February 15 & 16, 2018 • French Quarter, New Orleans


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Exploring the past and future of software

How do you choose which conference talks to watch?

Whenever I watch conference talks online, I always ask myself “is this talk going to be relevant in ten years?” There are so many talks to watch now that I need some kind of criterion to figure out what to watch. This criterion helps me filter for depth and avoid spending my time on stuff that seems cool at the moment but won’t be useful longterm. It’s one of the reasons I like the Clojure community. We seem to care about depth while making things practical in the short term.

Clojure SYNC is designed to only have talks that will be relevant in ten–or even fifty–years. These are the kinds of talks that will make you a better programmer for your entire career. And for the businesses out there that want to build something of lasting value, these talks will help your employees make long-range decisions.

There are three themes at the conference: Career, Craft, and Context. Allow me to explain.

Craft

The simplest theme to explain is the Craft theme. I’ve watched thousands of programming talks online and one thing that has always struck me is how little Clojure programmers talk about the craft of programming–the act of writing and manipulating code. We may talk about databases and platforms, and about great algorithms, or deep ideas in Computer Science. But what we rarely talk about is the process of writing the software.

When I browse through talks from Ruby conferences, I see lots of talks about refactoring, setting up editors, OO “design”, TDD and other processes, and stylistic issues. There’s a lot of discussion about how the code gets written. This exists in the Clojure world, but it is more rare. Now, to be sure, I think they may talk about it too much in the Ruby community, but we don’t talk about it enough. So I dedicated a whole theme to this one, with three awesome talks by excellent craftspeople.

We all know how hard dates and times are to work with as programmers. Timezones, etc. But is that the end of the story? Emily Ashley works with geographic and time data and has a thing or two to say about the mapping of our precise notion of time that we use as programmers, and the informal, common-sense time that people use in the real world. Place and time data is a great example of a human concept not fitting at all with the rational abstractions we try to impose on it.

Beloved Clojure speaker Zach Tellman has been working on a book specifically about Clojure coding style. It’s still a work in progress, and he’s going to be talking about up-to-the-minute research he’s been doing. But the book is already awesome and he’s doing a lot of great deep dives into old classics about data, abstraction, and style.

The last talk in the theme is George Kierstein. She’s given a talk at the Conj before. Now, I have to admit this talk doesn’t quite fit neatly into the theme of Craft. It kind of straddles Craft and Context. But here is what it’s about: code rot is real. We stop running some code and come back to it 6 months later and it doesn’t work. The libraries have been updated. The environment variables have changed. The IP has changed! We’ve put so much time and energy into that code, and now look at it. We probably have to do a lot of work to resurrect that work–that only 6 months ago ran perfectly! George has a plan and more importantly a perspective that can help us alleviate this problem.

Career

The next theme is all about Clojure at work. We need to get paid, and companies need working software. There are a bunch of apparent challenges for companies choosing Clojure. Most importantly, will they be able to hire? Then, there are the hidden challenges that you won’t find out until you get started.

Rebecca Kinsella is a technical recruiter at Funding Circle, a company with a big investment in Clojure. She runs the Bay Area Clojure User Group, one of the largest in the world. She’s going to be talking about how to hire Clojure programmers and also what companies look for when hiring. I’m really looking forward to this one. She’s going to present then I hope to get lots of good questions from the audience.

Elana Hashman is working on the Leiningen Debian package. You might be thinking, what does this have to do with careers? Well, that’s a great question! Our modern commercial software is built on a foundation of open source projects, including Debian. We need to tap into existing ecosystems of software so that things can work. We need easy ways to install Clojure on all of the popular platforms. Investment in this area is an overlooked contributor to the success of Clojure as a business-friendly language. She’ll be talking about the challenges of building some of this essential infrastructure.

Baishampayan Ghose probably had the first Clojure code in production. Since then, he’s built Helpshift to a team of 80 programmers. He’s got a wealth of information about building large Clojure teams from scratch. I am so looking forward to some great stories with hard-won lessons.

Context

I struggled with the name of this theme because it’s supposed to encompass so many different ideas. I’ve always been fascinated by the changes happening in the world today. Software is automating more and more of the bureaucracy in the world at an amazing rate. Yet people like Alan Kay and Bret Victor also talk about untapped potential in software as a personal medium–programmable devices that can let us explore and exchange ideas in a much better way than previous media. To understand this far-reaching change, we’ll have to explore history, anthropology, psychology, and computer science.

Gerald Jay Sussman, co-author of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, will be talking about the effect of programming on humanity. Technology always changes our relationships to each other, sometimes in ways that imbalance the powers-that-be. Dr. Sussman will be speaking about the challenges of working with powerful AIs.

Will Byrd is a favorite speaker at Clojure conferences. He once told me he was excited about the history of writing and he showed me a bookshelf full of books about writing. I’m talking cuneiform and hieroglyphics. He was inspired by Alan Kay. So what does a programmer and programming language theorist take from the history of writing, a powerful technology that changed history, and what parallels does he see with software?

David Nolen often has talks that touch on deeper topics than the details of the ClojureScript compiler. I asked him to talk about the future of programming. What will programming look like in 5, 10, and even 50 years? We’ve got way more power than we often think. Many of the techniques we’re using now were developed in the 1970s for mainframes and minicomputers. And we’re just now realizing that we’ve got more than that in our pockets nowadays. How will programming look when it finally grows into its new, super-powerful hosts?

Kim Crayton is a firecracker. She’s the real deal. She’s working on her Doctorate of Business and she’s been analyzing the business implications of the coming AI Summer (I guess we’re in the Spring now, after a long AI Winter). But when AI is doing more and more manual labor, and also more and more work that we consider “knowledge work”, how can we remain relevant? AI is now building new AIs. What role will we (humans) play in software development in the future? Oh, wow, I’m actually afraid now!

Conclusions

I am so excited by the awesome lineup I’ve put together. These are amazing, world-class speakers. It’s single-track, so everyone has a shared experience. I’m hoping to inspire deep discussions that run late into the night. I’d love to be a part!

Okay, so what are you waiting for? Buy your tickets!

And I’m curious: how do you choose which conference talks to watch? Tweet me @ericnormand.

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About the Author

Eric Normand is the organizer of Clojure SYNC. He teaches Clojure and Functional Programming at PurelyFunctional.tv and blogs at LispCast.com.