A day of Stack Overflow

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Posted at 23:00 on 28 October 2009

Half a dozen or so of us from work were at the London Stack Overflow Dev Days event with several hundred other developers today. I’ve been pretty impressed with the way Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky’s enterprise has turned out to be such a resounding success, and I’ve also been an avid reader of Jeff’s blog, Coding Horror, for several years now, so I was naturally delighted to get the opportunity to go.

Encountering Joel and Jeff in real life was an interesting experience, since I’ve only ever read their blogs and Twitter feeds up to now. Over the past year or so, I’ve had to get used to seeing certain people in real life that most people only ever see on TV or on the Internet, but it still seems a bit odd when you do. It certainly gives you a totally different impression of them from what you had before though. You can certainly see why Joel and Jeff in particular are both so successful in what they do: as well as being excellent online communicators, they are both brilliantly engaging and entertaining public speakers. So too was Jon Skeet, who gave a very funny talk about localisation entitled “Humanity: Epic Fail,” assisted by a sock puppet called Tony the Pony. Joel’s talk on FogBugz was a pretty hard sell, but it certainly looks impressive, boasting a feature set that makes Trac look like Notepad.

The other talks included an introduction to Python by Michael Sparks of the BBC, who explained to us Peter Norvig’s 21 line spelling corrector (it didn’t escape my attention that Jon Skeet spent the lunch break porting it to C#); introductions to mobile development for no less than three rival platforms (Google Android by Reto Meir, iPhone by Phil Nash, and Qt/Nokia by Pekka Kosonen); introductions to jQuery (Remy Sharp) and Yahoo! Developer Tools (Christian Heilmann); and an academic talk on “How not to design a scripting language” by Paul Biggar, who recommended the book “Engineering a Compiler,” by Cooper and Torczon as a superior alternative to the Dragon Book.

I spoke to Jeff during the afternoon break and asked him if he had any plans to publish the best of Coding Horror in a book. He said he’d thought about it a bit, but wasn’t entirely convinced it was worth doing. It’s something I’ve recently thought that he’d do well to do—a lot of his posts are ones I’d consider “must-reads” for every working developer, and if he did, I’d buy it in a shot. He wouldn’t be the first person to do something like that either—after all, Joel did it (twice), and so did Raymond Chen. It was interesting what he asked me when I told him I work for Parliament—he was most interested to know whether Britain is part of Europe or not. It’s a good question, that. Officially we are, but unofficially I sometimes think that as a country, we’re not entirely sure ourselves.

There were just two disappointments to the day. One was the catering. I was half expecting something along the lines of a buffet lunch—after all, I do tend to think of the Fog Creek Way as one where they go the extra mile to get these things perfect—but it turned out to be the kind of mass produced sandwiches that you get in a motorway service station that are all ridiculously overpriced, taste exactly the same as each other, and don’t meet with my approval anyway because they’re spread up with margarine. The other disappointment was the venue itself. Kensington town hall simply is not big enough for however many of us (800? 1000?) were there today. Consequently it felt very crowded and claustrophobic, and even a little bit uncomfortable, especially during the breaks when we all crowded into the foyer and had to form a queue stretching seemingly all the way to Barking and back to get to the food.

The day ended at about ten past six and I came away with a whole lot of freebies: a Qt rucksack, a copy of the Aardvark’d DVD, a handful of FogBugz pens, and a handful of Stack Overflow, Server Fault and Superuser stickers. All in all, it was a pretty full day (I had to get up half an hour earlier than usual and I got home an hour and a half later than usual, and sitting through seven hours of talks was pretty intense) but it was well worth it.