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Velocity New York 2015 top takeaways: Developer show explores the human side of tech

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Juan Carlos Perez Freelance writer

Software engineers, developers, and technology leaders gathered this week at O'Reilly Media's Velocity 2015 conference in New York to hear the latest on topics such as web operations, performance, DevOps, and optimization. But it wasn't all about the nitty-gritty of speeding up web-page loading, improving infrastructure scalability, accelerating software delivery, and boosting the reliability of sites and services.

Along with tutorials and sessions on Docker, high-performance app testing, advanced caching, continuous delivery, monitoring and metrics, and automation, attendees also heard about "human" topics, including diversity, burnout, and the importance of listening to and valuing non-technical users.

Challenges of self-awareness

John Allspaw, Etsy's CTO and a Velocity program chair, challenged attendees to strive to become more self-aware about how they approach their work and why. "The most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about," he said, likening his operations and infrastructure peers to fish that don't know what water is.

It's critical to conduct research to understand scientifically what makes operations and infrastructure teams good at what they do and what can be done to improve them, he said, during his keynote titled "Seeing the Invisible: Discovering Operations Expertise."

An example of a lack of self-reflection is the decades-old, blind pursuit of automation technology as something magical, he said. "I need to urge you all that we need to stop pretending that automation can't have unintended consequences. It does, and it does every day. We mostly don't see those consequences. We don't recognize them because they're not overt failures."

Likewise, the intense focus on preventative design—fault tolerance, distributed systems—won't by itself lead to success. "When our preventative designs fail us, how do teams of engineers successfully resolve those catastrophes?" he asked. When that type of question is posed, teams can get beyond the realm of computer science and delve into areas such as perception, cognition, heuristics, attention, data overload, and memory, according to Allspaw.

Other high-pressure, high-consequence fields, such as military operations, air traffic control, trauma care, and child welfare services have engaged in this type of research and benefited from the findings and insight, he said.

If ops and infrastructure follow suit, "then we might be able to get to know ourselves a little bit better, and we might be able to know what water is," he said.

Allspaw isn't just talking the talk. He's had an interest in this matter for years and recently completed a two-year, multidisciplinary master's program from Sweden's Lund University, where his thesis was titled "HFE (Human Factors and Ergonomics) Practice in Web Engineering and Operations."

The rise of a helping culture

Dylan Richard also challenged attendees, saying they need to lose a little of their love for whiz-bang shiny tech objects and pay more attention to the people they're building apps and tools for. "Technology essentially only matters to help people be more effective, to be able to do their job better," said Richard, founder and CTO of Modest.

Richard, whose keynote was titled "Technology as if people mattered," used himself as an example of what not to do, citing instances of his misguided, tech-first approach during his stint as director of engineering for President Obama's 2012 campaign.

He encouraged attendees to listen more to their users and to recognize that there are often processes that, even though they may seem antiquated to computer engineers, are the right solution for the goal being pursued.

Instead of "throwing tech at the problem" indiscriminately, computer engineers need to look carefully for places where technology can be overlaid in very specific and defined ways. "To help people be more effective, it's not necessarily about using the most advanced technology but about using that technology to help build on top of solutions that already work and make them work better," he said. "Essentially, it's about using a shovel when you need a shovel, even if you have an excavator."

App performance, and more

Of course, there was plenty of talk about meat-and-potatoes technology topics, along with a good number of product announcements and demos from vendors, which the SD Times covered comprehensively in its article, "Application performance a key theme at Velocity NYC 2015."

The selection of topics made Velocity an engaging and educational experience for Brian Mearns, who'd never attended a tech conference, even though he's been a computer engineer for almost a decade.

He spent the first nine years of his career working as a firmware engineer at a hardware company, and as a result fell a bit behind contemporary technologies and software engineering trends. "Fortunately, my new company is very supportive and places great value on education and improvement, so when my manager presented me with the opportunity to attend Velocity, I jumped at the chance," says Mearns, a senior software engineer at CommerceHub.

Although he would have liked the conference to have more hands-on tutorial sessions, he feels he got a lot out of it. "I definitely learned a lot and feel more a part of the tech community than I did before the conference," he says.

Mearns gives the organizers credit for including diversity as a topic. "There seemed to be a pervasive undercurrent about the importance of diversity in tech woven throughout the conference, which I think is great."

Meanwhile, another attendee, Warner Moore, infrastructure architect with CoverMyMeds, listed in his blog several sessions that he felt were "exceptionally thought provoking" and wrote that he was able to network and talk over dinner with other attendees about "entrepreneurship, DevOps, scaling tech, and innovation in information security."

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