I was recently at the Software Craftsmanship Conference at Bletchley Park in the UK. This is a one-day conference for software developers, attended by around 150 programmers. All proceeds from the event go to support Bletchley Park, which is of historical interest to programmers in particular – the site where Alan Turing and others cracked the enigma code in the 2nd world war. It was the fifth time this conference has been run, and the first time I attended. This is a short experience report.

In the morning I ran a workshop titled ”Outside-In, with or without Mocks?”. We were about 50 people in the Ballroom in the Mansion, a very grand room, and it was really great to see so many people working in pairs at laptops, puzzling over some code and tests and how to do Test Driven Development. We were looking at a code kata I’ve designed called ”Train Reservation”. It’s in no way a beginner exercise, and the crowd at Bletchley seemed to get on with it rather well on the whole. I’m just sorry I didn’t get round to talk to each pair very often, with 24 pairs I only had a couple of conversations with each during the 2 hour session!

I set up the exercise more or less to force people to use some kind of mock, fake or stub to replace the Booking Reference Service and the Train Data Service, because I am interested in how different people use these. I’ve observed that some programmers avoid using test doubles whenever possible, while others use them frequently. I’ve also observed that some people prefer to work outside-in, starting with a guiding test, while others prefer to start with the business rules at the heart of the problem and work outwards from there. At this particular workshop, there were all sorts of approaches being used. Some started with the guiding test and stubbed the services. Others started with the business logic around the seat selection rules. Different approaches, as I had hoped! Overall I feel encouraged that this exercise is a useful one, and people seemed to get on better with it than the last time I ran it, at XP2013. It’s till rather too big of a problem to tackle in a half day workshop though. I’ll be updating it some more before I run it again, although I don’t have any fixed plans for when that will be yet.

In the afternoon, I went to a session by Ivan Moore and Mike Hill, ”Inheritance to Composition”. They gave us a demo of this particular refactoring using a very simple codebase, before launching us into a much more complex one – Fitnesse (starting from the branch ”revised-ResponderFactory”). The idea was to take some classes that were using Inheritance – specifically the Template Method pattern – and convert them to instead use Composition – specifically the Strategy pattern. They also helpfully provided us with a sheet of instructions – 6 steps to complete the refactoring with minimal risk and code breakage.

My pair and I got on fairly well with the refactoring, and by the end of the session we were on step 5 with the goal in sight. The experience was of using Eclipse’s refactoring tools extensively, and relying a great deal on the compiler. The tests we had to lean on took a minute and a half to run, and actually, the tests for the classes we were working on were more mini-integration tests than unit tests as such. It meant there were relatively few updates to the tests as we did the refactoring, but the feedback loop was slow. I thought that was really interesting, and was wondering how the experience of the refactoring would change in a language like Python. There you don’t have a compiler, or very much help from refactoring tools.

So after the workshop, I set about trying to construct a similar problem in Python. Perhaps understandably, I didn’t want to translate the whole of Fitnesse to Python, (!), so I tried to re-write only the elements of it essential to this exercise. You can have a look at what I’ve come up with in my new repo ”WikiSearchKata”. I’m still working on preparing this properly as an exercise, (the instructions are still rather thin), but I plan to try it out at a GothPy meeting sometime soon.

After the conference sessions had ended, we were treated to a guided tour of the National Museum of Computing which was for me, the highlight of the day! Our enthusiastic guide showed us all sorts of ancient computers and storage devices and punch cards… a few I recognized from my childhood. My dad used to bring home old punch cards and my mum used to write her shopping lists on them when she went to the supermarket. They had a 48K ZX spectrum with rubber keys – just the same as the one I wrote my first program on! They had a CRAY supercomputer similar to the one I remember seeing once when I visited my dad’s work as a child. It’s a similar size to (the outside view of) a Tardis, with a big red button on the front. I don’t think we found out what the red button does, but the guide did say we probably have more computing power in the smartphone in our pocket! I found the changes in storage capacity actually even more impressive. They had these washing-machine sized boxes and dinner-plate sized metal disks that together made a hard drive. I think it held something like 4K.

The highlight of the tour was the WITCH computer – the oldest working computer in the world. It was brilliant! You could actually see what it was doing while it read in a paper tape punched with holes – the program – and loaded values into registries and did calculations. It made this fantastic whirring noise as it ran, and has all these little whizzy flashing lights. It works in decimal rather than binary, so each number is represented by a little ”dekatron” – a glass tube with a red light inside, that moves between positions 0-9 in a circle. So you can read which number is in the registry by looking at the position of each light in the array. They also had this little button you could press to make it step through the program one instruction at a time. I got to press it, and single-step a computer from 1951!

Compared with other conferences I’ve been too, this one was rather short, just one day, and with rather long sessions – half or whole day. It was hard work coding and facilitating all day, but in general very interesting people and coding exercises. A second day would have made it more worthwhile my making the trip. In any case, my thanks to Jon Dickinson for organizing it.