August 17, 2001 spout

Conference.NET: Notes from the Field

August 17th, 2001

In talking to fellow DevelopMentor instructor Craig Andera today, I realized that those of you who didn’t get to attend DevelopMentor’s Conference.NET this week, must’ve hoped that DevelopMentor’s inaugural conference would suck so that you didn’t miss anything good. Well, I’m pleased to tell you that it didn’t suck. In fact, it was awesome. In further fact, I can’t say that I’ve ever had more fun at a conference. Of course, I couldn’t be everywhere, but here’s what happened to me:

Day 1: Chris Doesn’t Suck

Monday started with a rousing keynote from David Chappel, the industry’s best-dressed speaker (not a high bar in our industry, of course, but even I have to admit that he’s very good looking : ). An overview of his talk is available here, but what I most remember is that he pegged C++ as for dinosaurs only. While I certainly see his point, Microsoft’s Managed Extensions to C++ are going to enable a lot of people to enter the world of .NET without rewriting large code bases, which is going to make it enormously popular. This was further evidenced by the volume of MC++ questions that I fielded all week long (one attendee left the lab unhappy with the answer he’d gotten from a C# bigot and dragged me back there to examine his problem). Like VB before it, I predict MC++ to be the .NET love that dares not speak its name. Of course, David’s comments weren’t exactly designed to fill my day-long MC++ tutorial later that day…

Further compounding my potential attendance problem was going to be Don Box. Don’s an amazing man. He has the ability to dive completely into a technology, understanding it better than the designers, while still remembering the technical details of every other technology he’s ever ingested and completely belittling any value they might have had when compared to his latest fetish. In his talk, C++ didn’t respect the programmer, VB was the bane of every other programmer, COM was a mess and of course people had trouble getting DCOM to work over the Internet (how could it work when our neck-bearded network administrators had been replaced with kids pulled away from flipping burgers by the siren song of readily available MS networking certification?). Of course, to Don, only .NET and C# are at all useful to the reasonable, thinking developer. My biggest issue with Don is how right he usually is, but when he singled me out as destined to be the world’s last C++ programmer by painting an image of me in a 76 Ford truck sporting a gun rack and a bumper sticker reading, You can have my C++ when you pry it from my cold dead fingers,” I knew that those attendees who hadn’t yet decided weren’t likely to show up in my MC++ tutorial…

The last 2/3rds of my day was spent teaching my first real material in about three years. Oh, I’d given the odd conference talk now and again, but after years on the sidelines managing the development of Gen<X>, I was nervous. After all that time, could I still manage to entertain and educate a room full of people on a topic that the keynote speakers had spent all morning panning? As it turns out, I can. Oh, I can’t say I was brilliant, but I didn’t suck, and that was enough.

Day 2: Chris Has a Bad Hair Day

Day 1 ended with lots of celebration of my not sucking. I got to hang out with dear friends from as far back as 3rd grade and enjoy a bit more alcohol than was strictly necessary. After finally collapsing into bed at around 5:30am, I was hardly in any shape for my 8am business breakfast (note to self: never let the commission-based sales guy schedule the meetings — they’re just too damn eager). Needless to say I grabbed every minute of sleep that I could, but because of my short, deathlike REM, my hair was remarkably unmussed when I showed up without a shower (and even managed to make a point or two without falling asleep in my waffle). After two hours of scintillating business wrangling, I retired to my room to grab some quick Zs before returning to office hours” in the lab. The lab was really great, because it contained a couple of hundred PCs with exercises from each of the conference talks so that attendees could practice what they’d learned, getting help from the rotating speakers pulling lab monkey duty and answering attendee questions about designs scrawled on cocktail napkins. This was also where I learned that my continued lack of a shower had finally made it’s way to my hair. After thirty minutes of frightened stares, I stopped by the gift shop to buy a hat (stupid looking, but better than the Elijah Prince do” I was sporting) on the way to my first Birds of a Feather talk.

The BOF that I was to do with Brian Randell, a died in the wool VB guy, was entitled WinForms: Love it or leave it,” and it was designed for two things: 1) to leave things very open to audience participation and 2) to make sure that Brian and I could show up without any preparation whatsoever. You see, both of us had fallen in love with WinForms, but we hadn’t gotten to do much with it. We showed some fun demos, though. Mine was dedicated to the splitting and docking that WinForms has built into it (a thing of beauty!). Brian’s was dedicated to the new opacity property setting which makes windows imperceptible (how very useful…). So, after me making fun of Brian about this fetish, he was getting a bit tense. Then, when the WinForms designer decided to crap out because of a license file problem, causing Brian to have to shut down the IDE, delete files manually, restart the IDE, etc, he got even more tense. When Don decided to rub it in with his standard, You know, when I use Emacs, that never happens,” Brian snapped. Before I even had a chance to draw a breath to put Don back in his place, Brian came right back with, And how many products did you ship last year, Don?” A low moan swept the audience and Don turned tail and ran (after waiting a few minutes to let the ruckus die down). It was an awesome site to behold! I gained much respect for Brian that day.

I also gained much respect for WinForms. In spite of all of the hype about ASP.NET and Web Services, the thin-client backlash was in full swing at this BOF. Our room started out full and just gained people as it went on. Somewhere in the middle it became standing room only and still people came. And they didn’t just sit there, either. They all participated in a very rousing discussion first about MFC/VB vs. WinForms and then onto the more interesting thin vs. rich client. These people were very tired of the limitations of HTML 3.2 and cross-platform DHTML and anxious to get back to a real development environment for UIs. Truly, the Renaissance for rich UIs has begun.

Day 3: Jason Whittington is Accused of Slut-like Ignorance

Day 3 was a big day for me. It started with a talk on a subject near and dear to my heart, generative programming. This is a relatively new term for the technology ideas we’d been using for years in building Gen<X>. Again, my room was full, not only of attendees but also of two of the software engineers from the Gen<X> team (Chris Tavares and Shawn Vanness). The audience was certainly spending a lot of time nodding their heads and understanding the benefits of generative programming, but when I showed them how far we had taken it and all of the things for which we were using Gen<X>, that took them right over the top.

And then, right after getting to pitch my favorite technology, I got to proceed right to my next BOF, where I would get to tilt at my own personal windmill —  non-deterministic finalization. Those of you who know me or my programming style know that I’m absolutely in love with the idea of objects managing their own resources and them being notified immediately when the last client is done with them, either via COM-style reference counting or via a C++ destructor. This kind of deterministic finalization allows for very aggressive reclamation of resources, even in the face of exceptions or forgetful programmers. Non-deterministic finalization, on the other hand, leaves notification that an object is no longer in use to a background thread managed by a garbage collector. Because when the GC will get around to notifying an object is non-deterministic and empirically takes a long time, this means that resources can no longer be claimed by automatic means, instead leaving it to the client to manually notify the object via a Close or Dispose method. In my opinion, this is not a robust technique in the face of exceptions or forgetful programmers.

This issue has been the bane of my existence for years. When Java was first becoming popular, I was studying to become DevelopMentor’s first Java instructor. And at first, I really liked it. Then I discovered that Java had non-deterministic destruction and my life turned to ATL instead. Fast forward a few years to an early design preview of .NET where I learn that Microsoft was leveraging” many of the ideas of Java in its new runtime, including my favorite: non-deterministic finalization. I try to explain the problems inherent in this decision, but apparently, they’ve been all through this and Bill Gates has already made the decision for them. Of course, I don’t know this, so I kept fighting the good fight with one of the first emails on DevelopMentor’s .NET mailing list. This caused quite a stir, consuming much bandwidth to this day and eventually culminating in a long, explanatory email from Brian Harry, a PM on the .NET team. This email was intelligent and thoughtful and annoyed me no end because it put the final nail into the coffin containing my hope for DF in v1.0 of .NET, which we’re going to be living with for years. In fact, this email annoyed me so much that, on Day 2, I referred to it as Brian Harry’s little’ email.” After all, the room was nearly empty except for a few of my very close friends and one attendee who I hadn’t met. I met him 5 seconds later. It was, of course, Brian Harry. Remember, this was the day I had almost zero sleep, so I wasn’t exactly on top of my game. What an inauspicious way to meet your arch-enemy… [1].

Now, I told you that story so that I could tell you this one.

The BOF was to be a debate between me (pro-DF) and Jason Whittington (pro-garbage collection), with Don as the master of ceremonies. Imagine a thoughtful, reasoned exchange of ideas between calm, measured adults. Now throw that image away. Instead, Don introduced the BOF by saying that there was the right way of thinking and the Chris way of thinking and that I had been lured into the packed room (containing, as backup for the side of evil, Brian Harry) for an intervention.” Now, it’s not as if some of us didn’t try to be thoughtful and reasoned. For example, Jason gave us all kinds of background into the history and practice of garbage collection and how it works under .NET. In fact, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read Jason’s GC talk from Conference.NET, you should. It’s great. Unfortunately, the passions in the audience and in the other side of the debate, i.e. me, left little time for Jason’s approach. Instead, Don and I and the audience went back and forth, invoking stories of ASP.NET applications written by the cream of the crop at DevelopMentor that leaked so many resources as to make them unusable, laments of the semantic incorrectness of tying resource management to object lifetime and analogies of deck chairs on boats that did and didn’t sink. It was somewhere between a gospel revival and a schlock talk show (in fact, at one particularly cantankerous moment, the audience was literally chanting Jerry! Jerry!). At one point, I got so worked up during Jason’s attempts to shed some actual light on the topic that I interrupted him exclaim, Jason Whittington, you ignorant slut!” It was one of the highlights of my life…

But that was not to be the highlight of the show. Oh no. The most amazing thing about the show was later that evening at the close of conference party, where DevelopMentor introduced the .NET Band: The Band on the Runtime, made up of speakers and attendees who were also accomplished musicians. It was an awesome mix of showmanship, musicality and parody lyrics that caused the audience to sing along, wave their candles (in lieu of lighters), jump on stage and scream for an encore. When it was over, I was so moved that, in spite of my long friendship with Don and my pride in never seeing him as the hi-tech rock star that most folks do, I had to rush backstage to shake his hand and to be in his presence. I felt like a giddy school girl hoping to snatch a sweaty handkerchief from across his brow (which I’ll be auctioning off at eBay when I’m good and ready…).

Day n: The Rest of My Life

I have to say that I was deeply affected this week at Conference.NET. I’d like to thank everyone who organized it and hosted it and made it happen. And those of you who had the chance to go, but didn’t? Well, on your heads be it. Don’t make that mistake again next year…

Related Links

[1] As it turns out, it didn’t take long to make up with Mr. Harry and I soon found him to be reasoned and intelligent. Even worse, I found that I liked him. Damn it!