Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Future of Programming - Themes at OSCON 2014

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A Qualitative OSCON Debrief

As you might have noticed from the OSCON Twitter-storm this year, the conference was a blast. Even if you weren't physically present, given the 17 tracks, you can imagine that the presentations -- and subsequent conversations -- were deeply varied.

This was the second OSCON I'd attended; the first was was in 2008 as a guest of Michael Bernstein, a friend who was speaking there. OSCON 2008 was a zoo - I'm not sure of the actual body count, but I've heard that attendees + vendors + miscellaneous topped 12,000 people over the course of the week (I would love to hear if someone has hard data on that -- googling didn't reveal much). OSCON 2008 was dominated by Big Data, Hadoop, endless buzzword bingo, and business posturing by all sorts. The most interesting bits of that conference were the outlines that formed around the conversations people weren't having. In fact, over the following 6 months, that's what I spent my spare time pondering: what people didn't say at OSCON.

This year's conference seemed like a completely different animal. It felt like easily 1/2 to 1/3rd the number of attendees in 2008. Where that one had all the anonymizing feel of rush-hour in a major metropolitan hub, OSCON 2014 had a distinctly small-town vibe to it -- I was completely charmed. Conversations (overheard as well as participated in) were not littered with examples from the latest bizspeak, but rather focused on essence. The interactions were not continually distracted, but rather steadily focused, allowing people to form, express, and dispute complete thoughts with their peers.


Conversations

So what were people talking about this year? Here are some of the topics I heard covered during lunches, in hallways, and at podiums; at pubs, in restaurants and at parks [1]:
  • What communities are thriving?
  • Which [projects, organisations, companies, etc.] are treating their people right?
  • What successful processes are being followed at [project, organisation, etc.]?
  • Who is hiring and why should someone want to work there?
  • Where can I go to learn X? Who is teaching X? Who shares the most about X?
  • Which [projects, organisations] support X?
  • Why don't more [people, projects, organisations] care about [possible future X]?
  • Why don't more [people, projects, organisations] spend more time investigating the history of X for "lessons learned"?
  • There was so much more X in computing during the 60s and 70s -- what happened? [2]
  • Why are we reinventing X?
  • When is X going to be invented, and who's going to do it?
  • Everything is changing! I can't keep up anymore.
  • I want to keep up, but how?
  • Why can't we stop making so many X?
  • Nobody cares about Y anymore; we're all doing X now.
  • Full stack developers!
  • Haskell!
  • Fault-tolerant systems!

After lots of reflection, here's how I classified most of the conversations I heard:
  • Developing communities,
  • Developing careers and/or personal/professional qualities, and
  • Developing software, 

along lines such as:
  • Effective maintenance, maturity, and health,
  • Focusing on the "art",  eventual mastery, and investments of time,
  • Tempering bare pragmatism with something resembling science or academic excellence,
  • Learning the new to bolster the old,
  • Inspiring innovation from a place of contemplation and analysis,
  • Mining the past for great ideas, and
  • Figuring out how to better share and spread the adoption of good ideas.


Themes

Generalized to such a degree, this could have been pretty much any congregation of interested, engaged minds since the dawn of civilization. So what does it look like if we don't normalize quite so much? Weighing these with what may well be my own bias (and the bias of like-minded peers), I submit to your review these themes:

  • A very strong interest in programming (thinking and creating) vs. integration (assessing and consuming).
  • An express desire to become better at abstraction (higher-order functions, composition, and types) to better deal with growing systems complexities.
  • An interest in building even more complicated systems.
  • A fear of reimplementing past mistakes or of letting dust gather on past intellectual achievements.

As you might have guessed, these number very highly among the reasons why the conference was such an unexpected pleasure for me. But it should also not come as a surprise that these themes are present:

  • We have had several years of companies such as Google and Amazon (AWS) building and deploying some of the most sophisticated examples of logic-made-manifest in human history. This has created perceived value in our industry and many wish to emulate it. Similarly, we have single purpose distributed systems being purchased for nearly 20 billion USD -- a different kind of complexity, with a different kind of perceived reward.
  • In the 70s and 80s, OOP adoption brought with it the ability to create large software systems in ways that people had not dared dream or were impractical to realize. Today's growing adoption of the Functional paradigm is giving early signs of allowing us to better integrate complex systems with more predictability and fewer errors.
  • Case studies of improvements in productivity or the capacity to handle highly complex or previously intractable problems with better abstractions, has ignited the passions of many. Not wanting to limit their scope of knowledge or sources of inspiration, people are not simply limiting themselves to the exploration of such things as Category Theory -- they are opening the vaults of computer science with such projects as Papers We Love.

There's a brave new world in the making. It's a world for programmers and thinkers, for philosophers and makers. There's a lot to learn, but it's really not so different from older worlds: the same passions drive us, the same idealism burns brightly. And it's nice to see that these themes arise not only in small, highly specialized venues such as university doctoral programs and StrangeLoop (or LambdaJam), but also in larger intersections of the industry like OSCON (or more general-audience ones like Meetups).

Up next: Adopting the Functional Paradigm?
PreviouslyAn Overview


Footnotes

[1] It goes without saying that any one attendee couldn't possibly be exposed to enough conversations to form a perfectly accurate sense of the total distribution of conversation topics. No claim to the contrary is being made here :-)

[2] I strongly adhere to the multifaceted hypothesis proposed by Bret Victor
here in the section titled "Why did all these ideas happen during this particular time period?"


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