DDD Melbourne 2018

Several of my friends in the tech scene in Melbourne had been very positive about previous iterations of DDD Melbourne – a not-for-profit, grassroots-organised developer conference, that always sold out – so was curious to check it out and was grateful when my friend Cameron arranged tix.

My first impressions were positive – volunteers were very visible in pink capes, the code of conduct was front and centre, the name tag was DIY / free text and lanyards were colour coded for photographic consent. The schedule was voted on by delegates, meaning that the sessions most desired were scheduled in bigger rooms, which worked really well, and the schedule was also printed on the back of the lanyard – this was super helpful. Rooms were colour-coded and easy to find with big signage. The venue unfortunately was really too small for the number of delegates – the official tally was just over 600, and trying to fit this many people into the Town Hall, especially for lunch and morning tea, made it a little crowded.

The content itself was also much better than I expected at a grassroots event, however I did observe that at least three of the presentations I went to were by professional developer advocates – people who are employed by tech companies to professionally present about the company’s platform or product, and the content was very Microsoft-heavy – given they were a key sponsor I didn’t know if they automatically got speaking slots as part of their sponsorship or not – this wasn’t made clear at all. The language coverage itself was also very Microsoft heavy – lots of C#, Visual Studio, Azure – and very little Python or other open source languages like PHP.

NOTE: I currently contract in a similar role at Mycroft.AI

I did find it a little odd that the event was Microsoft-sponsored, but there wasn’t any GitHub presence at all. Interesting, there wasn’t any presence from GCP or AWS – likely because of the Microsoft sponsorship and their competing Azure product.

Overall, I found it a bit too pitched at the junior-dev end of the spectrum, and too Microsoft-heavy for my tastes – but a well run, safe event that has matured beyond its grassroots beginnings.

Keynote: A Day in the Life of a CEO – Dayle Stevens, CIO, AGL Energy

Dayle Stevens - DDD Melbourne 2018

Dayle provided a real-life insight into the daily routine of a CIO – highlight how important it is to keep up to date with mission critical information, and the constant tension between a heavily filled operational schedule of back to back meetings, and the need to be focused strategically and on longer time horizons – against a backdrop of constant context-switching.  Her experiences were authentic and realistic – and highlighted that in large organisations that the operating rhythm is set via the content of conversations –

“it’s all about talking with people”.

She is inspired by the ability to drive the direction of the company – and underscored that these days, every company is underpinned by technology, so having a technology role within a company allows you to have a stronger involvement in the overall organisational strategy. Dayle went on to explain that a key challenge for companies today is the complexity of technology – many companies are old – and some still have technology from 50 years ago – so CIOs are not just dealing with “two-speed” IT – they’re working on “three-speed” IT;

  • dealing with legacy technology
  • dealing with the digital transformation of today
  • and needing to embrace the emerging technology of tomorrow

The role of the CIO as a cross-organisational role, that touches every line of business and every function, and is integral to process improvement, was underscored using a business model canvas, covering;

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Systems
  • Style
  • Staff
  • Skills

all combined under the umbrella of shared values – and Dayle noted that her job wasn’t just to interface with senior leadership, but to “empower everyone in the organisation”.

In her advice for engaging with CIOs, she referred to DISC personality profiling, noting that most CIOs fall into the ‘Dominant’ quadrant – people who are action oriented and outcomes-driven, and so in dealing with CIOs you need to quickly get to the point. She did however make the comment that she feels other personality types – more analytical types – are less represented at the CIO level, and that this is itself a diversity issue.

Rian Finnegan – A Practical Introduction to Quantum Computing

Ryan Finnegan - An introduction to quantum computing

This was the standout presentation of the day, and a huge credit to Rian’s presentation ability, and skill in being able co clearly communicate complex concepts.

Rian provided a primer on Quantum Computing – starting with explaining how quantum computing simulates the the the quantum world – the world of molecules – and can be used to help solve wicked problems such as climate change and food production. Personally, quantum computing was always something that was firmly in the theoretical “maybe one day far off into the future” space – and to have such an accessible and easy to follow primer was wonderful.

Rian started with the classic Schrödinger’s cat example, highlighting how observing a system in quantum computing alters the quantum state, then provided an overview of complex numbers, Bra-Ket notation and moved on to quantum states, and then an overview of Bloch spheres, qubits, quantum gates, quantum entanglement and ended with a discussion on how to provide quantum supremacy – that is, how do we mathematically prove that quantum computers are superior to classic computers?

I cannot do Rian’s presentation justice in a summary – you really do need to see this talk, or get this talk to your own conference.

Ben Cull – Startup Life Lessons

Ben was the most engaging presenter of the day, and his delivery style was warm, humorous and entertaining.

He told the story of this journey founding several startups, and the lessons he’s learned from each of them, condensed around a sort of maturity model;

  • Minimum Viable Product
  • Market fit
  • Growth
  • Performance
  • Exit

He highlighted the need to focus on your own personal brand, and to have a clear understanding of what will drive you – particularly as founding a startup requires a lot of resilience.

“What is going to drive you at your lowest point?”

One aspect he advocated was that as a startup founder, you have to push yourself to be social – you have to have large networks – “go to the pub, you will get a job” –  opportunities come through social engagement. I’m not sure if I agree with this – firstly because it plays into the “bro culture” of hiring people like you – or who drink in the same pub as you – or who drink – an activity that you have in common – and because I think it’s the easy way out. Hiring the person you met in the pub at a meetup just screams due diligence.

One key takeaway from Ben’s presentation was ensuring that you are continually talking with your customers, and using their feedback to iterate on your product – it’s never a case of “build it and they will come” – because they won’t. Marketing and selling, getting product traction are incredibly important for a startup, and it can be helpful to find a partner or ambassador to help you with this – a recurring theme from startup advisors – you need the right mix of co-founders for a successful product.

Damien Brady – An Introduction to Machine Learning

Damien Brady - Introduction to Machine Learning

This was a great, accessible introduction to machine learning concepts

Damien is a Developer Advocate at Microsoft, and started by putting Machine Learning into context with artificial intelligence and deep learning, and underscored the need to start the machine intelligence life-cycle with a “sharp question” – a question that machine learning approaches can answer. He highlighted that one of the hardest parts of a machine learning development lifecycle is going to be getting your data in the right format – it’s often unstructured, inconsistent and requires a lot of cleaning.

He went on to provide an overview of how machine learning models work, and explained the concept of ‘overfit‘. He explained model functions, and how the decision boundary – what “is” and “isn’t” – is explained by a mathematical function. Here we got into some matrix-based calculus as he went on to explain the concept of a cluster function, an error function, and how we want to minimise this – using calculus minimisation techniques, such as gradient descent.

He went on to explain how model functions which are linear have specific limitations because they are linear – they are two-dimensional, but many applications of machine learning are multidimensional. To  make the model non-linear, an activation function – such as a sigmoid function – is applied.

The key takeaway here was that if you have a generalised typed of machine learning scenario you don’t need to start from scratch because there are several machine learning models and model training tools available in tools like TensorFlow.

 

 

 

Book review: Technically wrong: Sexist apps, biased algorithms and other threats of toxic tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

A must read for anyone who designs digital experiences, and doesn’t want to be an inadvertent dude-bro.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34068533-technically-wrong

Against a backdrop of increasingly ubiquitous technology, with every online interaction forcing us to expose parts of ourselves, Sara Wachter-Boettcher weaves a challenging narrative with ease. With ease, but not easily. Many of the topics covered are confronting, holding a lens to our internalised “blind spots, biases and outright ethical blunders”.

As Wachter-Boettcher is at pains to highlight, all of this is not intentional – but the result of a lack of critical evaluation, thought and reflection on the consequences of seemingly minor technical design and development decisions. Over time, these compound to create systemic barriers to technology use and employment – feelings of dissonance for ethnic and gender minorities, increased frustration for those whose characteristics don’t fit the personas the product was designed for, the invisibility of role models of diverse races and genders – and reinforcement that technology is the domain of rich, white, young men.

The examples that frame the narrative are disarming in their simplicity. The high school graduand whose Latino/Caucasian hyphenated surname doesn’t fit into the form field. The person of mixed racial heritage who can’t understand which one box to check on a form. The person who’s gender non-conforming and who doesn’t fit into the binary polarisation of ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. Beware, these are not edge cases! The most powerful take-away for me personally from this text is that in design practice, edge cases are not the minority. They exist to make us recognise of the diversity of user base that we design for.

Think “stress cases” not “edge cases”. If your design doesn’t cater for stress cases, it’s not a good design.

While we may have technical coding standards, and best practices that help our technical outputs be of high quality, as an industry and as a professional discipline, we have a long way to go in doing the same for user experience outputs. There are a finite number of ways to write a syntactically correct PHP function. Give me 100 form designers, and I will will give you 100 different forms that provide 100 user experiences. And at least some of those 100 users will be left without “delight” –  a nebulous buzzword for rating the success (or otherwise) of digital experiences.

Wachter-Boettcher takes precise aim at another seemingly innocuous technical detail – application defaults – exposing their (at best) benign, and, at times, malignant utilisation to manipulate users into freely submitting their personal data. It is designing not for delight, but for deception.

“Default settings can be helpful or deceptive, thoughtful or frustrating. But they’re never neutral.”

Here the clarion call for action is not aimed at technology developers themselves, but at users, urging us to be more careful, more critical, and more vocal about how applications interact with us.

Artificial intelligence and big data do not escape scrutiny. Wachter-Boettcher illustrates how algorithms can be inequitable – targeting or ignoring whole cohorts of people, depending on the (unquestioned) assumptions built into machine learning models. Big data is retrospective, but not necessarily predictive. Just because a dataset showed a pattern in the past does not mean that that pattern will hold true in the future. Yet, governments, corporations and other large institutions are basing large policies, and practice areas on algorithms that remain opaque. Yet while responsibility for decision making might be able to be delegated to machines, accountability for how those decisions are made cannot be.

The parting thought of this book is that good intentions aren’t enough. The implications and cascading consequences of seemingly minor design and development decisions need to be thought through, critically evaluated, and handled with grace, dignity and maturity. That will be delightful!

Ada Lovelace Day – Quinn Norton

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates inspirational women in technology. This post is dedicated to Quinn Norton, a journalist who specialises in covering the fields of body hacking and functional body modification. Unusual choice? You bet! Inspirational? Definitely 🙂

Body hacking is, like all other forms of volition: the freedom to enact your will upon a system

Quinn embodies (no pun intended) freedom. Her viewpoint is that in our society we often have less control over our own bodies than we do over other objects such as hardware. Medical procedures are tightly regulated and governed not from the perspective of individual freedom, but societal need. She is an advocate of something called functional body modification – implanting devices, taking drugs and having surgery that enhances our abilities.

This has particular importance to me. I have a distance vision of less than 10 inches, am morbidly obese and have a 3 generational family history of premature death due to cardiac failure. My father was one of the first people in Australia to have an implantable defibrillator – a machine which regulated his heartbeat and actively restarted his heart on a number of occasions when it went into nonviable rhythm. Without life there is no technology. I can’t code when I’m dead.

That said, I’m conservative. I won’t get laser eye surgery to restore my vision to 20/20, yet happily underwent gastric banding to reduce obesity. Without Quinn’s view of body modification – that it is an expression of freedom – it would have taken me a lot longer to reach this decision and take a positive step. Would I take Provigil to make myself more alert? I’m not sure, but thanks to Quinn Norton  now I think about body enhancement in a different way and am more open to freeing my body from the constraints that have been imposed upon it by nature.

Using technology to alter the body is nothing new. Surgery has been around for over 100 years. However for the most part it has been mechanical – amputation via hacksaw, bloodletting and debridement via scalpel, relocation of joints with brute force. Technology has only entered mainstream medicine in the last 40-50 years – with lasers for surgery, neurosurgery via telescope, better monitoring through machines. It is a matter of time before the body and technology will merge, perhaps in unexpected ways. Will the next generation be part man, part machine? Will becoming part machine be an evolutionary requirement due to the pace of change – the sheer amount of information that has to be absorbed to be productive? How will social status be changed by the ability to enhance bodies? Thin people are better than fat people!

What it means to be female is also changing. As a female, I can control reproduction and choose to have a baby – only when I want to. If I don’t want children, I can still use my body for the benefit of others and act as a surrogate for a friend or colleague who can’t carry to term – an expression not just of freedom but of altruism. Functional body modification also brings with it new challenges – such as the ability to subscribe to changing societal norms – enormous perky breasts that seem to defy gravity, faces that never sag and bums that never droop.

Quinn Norton is a pioneer – using her own body as a platform with which to experiment, push boundaries and continually question what it means to be human.

Watch Quinn Norton’s presentation on Body Hacking