Life on the conference circuit

On Thursday November 1st, I left home on a very autumnal morning. It rained all night so the roads were at their worst. Got to Heathrow Airport for the BA flight to Sofia – no problem but I am still wondering why we had to sit over half an hour in the plane before taking off. Made it to Sofia without any other problem and left my luggage in my hotel – sorry I meant in the flat of the organizer of OpenFest, Marian Marinov and his wife Toni Marinova – Once again I stayed with this kind couple.

After setting up the O’Reilly table with the many books, I was invited to listen to a talk on GitHub by Brian Doll at the University of Sofia. It all started very well – I was learning fast and then catastrophe!  I lost it and once again I realise that technology is not for me. I did discover how GitHub make money but I am sure you are all aware of that so I will not bore you with the information. From there we went to one of the oldest restaurant of Sofia, wonderful local food in a very special setting.

The making of TUX

OpenFest has been going on for years – I believe since 2003 and has been growing ever since. This year there were more attendees than ever and it offered 6 or 8 talks in English – so OpenFest is becoming an international event with speakers from:

  • Germany – Harald Welte, famous for his work on the Linux kernel, GPL enforcement – see GPL-violations.org and Openmoko
  • Croatia – Tonimir Kišasondi, Junior researcher at Faculty of Organization and Informatics in Varazdin, Croatia and Vlatko Košturjak

I am always surprised to see how well our books are doing in Bulgaria when the average salaries are so low. I feel also sad that the books are not readily available and that not only do the book buyers have to pay a lot of tax but also the heavy cost of shipping.

GitHub invited everybody to a  “Rock Party” on Sunday night – probably not the right music for me but I thoroughly enjoyed the people and their enthusiasm to music, beer and peanuts. It was also nice to hear some typical Bulgarian songs among the heavy rock stuff.

This was my 6th visit to Bulgaria, I am very impressed to see how Sofia has changed during the  last 6 years. Of course the communist blocks of flats are still there and will be there for a long time, but I found the city a lot cleaner, the grass was cut and there are a lot less potholes  on the roads.

Marian taught me how to take night pictures so please enjoy my favourite church – the Russian Church near the Aleksandar Nevski – two beautiful buildings.

 I still need to work on my settings…..

 

Monday 5th, I was back on the road or should I say back in the air – travelling to Malmo for Øredev 2012. There was no direct flight so had a stop in Vienna, just enough time to eat a Goulash Suppe – that brought back 40 years old memories.

 

 

Open Source Your Career

A couple of years ago, I kept noticing that people I’d met at different events were landing really impressive jobs.  Those “how do you get thatjob?” jobs.  I also noticed a definite trend: the people with the unspeakably cool jobs were also people who had struck me as high fliers, who led open source projects, gave talks at conferences, whom I knew as authors or bloggers, those kind of people.

Lorna Mitchell by magicmonkey

Coincidence?

We often talk about getting involved in open source in terms of “contributing”, as if this is a one-way arrangement and as contributors, all we do is give to the project, getting nothing in return.  I say “nonsense” (that’s the paraphrased version, this isn’t my blog!).  Getting involved in open source is absolutely the best thing you can do for your career.  Open source can be a huge leg-up on the career ladder, and getting involved in open source is the best thing you can do … for YOU.

Getting open source on your CV is guaranteed to benefit your career development about as much as having a twitter account is guaranteed to improve a company’s sales.  Which is to say, probably, but not measurably.  You certainly can gain work experience but doing open source, on top of your day job, when your heart isn’t in it, is a bit of a hard way to do it.  A wise man named Wez Furlong wrote “Don’t just ‘do open source’ because it makes your resume look good, do it because you find it interesting”.  Wez himself is the product of dabbling in open source and getting job offers as a result; he’s a core contributor to PHP, Chief Software Architect at Message Systems, and has personal projects so geeky that I understand about one word in two when he explains them.

In addition to the above, Wez is right – learning anything by doing stuff you’re interested in is the most stimulating, most memorable way to learn.  You’re doing something you want to be doing, and you can use those new skills in your professional career later on (either in the job you have now or one that you hope to get), that’s quite a prize for spending your free time with open source.  I don’t believe, and I don’t believe many employers believe, that having skills you’ve only done on a voluntary basis undermines the value or validity of those skills.  If you can do something, and you want a job that needs those, then SAY YOU CAN DO IT.

This article is usually given as a talk, and the very first time I gave the talk, someone from the audience came up to me afterwards and told me that while he was sitting in my talk, he’d received a job offer for what would become his very first programming job.  He had no prior experience but while studying he had built some WordPress plugins and contributed to the Drupal project; his employers had been impressed by his skills and his willingness to self-start, and made him the job offer.

There are many ways to get involved in open source software, but the most obvious way is to write code.  Open source can deliver some very valuable experiences when you get involved with it at a technical level.  When you work in an enterprise setting, there are people to do systems administration, database administration, infrastructure setup, and so on.  When you get into open source, you will check the code out of a repository, and you’re responsible for getting the rest of the stack up and working.

I’m a PHP developer, but I’d come into that having done a few other things, and I had a PHP development job in a large company that had all of the above roles in place.  I moved to be a development lead at a creative agency, a much smaller company.  Purely because I’d been tinkering with open source PHP apps, I had just enough (thick skin of teeth enough!) skills to keep that job long enough to actually figure out how to do the job.  The day their server blew up and I realised I was expected to fix it was the day that I drew on the many experiences of trashing my home installations and having to recover those as well, and rebuilt their server as if I knew what I was doing (at least, I hope I looked like I did!).

When it comes to moving jobs, some places will ask for a portfolio of your work.  This is fine if you make things that people can see – but I’m a server-side developer and a lot of my work is “glue” code that goes inside the guts of a particular organisation’s servers, which means this can get quite tricky.  Being able to point to a github account or otherwise cite examples of things you’ve been doing in open source, where potential employers can obviously come and see that source, is a great way to be able to provide that evidence they are looking for (github actually has a feature for this – check out http://resume.github.com).

Getting involed in a project can seem daunting but the reality is, most open source projects are populated entirely by people who are delighted to meet someone who is as interested in their project as they are!  I’ve been giving this talk since before I made a single code contribution to any open source project, now I run one – so yes, it’s easy to get involved.

It’s a cliche that open source projects ask new members to fix bugs and it can seem like they’re just leaving the lowest tasks to the lowest members of the community.  In fact, this isn’t the case at all.  Very early in my career I worked on a technical helpdesk and I quickly learned that a good helpdesk developer must understand all aspects of the system in front of them (because the bugs never show up in the parts of the system you already know about!) to a higher degree than the developer who originally built the system, and probably specialised in that aspect.  By the same token, fixing bugs on an open source project will give you great visibility of all kinds of different bits of the project, and let you see what goes where, learn to debug different bits of it, and so on.  Even if you’re just sort of browsing the list and trying to replicate a few things, adding additional information, it helps.

Interacting with users and other devs on the forums and channels is a key skill; I’m sure I’m not the only person who thinks that most development project leads shouldn’t be let loose with ordinary users!  The people who are moderators and operators on those forums and channels are rockstars.  It is a hard job, and you might think it’s not really technical enough to advance your career, but as the old adage goes, it’s not what you know – it’s who you know.  I recently had the pleasure to meet someone who had corresponded with me when I first blogged about this topic.  She was a mod on the Ubuntu forums in her country, got invited to attend a related event, and while she was there she landed a new job working on migrating a company’s internal systems over to open source platforms.  This is a shining example of the kind of thing I mean – and to meet her at OggCamp this summer, another open source event, was fantastic!

On the forums, a comprehensive answer to a common problem becomes the de facto documentation for that particular topic.  From there, it is a small step to contributing documentation to a project.  Many technical folk seem averse to documentation but to me it is simply asynchronous teaching.  I would teach you but since we won’t be in the same place at the same time for me to do that, let me write it down and then you, and many other people, can get the same lesson.

I feel the same way about blogging, mine is at http://lornajane.net and has been active since 2006 and I’ve been blogging a few times a week for a number of years now.  It’s the same attitude – if you asked me about this thing then I’d tell you.  But I don’t know you and you don’t know me, and even if you do, you maybe don’t know I could help you.  So to get around all that being-at-the-same-event-and-asking-the-right-questions-of-the-right-person-in-the-bar rigamarole, I simply blog the thing that I know.  This way, you can grab it when you need it, and I can as well when I’ve forgotten in three weeks’ time that I’ve already solved this once!

Excuses for not blogging are almost entirely invalid.  “My blog theme isn’t finished yet”, “I don’t know anything” or “I don’t have time” are all entirely non-watertight in my opinion.  Everyone knows something I don’t know, and will be grateful to find on google the day that I need it!  And everyone has time to write 200 words about something … this is my secret to blogging so often, if you read my site, there are not many long posts.  I simply open the blog software, empty my brain (there isn’t too much in there), and then press “publish”, and the whole process takes as long as writing an email.  My habit of doing this has certainly got me noticed as a writer, and in fact I’m now an author, writing for a number of outlets and having finished my first book (with co-authors, not a whole thing on my own!), partly making a living from writing about technology.

I mentioned already that this article is the written version of a talk that I give, so I’m usually on a conference stage when I get to share these stories (and some less repeatable ones!), and speaking is a great way of sharing.  It doesn’t matter where you start, although I’d recommend taking your first speaking steps for an audience that hasn’t paid for the privilege of seeing you speak.  As a speaker, I go places and meet people and learn things that I simply wouldn’t have been able to do any other way.  I was giving exactly this talk at OggCamp when I ran into Josette, whom I know well from so many other events, and she asked me to write for this site.

Meeting so many people and being at so many events means I know a lot of people, particularly speakers in my niche industry.  I also help organise a community-run PHP conference in my area – PHPNW in Manchester, UK.  I’ve been doing that since I was working for my previous employer, Ibuildings, and one year they asked me if I would be the host of their big conference, the Dutch PHP Conference in Amsterdam.  This is a pretty big deal, it’s a major event on the European PHP calendar, and, well, I’m a developer!  In fact I absolutely loved curating and hosting the event, and the opportunity only came my way because of my extra-curricular activities in those directions.

Lorna Mitchell by Stuart Herbert

Organising events is one of the most stressful things I have done but it has taught me so many skills!  I now run my own business and those skills of being able to talk about money, organise people and other logistics, publicise an event, and so on, are absolutely vital to have.  I had no idea that’s what I was learning at the time though, I thought I was just bringing people together to talk about technology.

Whether you’re organising an event, a user group, running an open source project, or getting involved with any of the above, you will probably be working in a team.  It wasn’t until I read “The Art of Community” that I really understood how much interchange there is between my work world and my community one.  The skills I learn in one place, I bring to the other.  The patterns that emerge in one place and learn to handle and respond to, will often appear in another.  And politics are the same everywhere!  Dealing with sticky situations, mediating with people, finding the balance between paying work and voluntary work … all those skills are absolutely applicable in so many areas of life and work.

Before I finish, a final word about leadership.  Leading is really not about being “in charge”, although having the job title to go with it can sometimes make it easier to get things done.  Leadership is about believing in something and getting people to join efforts and make things happen.  My mentor is a wise woman named Ligaya, and she told me a long time ago that “Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission”.  She’s part of the PHPWomen group, and I should ask her if she regretted saying that!  This attitude hasn’t always been popular at work, but now I’m a consultant, I have to be a leader in all that I do.  I think communities in general are much better at recognising effort and achievement than many employers.  For those in a job getting negative or no feedback on their work, open source involvement will bring a blast of lively interaction, since everyone gets to have an opinion!

Building open source software is about taking what’s available and building on top of that to create something better, and open source career development is exactly the same thing.  There are no guarantees that you will be getting a new job, a raise, or more challenges at work, but I definitely see a trend towards a fast-track for those that do.  Giving yourself the chance to get involved in something new, learn new skills, meet new people, is unlikely to be wasted.  Whether you will start a blog, speak at an event, contribute documentation or write code, I challenge you to step up and get involved.  Not for an improved CV, but for an improved you.

This post was created by Lorna Jane Mitchell, a freelance consultant, developer, trainer, writer or evangelist. She is co-author of PHP Master soon to be published by  Sitepoint.

 

 

 

Codemotion

Javaday has changed, it is now Codemotion

For four years running, Javaday Roma has been the only event of its kind in Italy in terms of content, participants and enthusiasm. Year after year, the exciting atmosphere of Javaday has won over participants and sponsors. To keep being a top draw for developers, Javaday has evolved to become Codemotion.
Codemotion takes Javaday a giant step further: it’s open to all languages and technologies, becoming a catalyst for more creativity and more job opportunities. Everyone can reap the benefits of the new, broader focus: from one product (Java, once Sun, now Oracle) to the entire field of programming.

What is Codemotion?

Codemotion is the evolution of Javaday Roma and will held on Saturday, March 5, 2011 in Rome. During the event, participants can take part in an intensive morning of talks followed by an afternoon for technical sessions and the presentation of innovative ideas and technical workshops.

Codemotion marks a huge step forward compared to Javaday: it is open to all languages and technologies, drawing together even more sources of creativity and job opportunities. Finally, shift in focus from one product to an entire discipline means that everyone wins.

Key features :

  • The Codemotion programme is defined by a public Call for Papers open to all. Proposals are selected by representatives of official Italian communities for each different language as well as for software development.
  • Participants looking for new career opportunities may submit their CVs to Codemotion sponsors at the event.
  • A fast-paced morning of technical talks followed by two sessions of Ignite in the afternoon are on the day’s program.
  • A competition to award the best in innovative ideas developed by young university students from all over Italy is currently in the works.
  • Launch of new products

Entrance to the event is, as always, free of charge.

Minibar IC tomorrow App Building Contest – Interview with Chris Jackson

MiniBarChristian Ahlert and his Minibar team are always doing interesting things, and if we at O’Reilly can’t always take part, we certainly admire from a-far. Now Minibar is running an app building contest on behalf of the Technology Strategy Board’s newly launched IC tomorrow platform, a “unique testing ground that connects app providers to major content owners and consumers, enabling the development of innovative business models and the creative exploration of content”. Sounds good to us. Developers should register their interest here and will then be invited to an app building briefing day on 4th of November at Skills Matter.

IC tomorrowIn the run-up to the competition, Minibar interviewed Chris Jackson, CEO of MetaBroadcast, who has been working with IC tomorrow since its inception. Chris explains about his experiences as the first to develop an app through the platform, the benefits of taking part in the contest and his hopes for the future of the programme.

 

Chris, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background in the field of digital innovation?

I’m CEO of MetaBroadcast, a design & technology company. We make video & audio services on top of rich data such as descriptions of content and records of what users like, dislike, watch, etc. Our main clients are the BBC and Channel 4, plus we do a lot of stuff for ourselves that we think is important.

Before founding MetaBroadcast 3 years ago I was Head of Strategy at the BBC, and a media technology strategist at consultancy McKinsey & Company. I started my career as an R&D engineer with the BBC and a coder of early web apps.

You were the first to develop an app for the IC tomorrow platform, can you tell me how you became involved in the programme and what you attracted you to it?

We won a grant from the Technology Strategy Board last year for a feasibility study. As a part of that process we developed watchsomething.tv, a novel way to browse video content. At the moment we link out to the content on iPlayer, 4oD, etc. We were excited to be involved with IC tomorrow, because there’s potential to get access to content that we can embed within watchsomething.tv.

Was there a reason why you chose to produce this kind of app?

watchsomething.tv is a TV app that goes beyond normal catch-up, the natural focus of most online TV services these days. Catch-up can be quite narrow, and that’s a real shame: there are some great shows from years ago that we all forget about or don’t know how to see again. From the perspective of the content owners, there’s real money to be made if their archive becomes more popular. Services like SeeSaw and 4oD have a great selection of that content online now. We wanted to put the best of this front and centre, and start to develop some smart personalisation UI and algorithms. The TSB believes in our pilot service so much that they featured it in events and publications, so the suggestion that we integrate it with IC tomorrow followed naturally.

There’s a second app of ours on the platform, too. Atlas, the video and audio index, makes it really easy to work with video and audio metadata. It’s not consumer-facing, but is available for other developers to use in trials and services.

What was your experience with the platform (given that it is in the early stages)?

The great thing about IC tomorrow is that it does a lot of the dull but necessary work for you, from using content to linking up with other applications, from reporting to help with billing.

As the first developer on board, of course there were a few rough edges but we got round them pretty quickly. We’ve got a fairly good Java library up on github now and there’s also some slightly more sketchy Python code kicking about. Happy to share that code, and tips beyond it!

How do you feel you have benefitted from joining the platform?

We’ve already had a great conversation with a big TV content producer. It’s pretty likely that will turn into an exciting project soon.

Past your own project, what other advantages are there for those taking part?

Well, I think the main advantage for others is having access to content. There’s also a chance to get hold of the right kind of early users. IC tomorrow is being actively marketed to a small group of motivated early adopters. There are some good tools to analyse their activity and to survey them so I think their feedback on new ideas and applications is going to be really valuable, too.

Over time I hope a community of developers will build, with lots of sharing of code and services.

What advice would you give to developers looking to make the best out of their time on the IC tomorrow platform?

Think content. Using this API is the pre-requisite to get really rich access to premium content, without getting tied down by all the admin that normally comes with that.

What kind of apps would you hope to see the contestants produce?

I think there are lots of interesting opportunities to link video and audio content to other stuff on the web. How about a cooking show that links to the ingredients on Tesco? Or a radio station sorted exclusively by tracks from artists that have upcoming gigs near you?

How do you envisage the future of the IC tomorrow platform in 5 years time?

In 5 years I hope the platform has made itself redundant. It’s really all about enabling links between different people and organisations. So I’d hope those links would evolve to be richer than a single central platform can support. IC tomorrow is a good opportunity to kick-start all that.

Lastly, have you any plans for your own future on the platform, perhaps another app maybe?

Absolutely. We’ve got a couple of other things in the pipeline. Recently we released gawp.tv, a prototype that records what TV you watch (or gawp at, slack-jawed), and builds a page that represents your ‘gawping’ habits. We’ve got another video navigation service coming soon. Both could benefit from integration with IC tomorrow.

As a company we’ve put a lot of effort into building personalised and social video and audio technology. Our API for building this kind of app will be released soon, and we’ll hopefully be adding that to IC tomorrow, too. There’s lots of possibilities.

If you are interested and would like to find out more please have a look at our TSB_Connect group and read IC tomorrow’s recent press release.