Jumping Off the Bandwagon

Part of the Reflections on That Conference 2013 series.

Historically, the conferences that I have attended and spoken at had narrow focuses and a homogeneous group of attendees. RailsConf, Fluent, Mile High Agile, Ruby on Ales — each is a great conference that brings together like minded people. This is useful when your work is anchored to a given technology; networking with other people using the same technologies gives you a chance to learn tips and tricks that are immediately actionable.

What I was missing was the bigger picture. I knew how Rubyists thought, how JavaScripters worked, how Agile gurus preached, but I was lacking external points of reference by which I could fairly evaluate the actual value and validity of the presented ideas.

If you ever want to get a laugh at a Ruby conference, it’s pretty easy: just drop in a derogatory joke about Java or Microsoft and you’ll have them rolling in the aisles. For a lot of Ruby developers that came from .Net or Java backgrounds, this is probably cathartic. For me, a kid that had only dabbled in a bit of PHP before finding a living wage with Rails, I didn’t actually have any context that would enable me to qualify the pros and cons of working in a Java environment vs. a Ruby environment.

I laughed for a different reason. I laughed because I was enamored with the naive notion that I had haphazardly fallen into the “best technology”. Somehow I had been exonerated from my lack of Computer Science fundamentals, from the fact that I’d studied music in school rather than programming. After all, CS majors learned to code in Java, and Java was for suckers, right? The laughing faces surrounding me assured me that I was right.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I held onto this thinking for quite a while. When the people you work with, hang out with, attend meet-ups with and engage at conferences with all think the same as you do, the ideas survive unevaluated and the dogma is reinforced. Clearly this is not the case for the entire Ruby community, nor the majority, but I certainly have worked and consulted in environments where the Cult of Ruby was strong.

Enter That Conference

Walking into That Conference for the first time was like a fresh breath of exotic air. For the first time, I was in the tech minority. For once, the number of glowing white Apple logos in the room was dwarfed by armies of black Lenovo laptops and ThinkPads. Java and .Net developers were everywhere!

What’s more, these people were really smart! Some of them even seemed happy! They were building systems and value in the Real World, solving problems the best way they knew how given the tool sets they had available to them. Sure, I heard plenty of griping and complaining from these people about their environments as well, but now I was hearing it from people that were actually working in that space, rather than from someone pitching the latest greatest open source tech.

This admittedly limited exposure to “the other side” at That Conference has still given me enough genuine context to double down on some of my opinions, while easing up on others. For example, I had always been a card-carrying member of the anti-Eclipse, anti-VisualStudio club, despite having never used either. My first real experiences happened at this conference as I paired with developers, helping them install and run Node.js on their PCs. I found out first-hand how much of a crutch these IDEs can be to developers, potentially rendering them helpless when they couldn’t find a Node.js plugin for VisualStudio.

On the other hand, I was surprised to meet members of teams that had wildly different processes than I was familiar with and were seeing effective production and successful deliveries. There were teams doing Waterfall. Waterfall, for godsakes! The cargo-culting agilist inside me was running for the hills. Yet as I engaged these intelligent individuals, I quickly learned they weren’t masochists; rather, they were in environments and situations where the less sexy strategies were still proving efficient.

These conversations are the most valuable part of That Conference for me, they help keep me grounded in the reality that we’re all in this together. Different tools, same problems. Different paths, same aspirations. Different domains, but the same love of the creative process.

What have you learned lately from someone outside your bubble?

About Me

Chris Powers

Chris Powers has been developing Web applications for the last ten years. He strongly believes in the power technology has to bring people together and enjoys developing platforms that empower the user. Currenty Chris is a senior engineering manager at Groupon and lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. In his free time he enjoys drumming, tabletop gaming and homebrewing.

Contact Info

Email: chrisjpowers@gmail.com

Twitter: @chrisjpowers