Review: StackOverflow's DevDays in Austin

Justin Britten is the founder and lead developer at Prefinery. Since his first job as a UNIX systems administrator at the age of sixteen, Justin has spent over 15 years in the hi-tech software industry. Finally deciding to follow through with his entrepreneurial dreams, he founded Prefinery in 2007 on the idea that excellent software is built in collaboration with your beta testers. Justin is passionate about building, discovering, and using awesome software and encourages other young entrepreneurs to simply Build, Launch, and Tinker. He is also founder of the Entrepreneurs on Rails group in Austin.

Over 200 developers from as far away as Houston and Dallas poured into Austin’s Monarch Event Center to attend Joel Spolsky’s StackOverflow DevDays event.

The conference kicked off with a hilarious video featuring Spolsky and his Fog Creek Software team. In jest, Spolsky becomes irate, threatens to ditch his staff after selling out to Microsoft for $6, and at one point grabs the ass of a male co-worker and accuses him of poor work performance due to his preoccupation with picking out the right thong to accompany his skinny jeans. Okay, so you had to see the video in person, but trust me, it was quite funny. Of course, this is all in good humor and demonstrates just how fun it is to work for his small, elite Manhattan-based software company.

As anticipated, Spolsky’s keynote was the highlight of the day. The central theme is “being forced to make decisions” where he examines simplicity versus power in software. Simple software follows the 80/20 rule and does one thing well. Powerful software is all about options and features.

Spolsky prescribes less dialogs, less features and recommends that you should strive for your users to make less decisions. “Good software helps users achieve their goals — the computer does not get to set the agenda,” says Spolsky, adding the quip “there is something deeply inhumane about dialog boxes.”

Throughout the day seven presenters spoke on a variety of technical topics, including iPhone development, Python, ASP.NET, jQuery, Erlang and CouchDB. Each presentation, while introductory, offered just enough to pique interest and featured live-coding of examples over boring, static slide presentations.

After breaking for lunch, where the audience was given conversation starters in the form of themed tables on topics such as UI design, social software, free software, and startups, Spolsky returned to give a demo of FogBugz 7, their latest release. Contrary to its name, FogBugz is just as much a project planning, task management, feature tracking, and wiki tool as it is a bug tracker. Spolsky also presented Kiln, Fog Creek’s new source code control and code review tool, which just launched last week and is now in beta.

Spolsky finally showed off the software for which this conference is named — Stack Overflow. In just over one year in business, StackOverflow.com has grown to 1 million hits per day. The software which powers the site has been extracted as StackExchange, a white-labeled, hosted solution. StackExchange is currently in public beta, and free of charge. Spolsky admits that his team hasn’t even written the billing code, though pricing will eventually start at $129/month. The knowledge exchange platform’s biggest customer, in terms of traffic, is EpicAdvice.com, a place to ask questions about the World of Warcraft game. If WoW isn’t your thing, be sure to check out answers.onstartups.com for all your startup-related questions, brought to you by Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot and Austin’s own Jason Cohen.

I especially enjoyed the afternoon’s presentation on CouchDB by it’s creator, the very intelligent, soft-spoken and comfortable-looking (sweatpants and a CouchDB t-shirt) Damien Katz. His document-oriented database, written in Erlang, is now used by some pretty big hitters, including the BBC, IBM, Meebo and Mozilla. Katz also announced the exciting news that just yesterday CouchDB moved from alpha to beta! This should surely drive up adoption.

Katz started CouchDB as a side-project to demonstrate his software development abilities to potential employers. In response to an audience-member asking how he kept plugging away at CouchDB with remaining jobless, Katz replied, “lie to yourself a lot.” This is good advice for founders who wrestle with the emotional roller-coaster that is starting a company – persistence pays off. What was once thought of as a lie can now be viewed as foresight.

In the final presentation of the day Jason Cohen, serial entrepreneur and founder of Smart Bear Software, strove to convince the audience that the tedious task of peer code reviews can be fun, rewarding, and, of course, result in more robust software. Pulling from his book on the subject, he had controlled experiments, including millions of lines of code reviewed over thousands of hours, to back-up his case.

At the end of the event I caught up with Joel for a quick second and asked what advice he has for technical founders of a single-person, bootstrapped startup. Austin has its fair share of these, and we could all use some advice. His answer was as I feared, yet expected, that a solid business-focused partner is absolutely necessary. He recommended teaming up with someone just as passionate about your idea as you, but focused on sales, marketing, and evangelizing the company and product.

About Bryan Menell

Bryan is the Managing Editor for AustinStartup and the CEO of Mahana. He is a co-founder of Capital Factory, an investor and advisor, and runs the popular Austin Tech Happy Hour with his wife.

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