October 7, 2014 · community code ·

StrangeLoop, Part II: My Favorite Talks

As I mentioned in part one of my StrangeLoop write-up, seven other Ada Developers Academy students and I were granted very generous scholarships that enabled us to travel to St. Louis and check out StrangeLoop for the first time! We were given help to pay for travel and accommodations during the conference, without which we wouldn't have been able to attend. So special thanks to all the diversity scholarship sponsors!

When we talked to other folks in the Seattle dev community about heading down to St. Louis for the conference, we heard the same response many times over: that StrangeLoop was a cool looking conference, but that all the talks seemed esoteric, complicated, and highly specialized. While I think this intimidated a few of us, it also gave us a bit of a sense of freedom. That is, if the experienced developers we look up to locally think the topics can be tough, then we shouldn't stress out about really understanding everything. Keeping this perspective helped me enjoy what I did understand, and not feel too much like an impostor when I got lost halfway through a talk.

One speaker that stood out was Julia Evans, who presented her talk, "You can be a kernel hacker!" with such a contagious excitement that I think everyone in the crowd was completely enthralled. It was great to see how she started hacking around these topics and what tools and strategies we could start to use to learn some of the same things she did during her time at Hacker School. While there was some nervous laughing that on other speakers would have been an annoyance or distraction, when Julia spoke it was clear that she was so enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge that it became endearing.

Another talk I really liked was "DOMStep: Audio Synthesis, AI and a JavaScript Dance Party" by Jamison Dance. It was a fun interactive talk where he had different sections of the audience type in different code in our browser consoles to make some noises together with the Web Audio API. It was goofy and fun, but he also showed us some rad tools like his beats.js library, which allows you to create live editable patterns in your browser to make simple tracks.

I'm really glad I chose to go to Jamison's talk, because I don't think it would have translated as well on the recording, but it was a tough choice. I also wanted to see "Analyzing Rap Lyrics Using Python" by Julie Lavoie and "The Sociology of Programming Languages" by Leo Meyerovich, but it seemed as though all the fun, light-hearted talks were scheduled at the same time so I wasn't able to attend the others that I was pretty interested in. In a way though, it was good because it forced me to try some sessions that I thought might have been too serious or complicated for me. I simply wasn't able to avoid getting immersed in some of the emerging languages or polemic discussions about type systems.

And what trip to St. Louis would be complete without visiting Pappy's? I had heard from many, many people that this was the place to get St. Louis style ribs so the other adventurous omnivore, Davida, and I walked over there one afternoon. I also got the chance to see the campus of the school that I technically have a degree from (Hi St. Louis University!), despite having never been there before. It was a very strange campus, and I sure am glad I completed my degree in Madrid and not Missouri.

But, and I'm not trying to start shit here or anything, Pappy's gave us a side of sweet potato fries that were not salted- no! They were covered in sugar. Call me a sweet potato snob if you must, but I think sugar is overkill. I now know the most valuable piece of advice I can give to anyone else going to StrangeLoop in the future and that is: order your fries sugar-free!

davida attacking some ribs

Back to the talks: The opening keynote for the conference was by Joe Armstrong, one of the inventors of Erlang. His keynote, "The Mess We're In", was engaging and especially interesting to me as I have not been around in the industry long enough to know all of the cultural and technological baggage we carry around that he presented. I'm sure his "Seven Deadly Sins" of code will ruffle some feathers, but they seemed reasonable within an idealized development environment to me at least. Perhaps those who develop without the time to make code beautiful before shipping or developers who work at companies that undervalue clean code will find reasons to reject his list of sins, but of course he was presenting "the mess we're in" and how we got there. Perhaps this can also be attributed to a divide in programming cultures, as Erlang was born out of telecom industries and thus has different priorities than say, rapid MVP development for web apps.

On the last day of the conference, O'Reilly Media tweeted that they were going to give away the books they brought to the conference in exchange for embarrassing yourself by singing a song. We sang some pretty out of tune verses of "With a Little Help from My Friends" and scored these free books:
girls with books

I snagged the Raspberry Pi Cookbook to complement the Raspberry Pis that we scored from Cloudant that we were planning on giving to the new students at Ada!

The closing keynote on Friday was "Our Shared Joy of Programming" by Carin Meier and Sam Aaron. The organizers definitely chose a fun talk with which to end the conference! Carin talked for just a short period of time about the pure joy you can feel when you create something with code and see it work for the first time, giving us a vivid picture of her hacking away at her quadcopter with her kids safely tucked in bed. Sam, one of the bros from Meta-eX (who also performed at the City Museum for the StrangeLoop opening party), talked about teaching code to artists using Sonic Pi. I loved hearing about the successes of the artists, and also their struggles. One standout story was the artist who, while struggling with code, figured out she could melt chocolate on top of the Raspberry Pi while running her program. That is my kind of code art!

They ended the keynote with a performance, with Meta-eX live coding their music and Carin showing off her robots that moved and danced to the beats. The trouble with this talk (and many others at StrangeLoop) was that it added yet even more things to the list we all have about fun side projects or new projects to experiment on. I have yet to feel as engaged and excited about programming after other conferences as I have at StrangeLoop. I think I can speak for everyone of us from Ada that attended in saying that we hope we'll be able to come back next year!!

Special thanks again to StrangeLoop and Bridget Hillyer for making this one of the best conference experiences for us as new women in tech! We are so grateful for the diversity scholarships and we hope more companies will consider sponsoring for next year.

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