Ruby Manor 2011
The third Ruby Manor conference happened in London a few weeks ago. I thought I'd give my reflections on the event in the old-fashioned blog post style.
Ruby Manor is run according to a certain philosophy. Some of it was explained upfront by James, Murray and Tom (this year's organising team), and some of it is implicit - drawn largely from the way previous Manors and the monthly LRUG meetings are run. Ruby Manor is not an unconference, it doesn't have keynote speakers, swag, dinners or t-shirts. It costs less than £15. The speakers and topics are chosen by the attendees and contribution to the process is encouraged.
Before last year's conference, speakers proposed their talks on a mailing list. We asked questions, and the organising team selected the final list of presentations. This year, this system was enhanced and formalised as Vestibule - a simple web application designed to encourage and facilitate engagement with the organisation of the conference. The most interesting section is the short motivations given by the attendees for participating. Quite soon after the site launched a number of talks were proposed. As an example, consider the (ultimately unsuccessful) talk I proposed. I gave an outline of the talk I wanted to give and asked for feedback and suggestions. I was encouraged by the level of support and worked further to add more information to the proposal based on the feedback. About 3 weeks before the event, the proposals were open to the vote and whittled down to a final selection.
Vestibule used a points-based "karma" system to rank the participants on their level of engagement. I'm not entirely sure what impact the score had, but I believe tickets were made available in batches to those with the highest scores first. James Adam talks more about the philosophy of conference ticketing on his blog.
I found the Vestibule system quite addictive - it was something I found myself checking each day, especially as new features were rolled out as the process went along. I'd be interested to see some analysis of the level of engagement too - did it demonstrate a typical split in engagement between active and passive, or did the presence of rewards encourage increased engagement?
The venue this year was the University of Westminster building on New Cavendish street. The lecture-theatre used had a raked seating arrangement with a large projector which meant that everyone got a good view of the talks. The venue was close to a large number of places to grab lunch and coffee during the breaks. I'm not sure what the WIFI was like as I didn't take a laptop, but I don't think people had too many problems. There was very little space at the back of the room which meant that you had to be in your seats in time for the talks and were essentially captive for the duration of the sessions, but the individual talks were of equal length which made shuffling around easy.
I experimented with organising "Birds of a Feather" lunches this year. The idea is to have lunch with people who share a common interest, and is organised by having people sign up to lunch-time groups on the day. Although I got a good-sized group of people together for a "machine-learning" themed lunch, I don't think many other topics formed. In retrospect I think it would have been good to organise lunch "champions" in advance to lead a group around a particular topic. Also as the conference was Ruby focussed, I guess people found it easy to find others with at least Ruby as a common interest.
The talks were universally of a very high standard. There wasn't a single one that I didn't get something out of, and a couple were among the best I've ever seen at any conference. Keep an eye on the Ruby Manor website for the videos when they're released. For me the real standouts were:
Programming with Nothing by Tom Stuart
Tom introduced us to the Lambda Calculus by considering what is
possible in Ruby if we strip the language right back to basics. He
implemented a solution to the FizzBuzz problem using just Ruby's
Proc object and the methods
Proc#call. What started
out as a curiosity turned into a discourse on the nature of
computation and the power of functional programming. It ended with a
roar of approval when the final code was run! The slides were superb,
the delivery style was quirky enough to be at home at a Ruby
conference but had a real depth - there's no surprise to learn Tom
used to lecture Computer Science topics at Cambridge! A real treat.
A Random Walk by Ben Griffiths
I really enjoyed Ben Griffiths's talk on Randomness. He gave a grab-bag selection of slides on such topics as Monte Carlo analysis, Simulated Annealing and a thought experiment on what it would be like to have a CI system that deployed to your production environment randomly. Ben organised his talk as one "idea" per slide, illustrated with occasional Ruby code, and then randomised the order just to keep himself and us on our toes. A fun idea and one that would have tripped up most speakers, I think. Not Ben though, he's a fantastic speaker and one I always enjoy seeing.
The Joy of Text by Sean O'Halpin
I was looking forward to this talk - sitting next to Sean at work, I've seen it come together slowly off the back of a lot of research. Sean talked about text encodings, his ffi-ncurses library and the history of terminal interfaces. He attempted to explain some of the problems we programmers face everyday when we work with text and text-based interfaces. It was a talk which covered a lot of ground, and hid a lot of depth and knowledge of the subject under a veneer of amusing anecdotes and useful tips. I hope the content of the talk makes it out in a longer form (a series of blog articles would be great, if you're reading, Sean!) as there's a lot of very useful content for us all to learn in there.
I hope this post has given you some feel for how great again the Ruby Manor conference was this year, and has encouraged you to seek out the slides and videos when they appear (it looks like the lanyrd page might be a good place to find everything together). It was a conference as much about the people and the community as it was the talks and the programming language. An experiment in self-organisation which showed how difficult it is to get people to step out of the comfort zone and contribute to the shaping of their community, but also what can be achieved when a few of them do so.
Thanks to Murray, James, Tom and all the champs who contributed to this year's event. Well done all!