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D-Lib Magazine
May/June 2009

Volume 15 Number 5/6

ISSN 1082-9873

Developer Happiness Days

Takin' it to the Pub

 

Carol Minton Morris
Cornell University
<clt6@cornell.edu>

Ben O'Steen
Oxford University
<benjamin.osteen@ouls.ox.ac.uk>

David Flanders
University of London
<d.flanders@bbk.ac.uk>

Red Line

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In a call to "keep it real" the 1977 Doobie Brothers' hit song "Takin' it to the Streets" contains the words, "You, telling me the things you're gonna do for me; I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see." Developer Happiness Days (DEV8D) organizers David Flanders and Ben O'Steen borrowed a bit of that spirit to take intense and often useful hallway conversations from around the fringes of larger tech-and-info-culture conferences (where they feel that they are ignored) to make them the centerpiece of an unconference event aptly named Developer Happiness Days. The goal for the JISC-sponsored event, held in London February 8-12, 2009, was to keep it real, lively, relevant and – most importantly – fun for technology developers.

The idea of happiness as the basis for a technical gathering is nothing to laugh at. The 2006 global map of "Subjective Well-being" by Adrian White, University of Leicester, suggests that there are a lot of people out there, technically oriented and otherwise, who could use some cheering up. While we might be able to name a few things that please us, general happiness is often regarded as an illusive, hard-to-measure quality that tends to be something we recognize, fleetingly, when we experience it.

Flanders and O'Steen came up with methods that put developers and their ideas first to increase feelings of well-being. O'Steen suggests in his blog entitled Less Talk, More Code, "A good innovative developer possesses creativity and a positive outlook; someone with the 'rough consensus, running code' mentality that pervades good software innovation." DEV8D was all about fostering "play, vagueness and communication" by putting unlikely concepts and people together to create surprise and inspiration. They even considered the "usual suspect" type of developer who might be shy about sharing ideas and personal information in a face-to-face, social/work environment. O'Steen continues, "There is a need to provide means for people to break the ice, and to strike up conversations with people that they can recognize as being of like minds." He suggests that simple feedback loops such as being thanked for even small contributions can lead to increased communication and agreement in technical development processes.

The developers who participated spoke and wrote eloquently about what they learned (see related posts below). They managed their time at this carefully designed event to enable hands-on learning about rapid prototyping tools such as Python and Django, while also trying them out in a technical community. Lively question and answer sessions where participants agreed to the rule, "what is said in the room, stays in the room" promoted honest information exchanges.

A few successful techniques balanced play with free time, useful activities and leveraging lightweight Web 2.0 technologies. Noting that everyone likes to get a high score whether in video games or in social network sites, O'Steen used a service created by Sam Easterby-Smith on day two of the conference to collect metrics via twitter and provide feedback to participants ("Happyness-o-meter"). Wordle was used to create a word cloud snapshot of each attendee's web space as an abstract way of sharing information. Other easy-going game-like activities helped to keep people engaged and interested. Some DEV8D events were held in local pubs on the outside chance that people might relax in these types of informal settings.

By the second day DEV8D evolved into a build-your-own-experience that consisted of an all-hands "base camp" where developers came and went, hung out, worked on problems collaboratively and reflected on evolving perceptions. A series of "lightning talks" on a variety of short topics encouraged attendees to only attend those sessions that were of particular interest while leaving open the possibility of mixing and matching.

The main event was a 'Developer Decathlon' competition where attendees assembled into nine teams and were encouraged to make something useful and creative in exchange for a chance to win cash prizes.

Team Bsmmmm (Ben Charlton, Simon Yeldon, Matt Bull, Matt Spence, Matthew Slowe and Mark Fendley) took home the 5,000.00 grand prize in what was described by judges as fierce competition for a Web 2.0-friendly reading list prototype, "List8D." Read more about Team Bsmmmm's achievement, as well as the second and third prize winnners on the JISC website: <http://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2009/04/dev8d.aspx>.

More About DEV8D on the Web:

DEV8D JISC blog: <http://dev8d.jiscinvolve.org/>. Read posts from the event about collective intelligence and how technology can help to access it, a five-minute interview with Ross Gardler, Apache, Mark Dewey's semantic search idea, more rapid ideas, a video of Peter Sefton's lightning talk about focusing on something simple like making PDF documents more usable, all about "uber users" and several others.

Google Code DEV8D Web site: <http://code.google.com/p/developerhappinessdays/>.

Julian Cheal. "dev8D: JISC Developer Happiness Days." Aridadne <http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue58/jisc-dev8d-rpt/>.

Ben O'Steen. Blog post: "Developer Happiness days - Why happyness is important." Less Talk, More Code. <http://oxfordrepo.blogspot.com/2009/02/developer-happiness-days-why-happyness.html>.

Julliette Culver. Blog post: "JISC Developer Happiness Days." <http://www.jvvw.com/?p=292>.

Copyright © 2009 Carol Minton Morris, Ben O'Steen, and David Flanders
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doi:10.1045/may2009-morris