Category Archives: Geek Culture

Presentations

Just a quick note about past and future talks. Yesterday evening, I gave a presentation at Brussels’ Café Numérique to set a few facts straight about Flash and try to stop th FUD madness. It was very funny trolling in live. Excellent atmosphere. If you’re a Belgian geek (or you don’t want to be afraid of technologies anymore) that’s the place to be every Wednesday.

I’ll also give a talk for BeJUG on May 6th about my new favourite stack: Grails, BlazeDS, Flex and iPhone. Be sure to join the BeJUG and book your seat at least one week before the event.

The Real Reasons Behind the Flash Debate

In my humble opinion, the main reason why the debate around Flash versus HTML5 (and Adobe versus Apple) has gone haywire during the past few weeks is that everyone is lying about their true motives (like in any apparently inextricable conflict):

  • Apple doesn’t want Flash on its closed devices like the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPhone because Flash would be an alternate content channel that would hinder Apple’s very lucrative iTunes business. And of course they won’t admit it because it would mean that they put business strategy before innovation.
  • Adobe has some technical issues with Flash because the codebase is very old and costs a lot to maintain. And they won’t admit it because it would make Flash look weak and unreliable on the long term.
  • Most HTML5 proponents started as amateur web developers, tinkering for years with poor technologies like HTML, CSS and Javascript, building entire businesses around their capacity to figure out all this mess out of trial and error.
  • Flash developers (including yours truly) have invested a lot of time, money and effort in tools, training and experience with the Flash platform, and are not so enthusiastic about throwing all of that down the garbage for yet another fashion tech. But of course we won’t admit that because we’re afraid to look like dinosaurs who refuse to evolve.

And since everybody uses pretexts, everyone will use every contradiction and approximation possible to maintain their cover. Like I said, wars work the same way: ideology hides facts. It motivates your troops to fight the other side until they’re dead, because the big guys, the ones who know about the real reasons simply can’t find a peaceful solution that would allow everyone to win.

It reminds me of a European civil servant who asked me this simple question once when I started a mission for the European Parliament: “Why do you think the European Union was created?” Naively I answered “so that one day we can be on equal foot with the United States.” “Wrong!” he said. “That’s not what Shuman and its friends had in mind. After World War II, they realized that the true source of the conflict between France and Germany, and by extension between their respective allies, was the repartition of natural resources in general, and most notably at this time, coal. But it’s hard to get people to fight for that kind of cause, so powers had to disguise it with ideology so that people would feel invested and do terrible things in the name of it. And they understood that if they didn’t cure the real sickness instead of fighting the symptoms like they had done after World War I, they could not prevent it from happening again. That’s the real reason why CECA was created, and then CEE, then EU. It was not a matter of power, it was a matter of peace.”

And that answer struck me because the same pattern repeats itself over and over again in a lot of contexts. Behind decades of war between Israel and Palestine, there’s a fight for water. Behind the war in Irak, there was a fight for gas. Behind the war for the future of web technologies, there’s a fight for customers. And the conflict is even more violent as it happens on 2 different levels: company-wise between Apple and Adobe, and community-wise between Flash developers and HTML developers.

The good news is that there’s a way for everyone to win peacefully once we reveal the real issues. There are enough customers for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum fight. The other side doesn’t have to lose so that we can win. The question is: will we be strong enough to reject the ideology and find a common ground at the community-level? Or will we let the big guys at Adobe and Apple hide behind ideology and use us as cannon fodder.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

I have hesitated for a long time… a few hours that is. But given my geek reputation (of which I’m still proud by the way), I could just not avoid it: I have to say something about the iPad. Of course I was following the keynote live yesterday with a bunch of geeks in Café Numérique, in Brussels. And of course I was very excited about it. Now instead of writing long sentences about what I like and don’t like about it, I’ll just go over my impressions quickly:

  • I don’t really like the name, but iSlate would have been worst and Macbook Touch was clearly not adapted
  • I love the device itself, and yes I’m gonna get one as soon as it’s released. I’m planning a trip to WWDC in June and hopefully I can bring one back
  • it really is yet another game changer. Apple did with the iPad to the Tablet PC segment what they did with the iPhone to the smartphone segment: bypass the professional market, make it a general public appliance. Brilliant!
  • it will create a whole new market for new applications on the App Store, I can think of a few ones myself
  • I don’t care that it doesn’t have multi-tasking, I’ve never needed it and reactivity is too important for me
  • demonstrations in a couch, what a great communication symbol!
  • I don’t care about the batteries being sealed, so long as it gets me more battery-life
  • I hope there will be an Apple Care on this one
  • Absence of SMS and phone capabilities: it’s not a phone anyway
  • No front camera: who really uses video-conference in the general public anyway? Video-conference in a couch? Come on!
  • The price tag is just awesome. The top one is cheaper than my 3GS
  • I’m so glad I didn’t get a Kindle DX or a Nook as I intended to. By the way, even though e-ink is more comfortable to use, I think the generic aspect of the device and the availability of the iBooks store are going to marginalize specialize eBook readers
  • Stop it with the “giant iPhone” complaint. And laptops are mini-desktops, so what?

Now in parallel to all those impressions, I couldn’t help to see those floating images in my head, of websites with big blank areas and a blue logo, I could even hear those blank areas whisper in my ears: “No Flash support…. ouuuuuuuuhh… No Flash support”. Yes, I know, I’m going nuts. My first thought was “how are you going to explain your daughter that she cannot use the iPad to access her favourite color painting site with her fingers because there’s no Flash?” For such a general public family appliance, it just doesn’t make sense.

But then I started reading blog posts and comments about the announcement, and the frustration turned into anger. Anger against Apple and Adobe who can’t seem to find a common ground on this issue. But more importantly angry against all those self-proclaimed death prophets, all those open standard ayatollahs claiming that they don’t care about Flash since Flash is dead anyway, and Flash is closed and proprietary, and Adobe is all evil, and HTML5 is going to rule the world. And it kind of woke up the Flex developer beast in me, I turned all green, I tore my shirt apart, going all…

FUCK HTML5 !!!

And then I started punching around.

First off, Flash has evolved a lot in the past few years: Flash is not just used for ads anymore. It powers the vast majority of videos on the web, plus a lot of multimedia websites that we love and use everyday (Deezer for example, Google Finance, etc.)

Second, Flash is not completely open, but it is far less closed than what a lot of people know: Tamarin, the Flash virtual machine, the basis of the Flash plugin, has been donated as Open Source to the Mozilla foundation 3 years ago, SWF (Flash file format), AMF (Flash remoting protocol), RTMP (Flash realtime communication protocol) are all open specifications that allow anyone to write their own Flash plugin (with a licence, but still) or generator. Plus Adobe has gone a long way in opening up its tools and processes for the Flash platform as a whole by open sourcing the Flex SDK, creating the Open Screen Project, and I could go on and on. I’ve met some of the openness evangelists inside Adobe and I can tell you that they’re doing a great job opening up what used to be a very protective and old-school company. And it’s just the beginning.

Third: being an open standard is not a f***ing feature for Steve’s sake! If using committee standards means I have to wait for 10 years before any evolution becomes available (how long has W3C been working on HTML5? how long before it is finalized), if it means going back in time on problems we thought had been solved for good (like the video codec hell coming back from the dead), if it means having to spend hours tweaking my web applications so that they look and behave the same in all browsers, then I don’t give a sh*t about open standards. Where is the added value?

Fourth, I can already hear you yell at me about the last argument: “we just can’t let one (evil) company have so much control about a web technology!”. And still that’s exactly what Sun has been doing with another omnipresent web technology: Java. And very few people ever complained about it. And what about Google with Android? The truth is that, from a developer standpoint, having one company orchestrating the evolution of such a huge technology is very good: it guarantees a certain level of consistency, so that we don’t have to deal with compatibility issues between different implementations. It’s also a good point for stability, knowing that you will always have backwards compatibility and professional support on the long term, and that you can invest safely in the technology. And of course it’s excellent for efficiency, because they don’t have to waste time on endless arguments about who’s got the bigger video codec or whatever, so it evolves fast.

So that’s it. I hate HTML, Javascript and CSS, I do it when I have to, but it’s not development, it’s tinkering. And I hate all those people spreading FUD about Flash without knowing what they’re talking about. And I love the Flash platform, and what Adobe is doing with it. I just hope Adobe and Apple will eventually reach an agreement to bring Flash to the iPhone and iPad. And I hope Adobe will do some PR to fix their image because there’s a big problem there.

Just my 2 cents…

About Internet and Democracy

democratie-1600x1200_12284161111There’s been quite a few stories lately in the French news about politicians and other “famous” people demanding a regulation of the Internet. There’s been this famous publicist named Jacques Séguéla who called the Internet “the biggest crap ever invented by mankind” (link in French). Then there was Jean-François Copé, head of majority party, who said on TV that we should regulate the Internet in order to preserve politicians and journalists (well, of course he was talking to a journalist). And yesterday, Jacques Myard, one of our elected parliament deputies, wanted to “nationalize the Internet” (here), taking example on… China!

At first, I thought it was just one crazy guy who wanted to get into viral communication, but now I’m starting to see a pattern here. Combine that with the whole net neutrality debate in the US and it becomes really obvious: politicians are starting to be really afraid of the Internet. Now is it really because of those stupid things they say that spread over the web like wildfire? I think this is just the visible part of the iceberg. But as it seems, when someone says something stupid, it only gets crazy on the web if people are already angry with them. If people don’t take you seriously, it won’t go that far.

Which leads me to this question: the Internet is already changing our working environment in a lot of ways, but is it doing the same thing with our political systems? I’m not a French history expert, but if I remember correctly, one of the main triggers of the French revolution and the Enlightenment that got us out of Old Regime is the widespread of education made possible by the invention of the printing press. Now if the Internet has the same potential magnitude as the printing press, how will it affect our democracies?

For example, democracy is all about electing people who vote laws on our behalf, but why do we do that? Because the City is too big, and we cannot be all direct actors in the legislative process… at least not in a world where we have to gather at the same place at the same time to write laws and vote them. But does this constraint still hold with the Internet. Isn’t there a way to build up a more direct democracy again? Wouldn’t the vote of masses compensate for the vast incompetency of our elected guys and their tendency to fall for lobbyists? Maybe that’s what our politicians are really afraid of, that they could be rendered useless by this new system they don’t control or even understand.

Maybe it’s time for us to dust off our constitutions and start thinking about what the Internet could do to improve democracy. And when you see the kind of failure we can expect for the Copenhagen summit, it could even be a real solution to a more global way of dealing with problems, one that would lead to real solutions. And I’m not talking about eDemocracy and other eGovernment stuff here: those are just evolutions, shy intrusions of the Internet in the traditional political debate. I’m talking about what could be the next stage in democracy, without any corrupted or incompetent representative, just the intelligence of the crowd on a global scale.

What do you think? Do you know any politics expert working on such a scenario? Would you like to participate more directly in the decisions that have an influence on your daily life?

Change is Happening, my Friends!

Archaeopteryx_2I know it sounds like an apocalyptic prediction of some sort, but it’s all the contrary. And I’m not talking about politics, or the big-bang-boom-tada-yeah that’s happening right now in a country north from here. I’m talking about our work environment. I’m talking about how the way we solve our problems is already changing. In his very inspiring presentation, Clay Shirky mentioned a transition, that he saw already happening back in 2005, but a transition anyway. The thing is that it takes a visionary to see such a transition while it’s happening because… well… it’s happening. So you’re supposed to be a part of it. Talk about an out-of-body experience (I don’t know the right expression for that in English, sorry).

And this morning, answering a message from my friend and former boss on LinkedIn, I realized that the signs were right here before my very eyes:

  • Organisational: when I was interviewed by Axen, I was seduced by their organisational model, because it was completely original. Pretty flat hierarchy, no “I can’t make that decision, it’s not in my prerogatives” thing, a lot of flexibility and pragmatism, everything is a project and people gather dynamically to implement such projects, they learn a lot, and then they move to something else. Astounding! And it worked… for some time. And now even though THIS instance is being absorbed in the guts of a greedy giant, I know it can work. Or to be more specific, I know that people can work like that. Not everybody, but some people can.
  • Technical: have you noticed how the Internet is everywhere in what we do? Have you noticed how it expands our natural limits to bond and share with one another. Am I worried that I might lose contact with all the wonderful people at Axen when I leave? No! I have them all in my LinkedIn account, I can follow them, see how they’re doing, where they’re going, what they’re working on. And more importantly I have a permanent way to keep in touch with them. And of course there are all the people that I’ve met, worked with, thanks to the Internet. There’s Claes, the guy I’m working with on ConferenceGuide. There are all the contacts I’ve met at DMF in October… and the ones I’ve lost, because I didn’t get their card and couldn’t add them to my contacts (Damn it!)
  • Methodological: this is more specific to the IT field, but still, it shows that minds are shifting thanks to Agile Methodologies. Get back to what really matters: creating value. Let go of your old beliefs that you’re going to keep everything under control and never change your mind. Our business is moving fast, let’s embrace it. Let’s build trust with our teams, encourage everyone to commit, improve our state-of-the-art. And let’s stop saying things like “people are dumb, and lazy, and short-sighted, so we need this control and methodology”. That sounds too much like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And there are probably other aspects that are already changing drastically. I’m not saying they’re changing for everyone. Like any evolutionary process, some specimens are trying it, it increases their chances of survival, others die. It’s like work environment natural selection at… work. Now I’m not a Darwin expert, but I’m wondering whether at some point, seeing that some “features” obviously work better than others, nature doesn’t have a way to push those forward. And even if nature is not capable of this, maybe we are. Maybe now that we are aware of those changes, now that we know they work better, now that we are in times when cards are dealt again, it’s time for us to give a little help to natural selection.

I think those changes are still too shy, they look like an archaeopteryx to me (you know this missing link in evolution, sort of half-dinosaur, half-bird). In other words, all those changes are still happening in what seems more and more like an archaic and unfit environment for solving problems: the company. And here I am, envisioning a work environment full of adhocratic-agile-connected people without the need for a constraining and limiting structure full of overhead and politics. I have a dream! But it’s not over yet…

My Discoveries of the Year

logoEvery year, the main reason why I go to Devoxx is to discover new stuff. For me it’s all about technology watch. The internet and RSS feeds are my main tech watch instrument but there is one thing that is harder to get through RSS: feelings. Conferences like Devoxx are a unique opportunity, not only to see what’s happening but also to sense how the community is feeling about it, which is at least as important to anticipate on what’s going to be important.

Now you’ve certainly read here and there that there have been a lot of talks about Java EE6 and Closures in JDK 7. There sure were, and there was quite a lot of reactions to those. But frankly, I’m not interested in any of those. I’m not interested in Java EE6 because even though it finally leverages the concepts that have been pushed by the community for so long, the very fact that Sun has been so late in implementing them shows one thing to me: it’s not about them, it’s about us. Sun has been trying to partner with big companies around the JCP, to create a lot of business around those standards. And why were those standards so complex? Because there were so many companies involved in their elaboration? Or was there any interest from those companies to create technologies complicated enough to require a lot of consultants, and books, and trainings, and tools to make things easier? If the first option is true, then how did it happen that a gigantic community of individual software developers made it so that Spring, Hibernate and other Open Source technologies became de facto standards?

Which brings me to the second point I don’t really care about: closures in JDK 7. People have taken matters into their own hands. Other languages have appeared implementing some of the missing features of Java: Scala, Groovy, etc. Some other languages have been imported into the Java landscape, like Ruby and Python. I’ve been using Groovy myself for some time now, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Now Sun is coming after the war, but does it matter? What I see here is that it’s good to have a base language, a base platform. But as soon as you start extending it for purely mercantile reasons, or as soon as you start avoiding certain innovations because you’re afraid it might harm your business or the one of your partners, then things go messy. But once again, the good news is that software gives us power. We developers have the ability not only to decide which technology is better, but to build and promote our own technologies. And I think this is why our world is so dynamic and why things change so fast. What I see here is that languages matter less than our ability to create new ones, to solve more specific problems, to provide some more advanced features. And that strengthens my belief that Language-Oriented Programming is the next big step in the evolution of our technologies.

Now about the things I do care about. My discoveries.

kanbanMy first one is definitely Kanban. I’ve heard about it for quite some time. But I didn’t understand why people were already trying to push it forward, even though we are still fighting to push companies away from waterfall messes. It’s even more radical than Scrum and for that it’s very interesting because it gets closer to what software development really is. The key phrase that kept popping in my head during the 3-hour session about Kanban was “It’s going to take the time it’s going to take.” And that’s why it’s brilliant. Now that I understand Kanban a little better, I see Scrum as a compromise. We’ve taken some of the principles of Lean Manufacturing, we have dissolved them into trusted concepts like RUP’s iterative cycles. And for years, we have been trying to pour that cocktail into their mouth. And in doing that we forgot something important: if they don’t trust us, they will never drink the whole thing, all the more so as it looks weird with all those colors not really mixed together. The way I see it, Lean and Kanban are all about getting back to the basics, and relying on trust. We have to build trust first, we have to make them understand that at least some of us are not interested in building artificial business on top of poor practices. That at least some of us desperately want the software we build to have a real impact on their business. We have to show them our good will so that they let us do our job. And they have to understand that the more they trust us, the faster we will be, the more we will be able to solve other problems. Big software vendors and resource providers will not like that, because every new project comes with its own overhead, because their business thrives on poor practices, stupid methodologies and complex technologies. But once again, power is in our hands, it lies in collaboration, not in corporation.

My second discovery was Spring-Actionscript. Those guys really have a thing to do things in a clever way. Cairngorm, PureMVC, Swiz, they all impose some sort of a structure to your Flex applications, forcing you to surrender some great powers of Flex itself in the process. And here comes Spring-Actionscript, more like a toolbox than a real framework. It doesn’t impose anything. It just gives you all the tools you need, all the glue you miss, to make things fit together perfectly. Their asynchronous abstraction is just brilliant, their configuration options are complete, your code just looks better with it, simpler, more natural. I think that’s what I love most with Spring: not only does it create great technology, but it also instigates a whole pragmatic and elegant way of thinking into the minds of a whole generation of developers, thus encouraging the community to come up with their own technologies: Spring Actionscript used to be called the Prana Framework, developed independently by a Belgian guy who took inspiration in Spring for Java. That’s just awesome. I will definitely integrate Spring Actionscript in a couple of Spring/Flex projects. I think I will even update my todolist sample application with it. Stay tuned.

My third discovery is a couple of technologies to detect and prevent coding errors BEFORE they actually happen. I insist on “before” because of my previous post about TDD: unit tests are all about writing code to check that some other code you have already written (or not written yet) does its job. But to me, this is equivalent to the old prevention versus repression debate. TDD is just repression, and it’s tempting to go there only, because it’s always easier to catch the bad guys than trying to understand why they became bad in the first place. JSR-308 and its pluggable type checkers is all about strengthening the compiler so that it prevents more of the most frequent bugs like NullPointerExceptions. It allows us to make our code more expressive, to give the compiler more information about our intents so that we can prevent bugs from happening. Brilliant! Project Lombok also goes in that direction: it adds a couple of annotations and customizes the Java compiler in order to minimize the amount of boilerplate code we have to type. Once again, by doing so, it improves the expressiveness of the language, allowing us to say more things with less words, thus reducing the likeliness of ambiguities and errors. Awesome! Lombok and type checkers will definitely be part of a couple of projects too. The only thing that really made me uncomfortable with both of these presentations was this question: “Why the hell weren’t those techniques in Java 5 already?”

pomodoroMy fourth and last discovery was Pomodoro technique. Once again, heard of it before, but never dug into it. And then we had this guy with a strange Swedish accent in front of us, playing with dolls, showing us handwritten slides with simplistic drawings. And you could hear the disappointed reaction of a lot of people in the room: “sounds nice, but not applicable to me”. That was my first reaction too. Software development requires long slots of concentration because we need time to load the whole conceptual model of what we’re working on into our mind before being effective, and this implies some overhead. But then when someone asked this very question to the speaker, he answered something like “what if you are loading too much? what if limiting the amount of time you are going to spend on a given task forces you to load just the minimum you need to solve the matter at hand? what if it made you more productive?”. And it made me think: “hmmm… It’s worth a try.” So I will probably try that as well soon.

Overall, this edition of Devoxx was great! The first 2 days, I was somewhat afraid that it would be disappointing, because you could feel that everything was “cheaper”, that there were less sponsors, less schwag, less tempting hostesses. But then the most important part was preserved: amazing independent content and a great community spirit. Finally there was an interesting special guest this year: Twitter. Twitter was everywhere. People were tweeting live from the sessions, there was a projection board with all devoxx-related tweets in the hallway. I and a bunch of my colleagues were even using twitter to cover Devoxx live for our fellow Axenian java developers on our intranet. Twitter was really everywhere this year.

So thanks a lot to Axen for allowing me to go there. Thanks to Stephan and the BeJUG for putting it all together. Thanks to all the great speakers and to my colleagues. This was really a great edition and I can’t wait for the next one.

PS: All the talks will be available in the weeks to com on Parleys.com. So stay tuned.

What? You’re doing TDD!

h_4_ill_1022732_black-sheep-bisI’ve always been distrustful by default with the “main way of thinking”. Which doesn’t mean that I systematically reject the opinion of the majority. But given the strong tendency of human beings towards laziness and our natural tendency to sheep-like behaviour, the faster something gets popular, the more I question it.
Test-driven development has always fallen in this category for me. The problem it’s supposed to solve is real: software coding is a highly error-prone activity and we need to do everything we can to avoid shipping erroneous code. I totally agree with that. But then TDD is just one solution to this problem: to avoid shipping errors, let’s test and check our code in order to detect errors before shipping. But this solution leads to other problems:

  • tests are just more code where there can be other errors, and that need to be maintained. So what about false positives and negatives?
  • test writing has always looked like a very boring and chore-like activity to me, especially if it involves thinking about my implementation algorithm before I actually write the corresponding algorithm, which is often required when doing behavioral testing
  • I’m still not convinced that ensuring each part of the system is working is supposed to reassure me about the system as a whole.

And more importantly, there are other alternative solutions to the same original problems: for example, instead of waiting for tests to fail to fix mistakes, why not trying to avoid them in the first place? We have some pretty good tools for that: refactoring is error-prone, especially when you use a refactoring engine that is not reliable. Then stop using Eclipse, move to IntelliJ. You keep reproducing the same wrong patterns from some old language you’ve worked with for 10 years? How about static analysis? And instead of typing that much error-prone boilerplate code, why not use code generators or dynamic languages like Groovy? I’ve been using all of these tools for years, and I’m gonna say something bold here: I shipped some pretty decent software with not enough bugs to justify the  weight of TDD. A craftsman can also go a long way in improving his work by getting better tools, and training himself to use them. Actually that’s what really pisses me off with all the TDD religion thing: too much focus on techniques and processes, not enough on technologies and people. And I think I’m just more interested in the latter two.

Now most of the time, when I raise my objections about TDD to people who say “What? You’re not doing TDD!!!” with some sort of horrified look, they just answer me with disdain instead of actual arguments, which can mean one of 2 things:

  1. They didn’t look into it that much. They just followed the trend because it seems nice to say that you do TDD
  2. I didn’t look into it enough and some of them are actually right to treat me that way, because I don’t know what I’m talking about

I thought I had tried TDD enough in the past to avoid the second option, but this morning I attended an amazing talk by Robert C. Martin at Devoxx. In fact, there was another talk before by Ivar Jacobson. And the guy kept talking about software as an industry (comparable to manufacturing for example), about the fact that we have a big professionalism issue (which I totally agree with), and that in his view the best way to fix the problem is to add some theoretical foundations into the mix. Let’s say I didn’t agree at all with his view of where the problem lies, and with his inferiority mix up towards other industries. But on the other hand, I agreed a lot with Uncle Bob’s view of things… until he started talking about how silly it was not to do TDD these days. How can I agree with his conception of where the problem really is, and not with one of the main solutions he proposes. Maybe I’m missing something here. The best way to figure it out is to read in more details what he has to say. And given the incredible energy he showed in his talk this morning, his book is likely to be a lot more interesting than all the TDD manifestoes I’ve read in the past (or tried to read before falling asleep).