What Good Tech Events Look Like

KidsAdoreDitchMy 5-year old son and I walked into the Village hall at Shoreditch, not sure what to expect after making the trek into London following a spur-of-the-moment sign up to Kids Adore Ditch. We needn’t have worried, because from our initial warm welcome it was a terrific day-out. And it had me thinking about how I wish all the tech conferences I go to were that much fun. Here’s what it takes:

1. A diverse crowd

The first thing that struck me was how nice it was to have such a mix of kids and tech side by side. The room was bursting with energy. And it wasn’t just boys, there were girls and plenty of them. At one point it seemed unreal as I was chatting with a fellow mum, discussing the pros and cons of the Eclipse IDE , with a quadcopter hovering nearby and a little girl doing snow-angels on the carpet. For me a that was a breath of fresh air from the normal male-dominated crowd at the conferences I normally frequent (added bonus: for once I was taller than half the people there). Continue reading “What Good Tech Events Look Like”

Eclipse London DemoCamp November 2009

The London Eclipse DemoCamp hosted by SkillsMatter was held on the 24th of November near the Barbican. Ralph Mueller, Director of the Eclipse ecosystems in Europe kicked off proceedings by giving the 40-strong audience an insight into Eclipse’s history as well as its future. In particular highlighting how major companies like Airbus may be turning to Eclipse in order to solve the problems they face, particularly the lack of continuity in front of very long lifecycle products. This is very interesting to see how the relationship between companies and open source continues to evolve with open source and Eclipse playing an ever increasingly important role.

There were four Eclipse demos on show. First up was Paul Gibbons from Diamond LightSource. Paul was demoing the latest version of the GDA, the scientific software used to run experiments at the UK synchrotron. Paul also announced that the GDA is going open source and the framework will be available to other synchrotron facilities worldwide. Kichwa Coders developed the initial prototype of the GDA on Eclipse and it was great to see how it has been progressing, having now gone live and having more and more functionality including 2D and 3D graphing.

Next, I was up and gave a demo of CyanIDE2 which we have been working with Cyan on. It all went smoothly as I walked through creating a new project through to getting LEDs flashing on the board. That was great as it highlighted the tools aim of being able to get a program running on a board in just a few minutes. Also it highlighted how Eclipse is allowing chip companies to drive technology forward and develop new solutions for systems-on-a-chip (SOCs).

The other two demos featured Miles Sabin showing us the latest from the Scala IDE and Neil Bartlett demoing Sun’s Microsystems tooling for JavaFX within Eclipse. Both shared the common theme that they were extending the JDT to integrate their respective languages in. The Scala talk highlighted how the team have gone down the route of using AspectJ to monkey-patch Eclipse JVM code out of necessity. They highlighted how they have not been able to get patches integrated by the core Eclipse Java team, for understandable reasons and so have had to resort to the binary-code modification route. Seems very severe, but very interesting – certainly a use of aspect oriented programming I’d never envisaged! Neil’s talk also include a nice demo of using OSGi for runtime modularity for JavaFx which was good to see.

Afterwards, we all convened to the nearby pub, ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ for a post-mortem and drinks courtesy of Ralph Mueller. Kudos for Neil Bartlett for organizing the event and keeping it running to time. All in all, a very interesting and stimulating evening with the Eclipse community.

A Tale of Three Start-ups

Actually it was three stories of three semi-conductor start-ups being told at the Cadence VC Forum. The third annual occurrence of this event was held at the Institute of Physics in London.

Jed Hurwitz, CTO of Gigle Semiconductor spoke of how you had to be ‘Just Mad Enough’ – too much and no-one takes you seriously, too little and no-one wants to invest in you. I particularly enjoyed hearing about how he was able to take his experience in one field (video and imaging) and use it to great benefit in another area- home networking. Gigle have just successfully launched a Gigabit powerline modem in June 2009, and Jed spoke about the path that led them there, including advice for up and coming start-ups. He reminded all when coming up with their product ideas to ask themselves ‘Could someone else do it?’ – he answered this well saying yes anybody could do it, but ‘Can someone do it?’ is a different matter. No-one else may be in the right position today to do what you can.

Next we had ‘The Challenges of a 21st Century Start-up’ presented by Mirics Semiconductor’s CEO Simon Atkinson. He talked about Mirics road to success and the course corrections that they had to go through to ultimately be successful. Today Mirics have the only demodulator that covers all the worlds standards for broadcast TV – they do this with a combination of dedicated hardware and software running on the main PC or laptop CPU. Also interesting was hearing about the hardware acceleration for the next generation by using the GPU. Afterwards we chatted to Simon and discussed power utilization due to using non-dedicated hardware. While the power consumption is higher with the general purpose CPU approach, it is nearly as low as dedicated hardware (only a couple of minutes less TV watching). However, more importantly, the power consumption fits within the threshold that a consumer is happy with.

The last start-up story was about Phyworks – their CEO Stephen King talked about the ups and downs of the company. Going through many iterations and lots of fund-raising in difficult years, they also eventually found their way. Stephen King also shared his dos and don’ts of which the most memorable was his sentiment of ‘pushing people’ to get the most out of them, whether it was employees, partners or customers!

It was a well organized event, in a great location. The food on offer this time was a huge improvement over last year. The only downside was that the talks did all overrun which resulted in a very long intense session, and less time for talking over dinner afterwards. All in all well worthwhile and looking forward to next year’s event!

Keynotes & Top Three at ESC

The Embedded Systems Conference, UK was held in a new location of FIVE at Farnborough, home to the famous airshow. The conference keynotes featured two Q&A panels. The first was a set of CEO’s discussing ‘The State of Microelectronics’. They discussed high level issues such as the current state of education in delivering the next-generation embedded engineers. One interesting aspect highlighted by Mark Robson, CEO of Freescale Semiconductors was how the new breed of engineers graduating will be much more suited to collaboration and working remotely thanks to the influence of social networking. Interesting side benefit from the likes of facebook, twitter & co!

The second keynote, ‘The State of Embedded’ was focused more on engineering trends including the old language debate of C vs C++. Niall Cooling of Feabhas mused on the point that there should be more uptake of Java for embedded but there are still barriers out there, particularly with issues such as the non-deterministic behaviour or garbage collection. You can’t very well have your deeply embedded device pause for a moment while GC runs.

Both the keynotes highlighted some interesting discussion points. On the whole, I felt they could have benefited from being a bit more structured and was a bit disappointed that there was not more talk about the future direction of the embedded space.

I attended quite a few of the conference sessions. Some of the sessions suffered due to the presenters attempting too cover too much rather than just sticking to the remit of the talk (after all who wants to keep hearing about waterfall models). Three of the best sessions I attended were:

1. “Implemening a Memory Manager for Small Footprint Embedded Systems” by Michel de Champlain of Deep Object Knowledge.
Michel gave an interesting, technical talk about a low footprint deterministic memory allocator for small embedded processors. I could immediately see how this could be very useful to our clients.

2. “Understanding Quality” by Glennan Carnie of Feabhas.
This was a very well presented session of which the key take-away was the ‘Quality Triangle’. The triangle consists of three measures of quality: Customer perceived, Intrinsic and Compliance-based. Quality of products are measured using one or more of these measures depending on the situation. In our experience, many embedded companies rely on customer-perceived quality. This is okay until the product gets used by a larger set of customers or used for a slightly different purpose. Having good intrinsic quality allows quick and less expensive adaptation to continue to achieve the desired customer-perceived quality.

3. “Tips and Tricks for Debugging In The Trenches” by Greg Davis of Green Hills Software.
This talk included a series of advanced debugging features that are not often used, but could be very effective in the right situation. It was presented by the head of the compiler group so very relevant to me as a compiler-writer. The most interesting feature was the advanced ‘scripted breakpoints’ which allow you to automatically run a few commands every time a certain breakpoint is hit. Its nice to see that GDB is keeping up with the commercial debuggers, now that Python is integrated into GDB.

In addition to those sessions there was also the latest and greatest from many exhibitors to partake in. On a less positive note, while the new location was convenient to travel to, unfortunately the centre did not provide the best venue for the conference talks. The talks suffered from a high level of ambient noise from the exhibition floor. It made listening to the talks difficult and a poor environment for interacting. Fortunately the organizers are well aware of this and will aim to improve on this for upcoming conferences. All in all, ESC UK was worthwhile, and we look forward to a new improved ESC UK next year.

The Problem With The Tools: 4 reasons embedded tools are not up to scratch

In the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) field it is widely acknowledged that the state of the software has not kept up with the rapid advance of the hardware. At the 2009 Design Automation Conference (DAC) in his keynote speech “The Tides of EDA“, Albert Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, co-founder of Cadence and Synopsys, said “At the system level, we should look closely at embedded-software design as a great opportunity to innovate…For the past six years, keynotes at DAC pointed out the great importance of software for electronics, even for the semiconductor industry…There is consensus about the need to change the way we design software in general…

So what is it about software tool development that has meant the tools are not up to scratch ? Here are four challenges developers have to contend with.

1. Tool complexity – the tools do a lot, whether it is dealing with routing algorithms or enabling one to build a system-on-a-chip, there is a great deal of functionality to contend with. All this has to be handled while ensuring the tool remains fast, robust and easy-to-use.

2. Short timescales and limited resources – as ever time is of the essence as the rewards are huge for being first to market. However the current economic crisis makes things worse as it means companies have to work out how to deliver in short timescales with limited resources. This often leads to compromises being made which detract from the tools.

3. Sophisticated users – today’s users are increasingly sophisticated. They have specific notions of what tools should look like and how they should work. Often embedded tools suffer from usability issues as they have not spent enough effort focusing on the end-users needs and optimizing key task flows

4. Integration Demands – an extra burden is put on developers to get integration right. Today tools cannot exist in a vacuum and must play nicely with the existing systems out there, whether they are build systems, revision control or text editors. Dealing with integration issues complicates the lives of tool developers as these requirements often arise further down the project life cycle and require a high level of adaptability.