QCon London 2018 Takeaways
Alfa sent 21 delegates to QCon London 2018. Read our takeaways below.
At Alfa we work hard to keep our methods current, and are keen consumers of everything we think will enhance our product and development process. Attending technology conferences around the world to consuming the latest advice on best practice is vital to this.
The innovation-focused QCon is one of the best regarded of these conferences, and we sent 21 delegates to 2018's London event for our ninth consecutive visit. Below are some of our key takeaways.
Tech Ethics in Action was a new and welcome addition this year. Track hosts Anne Currie (Container Solutions) and Gareth Rushgrove (Docker) highlighted how ethical considerations are philosophically important in the tech industry. A variety of talks, as well as a panel on the issue, introduced both business-specific and industry-wide observations and showed many interesting approaches to implementing ethical foresight.
On the industry-wide scale, a general lack of interest in a tech-specific code of conduct was compared to the widely adhered-to Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Tech industry-wide, the tendency is to "monetize" human tendencies instead of looking out for the greater good of humanity. For example, many widely-used apps keep users glued to the screen for as long as possible with infinite scrolling, auto-playing songs or videos after you have finished the one you have selected.
More business-specific examples included an interesting talk asking if more active moral questioning might have prevented lawsuits (the VW emissions scandal) or embarrassing mistakes (an automatic soap dispenser unable to dispense soap for darker skin). The take away from this track was that, as an industry, we need to make ethical considerations the norm both when designing and writing software and when making business decisions, and also to realise the importance of diversity within all project teams.
Another track that was both interesting and relevant to Alfa was Building Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations – a hot topic in the industry and, like the ethics track, a little different to the more technical tracks. We found the lessons learned presented by Amanda Bellwood of Sky Bet particularly interesting as she spoke about undertaking a major cultural change at a fast-growing company. She and her team were able not only to maintain their level of employee satisfaction and engagement, but increase it by 20 points. She spoke compellingly about their internal changes to empower employees and create a culture of regular high-quality conversations, rather than formal, points-based evaluations once a year. At Alfa we're growing quickly too, and always looking to change things for the better. One of the most important things to get right is people and teams, so this material was invaluable to our current deliberations on the subject.
We learned a lot about the features and advantages of event-driven architecture. In particular, we enjoyed Jonas Bonér's (of Lightbend and Akka) talk on how events are reshaping modern systems. This track highlighted the benefits gained from event-driven systems, which include the following features:
- Replayability. If all the changes made to your data are persisted as a log of events, you can replay a given scenario - very useful during bug fixing and in development where detailed analysis is required. Test scenario data can also be created quickly from a single base position, instead of duplicating and maintaining different starting positions for tests.
- Auditing. In a traditional architecture, reports can only be generated for a single point in time, unless the database is designed to audit data over time. An event-driven architecture, by its nature, has the ability to build reports from varying points in time if those events have been persisted. In this way, it can provide another level of transparency for report building.
- Distribution and performance. A multiple database structure can be constructed using event-driven architectures. With events propagating to each database worker node and ensuring eventual consistency, some have been able to use this structure and Java to solve historical resilience problems. This approach can also provide higher performance to global clients who would prefer to have consistent response times across the world; creating an event and adding it to a queue for processing is faster than processing an event inline when often the result is not immediately required. Faster response times = better user experience!
Machine learning and parallel processing
No technology conference would be complete without the hot topic of machine learning (ML). We were inspired by Paul Sweetman's talk on Ocado's use of machine learning to improve their supply chain and customer experience. We also heard how hardware developments in parallel processing are enabling ML algorithms to run at ever higher speeds, making this complex analysis possible in real-time. Large organisations such as Uber, nVidia and PayPal were all at QCon talking about how they use or enable these technologies.
ML is becoming an increasingly integral part of many software applications, and this early-adopter phase is the time to embrace the technology. Alfa's applications produce a vast amount of data which can be harnessed to improve business processes, from predicting periods of high customer demand to detecting fraud, so ML is always in our thinking.
The DevEx: The Next Evolution of DevOps track hosted by Jamie Dobson (Container Solutions) explored the idea of removing friction from the developer experience. This describes how developers think and feel about their activities within their working environments, and the practice of optimising that experience. Improving the developer experience should result in positive impacts within project performance and sustained teams. James Uther (LShift) spoke about empowering developers to do their jobs well and get better, and went into detail on how developers should be delivering value while being engaged and learning.
Both James and Randy Shoup (WeWork) referenced this powerful idea from Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck: "In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." Stuart Davidson (Skyscanner) explained how their architecture makes "source to service in zero clicks" possible, and Jessica Kerr (Atomist) spoke about moving work into the automated part of the team by customising tooling.
We appreciated this track greatly because we saw ourselves in it. Our teams often work flexibly and remotely, we support innovative ideas from any source, and foster employee-led learning and development flows through the company - with opportunities to attend courses and conferences such as QCon. And we're always on the lookout for ways to improve our internal tooling and eliminate remedial tasks through automation.
As usual we found QCon to be eye-opening, and we will be using what we learned to help us improve our products and services. We’ve picked out many of the sessions that were directly relevant to our day-to-day work at Alfa, but we also took away lessons on how to build secure applications, tips on how to write microservices, and strategies for optimising performance.
Until next year!