Archive for November, 2010

Lifeline Is Open Again!

For the past two or three months, the Lifeline complex inside the prison where all the computers are has been closed for remodeling–mostly having something to do with HVAC. Joel and Rob and I have been meeting our guys in classrooms and having mostly unstructured conversations with them.

This week, Lifeline was back open again, and we had to come up with something to do there.

I decided to toss Joel and Rob in at the deep end and pretty much abandoned them to their prisoners–Joel to the beginners and Rob to the intermediates–while I went in to help the advanced guys get Sprint Zero back up to where it was when the lab was torn down. (Apparently one of the fairly-important server machines didn’t come back up, so another machine had to be stood up to replace it.)

I should have brought in a fresh copy of the Project code, but it didn’t occur to me to do so, so we couldn’t accomplish much.

After standup, though, we spent most of the rest of the time talking about Saturday’s conference.

I was amazed to discover that on the inside, pretty much everything that could possibly have gone wrong had done so, just as on the outside over half of our presenters bailed out before the conference was held. Amazed, because even in the shadows of such insurmountable obstacles, the conference was a spectacular success.

To me, that’s the mark of the hand of God.

After the class was over, Joel and Rob and my wife and I went to Bob Evans for dinner/retrospective. Joel’s looking for a good way to address the great variety his students’ experience, and Rob is going to have to learn Tapestry and brush up on TDD.

One topic of conversation that came up was the interesting observation that, even with Joel and Rob being randomly self-selected from the folks who came in for Code Retreat 2, all three of us are Christians.

Christians are not exactly thick on the ground among the ranks of software developers, so we started looking for reasons for this other than random chance.

It led to an interesting discussion of the striking parallels that can be drawn between the Agile methodologies and religions. It’s an area I’ve explored before. Both Agile and Christianity, for example, stand under attack from polemicists who have all sorts of undisputable scientific evidence and reasoning proving that both of them are unredeemable bunk. None of the attacks are successful in proselytizing Agilists or Christians away from their faiths, because both Agilists and Christians have seen their lives changed for the better because of what they believe, and they know it works. Both camps could explain the theological reasons why the polemicists’ attacks fail, but no one would listen to either of them. Nobody is ever converted by arguing theology; folks are converted because they see their lives become better.

And so on and so forth. Daryl Kulak’s “Mechanical Agile” is simply the Agile equivalent of Christian Bible-thumping and proof-texting.

Strangely, though, when I start using religious language to speak of Agile, I start getting furtive throat-cutting gestures from folks with later admonishments that it isn’t the place for religion.

I’m not trying to convert anybody to Christianity; I’m only using Christianity for an example, because–being a Christian myself–it’s the major religion I understand the best.  But I guess the problem is that if I use Christianity and Bible references to explain Agile, only Christians will really get the point: and, as pointed out before, Christians are thin on the ground in the software development community.

It’s so apropos, though.  I wonder if perhaps people are afraid that if they do learn to think of Agile in terms of religion, and they see its tangible results, they may be forced by humble logic to revisit their certainty regarding the foolishness of religion?

At any rate, since Louis Pierce had to do the most work to get the conference to go, I’ve decided that I’m not going to even bring up the subject of the next conference until Louis broaches it himself.


PrizCon 2010: Possibly the World’s First One-Day Tech Conference in Prison

Today we had a technical conference in prison.

The conference, just like the code retreats, was originally Louis’s idea.  The guy is refreshingly intrepid.  Back in August or thereabouts, he apparently decided that the new industry tech resources that Code Retreats 1 and 2 had made available to MCI shouldn’t be wasted just on the JavaGuys, so he started us thinking about a one-day tech conference in prison entitled “Why Should I Learn a High-Tech Trade?” attended by 100-150 prisoners and presented by both inside and outside instructors.

So we started recruiting presenters.  Surprisingly, we found a lot of presenters willing to give a Saturday to present in prison.  Without much effort, we got presenters from six different organizations to commit to presentations: Pillar Technology, Lean Dog Software, Langr Software Solutions, Marion Correctional Institution, The Ohio State University, and the National Security Agency.

Given our relationship with Jeff Langr, the author of the book Agile Java that we’re using, it was pretty much instantaneously and unanimously agreed that we were going to ask him to fly in from Colorado Springs and keynote our conference.  I emailed him and asked him if he’d keynoted before; he said no.  So I asked him A) would he be interested in trying it, and B) if so, how much would he charge?  (We have that $1000 Chairman’s Award from Pillar, but no money other than that.)  He said yes, he’d be glad to keynote, and that he’d do it for nothing other than travel and expenses.

Putting together the prison end of things proved quite challenging.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen in prison very often–maybe at all–and people objected to everything from bringing in food for the attenders to closing the gym for a day.  But with the diligence and attention of Jo Dee Davis (of Win-Win, Inc.) and Louis Pierce (a guest of the Governor), those problems were surmounted, evaded, eliminated, or otherwise dealt with.

There were other challenges as well.  For example, we started out preparing for 100-150 prisoner attenders, but due to failures in promotion, many prisoners didn’t find out until too late exactly what was required to get a pass to the conference, so we ended up with something more like 60 attenders.  Also, more than half of the presenters that originally committed to participate in the conference chose to withdraw from it as it approached.

But we adjusted the schedule and managed to work stuff out anyway.

We held the conference in the prison gymnasium.  When I got there this morning, I was expecting to find a bunch of prisoners wandering around in a gymnasium; but that’s not what it looked like.  With some cardboard and paint, along with lots of chairs, little tables, and tablecloths, the prisoners managed to make up the gym to look very much like what you’d expect to see at a technical conference.  The touches were somewhat minimalist, but very effective: enough to radically change the whole feel of the place.

It worked out that there were ten of us from the outside this morning: seven presenters and three guests.  We meant to get through the A building at 8:00am, but there were about twenty visitors waiting to get through, and so they were sent ahead of us.  We got in by about 8:30am, which was when the keynote was supposed to begin, but we didn’t get started until about 8:45am.

Jeff Langr gave a talk about his history as a software developer, his bad experiences with MCI (the telephone company, not the prison), a “soul-sucking big corporation,” and a failed dot-com, and his enthusiasm for Agile development.  He left us with a heartfelt exhortation never to “settle (in).”

Then I got up and told the story of the JavaGuys again, preceded by my own story of how I got into Agile.  (Summary: kicking and screaming.)  I ended with an account of how unexpectedly popular the Java program at MCI is turning out to be in the outside world.

After that, Bob Myers was supposed to present “How to Get a Job From Any Employer,” but his 8-year-old daughter had gotten sick the night before, so he wasn’t able to attend.  During the keynote, though, Matt Van Vleet threw together a quick PowerPoint presentation covering Bob’s subject, and presented it in Bob’s place.  He did a great job, accompanied by some of the folks there whom he had either hired or contemplated hiring: Eric Wilson, Angela Harms, Tracy Harms, and Joel Helbling.

Interestingly, we were interrupted near the end of this talk by a correctional officer, who explained to us that two misplaced prisoner IDs had screwed up the 11:00am count, and so the prisoners had to be separated from the outside folks and gone over again, and then the whole count had to be reprocessed.

Lunch couldn’t be brought in until the count had cleared, so we had some time to socialize with the prisoners at the expense of having the afternoon sessions shortened somewhat–and, it turned out, the retrospective at the end eliminated.

Lunch was a submarine sandwich (ham, turkey, or ham and turkey), potato salad, two very nice chocolate-chunk cookies, and a bag of potato chips.

After lunch, we had two four-track sessions, for a total of eight presentations.  I don’t have a schedule with me, but as I remember they were:

  • How I Went from Zero to Professional Software Developer in 18 Months, by Eric Wilson of Pillar Technology
  • We Kicked Their Butts: A Case History of Agile Versus Waterfall, by Dan Wiebe of Pillar Technology
  • TDD: What It Is and Why It’s Important, by Jeff Langr of Langr Software Solutions
  • Some Really Cool Exercises That Will Make You Think in Ways You’ve Never Considered Before, by Matt Van Vleet of Pillar Technology
  • Why You Should Be a Computer Animator, by Mark Roberts of Marion Correctional Institution
  • How Digital Audio Production Has Changed the Music Industry, by Juan Martinez et al. of Marion Correctional Institution
  • Agile Means Community, and Community Means Success, by Joel Helbling of Lean Dog Software
  • Modern Communications Technology, by Dr. Patrick Flinn of the National Security Agency and Dr. Bill Davis of The Ohio State University

The only one of these talks I got to hear was Mark Roberts’ talk about computer animation. He gave an overview of what’s required for animation–quite a bit more than I expected–and then demonstrated creating a model of a gingerbread man, smoothing it, texturing it, lighting it, adding an armature consisting of several bones, and then bending the arms and the legs. He showed us how to record keyframes and have the computer interpolate between them to create an animation track, and he alluded to the time required for a render farm to render each frame of such an animation. It was very informative and fascinating, but unfortunately he ran over the time allotted and was interrupted shy of the end.

Afterwards, Jo Dee Davis arranged us all in a circle with the outside folks in the middle, and had several prisoners step forward and tell what they had learned that day.  The results were pretty heartening, I must say.

Getting out of the prison was much more straightforward than getting in (at least for us outsiders; probably the prisoners wouldn’t agree), and then five of us met at Bob Evans for a retrospective of sorts.  I was pleasantly surprised by Matt Van Vleet’s enthusiasm.  The experience had given him a number of interesting ideas, among which were the establishment of a halfway house that specializes in digithead ex-offenders and contains a team room where an Agile development team churns out high-quality, high-velocity software to support both the residents and the house.

All in all, everything worked quite well, even with the reduced complements of presenters and attenders.  Everybody seemed to assume that of course this is going to happen again next year.  My guess is that it’ll be even better.

PS – Because of Joel Helbling, it has come to my attention that far better name for this blog than “JavaGuys” would be “Prose and Cons.”


Tonight was interesting.

I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this in foregoing posts, but for the last two months or so, the Lifeline complex where all the computers are has been closed for remodeling; I guess they were putting in central air conditioning.  Therefore, instead of meeting in the computer room, we’ve been meeting in a classroom, without any computers (except mine, used mostly for presentations).

We’ve been heartily looking forward to the day when we could go back to meet in the Lifeline lab, and last week it was opined that the lab might be ready this week.

So when I got to the A building, I asked the duty officer whether Lifeline was open yet.

“Oh, sure,” he said.  “There’ve been folks back there all day.”  Cool, I thought; so when I called Control 2 to ask for the Java passes to be called, I asked the guy to call them to Lifeline.

When I got to Lifeline, though, I discovered that while the door was unlocked, and the lights were on, and there were people inside, it wasn’t really open.  None of the computers were set up, and the prisoners there were busy cleaning the place and hooking things back up.

The Lifeline duty officer was a little perplexed, since his cap sheet said that he’d have only nine prisoners in Lifeline, and they would be busy cleaning; now he had a contractor and between fifteen and twenty prisoners in there.  But he and I know each other slightly, and he was inclined to let it slide and hope nothing bad would come of it.

Now we have to go back in time a little.

Last week, the duty officer in the A building discovered that the gate pass allowing Joel and Rob in had turned up missing.  (I don’t need a gate pass, since I have a contractor’s badge, but they do, since so far they’re “mere” volunteers.)  We made several calls looking for it, but eventually the duty officer called the captain and persuaded him to allow Joel and Rob in. We were late, but they did finally get in.

This week, we were expecting that the missing gate pass would have been produced; but it was missing again.  I called the lady responsible for getting it set up, and she said she’d plain forgot: she answered the phone beside the bed of her daughter, who had just gotten out of surgery.

So the duty officer in the A building performed his magic again, and Joel and Rob were allowed to sign in.

However, since they’re volunteers, whenever they move in the prison they require an escort, who has to be a prison employee.  (Not me, in other words: I’m just a contractor.)  So the duty officer asked the captain to dispatch an officer to escort, and he agreed.  Joel and Rob went into the lobby of the main prison to wait for the escort, while I went on in.

Half an hour later, the JavaGuys suggested to me that since Joel and Rob had still not arrived, the captain might have forgotten about him, and I should call and remind him.

That was a little scary, but I did it, and a few minutes later somebody came to the door saying, “They’re here!  They’re here!”  Turns out they were out with the Lifeline duty officer, and he was up in arms.  Apparently it’s one thing to fudge the cap sheet a little bit to keep track of a contractor and a gaggle of prisoners, but when there are outside guest volunteers involved, it’s a whole different story.

So he made a call to the captain, and eventually kicked us all out back up to the classroom.

So we went, and that’s where we met Joel and Rob.

We had a great discussion about the upcoming conference and about a number of other things, but perhaps that’s fodder for a different post.

We began to understand what juggling balls feel; but it was still marvelous.