Hack-a-thons are not “normal”

In life I tend to do things a bit strange.  Not what most would consider “normal”.  For instance, I run thousands of miles each year and have been known to run up to 100 miles in a single week. (Yes, run.)  I am a black belt in Judo, and enjoy being thrown to the ground, only to bounce up and get my turn bouncing someone else.  I love scuba diving, and feel a great sense of relaxation while deep under water with only the sounds of my own breathing and bubbles around me.  I’m the organizer of a PHP user group, and the organizer of a PHP conference.  My family and I take vacations where we hike 30 or more miles over a few days, and come home feeling rested.  To top it all off, I love to refactor code!

So, no, I do not live life in the “normal” zone.

However, when it comes to coding PHP I do things pretty much as you would expect from a senior developer.  Most of what I do is pretty normal, with only a small dash of interesting here and there to satisfy some exotic needs.  Of course I spend most of my time these days refactoring other people’s code, but even then it is pretty normal and usually falls into a normal pattern.

Then a couple weeks ago I had the great opportunity to organize my first hack-a-thon for the South Florida PHP User Group (SoFloPHP), and it sure was an eye opening experience for me.  Things kicked off pretty normal as most attendees split up into groups and started discussing their projects for the day, and the coding began.  I also had a small project I intended to work on, but ended up spending most of my day pulled between groups to help out in one way or another.  Questions on how to set up hosting, how to use Git version control and github, as well as how to use CakePHP.  I loved it, and really enjoyed helping others with their projects.

Later in the day I was helping someone with a Git workflow when he said something that hit me squarely in the face.  He said, “I do not get to use Git in my normal job, so it is nice to do it here.”  Now this is not the first time I have heard such a thing, but for some reason it really sunk in this time as I realized that hack-a-thons are not for “normal” things we do every day.  Instead we enjoy hack-a-thons and other social coding activities because it affords us a chance to learn new things, use technologies we would not normally get to touch, and to go beyond our “normal” things.

This opened up a whole new world for me, and from now on I have another way of looking at these social activities.  Attending activities like this are educational, enlightening, and door opening as well as presenting a social aspect that really helps developers advance their skills and networks.

I can’t wait until the next one.

My experience at Code Retreat Miami 2012

This past weekend (Dec. 8th, 2013) I had the great opportunity to experience my first Code Retreat in Miami, for the Global Day of Code Retreat, here is a post about it to help inform others about this wonderful event.  If you have a chance in the future to get to one, it is a “must do”.

The Crowd

I was very surprised there was a large group of Rails developers, and it was nice to see there were a few PHP people from the South Florida PHP Users Group (SoFloPHP) because I had posted the event on the group page.  It’s comical how the Rails folks (I do not refer to them as Ruby developers, because generally they do not know Ruby.) seem to feel their framework makes it the best tool for everything, and completely disregard every other language and framework on the planet to blindly evangelize.  I say “blindly” because Rails users seem to feel the need to push the framework on me by selling wonderful features, as if no other language/framework in the world has it.  (But I digress, that is another subject for another post.)

It was nice to see all of the programming languages represented.  There was PHP, Ruby on Rails, Java, Smalltalk, C#, and even some Python.  This made for a nice mix to view other languages, and how developers of those languages operate.

Overall everyone was friendly and it made for a great day of learning and fun.

What is Code Retreat?

Code Retreat is a single day pair-programming workshop giving a chance to practice Test Driven Development (TDD) while trying to solve a pretty challenging sample application, and follow the 4 rules of simple design.  The sample application is to build Conway’s Game of Life.  I will not try to explain the Game of Life here, so if you are curious you can click the link and learn of it on your own.

For many, the sample application is not an easy one to grasp. I found that all of my pairs kept trying to pre-define the game board size at the beginning of the process, though one of the criteria of the game is to have infinite size. (Even the moderator seemed to be stuck on the concept as well, and claimed that predefining a size was OK, because it is how he did it.  I found this disturbing, but overlooked it.)

Others found that forcing ourselves to write the tests first (TDD) was the hardest part of the event, and that is what it was all about.  The event is all about learning TDD, so it was justifiable that it was the challenging part.  I, for one, was up for the challenge and forced myself to NOT WRITE A SINGLE LINE OF CODE WITHOUT A TEST WRITTEN FIRST TO COVER IT.  Because of this I had 100% code coverage the entire day.

The day is broken down into 45 minute sessions where pairs work together and get as far as they can.  Usually the first 5 minutes are spent as each member of the pair explains how they envision the logic to work out.  Following that the initial tests are built to test the game board, then code is written to satisfy the tests.  Then more tests to populate the board, then more code to satisfy tests.  Then tests to makes sure the 4 rules of the game work, then code to carry them out.  Finally, if you got this far, tests to ensure a new turn is executed, and code to satisfy the test.

One of the parts of the interesting parts of the challenge is that prior to each 45 minutes pairing session the pairs were changed.  Which required that the pairs started over by explaining their vision.  Then at the end of each 45 minute session ALL code was deleted to ensure you start from scratch again.  This included any hand-written notes you took during previous pairings.

Of course, due to the 45 minutes restriction I don’t believe that anyone could truly get the completed application running.  But that is OK.  The purpose of the event is achieved by showing the benefits of pair-programming, using TDD (Test Driven Development), and bringing the various communities together.

Additional requirements

In addition to the rules and steps defined above, there was additional criteria placed upon the teams for each iteration.  The first round had no additional criteria, but each additional round carried a new requirement to follow.  For this event we had the following criteria set for each round respectively:

  1. Team with someone using a different programming language.
  2. 5 lines or less per method/function.
  3. No usage of mouse.  All keyboard shortcuts.
  4. No talking.

The additional requirements made it fun and forced attendees out of their comfort zone, in most cases.  It was interesting to see how, when faced with the difficulties of the additional requirements, it brought the pairs closer together to tackle the obstacle.

Possible Tweaks

While I did find the event awesome, and enabled developers from across the board to experience new things, I would love to do such an event where everyone used the same technologies.  This would enable to see how other developers in our own area of expertise have adjusted their workflow, and allow further learning.

By having a group using the same technologies it would allow juniors and seniors to learn from each other and grow the individual communities.

My Take-away

For me this was an awesome way to force myself to use TDD to develop.  Too often I get in a hurry and just skip right to the code, then come back and write tests later…maybe.  However, I found that by writing tests first during this event I actually got more coding done and ended up with less code overall.  And it also led me to do less back and forth refactoring during coding, that is normally a HUGE time waster.

I also found that pair-programming was very enjoyable, and led to time savings.  The person at the keyboard tended to get more done while the second person was free to think a bit more, rather than being occupied with the manual tasks of writing the code.

In Closing

I enjoyed the event thoroughly, and would love to do it again….today!  If you get a chance to attend one of these events in the future, I highly recommend it.