Avoiding Work – A Trip To Brussels

One of the most important parts of developing software is figuring out how to best avoid having to actually do work. By that I don’t mean fooling  around on various social media outlets all day; but rather making good use of existing code, libraries, frameworks, toolkits and all other manner of good things that are available to use.

Now, the biggest problem with this publicly available software is that there is just too much of it. When trying not to reinvent the wheel, the sheer quantity of code available is mind-bogglingly large. Then to confound things even further everything sits at varying levels of completeness and quality, ranging from well established, enterprise-funded, production ready frameworks to partially complete Tuesday night projects with similar claims of capability.

When trying to find a pre-existing solution to a specific problem, gaining enough understanding about each available solution so as to either include or exclude it from consideration is a very time consuming task. As a result, this tends to lead towards stagnation of overall systems, as it is much quicker and more straightforward to reuse the same solutions over and over, even if a better and more relevant solution may exist.

This was just a long-winded excuse that I used to justify myself taking a trip to FOSDEM, a huge developer conference hosted over a weekend in Belgium once a year. The event comprises of several talks presented by individuals who use and/or develop open source solutions and projects, be it either the aforementioned Tuesday night special or slightly more robust projects like the Postgres database.

Zircon graciously funded the transportation and accommodation for the trip (the conference itself being free to attend), which resulted in a pleasant trip on the Eurostar and a room in a hotel located in the centre of Brussels.

Prior to the start of the event a social is held on the Friday night, where the conference attendees make their best effort to take over an entire bar to drink Belgian beer and discuss software.

The talks at the actual conference can be divided into two groups:

  1. Those that relate directly to a feature or development of a solution you are already using
  2. Those that describe an interesting idea where the implementation details could reveal hitherto-unknown projects that have the potential to successfully assist in avoiding work

Talks that fall into the first group, where the presenter is sharing their expertise and knowledge of existing projects, are often the most informative. Explanations of new or upcoming features, how best to make use of existing components, the non-obvious pitfalls, or the implementation details not yet documented can help prevent others from wasting time making the same mistakes that someone else has already made.

Talks from the second group tend to span a much wider range, as they generally cover the implementation of entire systems which involves multiple hardware and software components. The main focus when attending one of these talks is to keep an ear out for the name of something that was utilised to solve a specific problem or implement a wide slice of functionality, rather than focusing on the completed system itself. These projects/solutions, that are often mentioned in an almost throwaway manner with very little elaboration have the potential to save you a great amount of time.

In addition to these two groups there is also an unmentioned third group; the talks that can’t help but further justify taking a trip and are completely irrelevant, but fascinating. A perfect example of such a talk would be the one at this years conference that covered hacking a fly-by-wire car in order to enable autonomous driving algorithms without the need to strap servos and motors all over the physical controls. An excellent presentation, but entirely useless.

The big advantage of actually attending conferences like FOSDEM, rather than reading about them online or watching video coverage via mediums such as YouTube, is that you have the ability to ask the presenter questions following their talk. You are also given the chance of being able to catch up with them later on to further discuss elements of their project in greater detail.

A lot was learned from my FOSDEM trip, and although not all of it will be immediately relevant, most of the knowledge and experience gained from these three days will make itself useful at some point in the future. Well, maybe not the stuff about hacking a car, but certainly the rest of it.