QCon London 2009: A few lessons learned

Last week I attended QCon London 2009, which was characteristically excellent — and I know my colleagues who attended thought the same. Most excitingly this year two of the Guardian development team were invited to give presentations on our most recent work building a large content management system for a very large website. I don’t mind admitting that I learnt one or two things from attending those talks; I also found the presentation on the BBC’s architecture fascinating. Here are some of the things I took away…

Mat Wall on The evolving Guardian.co.uk architecture

Mat’s presentation was structured around rebuilding guardian.co.uk over many months and dealing with the scalability issues that were presented at various stages. Some of the many insights were presented in a deliberately provocative way, such as this one:

Developers try to complicate things; architects simplify them.

I’m not entirely sure about the first part, but it’s certainly true that over-engineering is a much more common trait than under-engineering. The second part, though, is very important. It’s something I’ve always known, but never quite in that pithy way. It’s a useful phrase to tuck away for future reference.

And if you think Mat wasn’t feeling too good towards developers, don’t worry, because he also put up a slide saying

Developers are better than architects.

The message behind this is that it’s the developers who are working on the code each day — they know what’s possible and what not, and what’s reasonable and what’s not. So it’s important to trust them when they say they can or can’t do something.

Dirk-Willem van Gulik on Forging ahead – Scaling the BBC into Web/2.0

Dirk-Willem talked about the programme to re-engineer the BBC websites to enable greater scalability and dynamic content. In an organisation the size and complexity of the BBC you need to spend more time thinking about people than the technology. One of his first slides underlined this by presenting the seven layers of the OSI model (physical up to application) and then said

But most people forget there are two layers on top of that: level 8, the organisation, and level 9, its goals and objectives.

From that point on he kept referring to something being “an L8 problem” or “a level 9 issue”. It was a powerful reminder that technology work is about much, much more than technology.

Another great insight was how much they have chosen to use the simplest of standard internet protocols to join various layers and services within their network — even when those layers and services are organisation- and application-specific. This ties back to Mat’s point about an architect’s job being one of simplification.

Phil Wills on Rebuilding guardian.co.uk with DDD

Phil talked about the role domain driven design has played for us. He also pointed out various lessons that there were learnt along the way, such as the importance of value objects, and the fact that “database tables are not the model — I don’t know how many times I can say this.”

But it was only a day or two after his presentation that I was struck by a remarkable thing: Phil referred so many times to specific members of the team, and talked about contributions they had made to the software design process, even though the people he was talking about were generally not software developers. He put their pictures up on the screen, he named them, he told stories about how they had shaped key ideas. This was an important reminder to me that being close to our users and stakeholders on a day-to-day basis is incredibly important to the health of our software.

Walking away

I didn’t get to see as much at QCon as I’d like to have done, although I dare say most people will say that, even if they went to as many sessions as was physically possible. But what I did see was fascinating and thought-provoking, even when it came from people I work with every day.