Thursday, 21 November 2013

Django Cardiff User Group

Last night I went to the second meeting of the Django Cardiff User Group.

This is a sister group to the DBBUG Bristol based one that I have been attending for the last 5 years. It was organised by Daniele Procida, who started attending DBBUG events a few years ago and has now decided to spread the word over the Severn, in Wales.

He is also organising the first UK Django conference in a couple of months, so its good to see one open source / Python group be inspiration for spawning another, and one that is perhaps more organisationally active than its progenitor.

The evening was fun, and it was good to meet and chat with Djangonauts over the border.

Andrew Godwin, Django core developer / release manager, gave us an update on all the new goodies to be added in Django 1.7
So this release is largely about really sorting out the niggling issues with relational database features, and the low level ORM handling of them.
It sees rationalisation of transaction handling with the use of nestable atomic statements, addition of generic connection pooling, and handling of composite keys.

Daniele demonstrated how to fly a helicopter (a toy one) via the Python command line, although Andrew seemed rather more adept at landing it safely. I gave a little reprise of a talk introducing DBBUG and how a developer can follow the road to their own open source contributions.

Thanks to everyone involved, I hope to get to the Django weekend too.

The ten commandments of software procurement

For a medium to large scale organisation with its own IT department, I have found in today's market the following truths for software procurement apply. Yet they are usually poorly understood by staff in organisations outside the software sector. Who often view the world through antique pre1990 glasses, before the significant impact of  web based providers, and the mixed economy of revenue models of  modern software companies ...
  1. Software is like any other creative output, it differs radically in quality, modernity and appropriateness - and this is entirely unrelated to its cost. Partly because the majority of today's leading software development companies are internet companies who do not use software charging for revenue. 
  2. So whether or not software is charged for directly via a licensing model is unrelated to whether it is mostly open source or closed source / commercial. Some software is no longer purchasable or the paid for solutions are too poor quality to be viable, compared to the free ones. In such cases other non-financial trading decisions must be part of the procurement arsenal. So policies on data release, etc.
  3. Whether something is open or closed source is entirely irrelevant to its quality, scalability or any other attribute you care to name. These days any software stack is likely to be a mix of both.
    However given source, tests, community and commit rate can all be checked for the former, it is far easier not to pick a lemon, with open source (not that a non-technical organisation tends to use any of these core indicators for procurement assessment).
  4. Software is basically like literature - there are your Barbara Cartland's and your Shakespeare's - unfortunately less people are able to read it to work out what quality it is, so its a book which is generally just judged by its cover - hence the common misconception that software is all roughly the same - or that its quality relates to its cost.
  5. However, the more generic a software application is, the more likely it is that you get better quality for a lower cost - standard economy of scale.
    Hence Google GMail / Microsoft Office / open source Apache - are good quality - because they are large scale generic applications.  
    The more specific an application is, the more likely the software (whether open source or commercial) will have been put together by a core group of at most 3 or 4 developers, hence have less quality control methods applied, be more buggy and risk being generally of a lower standard.
  6. If the IT Services department of your organisation is not sufficiently powerful enough to tell the users what they are going to get, despite what they want. It is common that many systems it deploys will require significant customisation, the more specific they are, the more the customisation.
    Customisation of out sourced, closed source products is likely to incur significantly greater time and development cost than open source ones. Whether customised in house or out sourced. If customised in house then unless the software has a well designed API, docs etc. - ie is a widely used generic system from a major company. You usually find that you can only do black box integration and wrapper coding or resort to breaking license agreements by decompiling. All of which is difficult to maintain.
    If out sourced, then the code may be open, test suited and documented within the supplying company, but you are likely to be paying around 3 times the wage to the company, than your inhouse cost,  for a junior developers customisation / bug fixing time.
  7. Due to historical reasons some types of software have far superior products that are all in one of these camps than the other ... So open source finance software is poor. Closed source web CMS software and repository software is poor, etc.
  8. Non-technical companies will go through a 5-10 year cycle of outsourcing as much software as possible, then auditing consultancy costs, then ballooning internal development to cut costs, then deciding too much development is in house back to outsourcing again. This cycle wastes a lot of money due to its lack of understanding of the benefits of a stable highly selective mixed economy for software of outsourced, open source, commercial and in-house as being the ideal balance of functionality vs. cost.
  9. Buying mix and match products from integrated product suites is a recipe for high cost, eg. MS Exchange Email and Google Docs, rather than all from one or other supplier.
  10. Lastly and most importantly a non-technical organisation always makes its software procurement decisions based on political reasons*. Never on technical ones. This invariably means that it makes decisions that are significantly more costly, difficult to maintain and less well featured than it could achieve using a purely technical assessment process.
    Usually they will also fail to have processes to properly trial run alternative products in a realistic manner, or to audit selections once the initial purchase is made. This may partly be because although auditing may save significant costs in the long run, it does introduce a means by which a wrong choice can be flagged up. Unfortunately it is often less embarrassing to make do with a bad choice, until its end of life, than admit a failure. Even though failing and acceptance of it as part of the process, is essential to delivery of quality (rather than make do) systems. 

Thank you ... rant over :-)

* political reasons - The salesman managed to persuade someone suitably senior that they were technically clueless enough to believe them. This usually goes in tandem with, company software team response ... the salesman promised them it did what?? ... make damn sure that isn't in the contract / licensing agreement.

Monday, 3 June 2013

IT Megameet

Yes MegaMeet may have a slightly cheesey ring to it, but the Bristol IT MegaMeet was a lot of fun, and a great idea for a regional software community event. So unlike most conferences this one is not for a particular company, language, platform or area of software expertise. Instead it brings together all the voluntary community software and technology groups within the region of Bristol, UK.

There are quite a number as it turns out, and so squeezing the conference into a single day resulted in 5 tracks. For a conference organised for the first time last year by a student to save his course - thanks Lyle Hopkins, it rather put our local University's official efforts in software community engagement to shame - however perhaps it might encourage them to rise to the challenge. (Lyle is a student at one, and I work at the other.)

So of the perhaps 30-40 software groups that are based in and around Bristol, over 20 were represented, a good turnout partly due to the efforts of one of Lyle's fellow volunteers, Indu Kaila, to do the leg work of attending all the local events and getting various members (like myself) to volunteer to represent their group at the event. So I am one of the hundred odd members of Bristol and Bath's Django User Group (DBBUG), started by Dan Fairs, and did a presentation about Python, Django, our group, and the process of contributing to open source - so rather a lot to pack into 40 minutes, but it seemed to go down OK.

There was the full range of enthusiast groups present, so I started the day finding out how the four colour theorem from map making applies to optimisation algorithms used in compilers, from the ACCU, who have been around for a very long time, starting out as a C programming community group. Then near the finish saw a good talk from Bristol Web folk reminding me about the core important issues to remember concerning front end web development - as more of a back end developer  it can be easy to label this stuff somebody else's job, but with an ever increasing slice of the stack being client side in web development, these days, that is clearly a bad attitude.

There was more than a smattering of javascript related talks going on, from big data CouchDB and node.js back end use, through to more client side, and a very popular session, flying helicopters via javascript code.

The talks were rounded off with some talks about the charity cause that the day was helping to raise funds for, a cross atlantic row in aid of cervical cancer charity (plus an appeal for graphic design work for another member of the volunteer team from the Ukraine, who is in need of health care).

I then found myself in the rather comical position of receiving two awards from the extensive award ceremony for community involvement, etc. Both really on behalf of other people, but it was fun and lead on to the free bar and barbecue, always a popular way to round off a conference.

So thanks to the Megameet team, if nobody else comes forward, I can always represent DBBUG, South West Big Data or perhaps another new local group, again next year!