Daniel Groves

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DigPen VI

Published: 30 March 2013

An experience from the sixth DigPen conference

The Bakery situated between the two Eden Project biodomes
The Bakery situated between the two Eden Project biodomes

DigPen is a small grass roots conference which is held in the southwest of England. The entry is a minimal price tag of £15 for ‘early–birds’ or just £20 at full–price. DigPen is a conference targeted at those who care about the industry and for those who are passionate about what they do; not just for those who are backed by companies with big wallets.

The Day

Kieron and I had to make an early start. Unlike the last DigPen event which was held minutes from the front door of my flat this one was being held at the Eden Project which was just over an hour away. We met Sidd for the train to St. Austal at 08:10, where Nick and Chris met us on the train at Devonport station to make our way down. On arrival at the Eden Project we had about half an hour to kill before the event kicked off, which meant coffee o’clock.

At registration we found Sophie to find out what the plan for the video camera provided by the university was. This meant for a fast registration before rushing off to get the cameras setup before the first talks of the day kicked off.

Introductory Talks

After a quick introduction about what the day would entail Mat kicked off with the first talk about how he was analysing where the client history at Iteracy had come from. Given his short 15-minute slot Mat went into a lot of detail about how his company went from sending it’s first invoice to it’s current position today.

His talk showed some highly interesting representations of the split in the work the company has had come in, detailing how the recommendations spread down like a family tree resulting in one client leading to another on a surprisingly large scale.

Chris followed Mat talking about his recent project, the Moby Dick big read. Chris gave an interesting insight as to how he wasn’t aware of just how big the project was going to be, finding out that the project had the support of many celebrities just days before the launch. It was interesting to hear how he dealt with the volume of traffic, trying to scale the WordPress site to deal with an impressive 70,000 unique visitors on the projects biggest day.

Along the way Chris made some interesting discoveries, such as how much people don’t like David Cameron, but do like the Pet Shop boys; that one was certainly a surprise.

After a quick coffee break to socialise with those attending and a fast move to get the camera setup on the other track it was time for the second round of talks.

Round Two

The second round of talks required some decision making. Track one had Gavin giving his talk Plan, build and deploy followed by Will giving his talk MySQL query optimisation, meanwhile on track two the other Will spoke about finding the time to make crazy stuff followed by Dans talk You can’t read/watch/listen to all the things, and that’s OK.

After some consideration I chose to go with track two. Will’s talk kicked off by talking about how we need to find time to make the crazy stuff, how they turn quickly from simple to complex and how they can absorb vast amounts of time. The message behind the talk was clear, we need to make the crazy stuff, and the more of it we create the easier it becomes. At the same time though, we need to keep an eye on everything in our lives.

We need to be able to balance our life against our work; a 50—50 balance is ideal. If you let this tip too far towards life you won’t get your project done, but if it tips too far the other way it is easy to burn out and stop relaxing.

Dan’s talk was focused around the sheer volume of information that gets thrown at us everyday. He spoke about how we have content being thrown at us from every direction — books, podcasts, conferences, social media, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He shared with us two ways in which he looks at content and how best to choose what is most useful and most relevant to us.

Dan Goodwin during his talk 'You can't read/watch/listen to all the things, and that's OK
Dan Goodwin during his talk, "You can't read/watch/listen to all the things, and that's OK"

One of these methods was a simple four way chart plotting what you’re good and/or bad at while the other, Radar, looked at moving technologies around on a radar–like chart to summarise what you’re currently aware of, and so what is best for you to concentrate on. Radar assumes that the more aware of a technology the more you are the more you’re interested in it, or using it meaning this would make more relevant reading/listening/watching than things you’re less aware of.

After this second round of talks it was time for lunch which allowed time to catchup with old contacts. The lunch period felt a little rushed as we had little time to queue for food and eat before heading up to the conference facilities again for the BlackBerry talk.

The Blackberry talk gave a fast insight into how easy it is to develop for BlackBerry 10, showing how they considered that developers don’t just need to build on one platform, but are actually required to develop the same application with the same experience across multiple platforms. The result of this is support for an impressive range of SDKs, and a new take on multitasking and fast performance.

Round Three

This round bought another dual-track selection. On the first track we had Stuart give his talk So you want to build a SaaS product? while Rob gave his talk Publishing, consuming and managing open linked data on track two. Following this Dan gave his talk Design eye for the developer guy on track one, while Martin gave his talk The evolution of Google on track two.

For this round I decided to mix it up a little, attending So you want to build a SaaS product? first followed by The evolution of Google on the opposite track for the second half.

Stuarts talk was about how he started his side project to solve a problem he faced everyday while dealing with clients. He spoke about the reality of building a SaaS product and how we should be releasing easily and often in order to gather maximum feedback.

Martins talk on the evolution of Google started by looking at how Google started in the 90’s as a PhD project at Stanford University. Google had implemented a ground-breaking new system which prioritised content based on links as opposed to keywords alone, this resulted in many sites struggling having performed keyword stuffing in the past to index in search engines. Over time these algorithms have been refined in order to cut–down on how easy it is for spam links to be generated in order to improve the ranking of a site.

Martin Dinham during his talk, 'The Evolution of Google'
Martin Dinham during his talk, "The Evolution of Google"

After this second round of talks it was time for another Coffee break before the finale. This break bought some interesting discussions about the accessibility support in Blackberry 10, especially for web-based applications with Simon Howard.


For the final talk Jo and Stephen spoke about maintaining creative passion. Although their talk was clearly more focused at design it is clear that the principles put across could easily be put into practice for any creative job, from programming all the way to marketing.

Jo and Stephen spoke about their own experiences running a small web firm before explaining their top tips for helping us stay creative. These included:

  1. Get away from your computer
  2. Make Mistakes
  3. Design for Yourself
  4. Exercise

This talk was well placed at the end of the conference and provided a good reminder that it is important to switch off every now and then. If we keep focusing on one thing all of the time we will simply burn out, at which point we’re no use to anybody; not ourselves, our clients or our bosses. It’s vital that we all get away from our industries occasionally.

Final Thoughts

I’ve only actually made it to three of the DigPen conferences now. The first at Plymouth University, the fifth also at Plymouth University and this one. Each as been a significant improvement over the last, at the fifth conference I was torn between each track never sure which of the talks I would rather attend. At this one however, I always found it easy to pick which I would like to attend which demonstrates how well thought-out and balanced each track was.

Each time I do attend a DigPen conference I always come away having learnt a lot and motivated to try something new. This time I have been looking out for a problem which I can solve, something which I can use as a side–project.

Finally, I’d like to thank Sophie (with the support of Andy) for putting on such a great conference. It’s always great to meet like–minded people in the southwest, seeing what they’re up to and to see what they’ve learnt and are willing to share with others. Thank you.

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