Dave Concannon

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In Pure Water, No Fish

Future of Web Apps Dublin 2009 Review

On Friday (March 6th ‘09) I attended the (FOWA) Future of Web Apps Dublin conference hosted by Carsonified at Liberty Hall.  Carsonified are responsible for developing and successfully selling projects such as Dropsend, and HeyAmigo, and put together a very nicely run conference with some great speakers. This post is a (not so) brief review of the presentations given.

Here’s the criteria for what I consider a good presentation, I’ll give each of these areas a mark out of five and average for a final score. This is just my slant on things, and if you have a different measurement of quality then let me know. :)

  • Content – Were the slides good? Was the actual “meat” of the talk good? Did the presenter make specific memorable points that I can remember?
  • Delivery - Was the speaker confident? Was I convinced that they knew their material? Did they use their slides effectively to put across their message? Most importantly, did they keep the material interesting?
  • Practicality – I’m looking for practical suggestions and tips that I can use in projects I’m working on, and nebulous buzzwords or rambling framework hero-worship is not interesting to me. Did I come away with anything interesting from the talk?
I’ll also mention the general audience reaction, but I’m only giving my own opinions on the presentation. Just to clarify, I tried to attend every session and the most advanced bit of technology I had with me was a pad and pencil; no twitter or web surfing. I was trying to pay attention to every speaker. Here are the presenters in the order they spoke, with a score for each at the end. At the end of the article there’s an overall summary of the conference. Am I wrong? Did I miss the gist of the talk? Leave me some comments and let me know!

Ryan Carson – “How to sell your web app – Lessons learned from the acquisition of Dropsend.com”

Content: Ryan talked through some unexpected barriers that he faced when selling his web apps, and ways that companies looking to exit can make life much easier for themselves from the start. The presentation he used was straight out of Guy Kawasaki’s “10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint“, using slides that make one specific point per page and allow the speaker to expand. This means the audience is not reading slides ahead of what the speaker is saying, and you get far more from the talk.

Specific points made include creating a new web application using it’s own company so you don’t go through the pain of detaching it from your existing company, allowing for 1-click refunds and bonuses to your customers ensures better goodwill, and to start your domain transfer quickly as it takes an eternity. Some interspersed slides of kittens and David HasselHoff covered in Sharpei puppies kept it light.

Score:  5 / 5. It kept my attention throughout.

Delivery – At this stage, Ryan must be an old hand at presenting. His style was relaxed and confident, and it came across like a conversation with a friend in a bar. Very easy to listen to,  and he stayed in a well-lit part of the stage and never got in front of his slides.

Score: 5 / 5.  Can’t fault it.

Practicality – Specific points were made that I could make actionable decisions on. There’s ideas on how to build something into your app from the start (or not to build things in the case of billing – leave it to APIs) that I can take away and use immediately. Just what I want in a talk.

Score: 5 / 5  giving Mr Carson a perfect score. Really enjoyed it.

Eoghan McCabe and Des Traynor – “Unconventional Web Apps”

Content – Eoghan and Des belted through some 240 slides, which sounds pretty terrifying except that they were churning through them at a pace of several a second in some parts. They set the stage with some ideas on how certain real-life concepts are normal and intuitive, and contrasted with how the web has grown from the technical limitations of the late nineties to accept certain paradigms as conventions even where they’re pretty unintuitive.   If there was one critique I’d raise is that occasionally they’d make a statement as if it was a common fact, but was actually an assumption they were asking the audience to indulge them in. Great use of timing on the slides for comic effect, they had me (and the rest of the audience) cracking up.

Score: 4.5 / 5

Delivery – Des calmly talked through his slides and let his natural humor show. As far as I’m aware he lectured during the time that he was studying for a PhD, and his experience in front of an audience showed in his calm demeanor. Alternatively, Eoghan started off pacing around his half of the stage furiously waving his arms, and directed his speech at the floor more often then at the audience. I’m not sure whether he’s just a really freakin’ intense guy or that nerves took over a little bit, but this made it quite distracting from what he was saying until he started to ease into it about halfway through the talk. Once he relaxed the audience could do the same and enjoy the talk, and the pace was steady and interesting.

Score: 4 / 5

Practicality – This is a hard one to score, as the topic itself isn’t a case study on a specific project or technology, but a call to question what we see as “convention” while developing.  If I take it that the underlying purpose of the talk was to plant a seed of rebellion against unquestioned assumptions in my head, then it’s a success.

Score: 4 / 5 giving the lads from contrast a total score of 4.16/5.  I have to say that they were fantastic ambassadors for the web industry in Ireland.

Robin Christopherson – “Apps for all in a web 2.0 world”

Content – Robin’s talk was on understanding accessibility issues that can affect your web applications. Robin is blind, and watching how he surfs the web is very interesting. His content was somewhat hindered by the flaky wi-fi access in Liberty Hall as he was trying to view live sites, but the general concepts were very interesting. Robin took us through some typical conventions that we take for granted when using the web, for example the ubiquitous CAPTCHA used for form signups. It turns out that by definition a CAPTCHA is completely unusable for a user with any sort of vision impairment as there’s no way for a screen-reader to interpret them. To add insult to injury, the recorded version is completely unintelligible. I found these specific examples of hindrances in his talk very interesting.

Score: 4 / 5

Delivery – As mentioned previously, Robin didn’t use slides during the presentation and the delivery suffered due to forces outside of his control when his web access dropped frequently. He spoke calmly and presented himself well, and came across as someone who’s really passionate about the web, and threw in some nice self-deprecating humor when describing audio versions of CAPTCHAs in that he had to ask other colleagues whether he’s hearing impaired as well.

Score: 3 / 5, due to forces outside of his control.

Practicality – I came away with specific things I can use. Even just seeing how he navigates the web was enlightening. There were some interesting examples of sites that manage to use rich web 2.0 functionality without relying on JavaScript, or offering different content for impaired users which I found useful. I think it could have benefited from a “Top five worst problems” type of summary, but it was definitely practical.

Score: 4 / 5 giving Robin a total of 3.6 / 5.

Blaine Cook – “How to build amazing web applications – Lessons learned from building Twitter.com”

Content – Maybe it was the rush of sugar from the blueberry muffin I had at the morning break, or some sort of temporary coma from the realisation that I paid two Euros for an eyedropper of tea, but I was pretty disappointed with this talk.  Blaine is without doubt an exceptional developer, but for the life of me I can’t remember what went on in this talk.  The one point I took away from it was that XMPP was a very complicated and detailed specification.  He didn’t use specific points in the slides that I can recall, just directed talk around some vague concepts that I can’t remember. Whether it was just me or it just wasn’t a good presentation I can’t tell.

Score: 1 / 5

Delivery – Blaine seems to be a sort of friendly, quiet, unassuming character who definitely has passion for his work, but I think that perhaps the talk was a little too muted for the size of the audience. I don’t think the style of his slides really helped – it wasn’t grounded enough and as a result he didn’t really make coherent points that I can remember.  He didn’t make great use of the stage and sort of hung around at the side in a half-shadow, and talked about whatever seemed to come to mind, but he was calm and confident. For no other reason than I wasn’t sure if the material just didn’t appeal to me, I’ll say that the delivery was good.

Score:  4 / 5

Practicality – I was disappointed, and came away from this talk with… not much. Perhaps the cause of this disappointment is the high hopes I had for practical concepts that I could use. The title suggested that I would be given information that will transform my humble tinkering into something astounding. Unfortunately, without specific points that could anchor me to his talk,  I drifted off into a complex series of calculations on how much margin Liberty hall were making on the tiny cups of tea.

Score: 1 / 5 giving Blaine a total of 2 / 5.

Emma Persky – “The future is Ruby without Rails”

Content – Emma’s slide presentation consisted of roughly 15 images taken from Flickr with tentative-at-best links to what she was speaking about. At the risk of repeating myself, I need something that anchors me to the fundamental message of what the presenter is delivering. The core of Emma’s content seemed to be that occasionally frameworks don’t deliver absolutely everything that you need in an application. Personally this seems obvious at best, and insulting at worst. What am I, a kid playing with Lego? I would not expect even the most junior of developers to express the opinion that a single technology or framework will do everything under the sun. Everything has it’s reasonable limits, and taking me on a tour of flickr to explain this seems pointless. One particularly myopic audience member twittered that it was somewhat disrespectful to “sort of dis” rails at a conference where David Heinemeier Hansson was speaking. Not relevant to the point of the talk, and not relevant in any larger context either; anything that can’t stand up to a little bit of criticism is pretty poor, and such hero worship just promotes emotional attachment to a technology over it’s value. She did make a great point about diversity in frameworks of the same language being good for the language as a whole, but in general I was unimpressed.

Score: 2 / 5

Delivery - Emma is passionate about technology, it’s obvious that she loves what she does and to be honest it’d be great to see more people as interested in web development as she is. She came across as confident, though rushed her words a little and stayed a bit too far away from center stage. As her slides weren’t making any concrete points she probably should have been front and center. I can’t detract from the delivery – she pushed her idea across.

Score: 4 / 5

Practicality – The practical ideas that I got out of this presentation were mostly incidental to the talk given, in that I was in a state of unimpressed disbelief at the questions asked at the end. The impression I got was that most of these questions came from audience members with considerable ego invested in Rails, which they somehow felt that Emma was insulting. To clarify, I’ve used rails for projects and liked it, but to me it’s just another tool that can simplify development. My enlightening moment at the end was that for all the talk of questioning convention, people have considerable emotional lock-in to frameworks and technologies. Frameworks, specific languages, or specific technologies don’t make web applications amazing, clever application of innovative design (front and back-end) does. It’s pretty simple really; everything has it’s place – you don’t use a golf club to go fishing.

Score: 2 / 5 giving a total of 2.6 out of 5.

Morgan McKeagney – “Yet another Web application? Or a successful business?”

Content – Morgan started off by comparing the economic climate of 1977 and the indigenous music scene to the current spot of bother we find ourselves in. This segued into a nice analogy for success in writing web applications – at the time of the punk revolution that Morgan described, there were bands that had considerably local influence. These bands were critically acclaimed and headlined gigs, but thirty years later only a handful of the audience in Liberty Hall had heard of them. The presenter contrasted this with a “second-rate” band at the time who pushed onwards and upwards to become one of the most successful bands on the planet – U2. Morgan’s slides consisted of some relevant images that were well-timed to the ideas he was pitching, and most of the focus was on what he was saying. One small criticism was that he chose one or two quotes that appeared in full on the screen, which meant that the audience had finished reading them (and thus lost focus on him) by the time he got to it. The critical point of his talk is to question what you’re working on – if you’re spending your time on an application that isn’t something that has a market and will make you money then you have a nice hobby, not a business. In terms of U2’s epic success, the music was a very small part of what made them successful – in web application land this is true also, the technology is only a small slice of what makes something popular, and good use marketing, positioning, brand building, and fostering community is also incredibly important. There weren’t specific points mentioned on how to determine whether your idea is business-viable, but it was compelling.

Score: 4 / 5

Delivery – Calm and confident, Morgan stood front and centre and happily looked around the audience, even getting a little bit of audience participation going. One very nice touch in terms of networking opportunities was to anchor himself in the audience’s mind as “the guy with the tie”, and if you’re reading this Morgan, the tie was pretty hideous but a fantastic coup in terms of being memorable to your audience. At the end he announced a €10,000 prize for the best business plan submitted to his company.

Score: 5 / 5

Practicality -  One slide that Morgan showed was a tag cloud of the different aspects of U2’s “business”, in which the music was a small part of a much larger landscape. In terms of getting a technology-focused audience to think about what else is involved in the business of software this was very informative, but I might have liked some practical steps on how to evaluate whether a business is viable, or suggestions on brainstorming to turn a simple idea into something profitable.

Score: 3 / 5, giving Morgan a total of 4 out of 5. Very enjoyable.

Matthew Ogle – “How to build desktop apps that help your web app succeed”

Content – While the title of this presentation might have seemed slightly out of place at a conference about web applications, Matthew left no doubt that this was relevant. Delivering a series of interesting slides interspersed with the ubiquitous web kittens, he took us through some of the ideas that made Last.fm successful. It could be argued that Last.fm was in the right place at the right time to marry the concepts of audioscrobbling and user generated content into a powerhouse audio recommendation engine, but it’s clear that they made some excellent decisions to get there. The talk had some choice information on what not to do in order to get your users actively using your application. In terms of Last.fm, a desktop app which sent scrobbled audio information to the servers is sufficient to infer whether a user likes a track or not by how many times they listen to it, where one competitor failed was in trying to disrupt the flow of a user by asking them if they wanted to rate the song after it played. Matthew had some interesting ideas on the future of where desktop / web integrations are going and whether it’s actually a good thing or necessary at all. A good mix of fact and speculation.

Score: 5 / 5

Delivery – I enjoyed this talk, Matthew came across as laid back and knowledgeable and he seemed happy on stage. This was another talk akin to having a chat with a group of friends in the pub, he skimmed around the edges of the topic comparing and contrasting with competitor’s offerings or other similar technologies. He never took the slides too seriously, and the overall impression was that this was his opinion and he was fine with you running off and finding something else that contradicted it.

Score: 5 / 5. One of the best presenters of the day.

Practicality – As a former desktop developer, this talk gave me some immediate ideas for driving adoption of our web software. The idea of co-opting a user’s normal work patterns to collect data or push something from the web is very interesting. If I could play devil’s advocate and assume that I have never been a desktop developer, then this talk still gave me practical concepts in terms of web usability and user flow.

Score: 4 / 5 giving Matthew a score of 4.6 / 5

Simon Willison – “Web application horror stories”

Content – Simon proceeded to scare the pants of every god-fearing web developer in the audience by running through some insidious security holes commonly found in websites. He took a run through common XSS, CSRF, and SQL injection attacks and how they can be chained into what he described as “Street Fighter super combos”. His slides allowed the audience to focus on his description of the various attacks, with meatier content in terms of actual application, and screen shots of example attacks. Yet again the slides of kittens found their way into the presentation, what ever happened to the old presentation chestnut of pictures of attractive women in bikinis accompanied by the standard “Oops! How did that get in there?”?

Score: 5 / 5

Delivery – Confident, well paced, and didn’t labor his points. One example attack of an cross site attack involving one of Britney Spears’ twitter updates had the entire audience in tears of laughter. Even though I was aware of the attacks he was describing and their consequences, it had my attention for the entire presentation.

Score: 5 / 5

Practicality – Simon attached relative importance to the dangers of the various security holes he was describing, and described the “better” way to avoid the issues described. Without being preachy he provided gave solid, practical methods to prevent the issues. I picked up some new ideas, and I think that any developers without the knowledge of these sorts of attacks would have gained a lot of practical information from this talk.

Score: 5 / 5 giving Simon Willison a perfect score.

120 seconds of madness – Start-ups pitch their ideas

Content - Three startups were given two minutes each to pitch their ideas to Ryan Carson, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Mike Butcher (of TechCrunch). The “contestants” were Campbell Scott of IGOPeople, Anton Mannering from UDooGoo, and Robin Blandford from “Decisions for Heroes“.  Once the startups pitched, the judges gave feedback, mainly on what they liked about the presentation. This didn’t have the bitter twist of an American Idol audition so the feedback was mainly positive or neutral. It’s a nice idea, but could probably have done with a more critical approach.

Score: 4 / 5.

Delivery – There was a standout winner in the three presentations in Robin Blandford, who presented himself confidently with a well-rehearsed speech that explained decisions for heroes succinctly. He answered any of the judge’s questions quickly, and explained a clear path for what he wanted to achieve in dominating his particular niche and then expanding. The other two presented themselves with shaky starts, and it was obvious that nerves were interfering with their pitches, though they both got there in the end. I think both need more practice delivering their elevator pitch in public, and that with time they’ll polish their pitches nicely. In both of these cases the judges had to push for more questions on how the businesses worked exactly, and how they were planning to grow it into a profitable business but they were impressed when they both demonstrated solid ideas for revenue generation.

Score: 5 / 5. It takes balls to get on stage in front of your peers and sell your ideas. Well done lads.

Practicality – This was a crash course in elevator pitches via the medium of schadenfreude. It should have been obvious to any developer in the audience what the judges were looking for in a presentation, and how they can apply it to polishing their own pitch. I think it could have done with an explanation from the judges of what they think is the ideal way to pitch, or some sort of quick recap on the top pieces of information a good pitch should deliver. Practical advice you could take away on elevator pitches would be to polish your elevator pitch so that you know it off by heart, try to cut directly to what your product does and explain clearly how you’re going to make money, then practice relentlessly until it’s second nature and you can delivery confidently.

Score: 4 / 5 giving this section a total score of 4.3 our of 5

David Heinemeier Hansson – “The Real World”

Content – For some of the audience, David was the main reason to come to FOWA. With such an expectation built up, I was expecting big things and thankfully David delivered. The talk explored criticisms that people often put across to developers when presenting a new idea, picking away at the concept and suggesting that it wouldn’t work “in the real world”, or once it’s a success people justify why it wouldn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t work for them.  David cut through these common criticisms in a presentation which made nice use of the 10/20/30 presentation rule (I’d clarify that this isn’t the be-all and end-all guide to live speeches, but those presenters that used it had more interesting talks, and the audience paid attention to the speaker and not the slides). The message he put across was solid and practical, and something he’s mentioned in other talks – Make something people want, charge them money, and then spend it! A great message in the current market of dozens of “me too!” twitter applications, and loss-making social networking sites.

Score: 5 / 5

Delivery – From the second David was introduced the audience greeted him with whistles and rapturous applause – like a rock star. To be honest, this bothers me. I’m an admirer of his work and of 37signalsapplication development philosophy, but I don’t go in for hero worship and would like to keep an open mind to judge his talk on it’s merit, not David’s reputation. With my biases aside, DHH owned the stage. His delivery was confident to the point of arrogant, which fit in perfectly with the theme of his talk and he kept the pace snappy, and it was amusing. His “fuck you” attitude mirrored the content of the presentation; he is living the ideas he was presenting. He threw in a few jokes (one bizarrely about his “wonderfully swirly hair”), and the audience lapped it up.

Score: 5 / 5

Practicality – This was like a startup pep-talk, and I think you could listen to this talk whenever you feel you’re about to give up on a project. The message of one of the last slides stuck with me – “Execution and Perseverance”. It’s the classic “secret” to success – pick your niche, dominate it, and keep improving. There’s no “secret sauce”, no golden niche that nobody has ever noticed. You just need to grab an idea that has a market willing to pay money, keep the people happy, and spread the word. A wonderful motivational talk that you could listen to once a month to keep the fire burning.

Score: 5 / 5. For all my reservations, he rocked it.

Mini-sessions

There were three mini-sessions during the breaks in the day, but I only caught two of them. IQcontent’s mini-session on user testing during the lunch break (Slides here) looked interesting, but anyone who knows me will testify that you don’t want to meet me when I haven’t been fed so I left for the epicurean food hall on Liffey street as a courtesy to public safety.

Stuart Townsend from Sun Microsystems gave a rundown of some “startup essentials“, in a nutshell why small companies should be bootstrapping, using services like the cloud, and whether the current economic climate is conducive to building something. If you weren’t aware – it is. While a lot of people will be trying to run back to college as the economy tanks, now is the perfect time to put in some hard work to get a product going. Actually, that’s a lie; the perfect time is always “now”.

Martha Rotter from Microsoft gave a talk on the version 8 of Internet Explorer. There are some nice additions that the audience were happy with, including much improved compatibility with CSS – a constant problem for front-end development on the web. Accelerators are a way to provide active links on your address bar, for example an ebay auction you’re watching will highlight on the link bar when someone else makes a new bid on the item you want. A nice presentation, and the new version of IE looks pretty solid, but she lost the audience at the end when she played a cheesy corporate promo video. I was particularly impressed when Martha’s laptop continued to function after it was accidentally dropped from a height.

Both very enjoyable, but these mini sessions didn’t leave much time to spend networking.

Summary

Overall the conference was well worth attending. The quality of presentations was high, it ran smoothly without any noticeable technical hitches, and there was enough time to get between mini-sessions and main talks. The event team did a fantastic job of getting everyone registered, and notifying people when the talks were due to resume after breaks. The wi-fi in Liberty Hall was flaky, but I was busy listening to the speakers instead of farting around on an iphone so this didn’t bother me ;). I’d definitely attend another Carsonified event, I really enjoyed it and met some cool people.

In terms of a final score for the conference, I’m really only interested in the talks; flaky wi-fi and nasty coffee / expensive cups of tea are unfortunate but not that relevant. I’m averaging all the presentation scores listed above to give the conference as a whole a final score of just over 4 out of 5.

Was I on the button? Did I miss the point? Should I be shot for not worshiping $FRAMEWORK? Comment below, all feedback welcome.

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