New Volunteers for Three Rings

Hot on the heels of our long weekend in Jersey, and right after the live deployment of Three RingsMilestone: Krypton, came another trip away: I’ve spent very little time in Oxford, lately! This time around, though, it was an experimental new activity that we’ve inserted into the Three Rings calendar: Dev Training.

Wayfarer's Cottage, Malvern
We rented a secluded cottage to which we could whisk away our prospective new developers. By removing day-to-day distractions at work and home, our thinking was that we could fully immerse them in coding.

The format wasn’t unfamiliar: something that we’ve done before, to great success, is to take our dedicated volunteer programmers away on a “Code Week”: getting everybody together in one place, on one network, and working 10-14 hour days, hammering out code to help streamline charity rota management. Sort-of like a LAN party, except instead of games, we do work. The principle of Code Week is to turn volunteer developers, for a short and intense burst, in to machines that turn sugar into software. If you get enough talented people around enough computers, with enough snacks, you can make miracles happen.

Volunteers arriving at Wayfarers
I’m not certain that the driveway was really equipped for the number of cars we brought. But I don’t get on terribly well with laptops, so clearly I was going to bring a desktop computer. And a second desktop computer, just in case. And that takes up a lot of seat space.

In recent years, Three Rings has expanded significantly. The test team has exploded; the support team now has to have a rota of their own in order to keep track of who’s working when; and – at long last – the development team was growing, too. New developers, we decided, needed an intensive session of hands-on training before they’d be set loose on real, production code… so we took the principles of Code Week, and turned it into a boot camp for our new volunteers!

New developers Rich, Chris, and Mike set up their development environments.
New developers Rich, Chris, and Mike set up their development environments. Owing to the complexity of the system, this can be a long part of the course (or, at least, it feels that way!).

Recruiting new developers has always been hard for us, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that we’ve always exclusively recruited from people who use the system. The thinking is that if you’re already a volunteer at, say, a helpline or a community library or a fireboat-turned-floating-museum or any of the other organisations that use Three Rings, then you already understand why what we do is important and valuable, and why volunteer work is the key to making it all happen. That’s the bit of volunteering that’s hardest to ‘teach’, so the thinking is that by making it a prerequisite, we’re always moving in the right direction – putting volunteering first in our minds. But unfortunately, the pool of people who can program computers to a satisfactory standard is already pretty slim (and the crossover between geeks and volunteers is, perhaps, not so large as you might like)… this makes recruitment for the development team pretty hard.

Turfed out of the Ops Centre and into the living room, JTA works on important tasks like publicity, future posts on the Three Rings blog, and ensuring that we all remember to eat at some point.
Turfed out of the Ops Centre and into the living room, JTA works on important tasks like publicity, future posts on the Three Rings blog, and ensuring that we all remember to eat at some point.

A second difficulty is that Three Rings is a hard project to get involved with, as a newbie. Changing decisions in development convention, a mess of inter-related (though thankfully not inter-depedent) components, and a sprawling codebase make getting started as a developer more than a little intimidating. Couple that with all of the things our developers need to know and understand before they get started (MVC, RoR, TDD, HTML, CSS, SQL, DiD… and that’s just the acronyms!), and you’ve got a learning curve that’s close to vertical. Our efforts to integrate new developers without a formal training program had met with limited success, because almost nobody already has the exact set of skills we’re looking for: that’s how we knew it was time to make Dev Training Weekend a reality.

Ah! That's a convenient place for a pub!
Conveniently, there was a pub literally just out the gate from the back garden of the cottage, which proved incredibly useful when we (finally) downed tools and went out for a drink.

We’d recruited three new potential developers: Mike, Rich, and Chris. As fits our pattern, all are current or former volunteers from organisations that use Three Rings. One of them had been part of our hard-working support team for a long time, and the other two were more-new to Three Rings in general. Ruth and I ran a series of workshops covering Ruby, Rails, Test-Driven Development, Security, and so on, alternated between stretches of supervised “hands-on” programming, tackling genuine Three Rings bugs and feature requests. We felt that it was important that the new developers got the experience of making a real difference, right from the second or the third day, they’d all made commits against the trunk (under the careful review of a senior developer, of course).

Test-driven development, bar-style
Mike demonstrates test-driven development, down at the local pub: 1. touch cat 2. assert cat.purring? When the test fails, of course, the debugging challenge begins: is the problem with the test, the touch, or the cat?

We were quite pleased to discover that all three of them took a particular interest early on in different parts of the system. Of course, we made sure that each got a full and well-rounded education, but we found that they were all most-interested in different areas of the system (Comms, Stats, Rota, etc.), and different layers of development (database, business logic, user interface, etc.). It’s nice to see people enthused about the system, and it’s infectious: talking with some of these new developers about what they’d like to contribute has really helped to inspire me to take a fresh look at some of the bits that I’m responsible for, too.

Chris explains with his hands, in the bar.
Chris drip-feeds us fragments of his life in computing and in volunteering; and praises Ruby for being easier, at least, than programming using punchcards.

It was great to be able to do this in person. The Three Rings team – now about a dozen of us in the core team, with several dozen more among our testers – is increasingly geographically disparate, and rather than face-to-face communication we spend a lot of our time talking to each other via instant messengers, email, and through the comments and commit-messages of our ticketing and source control systems! But there’s nothing quite like being able to spend a (long, hard) day sat side-by-side with a fellow coder, cracking through some infernal bug or another and talking about what you’re doing (and what you expect to achieve with it) as you go.

Three new developers at dev. training.
Chris, Mike and Rich discuss some aspect or another of Three Rings development.

I didn’t personally get as much code written as I’d have liked. But I was pleased to have been able to support three new developers, who’ll go on to collectively achieve more than I ever will. It’s strange to look back at the early 2000s, when it was just me writing Three Rings (and Kit testing/documenting most of it: or, at least, distracting me with facts about Hawaii while I was trying to write the original Wiki feature!). Nowadays Three Rings is a bigger (and more-important) system than ever before, supporting tens of thousands of volunteers at hundreds of voluntary organisations spanning five time zones.

I’ve said before how much it blows my mind that what began in my bedroom over a decade ago has become so critical, and has done so much good for so many people. And it’s still true today: every time I think about it, it sends my head spinning. If that’s what it’s done in the last ten years, what’ll it do in the next ten?

On This Day In 2005

Looking Back

On this day in 2005 (actually tomorrow, but I needed to publish early) I received an unusual parcel at work, which turned out to contain a pan, wooden spoon, tin of spaghetti hoops, loaf of bread… and an entire electric hob.

A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.
A parcel from Paul, containing everything required to make a "proper" plateful of spaghetti hoops on toast.

This turned out, as I describe in my blog post of the day, to have been the result of a conversation that the pair of us had had on IRC the previous day, in which he called me a “Philistine” for heating my lunchtime spaghetti hoops in the office microwave. This was a necessity rather than a convenience, given that we didn’t have any other mechanism for heating food (other than a toaster, and that’s a really messy way to heat up tinned food…).

It was a different time: a time when the lives of many of my friends were still centered around academic persuits (Siân was working on and handing in her dissertation, as was Liz, Claire was getting results back, Ruth was stressed out by a useless student on her team, Paul took things too far, and even JTA was suffering: struggling with his wordcount of an essay that he considered handing in late). It was a time when our evenings were being consumed watching Knightmare (my blog posts mentioning: the first series, first half of second series, second half of second series, Ruth’s commentary) or at the Ship & Castle (both, sadly, without Sian). It was a time when Andy worked at the cafe under The Flat, like we were all in some kind of sitcom or something.

It was clearly a time when we were all blogging quite regularly: apologies for the wall of links (a handful of which, I’m afraid, might be restricted). Be glad that I spared you all the posts about the 2005 General Election, which at the time occupied a lot of the Abnib blogosphere. We were young, and idealistic, and many of us were students, and most of us hadn’t yet been made so cynical by the politicians who have come since.

Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.
Another shot of the parcel. This wasn't posted, mind: he lugged this over to my office by hand, and dropped it off at the reception desk.

And, relevantly, it was a time when Paul was able to express his randomness in some particularly quirky ways. Like delivering me a food parcel at work. He’s always been the king of random events, like organising ad-hoc hilltop trips that turned out to be for the purpose of actually releasing 99 red (helium) balloons. I tried to immortalise his capacity for thinking that’s not just outside the box, but outside the known Universe, when I wrote his character into Troma Night Adventure, but I’m not sure I quite went far enough.

Looking Forward

It seems so long ago now: those Aberystwyth days, less than a year out of University myself. When I look back, I still find myself wondering how we managed to find so much time to waste on categorising all of the pages on the RockMonkey wiki. I suppose that nowadays we’ve traded the spontaneity to say “Hey: card games in the pub in 20 minutes: see you there!” on a blog and expect it to actually work, for a more-structured and planned existence. More-recently, we’ve spent about a fortnight so far discussing what day of the week we want out new monthly board games night to fall on.

There’s still just enough of the crazy random happenstances in my life, though. As I discovered recently, when I once again received an unusual and unexpected parcel in the post. This time, it wasn’t from Paul, but from Adam, who’d decided to respond in a very literal fashion to my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he owed me tea, and a keyboard.

Several boxes of fruit and herbal teas.
The second of the two unexpected parcels I received from Adam.

I got the chance to live with Paul for a couple of years, until he moved out last month. I’m not sure whether or not this will ultimately reduce the amount of quirkiness that I get in my diet, but I’m okay either way. Paul’s not far away – barely on the other side of town – so I’m probably still within a fatal distance of the meteor we always assumed would eventually kill him.

We’ve turned what was his bedroom into an office. Another case of “a little bit less random, a little bit more structure and planning”, perhaps, in a very metaphorical way? Maybe this is what it feels like to be a grown-up. Took me long enough.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

Back To School

Next week is half-term. Why does that matter? Because I’m back in education.

Since last month, I’ve been a student again. Not full-time (I’m not falling for that one again), of course, but I currently spend my Monday evenings studying towards a Certificate in Counselling Skills at Aylesbury College.

Aylesbury College. It's actually quite an attractive building, except in the rain.

It’s actually a qualification I’ve been looking at for several years, but it’s only recently that I’ve lived somewhere even remotely close to somewhere that it’s taught: while there’s a lot of counselling theory that can be learned by distance learning, there’s naturally a lot of hands-on counselling practice that demands a classroom or clinical setting, and for that… you really do need to be within reach of a suitable school.

Not that Aylesbury‘s exactly on my doorstep. It’s not even in the same county as me (it’s just barely over the border, in fact, into Buckinghamshire). And this can make things a little challenging: whereas many of my classmates walk or cycle in, I have a special little dance that I have to do every Monday, in order to make my study possible.

I arrive at work early, so that I can get out of the door by 4:30pm. I then leap onto my bike and pedal furiously through Oxford’s crowded afternoon streets to the East side of the city. There, I lock my bike up and hop into a borrowed car (more about that in another blog post), pick my way out between the growing pre-rush-hour traffic, sprawling 20mph zones, and deathwish cyclists, and hammer along the A418 in order to get to class for its 6pm start.

This is the M40. I don't get to go on this. But that dual carriageway you see going over the top of it? That's one of the few stretches of decent road on my weekly commute to Buckinghamshire.

Three hours of theory and roleplay later (as well as a break to eat a packet sandwich), I’m back on the road. It annoys me more than a little that now that I’m not in a hurry, the roads are usually clear and empty, but it’s a good excuse to crank up the volume on Jack FM and enjoy the ride back through the villages of East Oxfordshire. Back in Oxford, I pick up my bike and cycle home: I’m usually back before 10:30. It’s quite a long day, really.

So what’s it all for? Well: ultimately, if I stick with it, it leads to a Certificate in Counselling, then to a Diploma in Counselling. If you take that and couple it with a stack of distance learning modules, it adds up to… well, this Foundation Degree in Counselling, perhaps.

But that’s not what you wanted to know: what you wanted to know was, “What are you doing, Dan? What’s wrong with the degree and career you’ve already got?”

Well firstly, of course, learning doesn’t have to be about qualifications. This is a field that I’ve been interested in for longer than I’ve been blogging. Plus: I’m sure that my various pieces of emotional support work, like my work with Oxford Friend, will benefit from the experience and learning that I bring to it.

But also, it’s about the idea I’ve always had that a good mid-life crisis ought to benefit from planning: it’s too important to leave to chance. And I’ve been thinking that a career switch might be a great mid-life crisis. The social sciences are fun, and while counselling might not be exactly what I’m looking for, there’s some doors opened by studying it. With less than a decade before I’m 40, and with part-time study being an ever-so-slow way to get things done, I’d better pull my finger out.

Doubtless, I’ll have more to say about my course as it progresses, but for now, I’m just glad that it’s half-term week, which means I get a week in which I don’t spend my Monday running around like a headless chicken… and I get twice as long to finish my homework.

Not Quite Where We Planned To Be

Claire and I are in Preston. Let me explain how this came about.

As I mentioned, we spent Friday night and most of Saturday in Gregynog, a beautiful stately home owned by the University of Wales and used as a conference venue. Every year, the Computer Science department ships almost the entirety of the second year out there to learn how better to get a job, in anticipation of hopefully getting an industry year placement the following year. Claire, as a department staff member, was invited along to help organise a group of students. I was invited along as an representative of the computer industry, there to give mock interviews to students of the kind that they might expect when applying for computer science related jobs for their industry year or for graduate positions.

It was a lot of fun. I met some interesting people and, with their help, got to grill students. Perhaps my favourite part was successfully catching out students who had… how shall we say it… exaggerated a little on their CVs. One fellow, I remember, had, while boasting about his web development proficiency, stated that he was familiar with HTTP. So I asked him what the fundamental differences between a GET and a POST method were. I’d have accepted something about request parameters being visible on the address bar, but no: no such luck. It was also good to be pleasantly surprised, such as by the database-proficient claimant I met who successfully, with a pause, disassembled the huge database relationship diagram I gave to him. My co-interviewer says I’m evil. I replied that I was merely thorough.

On Saturday night, in accordance with our plans, we continued on to Warrington to visit Gareth and Liz‘s new place. Gareth didn’t seem quite ‘with it’. But the food was good and I regretted eating so well at Gregynog that I couldn’t guzzle more, and the company was even better. After the party came to a quiet end, we dropped off Jimmy at his home in Runcorn, and decided to move on up to Preston to say “hi” to my folks.

Needless to say, my mum was at least a little surprised when Claire and I waltzed into her bedroom. We didn’t waltz, mind. More of a polka. But she was surprised, regardless. My dad returns from Vietnam today, so we’re hoping to catch him and have lunch before we return to Aber.

Paul: I bet, despite her trying to remind herself on several occasions, Claire’s still forgotten to call you to tell you that we’re unlikely to make the 2:30 screening of Howl’s Moving Castle at the Arts Centre, so I hope you read this before then.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #40:

Fail to get elected as one of the two student representatives of module CS12320 (Concepts In Programming). What else could I expect? I was nominated against my will, gave an awe-inspiring speech, that declared that “if I get this position, I’ll slaughter every last one of you with a pick-axe” brought up the issue that “hell – I’m not even representative of myself; why do you want me to represent you lot?”, and made clear “I want this role as little as you want me to have it!”. I think they got the idea. I recieved a grand total of 0 votes, and that includes the ones from the people who nominated me (who, after hearing my speech, voted for somebody else). Victory

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #38:

Recieve an e-mail criticising the way you send your e-mails. It appears to be from some big-headed student, who thinks they know it all (which they can’t, ‘cos then they’d know that I already knew that they didn’t know <sigh>, which is slightly self-defeating). Set them straight with a well-placed flame, and bite them by e-mail. Later, while filing their e-mail, check their signature, and realise that you’ve just accidently flamed the President of the Students Union!!! AARRGGGHHHHH!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #14:

Go to a “Traffic Lights Party” organized by the students union, where you’re supposed to dress in a colour that dictates your availability status. Red is “Taken”. Yellow is “Maybe available”. Green is “Desperate”. Wear yellow. Fail to ‘pull’.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #5:

Use your NUS card the the Varsity to get a free Key Fob, which entitles you to dirt cheap (ok; even cheaper than normal) drinks most nights of the week… Banks Bitter: £1.25; Fosters £1.45 etc.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.