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.”

  1. This was truly a great experience. One of the themes that seemed to run through the conference is the notion that agile/craftsmanship software developers are part of a community. One of the inside guys made the comment to me that those of us who came in for the conference were having the effect of enhancing and strengthening the developer community. This guy wasn’t part of the Java guys class, but does some coding for the Red Cross. He said, “I’m seeing guys [inmates] here that I would never happen to talk to. But this conference is bringing us together and we’re talking –it’s making us a better community.”

    To me this was pretty much made the whole thing worthwhile.

    Looking forward to doing this kind of thing again soon.

  2. I know that guy. His name is Chris. He’s been lurking around the class for a few months now, apparently trying to work up the courage to join. He seems to think his main problem is going to be a pride problem, and I think he may be right.

    He’s a very smart guy, and he’s accustomed to instantly being the best at whatever he happens to set his hand to (or else he doesn’t set his hand to it). He’ll be coming from behind if he joins, and so normally there’d be no question: he wouldn’t join. But we may be just a little too attractive for him to turn us down.

    It’ll be interesting to see how things go, especially now that everybody knows the JavaGuys story. We may have to come up with more computers and more space to put them.

  3. Thanks once again Dan for putting all this together–seemed better run than many conferences I’ve been at, despite the interruption for a prisoner recount. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity. I hope my talk didn’t come across as that negative to the convicts, hopefully my passion for software development oozed through. My goal was to give them a few laughs, a few stories, and some thoughts about what things are coming on the outside.

    • Dan Wiebe
    • November 16th, 2010

    Sure; Joel and I will undoubtedly found out more about how it went tomorrow night when we go in.

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