so thinks he’s safe—and it’s only lights— though he dis ask people to “please don’t hack my house”.

If that doesn’t put people off doing it, they were directed to have a chat to Alistair and the local Maker Space….

The Trials and Tribulations of WYSIWYG Editors

Kerry Gallagher

“You’ve all used WYSIWYG editor. They’re mainly a joke right?” With that , Kerry Gallagher dissected a commonly hated aspect of CMS and HTML development. For those of use who have never actually rolled their own editor (me!), it was interesting to see what goes on behind it.

It turns out that editing comes down to one element: ‘contentiseditable’: which is surprisingly supported back to IE5.5!

Of course, it’s not that easy: there are some bugs between browsers, particularly with undo and redo (though there are changes to standardisation).

Mozilla’s Educational initiatives

Doug Belshaw (slides)

Wrapping up the night was Doug Belshaw of Mozilla. His first slide began with a werewolf picture from Mozfest. (Wait, is it a full moon out tonight?)

He spoke about three Mozilla Webmaker initiatives.

The Webmaker project is a fun project aiming to get people (particularly children) involved with making with the web rather than just consuming with it. The projects (X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Popcorn Maker) are fun and a subtle gateway drug into coding. I was involved with mentoring with these projects at the recent Maker Party here in Newcastle, see my notes of the day for more on the topic.

Belshaw’s pet project in Mozilla though is web digital literacy (which isn’t surprising, given he did a PhD thesis on the topic!). There are three competencies—exploring, building, and connecting—which Mozilla and the wider community are focusing on.

Finally, Mozilla are also pushing the concept of Open Badges (a means of showing learning and accreditation in a diffused way). The project is relatively mature with buy in from Disney amongst others.

And they’ll all be showcased at Mozfest (27-29 October in London).

Thoughts

There’s an argument that put enough of anything together and you’ll see a pattern (certainly Damian Hurst’s dotted pictures played on this conceit). Still, over the series of nine talks, I noticed an ongoing trend:

  • The need to evangelise, and the wider community support that this entails. There were no less than three talks about learning and teaching. Of these, McDonald’s struck me the most as she mentioned the struggle of pushing something forward such as teaching girls Ruby whilst holding down a full time job. (In fact, she wasn’t able to launch the event herself as she was moving to Barcelona). I wonder whether there does have to be organisational recognition for mentoring and furthering diversity. Should companies be enabling and even expecting their employees to further the tech community?
  • The importance of sharing. A few speakers touched on this, or demonstrated it: certainly Jenkins’ talk on home automation led to more than one glint in people’s eyes. It also reminds me of how people always know something or know about something more than someone else (again, a mentoring principle in that unless you’re an absolute beginner, there’s someone less experienced than you that you could help).
  • The cool stuff that’s going on. OK, that’s pretty obvious every month, but still.

Vicky Teinaki is a user experience designer at Newcastle upon Tyne agency Orange Bus. She is also working on a PhD at Northumbria University about better ways of communicating design methods within the design industry.