Tavish Armstrong


The Two Solitudes (for Hackers)

Sat 19 Apr 2014 13:49:00

Last weekend was PyCon 2014, the annual conference on the Python programming language. This year we were lucky to have it in Montreal (only a short walk from my apartment) and I was even more fortunate to be allowed to give a talk.

As I wrote when I submitted the proposal, I proposed a talk on a topic that I wished someone smarter would speak about. I was pretty nervous about giving the talk — the usual nerves, but also a sense that the topic was much larger than I could give credit to in 30 minutes with the limited experience I have as someone a few weeks shy of an undergraduate engineering degree.

The gist of the talk is this:

  1. We have a lot to learn about how we work as software engineers.
  2. We can learn a lot about how we in the open source community work through examining version control history, code review data, etc., and we have the tools and skills necessary to analyze the data. (This is a bit of an understatement – many people in the Python community wrote the data analysis tools.)
  3. We understand our own projects better than any researcher could so we are in a good position to study them.
  4. We have the most to gain from studying the way we work; we don’t care about citation counts, we just want to write better software and be happier while we do it.

I finished the talk by challenging the audience to go out, learn cool things about the projects they work on, and present their findings next year at PyCon 2015.

I went into the talk with the goal of finding one person who thought the topic was cool. Just one. I seem to have struck a chord though, and had lots of really interesting conversations with people after my talk.

Joel Landsteiner was perhaps the most generous :

– really cool talk. Most directly applicable talk I’ve attended this conference. Really quite inspirational.

And I’m looking forward to seeing what Maggie Zhou (an engineer at Etsy) comes up with:

hey! i really liked your talk @pycon & am inspired to go data collecting & visualizing for our codebase. thx. will share what i find

So all in all, I’d call it a success. If you saw the talk and this sort of thing gets you excited, please send me an email (tavisharmstrong at gmail dot com). My hope is that if a bunch of us get together and do some cool work like this, we can make some real progress on closing the gap between the two solitudes.

Thanks to Dana Bauer for encouraging me to give the talk, Greg Wilson for helping me revise it (and inspiring it), Julia Evans and Kamal Marhubi for calming my nerves beforehand, Jonathan Villemaire-Krajden for helping me tighten up the delivery a little, Titus Brown for not actually heckling me, and Jessica McKellar for giving me thumbs-ups every time I faltered in the spotlight.

My notes are available here.