Wednesday, October 20, 2010

At SCNA: Part 1

This is the first post in a multi-part series.  The conference covered two days, with many presentations, lightning talks, and conversations about software craftsmanship.

This may have been the best conference I have attended.  I found nearly all of the speakers interesting, and the conversations I had between sessions were at least as valuable as the sessions themselves.  It has provided me with a lot of food for thought, that I will comment more on later.

Here is a summary of Day 1, and what I took away from it.  Note that the topics may differ from what the presenters actually put on the screen.

"Uncle" Bob Martin: The Failure of State
Uncle Bob's talk centered on the need for functional programming.  The thrust of it was that most (and perhaps all) OO languages are all about state.  You can modify the state of an object externally through public methods.  You check the state to determine what operations have already been performed, etc.

Functional languages are different.  You can still do "stateful" things in them, but they make it easy to take an input object, transform a copy of it, and return the copy.

So what is so bad about state?  Well, according to Uncle Bob, the breakdown of Moore's law.  Processor speeds have tailed off in the last 5 years.  Instead of doubling every 18 months like they did through the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, they have been pretty much flat.

What has changed is that both memory and processor cores have become dirt cheap.  Instead of running all of our operations in a single thread through one processor, we can get more out of our computing hardware by running them through multiple cores in parallel.  Coupled to this is cheap memory - you can make copies of your information and not have to worry that you'll run out of RAM (within reasonable limits).

What all of this means is that you can get a lot more done if your program doesn't depend on the state of it's objects.  Local variables are no problem, as long as you don't depend on any fields across more than one method.

What this means for testing, I'm not sure of.  I really need to play with some functional languages to get a handle on this paradigm.

This was one of my favorite talks of the conference.  My only complaint is that I would have liked him to keep going for another hour.

Doug Bradbury: What is Craftsmanship (and the Bible)
The central argument of this talk was that software development is a craft.  We're following our creative impulses and making something new every time we code.

The other central argument was that religion informs our craft, and is an important part of being a developer.  I don't think that was Mr. Bradbury's point, but it was heavy on bible quotes and even after 12 years of Catholic school, I thought it wandered away from the central topic of software craftsmanship.

While I laud Bradbury for his courage in presenting an overtly religious view to a largely atheist audience, I don't think it was the right forum for him to make that kind of point.

Michael Norton: Medicine, Programming and Licensing
Norton gave a fairly lively talk on the history of medicine, as well as the challenges and solutions that profession has worked through.  For medicine, it boils down to:
  • Both general and specialized education.  The medical profession requires practitioners to have a broad base of Biology and Physiology, but also have gone through a more general undergraduate program.
  • Hands-on practice in a clinical setting.  Docs must go through a variety of "clinicals", which are more like an apprenticeship than a classroom.  They watch someone who knows what they are doing through years of practice, and slowly are allowed to take a more hands-on approach.
  • Licensing.  Medical practitioners have to pass board exams if they are going to specialize at all.  (And probably if not - I'll have to ask some of my doctor friends if a GP has to pass boards.)
  • Certification.  Practitioners have to have a certain number of hours (I think that a friend of mine said 150 hours for his specialty every 2-3 years) of time in seminars and related activities to keep their license.
Norton never came out and said that we should do the same things in software development, and I saw his response to at least one tweet stating that his aim was to provoke more debate on the subject. 

It's certainly worth thinking about.  I don't want to have to be licensed, but the state of certifications in our profession is positively awful.  What should we do about it?

 To be continued...