Review of the second Milton Keynes Geek Night (#MKGN)

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A few months ago, I wrote about the first Milton Keynes Geek Night and, last night saw my return to a converted bus station (now a community arts centre) in the centre of Milton Keynes to join around 200 geeks from the creative industries to talk about design, technology, and other such “stuff”.

Once again, Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins) and David Hughes (@DavidHughes) did a fantastic job of recruiting speakers and sponsors (free geek events still need someone to pay for drinks, pizza, and the venue) and I really think that the mixture of short (20 minute) and lightning (5 minute) talks, with some “one minute wonders” (for sponsors, recruitment opportunities and community activities) works well. Every three months seems like a good interval between geek nights too.

The speaker line-up obviously changed somewhere along the way as the content strategy talk from Relly Annett-Baker (@RellyAB) that was mentioned previously didn’t happen and changes were still happening on the night as Microsoft’s Martin Beeby (@thebeebs) had to leave early for personal reasons – maybe we’ll get his four-minute-fifty-eight-second slot on Windows 8 development at another geek night? There were, however, some great talks and I’ll try to give a quick summary here.

Patterns generate relationships between people and things

First up, Cole Henry (@cole007) spoke about patterns generating relationships between people and things.  I wondered where he was going with his discussion of a previous career as an archaeologist looking at patterns on pottery but he described four fundamental elements about the process of craftsmanship:

  1. A craftsman is a conduit through which products are made but they may not have a preconceived idea of what they are creating. Their craft is a marriage of tools, medium and meaning.
  2. Craft is transformative – it takes something and makes it something else – instilling meaning and imparting the craftsman’s personality into creating a product.
  3. Craftsmanship is inherently social – it exists for people.
  4. Crafting binds people and things.

Fast forward to today and we can see that web design has progressed enormously from the work of 1997 with table based layouts to transform text sites into something more visual. Today’s websites use CSS for a presentation layer and JavaScript for rich Internet applications. They also need to work on a variety of devices and form factors. Yet, Cole says, the process (design, visualise, get signoff and bill for the first milestone, hand over to developers to create) has not moved on – it’s the same as the process used for early website designs (often by former graphic designers) – and these increasingly rich designs don’t necessarily work in all contexts. Web design is still concerned with visual products rather than the process of creation – the “cult of the aesthetic” – and Cole suggests that designers need to learn from the craftsmen of the past:

  1. The designer is a conduit to marry tools and funnel them – they need to understand which HTML elements work well, what happens when you hover over a button or submit a form, etc.
  2. Because design is transformative – designers need to consider meaning, not just visuals.
  3. Design is social – the web involves people.
  4. Design is binding – the whole function is to bring together people and materials.

Five minute lightning talks

The lightning talks are designed as “tasters”, or for people will less experience (or confidence) as speakers and Rachel Shillcock (@MissRachilli) spoke about understanding what makes us special – how to overcome a lack of confidence and to aim high (something that was echoed in a later talk) – summed up with a quote [which may or may not be from Michelangelo]

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Food for thought? Aim high, push yourself and work to your limits, says Rachel – and remember that failure can be a learning experience.

Penetration tester Nick Draze (@SonOfSunTzu) gave 10 pieces of advice from his 12 years in information security – and it was an interesting talk, even if it also stretched the boundaries of a 5 minute lightning talk (10 minutes!), without really giving much away. I think I’ll hold the details on this one back to include in another post but if ever I needed convincing that security guys are paranoid, this was the talk to do it. Nick asked (and I think the audience respected his request) not to be photographed, claiming that there are only three pictures of him in existence on the web… I’d like to know how he avoids CCTV, random street shots (from photographers or even just passers by using their mobile phone to take a picture of something else) but that misses the point somewhat – we all need to take care what happens in our digital lives in order to protect our information, and our identities.

Next up, Emily Heath (@gradualist) talked about bringing site maps to life, visualising web site structures to: test information architecture; audit competitor websites; and to provide a deliverable to impress clients who can’t see the full picture and experience of working through a site. It’s an interesting idea – one that I’ve tried from another angle (an architecture-led approach to re-designing a system that I work with), but I’ve also been accused of it being too technical… I guess it all comes down to understanding your audience!

One minute wonders

I didn’t note the details of all the one minute talks (except that the event was sponsored by Oxford Computer Group and All Your Base) but I did take the Opportunity to plug Peter Onion (@PeterOnion)’s work setting up Milton Keynes Raspberry Jams. The next jam (on 30 September) is full and operating a wait list but there is an online forum for local Raspberry Pi enthusiasts – that’s a good place to watch for details of upcoming events (and to get in early for tickets next time around).

Departing the Comfort Zone

The final keynote was from Ben Bodien (@bbodien) who gave an inspirational talk on stretching our boundaries to get out of our individual “comfort zone” – something I’d been discussing only a few hours earlier with my wife (is that serendipity?)!

If you ask someone who they are, after giving their name, they will typically respond with something built around a job title. Ben suggests that people like to organise and classify things – to put things into virtual boxes and label them – but that we are also doing ourselves a massive disservice by simply defining ourselves based on a job role.

The “nine dots” puzzle is the origin of the term to “think outside the box”, joining nine dots in a 3×3 grid with four straight lines, by moving outside the constraints of the (perceived) box that the dots form.  We define ourselves by the things around us – daily tasks, routines, etc. – but reality is more complex.

We also fall into habits and cycles – taking on a new project, which is exciting, until it’s not. Typically, we persist with the project until we are able to “kick it out of the door” and the cycle starts all over with a new (exciting!) project. We blame clients, or the projects but really we’re stuck in a pattern.

The key to breaking this cycle is to never stop learning – multiple projects lead to stress but we tend not to get bored – so avoid working on the same things over and over. If we do the same things, we’ll find ourselves inside our comfort zone but we’ll also become stagnant and won’t develop or grow. Instead, we can branch out and shift our focus – to work outside our comfort zone to have more influences, push our craft forward, unblock hidden talents and diversify.

Recognition is the first step to solving the problem and departing the comfort zone – after which Ben suggests:

  1. Start saying “yes” to the scary things…
  2. Set weekly goals (you might try other timeframes, like fortnightly – but a month may be too long) with things that are new to you and you want to try out. They might be work related, or they might not. Write the goals down and stick them close to your workplace so they are in peripheral vision. Writing it down lodges it in one’s memory. Sticking it nearby makes it harder to forget…
  3. Embrace experiments “not working out” – sometimes new things just don’t work. Learn from this (may be they were not interesting to you, or not part of your skill set) and use the experience to guide the path to the next experiment. And talk to people about how things work out.
  4. Benchmark realistically. It’s easy to follow people on the web who are producing outstanding work. The chances are that they have been following their craft for years (In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested it takes 10,000 hours to become expert in something [others dispute the meaning of this quote]) – so figure out how you’re doing based on where you are coming from – and look back at your own journey. Set your goals high so that, even if you miss, you are still doing well. In another anecdote, Ben spoke of Ira Glass’  storytelling videos and how part 3 talks about “good taste”, pushing across a “desert” before you produce work that you feel proud of. Do the best you can, get feedback, set deadlines, and you will eventually get to other side and produce work that you can be proud of.
  5. Note your accomplishments – and use that to redefine yourself.

And the next time someone asks “who are you?” you can tell them, and it’s won’t just be framed around a job title!

When’s the next MKGN?

The next geek night is scheduled for 6 December – watch out for details on the Milton Keynes Geek Night website, or on Twitter @MKGeekNight.

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