Nor(DEV):Con 2020 Review

Nor(DEV):Con is a developer conference in Norwich. An hour on the train, but further from London, there was a local, community feel to this event. There was a wider mix of technical and non-technical talks than we expected. This was a deliberate choice to focus on the human side of software development, and it matched the needs of the smaller size city. There were a number of talks geared toward non-technical founders and running a small business, which I hear suited them well.


All the keynotes opening and closing both days were focused on developer experience and team health. Gail Ollis used the term humaning in her talk, reminding us that simple things like asking someone how their day is or checking their preferred pronouns may feel like friction in the moment, but are vital for the cohesion of an ongoing working relationship.

Communication around change

Karen Poulter opened her talk by sharing her life story. From our darkest points, it’s impossible to see our greatest potentials. Talking to us today from a Head of IT role, she recounted the unexpected turn in her life as a university dropout and a single mother in her early twenties. Raising her son gave her an immense sense of satisfaction and purpose. While it was not ruinous to her career development, it destroyed the image she had of her future she had as a teenager.

When change happens it can be a highly emotional and disruptive event. And when it happens in a business context, it can be hard to see why we should change when the we’re not in direct contact with the decision-makers, or have a differing perspective. Carrying a team or an organisation through large-scale change requires buy-in from all involved. And that requires understanding.

A risk of Agile approaches is short-termism, with the horizon of focus being a short week or month. For longer projects this can make the talk seem Sisyphean, and having no end in sight can be demotivating. However, having a connection to why these tasks are happening, and broader goals can help. Moreover, understanding why the project is happening means that making the right decision in the moment is easier and will be better aligned with the project as a whole.

Feeling free to experiment

For those in the know, kombucha is referred to as booch. Talking about her home-brew hobby, Jennifer Wadella use the booch community to talk about experimentation. For as little as £30-50 worth of materials you can get yourself a starter kit and have the resources to do a whole gamut of experiments.

So, why are we afraid to try? What stops us from starting?

She saw a lot of question on reddit asking “if I do X, will it work?” Her response was “I don’t know, why don’t you try?” The environments we work in are really low risk. All that might happen is you get a bad batch of booch. Really, the biggest risk is building up too much pressure and spraying booch across the room… and your cat.

Tech isn’t so different from this hobby. Our material costs are low. All that’s at risk is a little time. The downsides are low, but the potential upsides are why we’re interested in the first-place. First we need a culture where we can feel safe to have an experiment fail, and then we need to try.

Charli Vince’s talk was on imposter syndrome and summed it up this way: Shift your thinking from “you should” to “I can start”. As an illustrator she was seeing gorgeous art books on Instagram and feeling inhibited from starting her own. Then she realised what she was after was a sketch book, not an art book; the audience for the book was herself, not the public. Some ideas need to start small before they can be made public. But also talk to the communities for the work you’re trying to do. You’ll find that everyone goes through these struggles in some of what they do.

The key is lowering the perceived risk. Karen Poulter also mentioned that while every project has the potential to be a growth opportunity, but not every task we do can be. A large part of what we’re doing needs to be familiar for us to be comfortable in our work. And then having some work that’s a stretch, challenging, or new is where the growth happens.

The story of the code

Dom Davis had a talk of with this title. We work in code everyday, and the code slowly builds up a representation of what we know, and what can be done within our system. But Dom challenged us as to whether code can really be self-documenting. Especially when it’s really a working draft for the system we want to build.

There is a lot of context that isn’t in what’s executed. In the code-base there’s the naming of things, structure, doc comments, inline comments and git commit messages. Within your team and workflow there’s feature requests and bug reports at the beginning, with pull-requests and code reviews at the end. Each one of these pieces tells a fragment of the story of the code.

As well as small commits to detail your thinking as you go, Dom recommends detailed code reviews that touch on many of these points:

  • With a fresh pair of eyes, go back to the to the initial request. Does this have enough detail in know whether the feature is complete or not?
  • Look at the documentation for the API alongside the code. Is there any drift that needs to be addressed?
  • Look at the tests. Are they reflecting what’s described in the documentation?

Gail also touched on the story of the code. There’s an old acronym YAGNI; You Ain’t Gonna Need It. It’s a reminder to keep your change small. If it needs extending, that work can be done in the future. What’s much harder is working out whether and when you can remove a piece of code.

Theory of Constraints

Chris O’Dell works at Monzo as part of the developer experience team, and talked us through their process for improving their system. They run internal micro-surveys, asking three questions and repeating it month after month. The feedback from these surveys are used to inform how they improve the internal tooling. They ask:

  • How satisfied are you?
  • What one thing would you change?
  • Why?

What they do with the results follows the Theory of Constraints, as described in The Goal and The Phoenix Project. The original phrasing of the steps is a bit weird. Chris rephrased them as:

  1. Find the weakest link
  2. Use it to the maximum
  3. Make everything else wait
  4. Once exploited, pay to expand or alleviate
  5. Find a new constraint!

The Theory of Constraints is also a big influence on the Accelerate book about using DevOps for creating high performance teams. In Accelerate, the authors find that high performing teams:

  • Have short lead times on features
  • Have can release multiple times a day
  • Can roll-back with minimal down-time
  • Have a low defect rate of releases

In short, their goal was high stability and high throughput.

Putting these pieces together, the team used the survey results to drive their focus. Their surveys told them that the wider dev team was having issues with their staging setup. Having 1000 micro-services, a local development setup isn’t feasible, so they rely on a shared staging setup to test whether their changes integrate well. With a bunch of devs using this shared resource at once, it’s not too surprising that there were some issues. It was hard to tell whether issues on staging were with their code or with whatever else was being tested at the same time. I can relate to this one over the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, my notes don’t have the exact changes they made. My guess it was around making it easier for people to use staging for a shorter amount of time and keeping it in a good state. A side note was made that by having a robust rollback process means getting things live without paranoia level of testing is fine. Risk is mitigated by shrinking the impact.

The alleviation of the constraint was shown in the changes in the responses given by the developers. They no longer list staging as the one thing they would change.

New Tech

Katja Mordaunt made a bold case for using Elm over React. Their design has been influential on one another. And the code is simple enough that she found it possible to show it to non-technical clients. create-elm-app loads far fewer dependencies than its React equivalent, and being a compiled functional language gives far greater assertions of correctness than anything in the Javascript, or even Typescript, ecosystem. elm-ui was touched on, which gives type-safe CSS. Mind blown!

There were a few talks on WebAssembly, which bypasses Javascript entirely, and using a compiled language for reactive front-end development. Blazor looks like it does the trick, but I’m unlikely to look into the C# project anytime soon. I was much more interested in Q 🦄’s talk on using Rust for the front-end. Not only does it compile much smaller (since it doesn’t need the runtime components), the talk went into detail on the amount of scaffolding needed. WASM is now supported on all the major browsers, but the tooling isn’t there yet. WASM doesn’t natively support the DOM yet, so there is still some need to pass actions to Javascript there. For that side of things you can wire things together, but it’s not seamless support. However, as Q pointed out, if you want to use a cryptography package or similar, with the performance of native code (and without someone modifying it at runtime) WASM is looks like a contender for those specialist tasks as of now.

AWS Step Functions are a wrapper around Lambdas and other actions. They provide a UI for wiring up your functionality in a pipeline. This could be useful for composing different tasks out of common Lambdas, and getting good visual feedback on the execution path between them. But you need to be deep in Lambda-land before this is really useful, but could be a good layer for liaising between developers and technical people in other fields. Moving our ETL pipeline for the data warehouse to somewhere that Data can own or observe it is the only use case I can think of right now.

Dom also did a talk on concurrency in Golang. Goroutines and Channels are so much nicer than p_threads ever were.

Other Quick Notes

  • Know how to submit a GDPR breach to the ICO before you need to! Submitting small breaches builds confidence if you’re audited for a big one. Remember, even if your business is being a data controller, you’re a data owner for your employees.
  • Find out about the speakers and talks here
  • IYJI, one of the sponsors, have collected some two minute interviews with some of the speakers

Cinco de Mayo

“Who accidentally comes to Orlando on Cinco de Mayo?” the guy at the motel asked us. Except more politely.

We did.

All we wanted was to get catch our flight in the morning. Not party. S didn’t even want to eat. But I voted with my stomach, and this time common sense was on my side.

The main street was crowded, but head five minutes in any direction and it was quiet again. We asked for directions, but didn’t know where we were going. What did we even want to eat?

At least we could get around on foot. Six hours of jetlag to go to a wedding on an endless road called Gainesville. At least here we had sidewalks, and didn’t have to deal with six lanes of traffic.

Somehow we decided on sushi.

It was pretty good, and the sake woke us up a little. But not enough for Cinco de Mayo.

Flight in the morning, and we weren’t going to rest at the other end, so best to rest up now.

It didn’t work, but at least we tried.

The Nether

“You track them like bloodhounds. Now you want to tell them what to do. Or rather, what not to do. What not to think. What not to feel.”

“You said it yourself – The Nether is becoming our contextual framework for being. If that happens, the same laws should apply”

I discovered The Nether by chance. A friend had a spare ticket and when I’m invited to a dystopian I say yes. Jennifer Haley has crafted a short, but deep play. And it feels very timely. In the UK there have been some high profile pedophilia cases. SOPA has made people question what we expect from a service like the internet. And as I write Facebook is having a crackdown on users with pseudonyms. All of this is fits and weaves into the fabric of the world created. All warranting more attention beyond the narrative.

The Nether, in the play, is a virtual reality environment that is used as commonly as the internet is today. People work in The Nether, people are taught in The Nether. What is real becomes an evermore subjective question. The play follows an investigation into the legitimacy of a realm known as The Hideaway. On the surface this is about pedophilia, but in a virtual world where everyone behind their avatar is an adult that stance is anachronistic. But the exploration into legitimacy, legality and intent leads to some very muddy waters.

The Nether offers no answers, but offers a multifaceted space to ask questions. If Sims actions are entirely legal should he be investigated in the first place? Or is there a moral duty to consider the implications of the grooming that may occur? How much power should a civil body have over the actions of the individual? What is the nature of identity divorced from your physical body? What is the value of agency and freedom within a controlled environment?

The Royal Court production compelled me enough to pick up the script. There are many ideas packed into this play of just over an hour’s length. This production really engaged me. It has made me want to look deeper.

And keep on questioning.


Ruin Lust

At Tate Britain The Ruin Lust exhibition ran at the Tate Britain and looked at the interest in decaying buildings from 18th century Romanticism to stark modern compositions. Whilst most of the works tied quite well with this umbrella theme the transitions between the eras and styles were very abrupt. The juxtaposition between the schools of thought was interesting but it made a few pieces seem out of place. It was difficult to create a connection or narrative between some of these ideas or find the reason for the choice of artists. For example placing Turner’s Tintern Abby next a technically inferior contemporary was lost on me. While I find the picturesque nature of the romantic style aesthetically pleasing, overall I found the more modern works more appealing. Here are a few things that caught my eye:

Joseph Gandy – Sloane’s Bank of England

Joseph Gandy, Soane's Bank of England This was the pre 20th century piece that I found the most interesting. For the opening of the Bank of England building the architect commissioned this piece. I like the savvy combination of jumping on the popularity of ruins and finding a way to show off the ins and outs of your work. As a Londoner and someone who goes past that building semi-regularly it was nice to have a glimpse of what may be inside.

Laura Oldfield Ford

Laura Oldfield Ford This piece stood out the most in the entire collection. However, not entirely in a good way. Placed opposite the Joseph Gandy and next to some faux-classical sculpture this piece caught the eye, but jarred with the rest of the room. The look into the urban decay from the perspective of squatters is nice counterpoint to the abandonment and isolation that comes up in most of the other work in the collection. This piece was by far the most modern seeming of the collection. Out the other side of the 20th century desolation. She is currently active and her blog, Savage Messiah, looks like a place I might visit again.

Tacita Dean – Russian Ending series

Tacita Dean - Beautiful Sheffield This series was made up of annotated postcards. For me, this image was the most interesting of the lot. Also on display was a piece of cinema showing the decline of Kodak. The piece showed (on film) the insides of a Kodak film factory on the decline. Possibly poignant, definitely meta, but (to my eyes at least) quite dull and mundane.

Jane and Louise Wilson – Urville

Jane and Louise Wilson - Urville You can’t get much more stark than this. This is part of destroyed German sea defence washed up on the French beach that it had once defended.

Rachel Whiteread – Demolished

Rachel Whiteread - Demolished

Gerard Byrne – 1984 and Beyond

I found this work brilliantly satirical. I didn’t have the patience to sit through one of the three half hour long video pieces, but the few minutes I watched made me smile. The pieces were very deadpan reenactments of interviews from 1963 with science fiction writers of the time. With them saying statements that the first immortal man may have already been born. I’m uplifted (and amused) by humanity’s optimism and ability to completely underestimate the complexity of ourselves and the world we live in.

Phyllida Barlow – Dock

Phyllida Barlow - Dock There were some pieces I really liked in the collection, but the curation left me with a mixed impression. However, all of this was eclipsed (literally) by the exhibition in the huge Duveen Galleriesnstallation. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with makeshift structures made out of common DIY materials. Going through it on the way in and out was an odd juxtaposition. It had a grandiosity that an exhibition glorifying buildings failed to capture. It also brought the idea of transience closer to the front of the mind than most of the works. (It’s going to have to be completely dismantled to be about to be taken out of the installation space.) This is in the free area and is worth a visit alone.

Kap Bambino and Vitalic live 28th Match 2013

At Koko

Kap Bambino are a French electro band. I first saw them supporting Atari Teenage Riot a couple of years ago. That was a really good gig. I even started following FOE who were the opening act. Kap Bambino didn’t quite click for me, but one of my friends got really into them. When he asked if I was up for seeing them again, knowing what to expect this time, I thought I’d give them another go.

You know it’s a weird running order when the band you want to see is after the headliner act. But when your night runs to four in the morning (and it’s not a rave where your audience is expected to be nocturnal) it’s not too surprising. Vitalic was the headliner, surrounded by some DJs who were fairly forgettable. There was a second room (read: the bar) which was more dubstep oriented, but we mostly went for generic house over generic dubstep.

I love Koko as a venue. It’s got gorgeous red decor, it’s tiered in such away that it’s easy to get a good view and I like anywhere that feels like a labyrinthe. But saying it has a second room isn’t saying much. I don’t know if you could even fit 100 people in there. The acts in that room weren’t expected to be very popular.

Vitalic was joined on stage by an electronic drummer and a keyboard player. They immediately felt more live and engaging than the DJ before him. The music actually had some dynamic structure to it and more substance than the hook. When you have the confidence to pause between songs at this type of event you are probably doing something right. It may be middle-of-the-road house, but it was well executed and had us on the dance floor.

Kap Bambino were on last, at 3.15am. I was surprised at how full the place still was after Vitalic had played. The DJ between Vitalic and Kap Bambino was forgettable, if occasionally interesting, but was playing the kind of music that would keep you dancing. You could tell when Kap Bambino took the stage as a cacophony descended. I usually think it’s a good thing when a band polarises a room (unless these people are already your fans) and I wasn’t surprised when the room was noticeably emptier after their second song. They were relentless with their tiny female front woman screaming over mangled dance music.

Half the crowd may have left, but the other half loved it. We were asked by two different people who that last band were. The strange running order didn’t seem to matter any more, there wasn’t anything that could follow that. And yes, I was definitely converted.

Bloc Party Live 22nd February 2013

At Earl’s Court

Bloc Party are a London based indie rock band with a very distinctive sound. They recently reformed and have released their forth album imaginatively titled Four. Four does have some of their is a bit stripped back compared to Intimacy, with no synth, but does have their signature delay used throughout. It does feel like a deliberate change in direction after taking a break.

The main support were The Joy Formidable.  They are an energetic mix of catchy indie pop and shoe-gazer soundscapes. Perfect to enjoy at three in the afternoon with a beer in a field. But it was weird seeing them when it was so cold. There was a level of intimacy lost in the size of the venue, but there was a large fan base obviously enjoying themselves at the front.

Bloc Party opened with So He Begins to Lie into Hunting For Witches. They were impressively tight and hand an energy fed the crowd. They played a solid set from start to finish. It’s almost as if they had never taken a break.

There was a good mix of new and old, but a conspicuous lack of anything off Intimacy other than the odd choice of Ares. There were some classics with songs like Banquet and Waiting for the 7:18 getting the crowd young and old singing along.

Some of the new material did stand out against the older material, but their sound is so varied it doesn’t really matter. They finished on Helicopter, very fast and strangely loose compared to the rest of their set. It was a good night and it’s been a while since I’ve been to a gig with as good a light show.

Black Light Burns live 14th February 2013

At The Underworld

Black Light Burns is creative work of on and off Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland. He was described it as his main project and free of the need to be commercial or fit someone else’s vision he has had the freedom to be far more experimental. We’re still talking industrial rock, but it definitely has a flavour of its’ own.

I like the Underworld as a venue. It’s small and dingy with that “everything painted black” look. I wasn’t sure the stage was going to be big enough, but somehow they managed to fit a drum kit in the back.

The main support was Jayce Lewis who I’ve seen before supporting Combichrist. I don’t know whether it was the smaller stage, the new material or just having played more, but I thought they were a much better band. Their industrial rock sound was cohesive. Jayce playing additional percussion didn’t feel crowbarred in and they even made a show piece of it. They have an album out later in the year.

Black Light Burns made an unpretentious entrance and played a solid set from start to finish. The fact they were on tour barely registered. It felt almost as if we were in a small bar in their home town and they were bantering with the regulars. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and we were part of it. Jayce Lewis and his band felt it too and thanked the band for their involvement with the tour.

The time passed too quickly with Black Light Burns playing to curfew. Not even pausing for the ritual of an encore.

The Tiger Lillies Hamlet 20th September 2012

At The Southbank Centre

The Tiger Lillies are an esoteric band. It’s not often you find someone who makes blasphemy a major theme. However behind the inch thick makeup up and farce are some talented musicians. Only a passing knowledge of the band is enough to know that this wasn’t going to be a typical production.

Working with the Republique, it was an impressive production combining music, dance, theatre and cinema with excellent set design and choreography to make an interesting dream-like experience. Whilst remaining faithful, a very minimal approach to the original text was taken. The cast was stripped down to Hamlet, his family, Ophelia and her family. Dialogue was minimal. Most progression of the story took place in the form of soliloquies and the pairing of apt choreography and music.

The use of slow-motion and stripping the story down to its core emphasized the descent into madness. Without Horatio there are no other witnesses to the dead king’s ghost leading to Hamlet coming across unhinged from scene one. Without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet rants to himself using the cast as puppets or figments of Hamlet’s imagination.

The climax of the play wouldn’t be complete with a string of deaths, and to this end the production does as expected. However, when you remove the minor characters and more than half of the remaining characters lie dead. It makes the characters personal ambition seem more futile.

Hamlet isn’t a play I know particularly well. I did have to make intuitive leaps as the play progressed due to the format being relatively abstract. However, there was a cohesive sense of atmosphere and degeneration. Leaving I did hear some mixed reactions including “once I got over it wasn’t what I expected”, which is fair. But it would be a shame if every production was typical and predictable. Prior knowledge needed is a legitimate complaint, but Hamlet is so ingrained in our culture my second hand cursory knowledge was enough to get me through. However, working with the style the did I think they did a fantastic job and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Angelspit live 15th September 2012

At Elecrotwekz/Slimelight

Angelspit are a fairly unique electro-industrial band from Australia. They have four albums to their name, have recently expanded from a two piece to a four piece and I was glad to get to see them on their Wall Street Massacre tour.


Slimelight is the longest running goth/alt club in London. Like most gigs hosted there it leads into the club night after. Unlike previous times I’ve been doors were at 7pm. It was strange getting ready and heading to that venue while it was still light out.

Second on the bill were Uberbyte. They were showcasing the material for their second album. They have a straight up dance approach to their industrial music. I’d heard of the band before, but never really gave them much of a listen. They put on a good show and got the crowd going, but they’re the kind of band I wouldn’t listen to out of a club context.

Angelspit were really good. I saw them the last time they played London and it didn’t quite gel. They were ok, but this time they were excellent. Perhaps they weren’t comfortable with playing as a four piece on such a small stage, perhaps it was an attack of the foreign germs, but whatever it was I know they had good material and gave them the benefit of the doubt. I am not disappointed.

The band have a distinctive two vocal style layered with effects. Coupled with their stage dynamic Zoog and Destroyx made a strong impression. Their set got off to a rocky start with some technical issues and a drum heavy mix, but these issues eased as the set continued and the band captivated.

Playing off album launch gave the band to explore their back catalogue more. Songs like Wolf were missing the last time I saw them, but this time shone as the front-person duo traded phrases and reeled us in with a divide and conquer tactics over the audience.


Cold In Berlin Live 7th September 2012

At The Garage

I discovered Cold In Berlin supporting She Wants Revenge a couple of months ago. Unfortunately I was late to the gig and only had a friends praise to go on. I looked them up and started listening to their first album incessantly. And having seeing them headline their album launch was a treat.

I’d not been the Garage in ages, and never upstairs. Its a typical dingy room, but it was loud. Too loud really. All of the support bands had their moments, but the nuance was lost in the din. I came away with the impression that Terminal Gods should only have one guitarist, but that was down to poor mixing.
They definitely had their moments and held the stage. Not just the front man; as a band. Each of them had personality. Not too sure about them in the studio. Drum machine aside, they didn’t come across nearly as retro in the flesh.
I’d had the chance to listen to And Yet a couple of times, but it hadn’t grabbed me as much as the first album.  The lyrics are powerful, intimate and scathing. The songs are good, but the production lacks feels a little flat. Live, however, they were enthralling. My, the front-woman, has a strong stage presence,  spoiled only by her seeming too pleased to be there. (But only slightly.)
What the album lacks, their performance had in spades: dynamics. They played the entire album. She Takes Control made a surprisingly good ender. They played Total Fear and God I Love You for an encore. Short and sweet. I would have liked more of the first album, but it was a really good show.