StackOverflow DevDays in Cambridge

When last June I ran into an article from Joel Spolsky announcing the StackOverflow DevDays in Cambridge I took the chance on the fly and booked my seat. Last Thursday I eventually got to this wonderful city in the UK and after wandering around for a whole day, I attended the conference on Friday.

The first presentation was from Mr Spolsky in person… great way to start. Mr Spolsky discussed about compromises to make between simplicity and power citing general cases first and going in depth into the software business afterwards. It seems that an experiment run by some academic within a groceries store showed that when the number of the different varieties of jam shown on a shelf was low, the number of customers stopping to have a look was much lower but the number of items sold was 10 times higher. This result suggests that the lower the number of choices is, the easier it is for people to make up their minds and take a decision. On the other side, Mr Spolsky has a personal experience suggesting the opposite and based on the numbers coming from the sales of FogBugz, the flag product of his company, FogCreek.

It seems that every time some new features are added to FogBugz, sales increase significantly and this is in conflict to the results of the experiment described above. What’s the solution then? The solution seems to be basically to allow users to be empowered to set their software tools but to do so in a “human” way and this means with intuitive actions free from complexity. Software applications often come with an intricate set of menus hard to interpret and difficult to navigate, something we would all like to avoid in 2009.

The second presentation was title “The feature loop” and was held by Christian Heilmann (  from Yahoo! I took some interesting tips during this speech:

  • Yahoo! makes available a powerful Javascript library for web applications based on design patterns and called YUI (Yahoo User Interface);
  • Among the services of the YUI technology, the CSS Grid Builder is really awesome;
  • I was also impressed by the YQL, the Yahoo Query Language, a language similar to SQL allowing to query Web Services like the following: use '' as searchimageweb;
    select * from searchimageweb where query='pizza';
  • The Geo Technologies APIs allow to deal with geographical locations of users and helping to build location-aware applications.

A funny quote from Christian regarded IE 6, defined as a security hole, not a browser anymore. According to the speaker, websites shouldn’t be equal on all browsers – they should show up better in better browsers and worse in worse browsers!

The third presentation was held by Frank Stajano (, associate professor at the University of Cambridge and expert in security of software systems. Mr Stajano showed how important the “human element” is in security issues related to software systems. He presented some funny scams coming from a popular program on the BBC with the aim of explaining how people behave in front of such cases. Mr Stajano’s presentation triggered the urge of having software developers take into account unexpected ways in accessing the systems they design.

Mr Spolsky followed with an introduction to the new StackExchange platform, a webapp based on StackOverflow and now available (for payment after a 45 days free trial) for new ideas. Among the most successful interpretations of the platform there is the Moms4Mom website.

Then a presentation from Steven Sanderson ( described the new MCV environment, a very interesting evolution of the programming suite from MS.

Remy Sharp speech described in simple and clear terms how to use jQuery. Remy coded a tag cloud starting from the tags in the lists he was quoted in on Twitter.

Michael Foord ( talked about Python and wrote from scratch a program on how to fix typing mismatches, a functionality similar to the one appearing on Google when the words entered in the search box are not spelled properly. I really appreciated how the resulting code was clean and compact, highlighting the power of Python and its simplicity.

The final presentation was from Jeff Altwood, the famous blogger of CodingHorrors and also the mind behind the whole StackOverflow idea. Jeff talked about how StackOverflow was born, how he cared of putting his hands on every detail starting from hardware up to the actual coding. A presentation full of passion.

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