If you're anywhere near Columbus OH during the first week of May, the Stir Trek conference is worth spending a day. The price went up to $125 this year, but it includes a lot of sessions to choose from, lunch, a shirt and other swag, and a ticket to whatever big movie happens to come out around then. So you get your money's worth.


Sessions

Here are a few of my takeaways from this year's conference.

Secure Apps, with Craig Stuntz

I went to a few good sessions in the morning, so that was lucky. It's always hit and miss unless you happen to already be familiar with the speakers.

Craig Stuntz talked about securing your applications, with some very practical advice. I think my favorite quote was that "the best way to secure user data is to just not have it". I wonder how many companies spend millions trying to securely store user data, when the question they should've been asking was whether they should store the data at all? After all, hackers can't steal what simply isn't there.

He also noted that all the security at the "front gate" (i.e a single firewall) is useless when someone could just call up and ask for the password (aka phishing). In other words, education is as important as technological solutions, and there are more attack vectors to think about than a single firewall.

He demonstrated creating a threat analysis for a fictional app, and how one might go about making it more elaborate over time. For that, he used the free Microsoft Threat Modeling Tool 2016. He also recommended a couple of beginner-level resources:

You can find the rest of his presentation on Speaker Deck.


Programming Robots, with Lars Klint

I attempted a session on Elixir (since I use Erlang daily), but it was more basic than what I was looking for, so I ended up in a session on programming the Cozmo bot instead.

It was a beginner intro that mostly demonstrated the SDK that comes with the bot, but it was really enjoyable because Lars comes off as very relaxed in front of a crowd.

My favorite part was when he ran a script that let him control the robot from Twitter, and at least a dozen people immediately took to posting commands to his account. He tried to move the bot forward, watched as it spun around and backed up off the table, and just laughed the whole thing off with a "well I guess I asked for that".

Some resources he listed at the end. At $200 it's a little pricey, especially for something that seems to be meant for kids, but from what he showed us it may very well be worth it - very easy to get started, and it can do some impressive things like stack items.


The Pi & Paintball, with Barry Tarlton

There was one more in the morning that I really enjoyed, which was learning how Barry Tarlton used a Raspberry Pi and some other hardware to create a paintball announcement system that could be distributed across a couple acres during paintball games.

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His system consists of a single Pi 3 acting as a synchronization server between 4 other Pi Zero W's, and a wireless access point to create a WAN in areas where there may be no Internet. Four boxes - each with a Pi Zero, speakers, and Adafruit display - can be posted around a large field and display the remaining time in a game of paintball, as well as announce out loud that the game has begun and ended (via the eSpeak text-to-speech software).

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He admitted that he knew little to nothing about the Pi, resistors, soldering, etc before attempting this project. It was a great reminder that simple and complex projects are all completed the same way - one step at a time, learning as you go. You can view all his slides on SlideShare.

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Ditching the Office, with Jon Kruger

There was a session about working remotely, based on the speaker's experience of his team working outside of the office near-exclusively for several months.

One of the more interesting observations he made was that some team members seem to care more about their project when they didn't have to come in the office all day every day. The reason, he said, was that when they'd come in the office they just focused on putting in their 8 hours and going home. But when they're already home, where there's no implied assumption that you're working simply because you're filling a seat, there seemed to be more focus on producing visible results.

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There was an open survey during the session too, where people could post questions or comments during his talk. Someone posted that when his wife was diagnosed with MS, being able to work remotely greatly improved his being able to take care of her. And Jon pointed out as well that he could start the laundry or whatever, then continue working. Being able to work remotely can be good for families.

I found it pretty easy to identify with a lot of what he said, and his motivations for wanting remote work, especially since he has kids and they homeschool too. Sometimes it's just easier to have a second pair of hands at home, even if it's just a few random moments throughout the day. Also, my workplace has really made an effort to be more remote-work friendly, which is possible because we already have a full-time remote worker in another state, and absolutely everything we use can be accessed from outside the office.

Here's a couple resources Jon shared:

All-in-all, it was a pretty tough day. ;) In seriousness though, the organizers do a good job of making sure the day runs smoothly. I can't imagine the type of nonsense that's going on behind the scenes, but whatever it was we didn't know about it.

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Columbus OH

Unfortunately, not every session was a grand slam. Some involved live coding, which usually also means live debugging and live mumbling while live sweating. Probably not the greatest thing during a talk unless it's a half-day session like they do at Codemash.

It was a beautiful day in Columbus though, so I took advantage of the lulls to walk around Easton Town Center a bit. It's a really cool location - styled like a little village, with stores, fountains, an outdoor model train, areas to sit and relax, brick pathways connecting it all.

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I went out to dinner after the movie, and when it gets dark out they turn on a bunch of lights everywhere that just looks awesome. My phone was dead though, so no pictures. It must look awesome at Christmas...

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Even if it had been rainy, the mall (if you can call it that - it wasn't a traditional, crappy mall) was really nice too. There were some cool restaurants, bars, a ice cream shop, coffee shops, etc. I hope they have Stir Trek there again next year, and can order up some of the same wonderful weather.

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Thoughts

I've never spoken in front of a crowd like this, but I like to reflect on what I liked and didn't like anyway, just in case I ever did decide to someday.

Watching someone live code during a talk really breaks the flow of things, unless they're very comfortable with their topic. Sometimes it works, but I was in one session where the presenter was sorta mumbling while figuring out what went wrong, and it wasn't very enjoyable to watch.

Another session ended up being a set of slides and bullet points. The presenter didn't stray much from it, which made me think he could have just provided the presentation as a link and been done. It was probably just a case of nerves or the first time he'd presented, but it seems a slideshow should be something that keeps the presenter on target.. not be the presentation.

The worst was the presenter who introduced himself by talking about the half a dozen companies he runs. 20 minutes in (they're 45 minute sessions with 15 minutes of Q&A at the end), I realized he was still talking about how great his companies were, sometimes straying on topic for a minute before finding a way to tie it back into one of his companies. I walked out annoyed, followed a couple minutes later by a small group who didn't look too happy either. I've heard some conferences have speakers sign an agreement stating they won't just talk about their companies. He needed one.

The most enjoyable, to me and to others in attendance (based on their reactions), were the presentations where the presenter was comfortable enough to talk naturally about their topic, and that included something you could actually see work - like the Cozmo robot or the Pi project. Lights and sounds are better than slides and bullet points. Barry's whole talk was a story about how and why he built what he did, and that made it even more interesting than simply stepping through how to build the project.

Overall, the conference came off as well-organized and smoothly run - whatever may have actually been going on in the background. I imagine the organizers had their share of surprises to deal with, but you wouldn't know it as an attendee. Check it out next year if you get the chance.