Developers, and proud of it

Imagine for a moment a developer’s utopia — a place where the presentation of new software features is met with the kind of raucous applause usually reserved for rock concerts. A place where a team of competitive programmers is awarded a trophy big enough to make football players jealous. A place where everyone radiates excitement about our profession and its future.

For about 450 people, this was the experience at Microsoft’s VSLive developer conference, which came to Canada for the first time this May.

Day one of the conference opened with a keynote by Jay Roxe, product manager for Visual Basic. Jay delivered a sneak preview of features in the coming release of Visual Studio. The real crowd-pleaser was the announcement that the edit-continue feature will once again be available in debug mode. Edit-continue gives the programmer the ability to change a line of code on the fly, and continue running the debug process, as opposed to having to restart debug after every change. This feature was previously available in Visual Basic, but missing from VB .Net.

Most interesting to me was the ability to switch between code view and a class view, which resembles a UML diagram. Make a change in one view, and it is reflected in the other. I see a lot of potential for this to influence development methodologies, supporting more interaction between the design and coding processes. This makes a lot of sense in light of methodologies such as extreme programming, which have taught us that a development effort can be successful and well managed without doing all of the planning up front.

Following the keynote, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Canadian winners of the 2004 Imagine Cup Software Design Challenge. The Imagine Cup is a Microsoft-sponsored programming competition for students, in which national winners advance to a final round in Brazil. University of Victoria students Mike Flasko, Elisa Johnson, Jason Kemp and Tyler Holmes earned the right to represent our country with a tennis game scheduling application, “Game.Set.Match.,” that can predict how long games will last based on the playing styles of the participants, and can be administered almost completely from a cell phone. The software was developed with extensibility in mind, and may be adapted to schedule other sports and events.

The group’s experience with the .Net platform seemed very much in line with my own; coming from an academic background in Java, they easily adapted to the Microsoft syntax and appreciated the conveniences afforded by the massive .Net libraries. Even the extensive wireless development effort that went into their application did not represent a very steep learning curve, due to .Net’s abstraction of device-level considerations.

I was left with the impression that this group of young programmers represents exactly the kind of people IT managers have been crying out for. They are business-savvy and articulate, fun, good at working as a team, and clearly have exceptional technical ability. If they lived any closer to me I’d be scared for my job.

The last of my interesting conversations was with Dwayne Lamb, president and principal consultant for Visual Byte Inc. Before delivering his public presentation on developing with Microsoft’s MapPoint Location Server, Lamb discussed with me the technology that allows an individual to be located through their mobile device, the potential uses of such technology, and the privacy concerns that arise.

Government regulations specify that by 2005, an emergency call placed from a mobile device must be locatable within 100 metres. MapPoint Location Server makes use of the underlying technology by allowing real-time location information to be accessed by business applications. Mobile devices are equipped with an MSN Messenger-like interface that allows a roaming user to turn on and off awareness of their geographic location, as well as to allow or disallow incoming requests for their position.

Lamb’s belief is that by taking an early interest in developing for this new technology, we increase awareness of it and do a better job of setting up an infrastructure that protects a mobile subscriber’s privacy rights. A lot of thought has gone into making sure the users have control over who can trace their whereabouts, and at what times. Still, no discussion of location-based computing would be complete without reference to Big Brother. Despite its obvious uses, this technology may prove to be a tough sell.

I’m hoping Canada’s first VSLive won’t be our last. I’ve never before seen so many people in one room who were developers, and damn proud of it.

Cooney is a managing partner and chief software architect for Rivervine Technologies Inc. Contact him at [email protected].

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