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The Monki Gras London 2013: scaling craft, how to be happy at work, defining software excellence, and lots of beer

I attend numerous technical events, most of which are vendor-specific. There is nothing wrong with vendor-specific events. If you want to explore what is on offer from that vendor and quiz  their people, they are ideal. You will be aware though that they are promotional events and give you a skewed view of the world, for which you need to make allowance.

Therefore I particularly value events which are not vendor-specific. They may still offer a skewed view of the world, but at least it is vendor-neutral. Redmonk’s Monki Gras is one such, managed by analyst company RedMonk, in particular by its co-founder James Governor.


The event is small, with around 200 attendees, with a bias towards software developers. Seeing the picture above you will observe that it is not entirely vendor-neutral, in that it is sponsored by companies including Amazon, Adobe, twilio, Red Hat, Citrix, SAP and Heroku. Multi-vendor then, rather than vendor-neutral? Arguable, but there was little patience for product pitches and the event was one which was able to hear Basho’s Shanley Kane telling us to discard all our tools (a move unlikely to please vendors), so on a scale where zero is pure marketing fluff and ten searing honesty, I would award it at least an eight.

The Monki Gras is not just about technology. It is also about craft beer. This its second year, and there was even more beer content this time around. Possibly (said sotto voce) more than you might prefer if you have only a passing interest in the subject; but if so, perhaps this was not the right event for you.


Why the beer? Because developers like it. Because it is a craft that does not scale easily. Because it is characterful, flavoursome and distinctive, and individual examples aspire to excellence, all qualities that I suspect Redmonk value.

The combination of Redmonk values, generous sponsors and small size make this an event with exceptional catering. Not only craft beer, but also fresh fruit, Sushi, fresh ground coffee prepared by a skilled barista, and at the evening event, a breathtakingly good selection of cheeses of which I got to taste only a few slivers because my hotel arrangements required an early departure.


One of the ironies of the Monki Gras is that this kind of excellence does not scale well, with long queues for coffee and lunch, and on the Thursday evening one of the slowest meals I have attended. I left after three hours by which time it had reached the third course, but missed dessert and cheese. Good things take time and I guess this is all part of the Monki Gras experience.

What about the technical content? Technical may be the wrong word; and the published agenda is only an approximate guide. A Twitter search is one way to discover what was said; or you can check my tweets for those days; despite poor wifi there were enough smart gadgets that plenty of tweets got through. The focus was on the human aspect of software development, summed up for me by Cyndi Mitchell of Logspace and Thoughtworks, who said:

Software is fundamentally a human, interactive activity – if you don’t understand that, forget it.

Here are some other highlights, not comprehensive, but some of the things which caught my attention.

Rafe Colburn from Etsy who observed that to improve the craft of software development, you need to make time available by automating whatever you can.

Craig Kersteins and Matt Thompson from Heroku talked about developer productivity, with the startling statistic (I have no idea how they get these figures) that 76% of the worst-performing engineers suffer frequent interruptions. Software development needs focus; they suggested 4 hours of continuous uninterrupted work each day. At Heroku they use headphones as a “do not disturb” sign and respect that.

That risks the opposite danger, lack of communication. Hence another Heroku strategy is to give staff free lunch with long tables, to promote communication, and slow coffee machines that make a jug at a time, to promote sharing and collaboration.

Mazz Mosley and Nick Stenning from the Government Digital Service – which is transforming UK government IT from the inside, with generous use of open source and common sense – spoke on not recruiting developer rock stars, who create a single point of failure in your team. Rather, they aim to nurture collective intelligence.

This talk went down well at the Monki Gras, but while the thought makes sense, it intrigues me. Could the same person who becomes a “rock star” in one team be part of “collective intelligence” in another? Is not this more about how you manage your team, than how you recruit? And could a key leader that creates such a team be a bit of a rock star for doing so?

Phil Gilbert from IBM spoke about transforming IBM’s software products with design and rationalisation. The slide that has stayed with me showed how 20+ products in the areas of business process management were consolidated into two or three.

Chris Thorpe from Boffin talked about steam engines and 3D printing. Using 3D printing, steam engines can be repaired, while in another context model railway enthusiasts can get models in whatever size they want.

Steve Citron-Pousty from Red Hat gave us a sideways look at technology by talking about ecosystems. How do you nurture a vibrant ecosystem as opposed to one in which just a few creatures dominate? The answer is about monitoring, measuring, and testing hypotheses.

Ted Nyman at GitHub gave a memorable talk on being happy at work. His answer: no managers.


He described how GitHub is managed: nobody reports to anyone else, decisions are made by consensus, teams form naturally, nobody is forced to do anything, but individuals are highly motivated because they have authenticity and autonomy. Employees are happy and nobody ever quits. “Developers are awkward people, accept awkwardness,” he added.

This was another thought-provoking talk. How much of GitHub’s management model would translate or scale to other businesses? Does it depend on having smart, highly motivated team members? Will it work for ever, or end in disaster? Is Nyman’s description accurate, or are there disguised channels of authority which he did not articulate?

Day two, Friday, opened strongly. I have already mentioned Shanley Kane’s talk. She addressed the problem of dishonesty in software development, explaining that software roadmaps which show features on a timeline are inherently dishonest and cause erosion of trust. Developers have a responsibility to explain to others in the business that development does not work like that. Her suggested alternative is some sort of interactive document covering “what we’re working on”.

Cyndi Mitchell, also mentioned above, talked about excellence in software development. This is not just about technically sound code, but is multi-faceted, including business value, customer value, user experience, delivery and operations as well. It was another take on a common theme in Agile: the team is everyone, not just the developers.

Chris Aniszczyk from Twitter spoke about open source software. Twitter always evaluates open source options before risking wheel reinvention by cutting new code. He also advocates always writing code on the assumption that it will one day be open source. This promotes high quality APIs, sensible naming conventions, and other good things. Twitter aims to give code that is not its “secret sauce” back to the community, he said. However, Twitter avoids code with viral open source licenses like the GPL; it causes too many problems, he said.

An intriguing aside; Aniszczyk says that Twitter acquires companies to get the people, since “you can’t hire engineers these days.” This may create an open source project, as the code that company was working on is given away/abandoned to the community. I am not sure what examples of this process there are.

After that, there was lunch, more beer, brewers spoke, and a wood carver competed with a 3D printer to make a spoon; I’ve written about this here.

Lee Bofkin from Global Street Art spoke about street art. Where we see a wall or an alley, he said, a street artist sees a place that can be transformed with art. His slides were wonderful; check the Global Street Art site for a flavour.


There is no event quite like the Monki Gras; it was not deeply technical but was rich in ideas. Plenty to reflect on.

WS-I closes its doors–the end of WS-* web services?

The Web Services Interoperability Organization has announced [pdf] the “completion” of its work:

After nearly a decade of work and industry cooperation, the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I; http://www.ws-i.org) has successfully concluded its charter to document best practices for Web services interoperability across multiple platforms, operating systems and programming languages.

In the whacky world of software though, completion is not a good thing when it means, as it seems to here, an end to active development. The WS-I is closing its doors and handing maintenance of the WS interoperability profiles to OASIS:

Stewardship over WS-I’s assets, operations and mission will transition to OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), a group of technology vendors and customers that drive development and adoption of open standards.

Simon Phipps blogs about the passing of WS-I and concludes:

Fine work, and many lessons learned, but sadly irrelevant to most of us. Goodbye, WS-I. I know and respect many of your participants, but I won’t mourn your passing.

Phipps worked for Sun when the WS-* activity was at its height and WS-I was set up, and describes its formation thus:

Formed in the name of "preventing lock-in" mainly as a competitive action by IBM and Microsoft in the midst of unseemly political knife-play with Sun, they went on to create massively complex layered specifications for conducting transactions across the Internet. Sadly, that was the last thing the Internet really needed.

However, Phipps links to this post by Mike Champion at Microsoft which represents a more nuanced view:

It might be tempting to believe that the lessons of the WS-I experience apply only to the Web Services standards stack, and not the REST and Cloud technologies that have gained so much mindshare in the last few years. Please think again: First, the WS-* standards have not in any sense gone away, they’ve been built deep into the infrastructure of many enterprise middleware products from both commercial vendors and open source projects. Likewise, the challenges of WS-I had much more to do with the intrinsic complexity of the problems it addressed than with the WS-* technologies that addressed them. William Vambenepe made this point succinctly in his blog recently.

It is also important to distinguish between the work of the WS-I, which was about creating profiles and testing tools for web service standards, and the work of other groups such as the W3C and OASIS which specify the standards themselves. While work on the WS-* specifications seems much reduced, there is still work going on. See for example the W3C’s Web Services Resource Access Working Group.

I partly disagree with Phipps about the work of the WS-I being “sadly irrelevant to most of us”. It depends who he means by “most of us”. Granted, all this stuff is meaningless to the world at large; but there are a significant number of developers who use SOAP and WS-* at least to some extent, and interoperability is key to the usefulness of those standards.

The Salesforce.com API is mainly SOAP based, for example, and although there is a REST API in preview it is not yet supported for production use. I have been told that a large proportion of the transactions on Salesforce.com are made programmatically through the API, so here is one place at least where SOAP is heavily used.

WS-* web services are also built into Microsoft’s Visual Studio and .NET Framework, and are widely used in my experience. Visual Studio does a good job of wrapping them so that developers do not have to edit WSDL or SOAP requests and responses by hand. I’d also suggest that web services in .NET are more robust than DCOM (Distributed COM) ever was, and work successfully over the internet as well as on a local network, so the technology is not a failure.

That said, I am sure it is true that only a small subset of the WS-* specifications are widely used, which implies a large amount of wasted effort.

Is SOAP and WS-* dying, and REST the future? The evidence points that way to me, but I would be interested in other opinions.

Why Oracle is immoveable in the Enterprise

At Oracle OpenWorld yesterday I spoke to an attendee from a global enterprise. His company is a big IBM customer and would like to standardise on DB2. To some extent it does, but there is still around 30% Oracle and significant usage of Microsoft SQL Server. Why three database platforms when they would prefer to settle on one? Applications, which in many cases are only certified for a specific database manager.

I was at MySQL Sunday earlier in the day, and asked whether he had any interest in Oracle’s open source database product. As you would expect, he said it was enough trouble maintaining three different systems; the last thing he wanted was a fourth.

Novell’s Michael Meeks downbeat on OpenOffice.org project

There is a fascinating interview over on The H with Michael Meeks, who works at Novell on OpenOffice.org development. It would be wrong to call OpenOffice.org unsuccessful: it is a solid product that forms a viable alternative to Microsoft Office in many scenarios. Nevertheless, it has not disrupted the Microsoft Office market as much as perhaps could have been expected; and Meeks explains what may be the reasons – tight control by Sun (now Oracle) and a bureaucratic approach to project management that has stifled the enthusiasm of the open source community.

Contributors to OpenOffice.org are required to sign over copyright, which is a big ask if you are giving it freely. While Meeks does not say that the trust of contributors has been abused, he does say that that there is a lack of transparency and reassurance, specifically concerning IBM’s Symphony which is based on OpenOffice.org:

In some places they do feed stuff back. We see their changes, but parts of Symphony are not open source, and we don’t have the code for them, and interestingly, there is no source code available so far as I am aware of the version of OO.o that IBM is shipping inside their product, so clearly they’re not shipping this under the LGPLv3. IBM have a fairly public antipathy towards the GPL unfortunately, and as a consequence you have to wonder what terms are they shipping OpenOffice under – and as there is a lot of my code in there, not only my code but Novell’s code and a lot of other people’s code, you have to wonder ‘What were the terms and what was the deal? That’s a shame, and would really help improve the transparency and confidence in Sun’s stewardship around these things. The code was assigned to Sun, and I have no doubt there is no legal problem at all, but a lot of people have assigned their code to Sun in good faith, believing them to be good stewards. Maybe they are but its impossible to tell without knowing the terms under which third parties are shipping the code.

Meeks says that the Oracle takeover is an opportunity for things to get better. Even if you like Microsoft Office you should hope that it does, since a strong OpenOffice puts pressure on the competition to keep prices down and product development up. Further, Microsoft has no plans for Office on Linux that I know of – unless you count Office Web Apps.