Conference: PolyConf 2015

This year's PolyConf, a "polyglot conference", had a slightly lower insight-per-hour rate for me than the last one, but still turned out to be pretty good - especially since it was one day longer this year. Here are some of the interesting things that I heard about:

Book: The Effective Engineer by Edmond Lau

The main idea of this book is simple: as a software engineer, you have plenty of opportunities to optimize what you're doing for higher impact. The book provides plenty of advice on how to identify which activities make the most difference in whatever you're trying to achieve (have the most "leverage", as the author says).

A good example would be taking some time to automate things you would do manually. This in a sense generalizes to having tight feedback loop, for instance a fast compile-run cycle, or a way to reproduce a bug you're working on quickly. The book also talks about importance of having good metrics (as opposed to "flying blind") and systems that fail fast (so that you immediately know what is the source of failure).

Of course, writing software is not the only area where you can go looking for "high-leverage" activities. There are things like recruitment, onboarding and mentoring new work-mates, which pays off in terms of these people being able to contribute to your project. And on the individual level, it's important to optimize your own learning, since that will generally become more useful later than money from a well-paid, but interesting job.

Overall, the book is full of unsurprising but generally useful software engineering advice on various aspects of the programmer job, like working with code, estimation, team work or risk management. The examples get boring at times - hearing for the Nth time what this or that famous company did gets old quickly, and gives an impression of a typical American self-help book. I liked some stories, though. I learned for instance that Dropbox uses fake traffic to detect problems with site load quickly - if they notice a problem, they simply turn it off and investigate the issue without any time pressure (which they couldn't do with real traffic)!

The most important part that I got from this book, however, wasn't any specific engineering tips (which you can easily find elsewhere) but the attitude of "leverage": don't waste time on unimportant stuff, go look for things you can do that will matter the most.

Book: The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell

This is a shockingly comprehensive, and at the same time very easy to read, introduction to game design. The book touches on aspects ranging from game mechanics, aesthetics and technology considerations, to teamwork advice and design documents.

Overall, the book gave me a lot of respect for the complexity and size of the field. As a game designer, you have to draw from a big number of disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, architecture, probability theory or graphic design. You have to think about what needs of the player your game satisfies (think Maslow's hierarchy, but not only), how to maintain the difficulty curve so that the player is in the "channel of flow" (not too easy, not too hard), how to balance your game with respect to different axes, what theme the game will have and how to use every aspect of design to reinforce that theme, and so on and so forth. There is also some advice on brainstorming and working with a team which can be easily applied outside of the field of game development.

All these ideas are neatly categorized in the book's chapters, and in each part I found some interesting insight. To give one example, there's a concept of game venue as something that defines the type of play experience. The author mentions venues like the hearth where people gather together (modern hearth being, well, the TV with a console), your personal workbench where you concentrate on things (desktop PCs would fill this niche, with PC games being more "serious" and less casual), the reading nook where you sit comfortably with a book (or a tablet), a table for board games, public spaces like arena for competitive games, and so on.

Another example is the well-known notion of "emergent gameplay" that somehow always felt like a magic to me – my understanding of it was "create a sufficiently complex game and it will magically become more interesting because of what the players come up with". The book breaks it down nicely: a game can have basic actions which are basically rules of the game (for instance, move a piece or capture a piece) and strategic actions which are implied by these (for instance, move a piece to protect another one, sacrifice or exchange pieces, force an opponent to do something…) It's generally good to have a small number of basic actions from which many strategic actions can emerge. A good way to achieve that is to make each of this actions meaningful, e.g. have far-reaching consequences instead of just local ones.

That's just a small sample of things I took away from The Art of Game Design. I borrowed the book from a friend but I think I will be buying my own copy, since I definitely plan to return to it in the future.

Conference: PyWaw Summit 2015

I just came back from PyWaw Summit, a two-day Python conference here in Warsaw. Here are some interesting take-aways I had:

That's all for now - until next time!

Conference: ScotlandJS 2015

I just finished ScotlandJS, a two-day conference full of talks about JavaScript and frontend technologies. I'm very satisfied with the overall level of talks and number of ideas I got there. Here are some things I found worth noting down. As always, written in hopes that I'll encourage others to attend more events like that.

Finally, there was a closing keynote about diversity in tech that I found valuable. The fact that the tech scene is demographically monolithic, and at times very unfriendly to women and other underrepresented groups is quite well documented, but the speaker also touched on a few other issues.

The talk (and a positive response from the audience) gave me much respect for the British frontend scene, especially compared to the Polish one (post in Polish, and a somewhat unpleasant reading).

That's all I have - I hope you enjoyed my writeup!