Time for another #MKGN

This content is 10 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Woah… where did the last three months go?  It’s Milton Keynes Geek Night (@MKGeekNight) again tomorrow and I haven’t blogged about the last one yet (for that matter I can’t find my notes – in Evernote, OneNote, Keep, or anywhere else).  It’s a good job I don’t rely on this blogging lark for a living…

Luckily, the MKGN team have details of past talks on the website and the audio was recorded for posterity too.  As always, all of the speakers were great – but I particularly enjoyed hearing Christian Payne (@documentally), who I’ve followed for a while on Twitter, gave a really engaging talk about Storymaking.

So, who’s talking this time around?  Keynotes are from:

  • Andrew Clarke (@Malarkey) on the (I imagine somewhat provocatively titled) subject of “take your stinking paws off my design you damn dirty developers”.
  • Relly Annett-Baker (@RellyAB) on “future perfect tense: creating good content for an impefect web” (I think Relly has been promised before – so looking forward to hearing her at MKGN #8).

Then, there are 5 minute talks from:

  • Jeremy Taylor (@jdt_me), talking about “distributing the future more evenly, with JavaScript”.
  • James Bavington (@jamesbavington), on the topic of “knowing you know nothing”.

And, whether you’ve attended MK Geek Night in person, or enjoyed the recorded talks on Soundcloud, maybe you’ll consider voting for MKGN as “Grassroots event of the year” in the .Net Awards 2014?

Right… now lets hope Virgin Trains get me back from Manchester in time…

Improving performance; managing expectations; being responsive; work in progress; and fear, uncertainty and doubt (#MKGN)

This content is 10 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I can’t believe that the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night is nearly upon us again. I usually try to blog about the evening but I’ve failed spectacularly on recent attempts.  I might fail again with this week’s MKGN – not because I’m slow to get a blog post up but because the tickets “sold” out in something crazy like 2 minutes…

September’s Geek Night was up to the usual high standard (including the return of David Hughes – seems you can’t escape that easily!) but included one talk in particular that stood out above all of the others, when Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen) showed us (literally) the other side of responsiveness… but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Back to front performance

First up was Drew McLellan (@DrewM)’s take on “back to front” performance. You can catch the whole talk on Soundcloud but for me, as someone who runs a fairly shoddy WordPress site, it got me thinking about how performance is not just about optimising the user experience but also about the back end – perhaps summed up in one of the first points that Drew made:

“Website performance is about how your site feels.”

That may be obvious but how many times have you heard people taking about optimisation of one part of a site in isolation, without considering the whole picture.  As Drew highlighted, performance is a feature to build in – not a problem to fix – and it’s also factored into search engine algorithms.

Whilst many performance gains can be found by optimising the “front-end” (i.e. Browser-side), there are some “back-end” changes that should be considered – sites need to be super-fast under normal load in order to be responsive under heavy load (quite simply, simultaneous requests affect responsiveness – they use memory and the quicker you can process pages and release memory, the better!).

First up, consider hosting. Drew’s advice was:

  • Cheap hosting is expensive (shared hosting is cheap for a reason).
  • Shared hosting is the worst (rarely fast) – think about a virtualised or dedicated server solution instead.  Constrain by CPU, then RAM, not disk space (that should be a red flag – it’s cheap, if not much is allocated it shows lots of people crammed on a server).
  • Consider what your project has cost to build when buying hosting! Use the best you can afford – and if they advertise with scantily clad ladies, they’re probably not very good (or to be encouraged)

Next, the content management system (CMS), where Drew says:

  • Think about the cost of external resources (going to database or web API, for example). Often these are necessary costs but can be reduced with careful architecture.
  • Employ DRY coding (don’t repeat yourself) – make sure everything only has a single representation in code. Do things once, cache and reuse (unless you expect different results). For example, if something doesn’t change often (e.g. post count by category on a blog), don’t calculate this on every page serve – instead consider calculating when adding/removing a post or category (called denormalisation in database terms)… be smart – consider how real-time is the data? And are people making decisions using this data?
  • Do the work once – “premature optimization is the root of all evil” is actually a quote from 1974, when line-by-line optimisation was necessary.  Focus on the bottlenecks: “premature” should not be confused with “early” – if you know something will be a bottleneck, optimisation is not premature, it’s sensible.
  • Some frameworks focus on convention over configuration (code works things out, reduces developer decisions) – can lead to non-DRY code – so let’s make programming fun and allow the developer to work out the best way instead of burning CPU cycles.  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
  • The Varnish caching HTTP reverse proxy may be something to consider to speed up web site (unfortunately Drew ran out of time to tell us more – and my hosting provided found it caused problems for some other customers, so had to remove it after giving it a try for me)

In summary, Drew told us to care about front end optimisation; be careful about setting cookies and serve assets from cookieless domains; be smart about server headers; use CDNs to outsource traffic; GZip content; JavaScript at bottom of page and minimise it; test with PageSpeed and YSlow; ignore bits that make no sense for responsive web design.  But, importantly, don’t forget the back end – hosting, CMS, stay dry (do it once), a few minutes configuring up front saves wasted time later, and optimise early. In short – front end performance can’t make up for slow servers!

Related reading: check out Kier Whitaker (@KierWhitaker)’s  adventures with Google Page Speed in my write-up from MK Geek Night 4

Managing client expectations

The first of the five-minute talks was from Christian Senior (@senoir – note the spelling of the Twitter handle, it’s senoir not senior!).  Christian spoke about managing client expectations.  Whilst my notes from Christian’s talk are pretty brief (it was only 5 minutes after all) it certainly struck a chord, even with an infrastructure guy like me.

Often, the difficult part is getting a client to understand what they are getting for their money (“after all, how hard can it really be?”, they ask!) – but key to that is understanding the customer’s requirements and making sure that’s what your service delivers.  Right from the first encounter, find out about the customer (not just who they are, what want, how much money they will spend – but browsers, devices available, etc.) and try to include that detail in a brief – the small things count too and can be deliverables (incidentally, it can be just as important to distinguish the non-deliverables as the deliverables). Most of all, don’t take things for granted.  My favourite point of the talk though, was “talk to customers in a language they understand!”:

Or, to put it another way:

“Work in code, not talk in code!”

The other side of responsive

As I mentioned in my introduction, Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen)’s five minute talk on “the other side” of responsive design was nothing short of stunning. If I ever manage to deliver a presentation that’s half as innovative as this, I’ll be a happy man.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can do it justice in words but, as we know from Sarah Parmenter (@Sazzy)’s talk at MK Geek Night 5, responsive websites provide the same content, constructed in different ways to serve to multiple devices appropriately.

  • Ben got us all to go to a site, which reacted according to our devices.
  • He then showed how the site responded differently on a phone or a PC – choose a file from a PC, or take a photo on a phone.
  • He tweeted that photo.
  • He showed us the device capabilities (i.e. the available APIs).
  • He updated his “slides” (in HTML5, of course), interactively.
  • And projected those slides in our browsers (via the link we all blindly clicked).

Actually – Ben did so much more than that. And thankfully he blogged about what he did and how he did it – I recommend you go take a look.

In summary, Ben wrapped up by saying that “responsiveness and the web needs to use the capabilities of all the devices and push the boundaries to do interesting things”.  If only more “responsive” designers pushed those boundaries…

One last thought on this topic (from Brad Frost, via Ben Foxall’s MK Geek Night talk), is contained in these three images (provided under a Creative Commons attribution license):


Work in progress

Following Ben’s talk was always going to be a tough gig.  I’m not sure that I really grokked Tom Underhill (@imeatingworms)’s “Work in Progress” although the gist seemed to be that technology gallops on and that we’re in a state of constant evolution with new tools, programs, apps, books, articles, courses, posts, people to follow (or not follow), etc., etc.

Whilst the fundamentals of human behaviour haven’t changed, what’s going on around us have – now we need more than just food and warmth – we “need” desktops, laptops, smartphones, pink smartphones, smart watches.  Who knows what’s in the future in a world of continued change…

Constant change is guaranteed – in technology, social context and more. Tech is a great enabler, it could be seen as essential – but should never replace the message. Brands, experiences and products change lives based on the fundamentals of need.



The one minute talks were the usual mixed bag of shout-outs for jobs at various local agencies (anyone want to employ an ex-infrastructure architect who manages a team and really would like to do something exciting again… maybe something “webby”?), Code Club, the first meeting of Leamington Geeks, and upcoming conferences.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt

The final keynote was from Paul Robert Lloyd (@paulrobertlloyd), speaking on FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. Paul makes the point that these are all real human emotions – and asks what the consequences of abusing them are. He suggests that the web has been hijacked by commercial interests – not only monitoring behaviour but manipulating it too.

Some of the highlights from Paul’s talk make quite a reading list (one that I have in Pocket and will hopefully get around to one day):

  • Jonathan Harris’ modern medicine considers the ethical implications of software. Even a default setting can affect the daily behaviours of thousands of people.  Facebook asks its designers about the “Serotonin” of new features – i.e. how will it affect how we behave.
  • As the web is largely unregulated, it’s attractive to those who want to increase their personal wealth; so we have to be optimistic that there are enough people working in the tech sector with a moral compass. Arguably, the Snowden leaks show that some people have integrity and courage. But Paul is uncertain that Silicon Valley is healthy – “normal” people don’t see customers as data points against which to test designs – for example a team at Google couldn’t decide on shade of blue so they tested 41 shades (and border widths). Paul also made the point that the team was working under Marissa Mayer – for a more recent example witness the Yahoo! logo changes…
  • Then there are the “evil” social networks where, as Charles Stross highlights, “Klout operates under American privacy law, or rather, the lack of it”.
  • Paul says that The Valley operates in a bubble – and that Americans (or at least startups) skew to the workaholic side of things, viewing weekends off as a privilege not a right. He also suggests that the problem is partly a lack of diversity – The Valley is basically a bunch of Stanford guys making things to fix their own problems. Very few start from a social problem and work backwards – so very few are enhancing society; they’re making widgets or enhancing what already exists. Funding can be an issue but governments are seeing the tech sector as an area of rapid growth and it’s probably good not to be aligned to a sector where you can launch start-ups without a business case!
  • Lanyrd shows that it is possible to start up outside The Valley (although they have been bought by Eventbrite so have to move) [TweetDeck is another example, although bought by Twitter] but Silicon Valley arrived by a series of happy accidents and good luck/fortune – it’s important that the new tech hubs shouldn’t be a facsimile of this.
  • We trust Yahoo! by putting photos on Flickr but they also have form for removing content (e.g. Geocities) – but what happens when your service is closed down? Is there something morally wrong with closing sites containing thousands of hours of individuals’ comments, posts, etc.? Shouldn’t we treat data like it matters, allow export capabilities and support data rescue?
  • Then there’s protecting out data from Governments. Although conducted before the Snowden leaks the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual survey asks “who has your back?” – and, although it’s still young, it seems companies are starting to take notice.
  • Choose your services wisely – we (the geeks) are early adopters – and we can stop using social networks too.  It’s easier to change services if data can be exported – but all too often that’s not the case so you need to own your own content.
  • We all have the power to change the web to the way we want to see it, says Paul – all we need is need a text editor, an FTP client and some webspace. In the wake of the NSA revelations, Bruce Schneier writes in the Guardian how those who love liberty have to fix the ‘net.

Paul’s slides are available on Speaker Deck.

So, what’s next?

MK Geek night #7 is on Thursday 5 December featuring:

together with five minute features from:

Even if I don’t manage to get there (or if I do and am a bit slow blogging) you can find out more on the MK Geek Night website on Twitter (@MKGeekNight), or Soundcloud (on the MKGN stream).

Related reading: James Bavington has another write-up of MKGN #6.

[Update 7 December 2013: Added links to Paul Robert Lloyd’s slides and to James Bavington’s post]

MK Geek Night again – and I still haven’t blogged about the last one!

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

This week sees the sixth quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN).  I’ve attended every one so far and always blogged about them – except the last one.  The simple fact is, I’ve been too busy – but I’m also just a little bit obsessive about these things and wanted to write something before it’s too late…

The last event was fantastic as ever but I’ve lost my notes. I know it sounds a bit like “the dog ate my homework” but I think iA Writer has put them somewhere strange… not on Dropbox (where I expected) but in iCloud, I think – except I can’t find any documents in iCloud (I’m sure I have to use an iDevice of some sort and it will all be fine…). I really should standardise on using one app for this – not the current combination of OneNote/Evernote/iA Writer, depending on the device I’m using…

Anyway, you can catch the audio from the last MK Geek Night on SoundCloud including:

  • Sarah Parmenter (@Sazzy) on designing for the responsive web.
  • Westley Knight (@Meteoracle) on life behind the curve.
  • Michael Fox (@IdleMichael) on how boardgames can make you awesome.
  • Ben Ward (@CrouchingBadger) on setting whitespace spectrum free.
  • Andrew Spooner (@AndSpo) on why mobile audio sucks.

MK Geek Night number 5 was David Hughes’ (@DavidHughes) last night as co-host and organiser but Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins) continues to organise these fantastic evenings.  You can find out more on the MK Geek Night website or on Twitter (@MKGeekNight) – but you’ll have to be quick. Tickets “sold” out for this free event in under an hour this time around!

Faster websites, better photography, a better browser, great conferences and a better life (#MKGN)

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last night was the fourth of the tremendously successful MK Geek Nights (MKGN), organised by David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins).

And what a night it was.  Interesting and inspiring talks from great speakers, as usual – and I promised I’d write a summary blog post so here it is, albeit a little longer and a little later than planned…

Adventures with Google PageSpeed

Kier Whitaker (@kierwhitaker) kicked off the evening, with a few tips for speeding up websites:

  1. Make fewer HTTP requests:
    • Each JS or CSS file and every image is a round trip across the network. The fewer trips made across a congested network, the faster the page loads.
  2. Use Minify to compress and concatenate CSS and JS files :
    • Codekit is one option for embedding Minify in your workflow; there are command line tools too.
    • Consider using a master file with imports and then minify to compress the output (might not be so useful as an approach when working in teams).
  3. Optimise your images:
    • ImageOptim is one option – and even that 50-60-70% the images can still look great.
    • Apparently, Photoshop’s Export to Web functionality is not so good [damn!].
  4. Only use what you need:
    • When working with libraries, you don’t have to use all of Modernizr, jQuery, etc. – maybe just include the parts that you need (e.g. AJAX and not the whole library).
  5. CSS at the top, JS at the bottom:
    • This is a simplistic rule and you might need to break it sometimes (e.g. to stop a flash of unstyled type when using Typekit).
    • It’s about percieved speed rather than actual page loads [but perception is reality].
  6. HTTP compression:
    • Use GZIP compression on the server. On Apache this can be configured using .htaccess or in httpd.conf.
  7. Browser caching:
    • Make the browser keep a copy of the file – if only a page is only updated infrequently, you can cache for longer. Images, etc. can have long expiry but it’s not so great on dynamic sites!
    • Have a look at the HTML5boilerplate .htaccess file for inspiration – and read up on “cache busting”.
  8. Enable HTTP keep-alive:
    • By keep the connection open for a few more seconds, you can lose the overhead of additional requests.
  9. Cache dynamic content:
    • WordPress is quite heavy and can have 15-16 database queries on a simple home page. If you can cache the output then serve a flat file, this can save time.
    • Rails and many PHP frameworks have similar concepts.
  10. Use a content delivery network:
  11. Beware of boilerplates:
    • Boilerplates can leave behind a lot of unnecessary resources (e.g. favicons) – and these might even be downloading your 404 page if they are not present!
    • Check to see that all the assets you reference actually exist…
  12. Test widely:
    • Try a few sites to help optimise your code (e.g. Google PageSpeed; Yahoo Yslow; WebPageTest.org).
    • Kier likes the detail with WebPageTest.org and it provides two views – one for a fresh request and another to see how effective caching is.
    • Beware that the sites might contradict each other.
    • Also use developer tools in browsers, like the Google Chrome Inspector – look at the network tab and see when resources are loaded from cache, etc. (examine the headers too).

Once you’ve implemented a few tweaks, you might find that the last few percent to get to perfect are difficult – there are some things that you just can’t control. But, on a big website, incremental changes add up to big improvements – you might want a strategy to tray and work things out.

My site scores 84/100 on Google PageSpeed so it looks like I have some work to do…

Better photography by design

I’ve been taking photos for nearly 35 years and I’m still rubbish at it. Well, maybe not rubbish but I maintain there’s two sides to photography: anyone can learn the technical stuff; but, to create great images, you need to have a creative eye…

Al Power (@alpower) gave a great 5 minute talk on taking better pictures – not rocket science but some simple steps that everyone can take to get much better results.

“So, what makes a good photo?” asked Al:

  • Is it camera gear?
    • Not really, you can probably push your existing one. It’s often said that the best camera is the one you have with you… whether that’s a smartphone or a DSLR.
  • Composition plays a big part and Al showed four examples:
    • A skater: moving from left to right, gives a sense of motion. Leave some negative space for the skater to move into. And their legs and arms form triangles.
    • A spiral staircase: the shape and lines of the staircase lead the viewer into the picture. Repeated shapes and patterns work well.
    • A jetty: lead-in lines capture attention and bring the viewer into the image.
    • A beach: using the rule of thirds to divide the image into nine segments, and to place things on grid lines/intersections.
  • Try a different perspective:
    • Take the same shot from different angles, maybe three or four times. High or low, zoomed in or out – see what works.
  • Use the light:
    • Light is probably the most important control for a picture.
    • You can take great pictures in any conditions – but direct sunshine is not always good: perhaps place a subject under a tree in direct shade and use even, reflected light; on cloudy days sky is huge lightbox; the time of day makes a difference too
  • Learn how to process your pictures:
    • With a DSLR – raw images are amazingly powerful.
    • Use Snapseed on iOS and Android.
    • On a PC or Mac, use iPhoto, Picassa, Lightroom or Aperture.
    • Attend a workshop, watch some of Adobe’s videos, or a find a good YouTube channel.
  • Practice and look for inspiration:
    • Henri Cartier-Bresson was quoted as “your first 10,000 photos are your worst”.
    • No-one was born an amazing photographer and we’re on a journey – “give yourself permission to suck”, says Al – and practice.
    • Work out what tricks are employed by those that inspire you – break them down and apply them to your own images.

A web developers guide to Windows 8

Martin Beeby kicked off with a self-deprecating video, for all of us Internet Exploder lovers:


Then he moved on to tell us about modern.ie – a website to help developers design for Internet Explorer 10 and see if and where the might be problems, if they are using out of date libraries, or vendor prefixes that are no longer required. One example of the tips included is this code to ensure that a responsive site really is responsive, making sure that it displays properly when running on the side of a Windows 8 display:

@-ms-viewport{width: device-width;}

There’s also advice on creating icons that will look good on a Windows 8 desktop – and a 3 month subscription to BrowserStack for cross-browser testing.

Moving past modern.ie, Martin explained that Windows 8 can run HTML and JavaScript apps locally – so web developers can be app developers too – and, of course, because this is Windows 8, we were encouraged to embrace touch…

I only wish that the video Martin wrapped up his talk with was available on the web (I’m told it will be soon)… if I ever see it again, I’ll tweet the link…

The value of conferences

I had high hopes for this talk – I need to convince my new boss’ boss that there is value in conferences. And there is – but Craig Lockwood (@CraigInWales)’s talk started out by talking about the costs…

  • The costs to the organiser: a venue; speakers (fees and expenses); marketing (lanyards, programs, promo codes for discounts, etc.); insurance (weather, speaker sickness, etc.); judgement (you can’t please everyone – someone will be unhappy); refreshments; and time.
  • The costs to the speaker(s): time (to write a talk); judgement (what might others say they think of you?)
  • The costs to the attendee: ticket costs; travel; accommodation; and time

So what does this mean? Why do we need conferences? After all, Craig exclaimed, plumbers don’t get together to discuss latest pipe techniques! Our techniques and even the canvas we work on changes too regularly to keep up so we share information. Freelancing can be a lonely job – so meetups are great to build relationships and share knowledge.

Twitter, suggests Craig, has become the watercooler and conferences are the parties. Of course, some idiots still spoil things and some conferences find that they now need codes of conduct! So be respectful – it’s fine to disagree (respectfully) – but we should air our grievances personally and not publicly [Hmm… I once blogged about a pretty awful vendor event… think I might be guilty there].

But think about this quote too, attributed to Ling Valentine (@LINGsCARS):

“If nobody hates your website, chances are nobody loves it either.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing”

The final talk was from Simon Collison (@colly) and I just can’t do it justice in written form. Listen to the audio and then think about your own life and what you’re doing right now:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/84445771″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

This hit home for me: I’m just starting a new job; it’s going to be a challenge – but that’s exactly what I need. As for keeping up with blogs, tweets, magazines, books – I’m drowning. And don’t get me started on the systems I use at work (admittedly not quite as chaotic as the setup Simon describes at Fictive Kin…)

So when does this happen again?

The next MKGN is on 13 June and all 200 tickets “sold out” in just 2 hours (can a free event sell out?!). There’s a waitlist in operation and it’s definitely worth signing up if you’re in the area and you are interested in webby-creative-designer-digital-makery-slightly-geeky-stuff, washed down with a beer or two and followed by pizza! I’ve even met some people there in real life that I only knew on Twitter before…

Recommended listening: MK Geek Night recordings on “the high cost of free” and “so you have an app idea?”

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Tomorrow night is MK Geek Night and the event continues to gain in popularity, “selling” out in just 8 hours, with a huge waiting list.  Last month I wrote some brief highlights, and hinted that I might like to follow up with more detail on a couple of the talks. Unfortunately, that’s not happened but audio from all five of the “MKGN 3” talks is available on SoundCloud.

I particularly recommend checking out Aral Balkan (@Aral)’s talk on the high cost of free – a talk that seems particularly pertinent each time a “free” product hits the news, whether that’s Google Reader being withdrawn, Facebook changing the terms of use for Instagram or Twitter changing its API…

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77380899″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Meanwhile, if its mobile application development that floats your boat, Dave Addey (@DaveAddey)’s talk might help you to decide if your app idea really is a good one…

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77379487″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Watch this space for highlights from tomorrow night’s event.

Short takes: Amazon Web Services 101, Adobe Marketing Cloud and Milton Keynes Geek Night (#MKGN)

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

What a crazy week. On top of a busy work schedule, I’ve also found myself at some tech events that really deserve a full write-up but, for now, will have to make do with a summary…

Amazon Web Services 101

One of the events I attended this week was a “lunch and learn” session to give an introduction/overview of Amazon Web Services – kind of like a breakfast briefing, but at a more sociable hour of the day!

I already blogged about Amazon’s reference architecture for utility computing but I wanted to mention Ryan Shuttleworth’s (@RyanAWS) explaination of how Amazon Web Services (AWS) came about.

Contrary to popular belief, AWS didn’t grow out of spare capacity in the retail business but in building a service-oriented infrastructure for a scalable development environment to initially provide development services to internal teams and then to expose the amazon catalogue as a web service. Over time, Amazon found that developers were hungry for more and they moved towards the AWS mission to:

“Enable business and developers to use web services* to build scalable, sophisticated applications”

*What people now call “the cloud”

In fact, far from being the catalyst for AWS, Amazon’s retail business is just another AWS customer.

Adobe Marketing Cloud

Most people will be familiar with Adobe for their design and print products, whether that’s Photoshop, Lightroom, or a humble PDF reader.  I was invited to attend an event earlier this week to hear about the Adobe Marketing Cloud, which aims to become for marketers what the Creative Suite has for design professionals.  Whilst the use of “cloud” grates with me as a blatant abuse of a buzzword (if I’m generous, I suppose it is a SaaS suite of products…), Adobe has been acquiring companies (I think I heard $3bn mentioned as the total cost) and integrating technology to create a set of analytics, social, advertising, targeting and web experience management solutions and a real-time dashboard.

Milton Keynes Geek Night

MK Geek Night #mkgn

The third event I attended this week was the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night (this was the third one) – and this did not disappoint – it was well up to the standard I’ve come to expect from David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins).

The evening kicked off with Dave Addey (@DaveAddey) of UK Train Times app fame, talking about what makes a good mobile app. Starting out from a 2010 Sunday Times article about the app gold rush, Dave explained why few people become smartphone app millionaires, but how to see if your idea is:

  • Is your mobile app idea really a good idea? (i.e. is it universal, is it international, and does it have lasting appeal – or, put bluntly, will you sell enough copies to make it worthwhile?)
  • Is it suitable to become a mobile app? (will it fill “dead time”, does it know where you go and use that to add value, is it “always there”, does it have ongoing use)
  • And how should you make it? (cross platform framework, native app, HTML, or hybrid?)

Dave’s talk warrants a blog post of it’s own – and hopefully I’ll return to the subject one day – but, for now, that’s the highlights.

Next up were the 5 minute talks, with Matt Clements (@MattClementsUK) talking about empowering business with APIs to:

  1. Increase sales by driving traffic.
  2. Improve your brand awareness by working with others.
  3. Increase innovation, by allowing others to interface with your platform.
  4. Create partnerships, with symbiotic relationships to develop complimentary products.
  5. Create satisfied customers – by focusing on the part you’re good at, and let others build on it with their expertise.

Then Adam Onishi (@OnishiWeb) gave a personal, and honest, talk about burnout, it’s effects, recognising the problem, and learning to deal with it.

And Jo Lankester (@JoSnow) talked about real-world responsive design and the lessons she has learned:

  1. Improve the process – collaborate from the outset.
  2. Don’t forget who you’re designing for – consider the users, in which context they will use a feature, and how they will use it.
  3. Learn to let go – not everything can be perfect.

Then, there were the usual one-minute slots from sponsors and others with a quick message, before the second keynote – from Aral Balkan (@Aral), talking about the high cost of free.

In an entertaining talk, loaded with sarcasm, profanity (used to good effect) but, most of all, intelligent insight, Aral explained the various business models we follow in the world of consumer technology:

  • Free – with consequential loss of privacy.
  • Paid – with consequential loss of audience (i.e. niche) and user experience.
  • Open – with consequential loss of good user experience, and a propensity to allow OEMs and operators to mess things up.

This was another talk that warrants a blog post of its own (although I’m told the session audio was recorded – so hopefully I’ll be able to put up a link soon) but Aral moved on to talk about a real alternative with mainstream consumer appeal that happens to be open. To achieve this, Aral says we need a revolution in open source culture in that open source and great user experience do not have to be mutually exclusive. We must bring design thinking to open source. Design-led open source.  Without this, Aral says, we don’t have an alternative to Twitter, Facebook, whatever-the-next-big-platform-is doing what they want to with our data. And that alternative needs to be open. Because if it’s just free, the cost is too high.

The next MK Geek Night will be on 21 March, and the date is already in my diary (just waiting for the Eventbrite notice!)

Photo credit: David Hughes, on Flickr. Used with permission.

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

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

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.

Short takes: Raspberry Jam (#RaspberryJam) and Milton Keynes Geek Night (#MKGN)

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

This week, aside from struggling with the culture shock of getting back to work after a fortnight of Internet abstinence, and getting very angry with Microsoft, I spent my evenings at two fantastic community events. Both of them deserve a lot more space on the blog but I’m short of time right now, so a teeny overview will have to suffice.

Raspberry Jam

Complete with scones (really!), Raspberry Jam was a fantastic evening of RaspberryPi fans talking about some of the things that they are up to and hosted by Alan O’Donohoe (@teknoteacher):

  • Genevieve Smith-Nunes (@pegleggen) talked about the HackDay she’s organising at her school with 250 Year 9 students who will be building “something” with RaspberryPi (and the website is a constantly moving feast as its the kids who are building it). She’s also teaching Scratch to kids in Year 1 and 2 (my children are Foundation and Year 2, so this is very interesting to me).

(great quote by the way – “nobody’s the teacher; everyone’s the teacher; and we’re all students”).

  • Neil Ford (@NeilCFord) talked about Portable Pi – a project for taking Raspberry Pis on field trips to provide a portable website for kids to upload research data where there is no mobile phone reception. The shopping list for a Portable Pi is available on Amazon (although I can’t see the battery on there right now).
  • Neil also mentioned the Young Rewired State Festival of Code that’s happening in August – teaching kids to code, hoping to create the next Mark Zuckerbergs, and to keep them in the UK.
  • There was a demo of the Acorn RISC OS running on a Raspberry Pi. I’d forgotten just how advanced it was, back in the days before Windows… what’s more, it is tiny (6MB) and includes BASIC. Great for starting to code…
  • John Bevan (@bevangelist) showed us Mozilla Thimble – a really simple tool to teach people how to publish on the web and one of a wider suite of tools that Mozilla is creating.

Plus there was loads of opportunity for networking, snacks, beer, soft drinks and more. Hosted at the Mozilla Space in London (a great venue for like-minded open source-oriented people), the organisers are looking for more RaspberryJam events to be created across London, the south-east (and presumably further)… jump on the #RaspberryJam hashtag for more.

You can also watch the recording (filmed on an iPhone using a rather cool tracking tripod head called a Swivl) on YouTube:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShUnnqEmPGM]

MK Geek Night

Regular readers will know that, about once a month, I head down to Digital Surrey, which usually has some great speakers on topics of interest to “digital” (media/marketing/tech) types, like me. With the Digital Bristol and Digital Berkshire spin-offs, I considered starting a Digital MK or a Digital Buckinghamshire but I simply don’t have the time (or the contacts). That’s why I was so excited to see Richard Wiggins and David Hughes announce Milton Keynes Geek Night.

Wow! 190 people in a community arts centre in a converted bus station; two big speakers; three 5-minute lightning talks and some one-minute pitches. What a great evening.

  • Jon Hicks (@HicksDesign) spoke about iconography, using the redesign of Skype’s emoticons as a case study. Who knew there was so much to designing icons? I had an inkling there would be, and it’s pretty fascinating stuff (for geeks).
  • Kate Kenyon (@Kate_Kenyon) told us, in just 5 minutes, how to slash content and create better websites that work for users, not just company politics.
  • James Parker (@MrJamesParker) gave us some tips on how Twitter helped him to become a better designer.  I won’t leave you hanging – and they are not just for designers either – they are:
    1. Follow people relevant to you (not just celebrities).
    2. Don’ be a passive user – get involved in the conversation.
    3. Make friends – contacts are everything.
    4. Follow me.
  • Code Club (@CodeClub) were there – there are 120 schools and 1436 volunteers signed up now (maybe more this morning) to teach our children to write code with curriculum changes and after-school clubs. It’s a pity I don’t cut code for a living as this is a great initiative to get involved in.
  • Brendan Dawes  (@BrendanDawes) gave a whacky but enlightening talk on low-tech hacks and making “things” from “stuff” (that description simply doesn’t do the talk credit – I’ll write more in another post, I hope)
  • And then there were the one minute pitches for employment opportunities, user groups, special interests, etc.


The next event is scheduled for 20 September. Full speaker line-up is yet to be announced, but includes Relly Annett-Baker (@RellyAB) talking on content strategy and, based on the inaugural event, I have high hopes that Richard and David will find more great speakers. Follow @MKGeekNight on Twitter for more details.

Proof that Milton Keynes has geeks and about 200 more roundabouts than Old Street. #MKGN
Lawrence Archard