Sunday, August 1, 2010

Where do you get your Intellectual Stimulation?

Most of us work in jobs that primarily focused on solving an immediate need for existing customer, who needs a quick solution today. This certainly pays the bills but generally isn't the kind of venue to leads to discussions about to create "software that sings". Indeed when I used that phrase in a previous article I got comments that even thinking about writing such software was beyond the pale for most people.

So, where do people find an outlet for that part of the mind that goes beyond solving the problem for today? Having just come back from the Atlassian Summit 2010 I can tell you how recharging it was to spend a few (long) days surrounded by people whose mission it was to be better. One of Atlassian's commitments this year is for their tools to save every developer 15 minutes a day. It was fun to spend time thinking, arguing, brainstorming about how to change tools and processes to squeeze out an incremental amount of productivity. And then I went back to work. where the focus is (as it should be) on the short term deliverable. I suspect I'm not alone in this regard and wonder how people recharge their batteries.

Some years back I visited The Orchard tea room in Cambridge, England. This humble tea room hosted Virginia Wolf, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others. Its as if Edward Tufte, Richard Feynman and Claude Shannon hung out together at the local Starbucks. Imagine sitting at the next table from that gathering every week! Without putting myself in such company I wondered if such places existed today where motivated people could gather and discuss their craft.

Our conferences and User Group meetings try fill this role but to a very limited degree. Its tough to have an in depth discussion at a 15,000 person, $5000 JavaOne for example. User Space conferences may be better for this but they're still discrete events rather than something ongoing. I started wondering about other models such as the JavaPosse. That's a group of four friends who meet once a week or so and basically spend an hour discussing whatever they find interesting. While the Apple bashing/praising they engage in has gotten a bit tiring it’s still a very interesting model. The parts that stand out for me are:

- its a regular meeting rather than an occasional event
- it happens (mostly) in person. The four members actually sit together and talk
- it's outside the work venue and not paid for by my employer so I'm not obligated to focus on near term problems/solutions

I've decided to start a similar group myself, not with the intention of podcasting it but simply to spend some regular time talking with smart people about the craft. We currently have three members and are carefully thinking about a couple more people. We're also trying to determine what kind of meeting place we should have.

I wonder if anyone else has tried something like this or if anyone has other ideas for on-going mental stimulation?