Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Philly Emerging Tech Conference: Day One

Today, I attended the first half of the Philly Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference down in Center City. This was a very good conference and I look forward to attending the second half tomorrow! Here's what I took in from the talks I attended.

Keynote Address - Self Engineering

by Chad Fowler

The conference started with a surprise visit from the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter(!!). Following the mayor was Chad Fowler, who talked about applying software development principles to improving your own life. One interesting thing he discussed was what's called a "QFD" (quality function deployment) graph, which is a technique for converting non-quantifiable requirements into quantifiable requirements. The example he gave was making a good cookie. Customers might say that they want a cookie that "tastes good", "has good texture", and "is cheap". These are all valid requirements, but completely non-quantifiable! What exactly makes a cookie "taste good"? More sugar? More chocolate? How much more? A QFD helps to break these requirements down into hard numbers.

Javascript, Programming Style, and Your Brain

by Douglas Crockford

This is the guy that wrote the excellent book, "JavaScript: The Good Parts", which contains insightful techniques for writing good Javascript code. He's also the author of JSLint, an online tool that helps to improve Javascript code. His talk was about Javascript and what to avoid doing when coding in the language. For instance, you should never use the "with" statement because it acts in unpredictable ways under certain circumstances. He also suggests never using the "switch" statement, since it's easy for a programmer to forget to include the "break" keyword inside of a "case" block.

Also, he says you should always put your opening curly braces on the same line to the right instead of on the next line to the left. In most languages, this issue is simply a matter of programmer taste and does not effect the actual behavior of the program. But in Javascript, there's one situation where it does have consequences:

return {


These two return statements both seem to do the same thing--return an inline object. But in fact, only the top example does this! The reason is that, since semi-colons are optional, Javascript auto-inserts a semicolon after the return keyword in the bottom example, causing it to exit the function and return nothing. It completely ignores the object that's defined below it (it won't even throw an error message). So, if you always put your curly braces on the right, you'll never have to worry about this quirk.

Java EE in the Cloud

by Gordon Dickens

In his talk, Gordon compared and contrasted a number of cloud-based JavaEE services. These services allow you to quickly deploy JavaEE web applications to the Internet and customize what kind of back-end software you want to use. For example, one cloud service he demoed lets you choose what database and web container you want to use.

In response to hearing some buzz about Java 7 being "cloud ready", Gordon did a close investigation of the current source code of JavaEE 7. He couldn't find anything substantial that was really worthy of that description. He said that Oracle intends to release JavaEE 7 during the third quarter of this year no matter what, and that anything that doesn't make it into version 7 will be pushed back to version 8.

SQL? NoSQL? NewSQL?!? What's a Java developer to do?

by Chris Richardson

This talk was after lunch, so I was a little sleepy, but I did my best to pay attention. Chris compared and contrasted three next-generation databases: MongoDB, Apache Cassandra, and VaultDB.

MongoDB is a document-oriented, NoSQL database. Every record in the database is a JSON object. Queries are pretty straight-forward--just pass the database a JSON object that has what you're looking for in it. Inserting data into MongoDB is fast because you don't have to wait for a response from the server when you send it commands. However, a downside is that it doesn't support ACID (i.e. transactions) like relational databases do. It's used by a number of large companies, such as bit.ly.

Apache Cassandra is another NoSQL database. However, it is column-oriented, instead of document-oriented like MongoDB. This means that a Cassandra database is basically one big hash map. Each record has a key and a value. The key can be anything (it doesn't have to be a number) and the value can also be anything. Chris said that this database is good for logging purposes because it can quickly ingest data. Netflix and Facebook both use this database.

VaultDB is known as a NewSQL database. From what I gathered from Chris' talk, it's basically just a relational database that resides completely in memory. It writes the database to disk like once an hour or something so it can be recovered if it crashes. A downside is that the API it uses is proprietary and still a work in progress. It has limited JDBC support.

Chris gave a good piece of advice for startup companies that are having trouble deciding what kind of database to use. You might be tempted to use one of these next generation databases because, as a startup, you're starting from scratch and don't have to do any sort of migration work that an established company running a relational database would have to do. However, the advantages that NoSQL and NewSQL databases bring to the table--namely speed and scalability--aren't things you really need as a new business. Since you're a small company, you don't have very many customers, so neither speed nor scalability is really an issue. In fact, you could probably hit the ground running much faster with a relational database because its tools, software, and support are more mature.

How GitHub Works

by Scott Chacon

This talk was given by the CIO of GitHub, Scott Chacon. He described the workplace culture at GitHub.

  • Trust your employees - Your employees want to do a good job. Define what your expectations are, and they'll likely exceed them. Don't micro-manage.
  • No work hours - The traditional 9 to 5 work day is a relic from the industrial revolution long ago. Programming is largely a creative process and you can't effectively box it into a rigid schedule. If you're not being productive, then why are you at work? At GitHub, people work when they want to.
  • Headphones - If you're "in the zone" working on a programming problem, it can be hard to return to the zone after being interrupted. The rule that they have at the GitHub office is that, if you're wearing headphones, no one can interrupt you no matter what. They can send you an IM or an email, but they can't physically approach you at your desk.
  • The chat room is the office - Not all the employees are in a single building. Many are scattered all over the world, so they have a chat room that everyone uses for much of their communication.
  • Saying "No" - Scott talked about the importance of creating a culture where it's OK to say "No". This means that when people propose new ideas, their feelings aren't hurt if the idea is turned down by the team. It's important to establish this in order to encourage people to speak their minds without the fear of rejection and also to prevent bad ideas from being put into place and harming the company.

The Evolution of CSS Layout: Through CSS 3 and Beyond

by Elika J. Etemad

Elika is a member of the W3C CSS Working Group, so it was interesting to get a "behind-the-scenes" look as to how these specifications evolve. Elika started by giving a brief history of CSS and then gave a preview as to what can be expected in the future. She says that standardizing the rules for how elements are positioned on the page is the most complicated part because of all the various layout algorithms that are involved.

As to their interaction with Micro$oft, she said that they are productive, contributing members to the standardization process. Their involvement was lackluster during the long rule of IE6, but improved with the release of IE7.

Before Elika joined as a full-time employee, she was a dedicated member of the mailing list and an avid submitter of browser bugs. After several years of involvement, they offered her a job! It just goes to show that when the W3C says they are open to input from the community, they really mean it!

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