A few highlights from the Distill Conference

Aug 10, 2013

Distill Conference 2013The first Distill Conference put on by Engine Yard was quite a pleasant surprise. It was billed as a developer conference featuring topics such as best practices for application architecture and user experience.  The event was hosted over 2 days at The Winery SF on Treasure Island, which was a lot of fun.  All-in-all, Engine Yard put on a great event that was, at its core, a very social experience – they encouraged attendees to mingle and meet throughout the event.

The event had an amazing keynote each of the 2 days and presented 2 tracks of talks by about 20 presenters.  Nearly all of the talks that I attended were rewarding.  Below are a few of the standout keynotes and talks that I saw:

Keynote by Nolan and Brent Bushnell – Growing up Creative

I knew Nolan Bushnell as the founder of Atari, but didn’t realize he went on to found Chuck E. Cheese (and about 20 other companies).  While he’s still working in the game area – he’s now applying “brain science” in educational software.  His son, Brent Bushnell, is CEO of creative company, Two Bit Circus.

Their presentation was dynamic, funny and personal as they shared anecdotes about growing up in a creative family (which included 8 kids!).  Here are a few practices that they’ve applied from their family life to their professional lives:

  • Stimulating Environment: have a rich environment that encourages kids to build and make stuff!  Passive is the enemy, active is the goal
  • Project-Based: When kids have personal projects, they become invested – Brent and his brother invented a sci-fi card game as young teens that they sold to TOPPS.  They were pulling all-nighters as teens!
  • Brainstorming: Exhaust “all” ideas, then ask for 20 more.  THEN, turn that list upside-down and challenge how to make those craziest ideas work

Keynote by Michael Lopp – Stables and Volatiles

Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley author and technologist, an 8-year Apple veteran currently working at Palantir.  Lopp gave an inspiring presentation on Stables and Volatiles.

  • Stables: Appreciate plans and schedules; carefully work to mitigate failure; process-oriented to create predictability and measurability; play nice with teams; no drama
  • Volatiles: Prefer to define strategy rather than follow it; can’t conceive of failing; find thrill in risk; don’t build predictable or scalable things, but build a lot, could care less about how you feel (!)

While his talk did make Volatiles out to be more glamorous, he threw out a qualification that often each type is critical to success.  Of course, Steve Jobs is the go-to Volatile example, but an audience favorite anecdote was that we would have never had Flying Toasters without a Volatile!  Lopp had a bunch of great stories – I’ll have to go read his blog or check out some of his books, such as Managing Humans and Being Geek.

James Whelton – CoderDojo

Dude, Whelton is a 20-year-old programmer in Dublin. He founded CoderDojo, which is now a global movement to make programming more accessible to kids via volunteer coding clubs.  Makes the rest of us look like slackers, for real.

Matteo Collina – Internet of Things

Collina, a  PhD student in Italy, gave a great talk on the “Internet of Things”; specifically the communication between real-world objects. While he was proposing a common communication protocol – he got the audience excited about his open-source hacking with MQTT, Arduino and Twitter to let anyone in the world turn a light on and off in his house in Italy!  Just tweet: “@mchubot turn light on” or “@mchubot turn light off”. See the live webcam here: https://cloudup.com/cECuYCqRvgT.

Ed Finkler – Open-sourcing Mental Illness

Wow – this talk was such as surprise.  Ed Finkler is a developer and has been on the conference circuit sharing his very candid and personal experience dealing with depression.  His stories range from growing up with extreme anxieties, being diagnosed and treated, how he copes in his family life and professional life.  I encourage you to watch a presentation at his website, funkatron.com.  Engine Yard has also put up a website to spread the word about mental health resources and involvement in technology: http://prompt.engineyard.com/.

I saw a few more talks, but these were the ones that left lasting impressions!