Monday, 26 November 2007

DDD6 at Microsoft Campus, Reading

On Saturday, I attended the sixth Developer! Developer! Developer! day on the Microsoft Campus at Reading.

Ordinarily, I'd have posted a rave review late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, but in truth I've found it harder to write about the event this time around, as I'm wondering if the bi-annual event has become subject to 'the law of diminishing returns'.

It's a few years on from the first DDD and we're now in a new world with many disparate 'community' user groups, all doing their own thing in addition to DDD, and I can't help thinking that maybe too many of the core people - those who are left anyway - are being stretched a little too thin?

On the plus side: taking a day out from a way-too-hectic study/work schedule travelling down to Reading on the train for a bargain price of £13 (with food, drink and even buses to the station provided by the event sponsors free of charge) was worth it. So far, so good!

The main strengths of that original event remain: it's community-lead; it's free; it gives a good opportunity to network; and it takes place at a time when work can't (or shouldn't) preclude attendance. So why aren't I rushing to recommend the next planned event to co-workers, the way I was after DDD1 and DD2?

The big advantage of the first DDD event, as opposed to the more traditional MSDN-styled 'free' one-day events from Microsoft staff that had preceded it, albeit on days that necessitated losing a day's pay, was that none of the talks or presentations resorted to 'marketing future products' and featuring 'canned demos' designed to 'sell' the product at the expense of hiding sometimes quite catastrophic flaws. DDD1 sessions I attended offered some genuinely useful 'at the coalface' information, usually delivered by extremely knowledgeable and passionate experts. When looking at new technologies one needs to know about the pitfalls and problems, not have them swept under the carpet, and I thought it was impressive that Microsoft provided the facilities for community members to give that information to attendees on their premises.

Admittedly, at times, it seemed a little odd that Microsoft should be supporting talks on 'Open Source' products that competed with Microsoft products, but to their credit they seemed to realise that being more open with a community that earnt most of its money working with Microsoft technologies could only be a good thing.

Looking at the list of those whose talks I attended at the first couple of DDD events, and those who talked at the sixth it's noticeable that most of the speakers I'd really rated didn't seem to be in attendance this time around, with Guy Smith-Ferrier perhaps being the exception to the rule. Was it mere coincidence that his session, even though it was on a product - "Astoria" - that is some way away from becoming 'real world', was light years ahead of any other I attended that day? Guy's talk was educational AND entertaining, and although a speaker can get away with being just one of these things, he/she does need to have some real depth of knowledge in the subject they're talking about. Alas, too many speakers failed to be entertaining and educational and knowledgeable. Anybody can download source code from Codeplex and incorrectly cut and paste parts of it into a project that won't then work as intended for 60 minutes! Guy's Grok Talk, which was bravely given in Pecha Kucha format (named by two Japanese folks who 'invented' the format of talks limited to 20 slides, with each timed to auto-display for just 20 seconds at a time before moving on to the next) was also the best of the Grok talks. This was no mean feat as, unlike the more formal, hour-long sessions I attended, the Grok talks were all pretty good.

So... this time around I'm not going to blog one-by-one about the presentations I attended and the technical contents of each. I've learnt the hard way that publicly critiquing presentations wins you no friends and can win you a lot of enemies (despite assurances from presenters that they just want 'genuine feedback'), even if it's restricted to feedback forms or email that only the individual directly involved can see!

Part of me did wonder if I was just being a little too 'half glass empty' - something I'm admittedly prone to, although I prefer the term 'gloomy optimist' - about the event, but the evidence of overheard comments on the bus back to the station, and feedback from former work colleagues in the breaks seems to indicate that my overall feelings were pretty typical. Admittedly, a few years spent in technical marketing and then two years delivering technical courses full-time, albeit more than 10 years ago now, means I DO tend to be more critical about presentations and talks than most. And after all there are quite a few blogs full of the usual enthusiastic, if somewhat bland and even at times rather incestuous, praise. But these blogs all seem to come from the same crowd one sees at every user group event and geek dinner - how typical are they of the 'average developer', at whom presumably the event is aimed?

It was interesting this time around to see several former work colleagues at DDD6 who aren't part of the core of people one tends to keep seeing at user group and Microsoft events. One of those former colleagues left at lunchtime, expressing disappointment in the two sessions he'd given up his Saturday to attend, although the early departure may have been his intention from the start - unfortunately I didn't get a chance to ask. A couple of others agreed that the quality of the talks they'd attended had been disappointing or not lived up to the short, advertised description, leading me to think my experience was not that untypical.

This all seemed in marked contrast to the heady praise everyone I spoke to after DDD 1 had about the event. This is feedback from what I call the 'average' developer - ie someone who doesn't typically have a blog or live on Twitter - someone who's too busy at the coal face or - God forbid! - having a life to get directly involved in 'community'. But aren't they exactly the sort of people who need to be engaged by both 'the community' and Microsoft?

So, while it was good to catch up with a bunch of folks I hadn't seen for a while, and to get the big picture on some of the stuff headed our way next year (or the year after), for me this felt too much like one of the bad old MSDN events of old - too much superficial technical content; too many poorly rehearsed, or even poorly understood, demo's that weren't very exciting to behold; and too many sessions which I felt just told the 'Microsoft Marketing' story as opposed to the one I need to better understand the technology and its applicability in solutions I might need to develop in my job.

I wanted to leave DDD6 feeling the same way I did leaving DDD1 and DDD2, but that didn't really happen. Instead I left somewhat frustrated at what I felt was too often a wasted opportunity. And wasted owing to far too much complacency on the part of those responsible for giving most of the sessions. I guess I need to find a subject I feel I can talk authoritively about at the next event!


Francis said...

Hi Ian, as a first timer at DDD I'd say that Guy Ferrier Smith was my best full session too (unfortunately I had some "real world" stuff to sort out on the phone at lunch and missed the grok talks). James Winters on the ADO.NET entity layer was also very good. My other two speakers were slightly ordinary.

Craig said...

Ian - this is good feedback, thank you.

Guy Smith-Ferrier said...


Thanks for taking the time to make your perspective clear. You make some good points.

Also thanks for your feedback on my presentations. I'm glad you liked them. As always it seems to be a mutual thing that when an audience enjoys the presentation so does the presenter. I had a great time.

I look forward to reading what you think of DDD7.


Ian said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

Francis - Hopefully you'll attend DDD7 and experience some better than 'slightly ordinary' speakers.

Craig - Thanks. I try to keep it honest.

Guy - Thank you. Great talk on a difficult 'bleeding edge' subject ("Astoria") and the grok talk was good fun too. BTW I bought your "Internationalisation" book at DDD6 and read parts of it on the train journey home. I wish I'd had this book 6 months ago. Excellent in-depth stuff on a subject that doesn't get enough good coverage.