by Ben Hall
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
Communication is a big deal. It drives everything we do. We communicate with everyone and everything we come into contact with one way or another. And working in the design industry, like Accent does, means we have to constantly remind ourselves that communication is (and downright has to be) our indisputable bag. We’re committed to what we do. As I took in some of the many workshops, presentations, and talks that made up the Norfolk Developers Conference (NorDevCon) last week my overriding ‘take home’ were that the developer community in Norwich & Norfolk were equally committed. And also, there’s no substitute to good communication between team members and the community as a whole.
The conference itself was born out of commitment. It’s inception was a natural extension of the NorDev group which was started by Paul Greyner of Naked Element several years ago to bring together what was, at the time, a slightly introverted but capable group of developers in the local area. Now the conference is attracting over 400 attendees from far & wide to the King’s Centre in Norwich every February. The venue itself was, for the most part, extremely comfortable. Though the sheer number of people moving around some of it’s tight corridors had it’s moments of Harry Potter film-esque mild peril.
On a personal note, as an Open University student I am very familiar with the King’s Centre as it’s where i’ve sat a number of exams. So it was actually nice to take in the venue without the need for nervous last minute cramming in the cafe, 3 hours of writing Java code with a pen and paper, or being overwhelmed by an endless stream of fussy exam invigilators.
The main auditorium rang out to the thunderous, surprising, and not wholly unwelcome sound of Slayer as the organisers and sponsors took to the stage to open the conference proper on the Friday morning. Clumsy theatrics aside, I like to think it may have led to a couple of the many pleasingly present 6th Form students in attendance to reach for their Spotify searches. To kick-off, the Florida-based developer Michael Feathers delivered an understated but compelling keynote presentation on the challenges of managing large code bases that are associated with complex software projects.
The keynotes were undoubtedly a highlight of the conference amongst the Accent attendees. They struck a great balance between imparting practical techniques to the actual coders on the team and informing managers on the best direction to take when faced by a constantly changing tech landscape. The best example of this was the end-of-day presentation given by Jon Jagger on Pair Programming, which is a unconventional concept that promotes the practice of coders working in pairs at a single keyboard. At first it’s an idea that seems a little esoteric but it has been proven to garner more code and more accurate code over a project’s timescale. It’s definitely a practice we wish to try in the future to see if it can benefit us.
The rest of the Friday morning was filled with the usual NorDevCon mix of tech presentations, business talks, and workshops across 5 different rooms in the King’s Centre. These included sessions on the state of Silicon Valley, forming start ups within bigger corporations, and how to improve your own individual productivity (essentially, ignore your email until you absolutely have to!).
A hearty buffet lunch afforded us all the chance to network and communicate (there’s that word again) with a high-class menagerie of software & web development specialists. The well attended wine reception and sit down meal in the evening were equally valuable experiences. Brains were indeed picked on diverse issues such as the legal obligations that apply when collaborating on certain projects and the framework of choice when developing for mobile apps, specifically Android.
The afternoon sessions included such tech-based highlights as presentations from conference favourite Jon Skeet on immutability and a barefooted Pete Goodliffe condensing a 2 hour talk on ‘Becoming a Better Programmer’ into a breathless 40 minute time slot. And as the Friday agenda came to a close a few of the Accent team took in what was widely agreed to be the ‘hidden gem’ of the conference when Cambridge-based psychologist Karina Palyutina gave an engrossing and humorous session on ‘Developing for Emotions’ by utilising reward loops to increase user engagement in your applications. It triggered some fascinating discussions/disagreements both during the session and after with regard to where, as designers & developers, we should draw the ethical line when using these manipulating techniques. The debate is still raging amongst the team.
This idea of the effects of getting users ‘hooked’ led unexpectedly well into the penultimate session of the day which was the sponsor’s presentation by Axon Vibe. The company are currently working on a mobile application called Sojo which will work in a similar way to digital assistants like Siri or Cortana. The key difference is that it will learn your habits and use location data to guide you to points of interest that it thinks you might like. More of a digital buddy than assistant. The talk began strongly as it laid bare the growing issue of users becoming increasing more ‘hooked’, even ‘addicted’, to their mobile devices to the detriment of their personal relationships and being ‘present’. Unfortunately, the session quickly descended into a thinly veiled sales pitch that it was firmly stated by the presenter not to be at it’s commencement. To sum up, based on what was presented, the jury is out on whether an app built on suggestions that could very easily become more focussed on “carefully selected partners” (ie. adverts) than user preferences will just not end up being more intrusive than the current constant screen squinting status quo. This session, although thought provoking and polished, was just a tiny bit incongruous with the rest of the conference’s agenda which firmly promoted engaging users through intuitive design backed up by functionality built using rock solid and progressive development practices.
As if a packed Friday wasn’t enough the conference continued on the Saturday morning. Albeit there may have been a couple of heavier heads among the attendees the morning after the wine reception and dinner the night before. There was yet another great keynote from Richard Astbury with a shamelessly “this is brand new!” look at programming languages that are beginning to gain adoption in the industry. Another highlight was a concise yet surprisingly exhaustive presentation given by Paul Lammertsma on the state of play in the Android wearables market. He also took a great full-day workshop on developing for Android devices on the Thursday.
NorDevCon, and the NorDev group as a whole, continues to provide a great lineup of presenters and sessions. The knowledge we garner from these events is invaluable and we’ve always come leaping back into the studio even more energised than before.