try { harder } – a collaborative flash-dev conf.

What? Another flash-platform conference?

Yup – but this is different kind of conference, a collaborative conference.

To skip my ramblings about why we’re setting it up the way we are, just jump straight to the try { harder } site:

try harder beta-conf, 3rd - 6th October, 2011, Notts UK

Why do we need try { harder } ?

The insightful @davidarno pointed out last week that there was a lack of training/events around advanced, non-visual development.

It has just dawned on me that we desperately need a 2-3 day flex, air & AS3 conference in the UK. Anyone fancy organising it?
@davidarno
@stray_and_ruby I’m thinking TDD, Git, Ant, ASDoc, Flex skinning, mocking, AVM, mobile flex, FP11 experiments etc. Real flash geek stuff! And no generative art whatsoever :-)

Of course the first thing I did was tease him that it’s not possible to desperately need a solution to such a high-level problem – but I also believe he is right.

Code generated art has its place; Flash Math Creativity, and Mr Penner’s tweening equations, were a critical part of my falling-in-love-with-flash phase… but these days it’s deployment automation and test patterns (and of course Mr Penner’s as3 signals) that get me really excited.

So – where do we start?

A geeky flash-dev conference, that covers the less sexy looking side of things. Now, there’s a clue in that, isn’t there?

I suspect a big-room presentation on, for example, branching strategies in git, is going to have its limits. For starters, there’s not a lot to see. And there aren’t a lot of stories to tell.

This is a tough gig to deliver for the speaker, because the main purpose visuals and narrative in a presentation is to take the audience on a ride together, with the speaker leading them. A compelling story around git branching strategies is a hard thing to find. And so the audience aren’t captured by *your* (weak) story. They’re already thinking about how they could use this in their own work – which in many ways is a win – but in the context of a formal presentation, you’ve lost them and pretty soon you’re going to be staring out into tumbleweed.

So – we should have some sympathy for the selections made by big conferences, and the content the speakers choose to deliver. They do it for a reason, and that’s why an advanced development conference for our community needs to be totally different.

Fortunately the quality of that difference also addresses the aspect of conference presentations that I find hardest (as a speaker) to deal with…

The expert-learner paradox

In my experience, teaching beginners is technically significantly more difficult than teaching other experts. And yet psychologically the reverse is true – when the knowledge-gap between myself and someone I’m teaching is obvious, I can feel confident that I’m imparting something useful, even though this is a false confidence because it’s very easy to leave a beginner more confused than they started out. When I’m teaching a group of my peers I spend a lot of time worrying about whether they think I’m a twat for putting the ‘expert’ hat on.

A peculiarity of learning is that there comes a moment after which the more you know the more you know you don’t know. And so there seems to be a fairly early peak in your confidence of your knowledge, after which there is only a greater and greater sense of how little you understand in comparison with the (impossible) state of fully-knowing your subject.

A few people have been kind enough to share their experience of presenting at Flash on the Beach, and they seem to have a similar feeling – it’s uncomfortable to put yourself on the stage when you have people in the room who you know are at least as expert as you are (even when those people are genuinely supportive of you in that situation).

Peer-to-peer networks beat broadcasting

Recently I’ve helped out a couple of people with Robotlegs, project sprouts and some integration/end-to-end testing. And in return I’ve received some fantastic help from them around my own questions and weaker spots.

I’ve also learned an enormous amount from answering questions on the Robotlegs tender forum. Sometimes you don’t really know what you think until you’re asked to form an answer to a question.

I suspect this is the real reason why so many of us in the tech community put time into blog posts and screencasts. We might claim that it’s because it’s good for our career (and it is), good for building contacts and so on – but many of us are essentially introvert, so I’d speculate that the real thrill is in exploring our own thoughts, and consolidating our own learning.

Still, there is, for me, a greater thrill in learning-together. For someone with autism I do a passable impression of a sociable person, but the truth is that while I have a strong moral framework that means I genuinely care about most human beings, what really interests me about you is how your mind works and how your mind can help my mind to understand and build something greater than I can on my own.

If we were musicians, I’d want to jam with you

We can talk about code – that’s great. But really I want to write code with you. I want to set up the programming equivalent of a 12-bar-blues and then see where we go. Which is why I’ve loved the idea of the code retreat format since I first heard about it (from Joel Hooks).

And so I started to play with the idea of combining all of these things – peer-to-peer learning in a group small enough to have conversations as well as presentation. A set up where everybody teaches as well as everybody learning, where there’s less (artificial) hierarchy to feel weird about. The opportunity to ‘jam’ with other programmers as well as taking master-classes. Plenty of space in-between to digest and regenerate, and – crucial for me – the chance to somehow include my wife because not only does she keep me sane but she’d probably prefer to have my enthusiastic ramblings drip fed through a few days than have the whole lot drop on her when I return!

So, are we doing this or what?

I shoved up a twitter survey that many of you were kind enough to respond to, and responses were positive and we generated a really diverse list of content that could be presented. People were enthusiastic, flexible and split clean down the middle on questions like “weekend or mid-week?” and which locations would work. Two thirds of people wanted to bring their partner or family, which also influenced the choice of venue: Center Parcs.

And so, I should confess, my decision to create another flash-platform conference is almost entirely selfish, but also shaped by your feedback and by input from the lovely Neil Manuell who is going to be my co-facilitator / organiser.

And we bring you:  try { harder } beta-conf

About the Author

I'm an actionscript programmer living and working in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales, UK. I used to be a TV reporter, but my inner (and often outer) geek won. I also write stuff. Most recently Head First 2D Geometry.

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  • Oyvind Nordhagen

    I find myself in immense agreement. Looking forward to FOTB as well, but this conference you speak of would be the answer som much of my FOTB-feedback the last two years. I say go for it!

  • http://zarate.tv

    Wow, massively interesting!

    I consider myself precisely that kind of Flash developer, never an artist (I wish!), always pushing to what i call “the least Flash side of Flash”: source control, best practices, etc, etc.

    On the format of the “conference” though, it’s a tad too small for me. I definitely like the idea of sharing and learning together, but I’m not sold on whole family angle. Plus even if I could get that break for me, I doubt my gf could.

    Aaaanyway. I’m sure you guys are going to have a lot of fun and learn a lot!

    Keep us posted : )

    Juan