Softwire Blog

Lightning Talks – A 2048 Bot

9 January 2015, by

In October 2014 we ran our fourth Lightning Talks competition. The number of speakers this year was sufficient that we ran two sets of talks where eight employees each had five minutes to tell us something interesting about software development. We voted on our favourite talks and the top two won Amazon vouchers.

Here is Tom Eccles’ second place talk from the second round, demonstrating how he created a bot to solve popular game 2048.

Databases and “.Net Rocks”

8 January 2015, by

I love databases.

I know, it sounds geeky, but I really do find databases fascinating. They idea of storing data has such intuitive sense, but in practise, it requires such performance optimisation that getting to grips with a new flavour of database can be daunting. I remember the antipatterns employed when I first saw SQL in my teens (“An unlimited number of items? Let’s make three letter codes delimited by 999!”), but now normal forms flow naturally from my fingers.

I’ve been lucky enough to talk a lot about this topic recently, and specifically, I wanted to remind people that there were more options than just SQL out there! That’s not to say I’m one of these developers that things that SQL isn’t fit for purpose – any system that has been used so comprehensively for so long has something going for it – but I’ve overheard a lot of conversations that assume that SQL is going to be plonked at the bottom of a tech stack without much care and attention. That’s why I’m telling anyone who will listen there is other stuff out there.

If all you care about is a series of simple numbers recorded at certain times, then why go through the pain of setting up a SQL instance when you can use a key/value store, or even farm your data out to one of the many database as a service companies. On the flip side, sometimes SQL isn’t complex enough – and you’re dealing with data that would be better served by a graph database.

I was invited to talk (or maybe rant) on this topic with the team behind .Net Rocks, one of my favourite technical podcasts. You can listen to my discussion (as well as over 1,000 previous episodes) on their website – where we manage to discuss over ten different databases in an hour.

I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it.

Lightning Talks – The UX Factor

15 December 2014, by

In October 2014 we ran our fourth Lightning Talks competition. The number of speakers this year was sufficient that we ran two sets of talks where eight employees each had five minutes to tell us something interesting about software development. We voted on our favourite talks and the top two from each event won Amazon vouchers.

Here is David Simons’ winning talk from the first round, about what The X Factor can teach us when designing our applications.

Intertech Hackathon: Make Stuff Better

1 October 2014, by

The PronounJS TeamIntertech, started in the vein of other sectors equivalent organisations, is an LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans*, Queer and more) diversity forum for those working in the technology sector. I was first made aware of them by an article in the Evening Standard newspaper, and followed their work closely ever since.

It’s no secret in the office that I’m a fan of advocacy groups, and I’ve been really happy with how Softwire has been attempting to reach out to the wider community in a number of events we’ve organised in the past. However, having around 100 employees rather than, say, tens of thousands, means that we aren’t able to have staff networks targeted around minority groups in the same way as larger organisations. Because of that, I’ve found the networking opportunities at Intertech events a great way to meet other techy people and share experiences of being (for me) gay in the technology sector.

On top of the pub quizzes, and great talks they put on, they’ve started a tradition of an annual hackathon – #MakeStuffBetter – that aims to give budding technologists a chance, in 24 hours, to develop an application of some kind to make lives better for those in LGBTQ communities. I was fortunate enough, along with a small group of friends and colleagues, to go to this event in 2014. I love hackathons at the best of times. You get to meet new people and learn new things, and the chance to contribute towards LGBTQ+ rights at the same time was the cherry on the cake.

There were two eventual winners of the hackathon:

  • The LGBT Whip, of which Hereward (a fellow Softwirian) was a team member. They aim to amass information about potential MP’s LGBT voting records and intention. This would allow future voters to be informed about how they vote.
  • Uh-Oh, the panic alarm that gives its user a sense of safety if they walk in a new area that makes them uneasy.

They’re not available to use right this minute, but I know both teams are interested in turning their prototypes in bona fide apps, so watch this space!

PronounJs in Action!

The app that our team ended up making was PronounJS, a Chrome plug-in focused at increasing the usability of the web for trans*, or otherwise genderqueer individuals. A small thing that, I’ve been told, can be significantly draining for people who may have transitioned from one gender; or who have fluid genders at different times, is the use of incorrect pronouns. Our aim was to give a slight prompt to a user of our programme if we see that they might have used it wrong.

If you install the app, then it will scrape any page for URLs or attribute of a specific form that defines the preferred pronouns (e.g. he/him, she/her, xe/xim) of individuals that you may be talking to – and then give you a helpful autocorrect dropdown suggested “Ah, you may have misgendered this person – did you mean…” We’re not suggesting this will solve all problems with incorrect pronoun usage on the internet, but hopefully if this became a bigger thing, then will take a little bit of stress out of some trans* people’s lives.

Softwire on Only Connect

26 September 2014, by

What connects Ascot Racehorses, a Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclone, a decanter of port, and the dealer button? Read on to find out…

Image from 'Only Connect' Facebook Group, courtesy of Parasol Media

For those of you who are unaware, this is a question from the latest series of Only Connect, a BBC Two (formerly BBC Four) TV quiz show hosted by quick witted Victoria Coren Mitchell. Four seemingly disconnected clues are displayed, and the teams – and viewers at home – must find the underlying connection. Simple in theory, but in practice, very difficult.

Many people at Softwire are fans of this show and, through a rigorous internal interview process involving multicoloured spreadsheets, we put together a team of three keen and bright people (Richard Bradley, Zoe Cunningham and myself as the proud captain!)

Throughout the process, I was keeping tabs on it all: everything went well from our first meeting to our final match. Telling you all the stories may spoil the series, so my diaries are being kept under wraps until later in the series – look out for it in months to come.

Our first game will be shown on September 29th, 8:30pm on BBC2 – tune in and cheer on The Coders!

Oh, and before I forget, what connects all the things listed above? They all travel clockwise!

Heart of the City Graduates

18 August 2014, by

Heart of the CityHopefully this goes without saying, but operating ethically is very important to us as a company here at Softwire! Because of this, we are always keeping our eye on ways to ensure we’re above board and help people give back to causes that they’re passionate about. As we’ve talked about before, 2013 was a great year for this.

It’s because of this, that I’m so proud to announce that Softwire is now, formally, a graduate of the Heart of the City Newcomers’ scheme.

Who are they?

Heart of the City is a group of over 700 business of differing sizes that exists to help support companies who care about CSR (corporate social responsibility). Every business has its own unique problems and experiences, so they provide spaces and support to allow people to get together and learn from each other.

What was the scheme?

The Newcomers’ scheme is open to SMEs, and started in January 2013. Over the last 18 months, we’ve had networking events, training courses and personalised mentoring sessions to massage our CSR programmes and projects.

What difference did this make?

A lot of the changes happened behind the scenes, including encouraging other Softwire people to champion certain causes. The biggest success story of this scheme was the work we’ve done with open source projects – with Tim’s tireless work to take something he was already passionate about, Softwire have managed to become a workplace where we make a genuinely massive contribution back to the open source community.

What does this mean for the future?

To a large extent, this is up to us! One of the key skills that was encouraged was the ability to listen to the company needs and respond to them – so our only limit is the passion of our employees. At the very least, we’re happy that our interest in supporting good causes has been recognised – and hope to continue it in to the future.

Softwire and Charity in 2013

6 January 2014, by

Every year Softwire elects a different person to be in charge of the “CSR” or Corporate Social Responsibility. It’s a bit of a mouthful that means one of my jobs is to make things operate as ethically as possible. A lot of it is a reactive job – making sure everyone’s happy – but my favourite bit is the opportunity to support people to give something back.

It’s nearly the end of the year, and when looking back over 2013, I got a lovely surprise when I added it all together and saw what the Softwire team achieved. I’ve tried to collate Softwire’s biggest charity moments of the year to sing the praises of all the motivated and selfless people I have the pleasure of working with.

Lightning Talks – A SignalR App

5 January 2014, by

In October 2014 we ran our fourth Lightning Talks competition. The number of speakers this year was sufficient that we ran two sets of talks where eight employees each had five minutes to tell us something interesting about software development. We voted on our favourite talks and the top two won Amazon vouchers.

Here is Jamie Humphries’ winning talk from the second round, in which he develops a instant messaging application in a .NET stack in 5 minutes.

TeenTech City 2013

10 December 2013, by

If you listen to Click – the technology content put out by the BBC world service – you may have heard Maggie Philbin discuss TeenTech, an industry-led initiative to help give children inspiration and insight into the world of Science and Technology.

If not, you can hear it on the World Service page for a limited time. The recordings, made by Softwire MD Zoe Cunningham, were made at a stall designed and run by Softwire staff.

We had 30 minute slots designed to give a diverse set 12-14 year olds a taste of what it was like being a coder. With so little time, we wanted to ditch the academics and algorithmics involved in coding. Our aim was to reproduce an altogether more positive experience that most people at Softwire shared: the power you feel when you first hack together a programme that makes things happen. (more…)

Streaking for Tigers

23 August 2013, by

15th August, 5:30am. The alarm rings, and I get up to get ready to go to work. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get ready, but that day was a special day. That was the day that I had permission to work on my client’s site painted entirely as a tiger.

Tiger at work

Let’s rewind.

There are only 300 Sumatran Tigers left in the wild, which is a shocking state of affairs. ZSL, who run London Zoo, were hosting an event to raise publicity and funds to do something about it.

The event? Streak for Tigers. (more…)