The ALT.NET Open Space Conference in Austin has come to a close. It was a fantastic experience. I had an opportunity to connect with many people whose books I have read and tools I use. Thanks to everyone who came for sharing their time and knowledge. Given that I’m used to wearing the presenter hat, it was a refreshing change to attend a conference where the purpose was to discuss and question our core tenets. Which brings me to…

What is ALT.NET? This continues to be a hotly debated topic – before, during, and after the conference. My own take… ALT.NET is about considering alternatives, it is not about being alternative. It is about taking the best frameworks and tools from Microsoft, third-parties, and the open source community to build an application that is maintainable. It is not about being anti-Microsoft. Scott Hanselman suggested that Pragmatic.NET might have been a better name. I would tend to agree. At heart, everyone there was a pragmatic developer. (If you have not read The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas, you really should.) It’s about thinking outside the Microsoft MSDN canon when building software.

What I find truly amusing is that, as far as I can tell, Microsoft has not attempted to create a canon. The collective knowledge has been created by regular people like us and people are fallible. Ideas that seem good at first may not stand the test of time. (DataSets/DataAdapters are a great example of an idea that in hindsight isn’t such a great one.) Microsoft is very open to better ways of developing software, as evidenced by the fact that many Microsoft employees attended. What many perceive as hostility to the community is more often disconnection from the community. But the honest truth is that they want to engage with us. I had great conversations with Simon Guest (Architecture Strategy Team), Howard Dierking (Editor in Chief of MSDN Magazine), Scott Guthrie (DevDiv), Peter Provost (P&P Team) Scott Hanselman (newest member of the Borg), and many other ‘softies about the values of the ALT.NET community and how Microsoft technologies support or hinder the development of maintainable software. (My intended purpose isn’t name dropping, but to show you, dear reader, that it’s the movers-and-shakers in Microsoft who are interested in providing a better development experience. These are the people who shape the platform and its documentation.)

Some people, who didn’t attend, have claimed that the conference was cliquey; that it was a venue for like-minded developers to say, “I do TDD.” and another developer to say, “Hey, cool. I do TDD too. You’re awesome.” On the contrary, the purpose was to foster better understanding of new techniques, such as BDD, specifications, domain-specific languages, FIT, etc. The conversations all started with a mutual understanding of what we were trying to achieve – more maintainable software supported by appropriate test artifacts.

For example, there was a lot of discussion around specification languages (like NBehave) were valuable compared with a written story on an index card. A written story is approachable by a non-technical business stakeholder and can elicit a discussion that might not otherwise happen. A specification written in C# (or Ruby) sitting in a source control system is not approachable by the non-technical business stakeholder. The answer is it depends on the individuals involved in the project. Each technique causes friction and your choice depends on which type of friction results in less project risk.

Another topic that has been widely reported is Scott Guthrie’s first public demonstration of the new ASP.NET MVC Framework. There were some pleasant surprises, including:

  • Microsoft’s commitment to testability. Controllers interact with the ASP.NET pipeline through IHttpRequest/Response rather than HttpRequest/Response. That little “I” allows us to mock out the dependency on the HTTP pipeline and run controller tests without all the ASP.NET hosting infrastructure. (ScottGu is looking to port those interfaces back into ASP.NET WebForms too.)
  • Microsoft will provide easy integration with a variety of other frameworks. For instance, if you want to mock a dependency, you can use Rhino Mocks, NMock, or TypeMock. If you want to use an inversion of control (IoC) container, Microsoft will allow you to bolt in Castle Windsor, Spring.NET, StructureMap, or ObjectBuilder. The team is even planning on providing templates for these open source frameworks. Microsoft is working with the community rather than trying to compete against it.
  • ScottGu’s team is not trying to wedge MVC into the existing WebForms model. If you use MVC, you are opting out of viewstate, postbacks, and the dreaded ASP.NET Page lifecycle. This is a brave move to make. WebForms will still work as it always has, but if you choose MVC, you will use a new set of controls specifically designed for the MVC model.
  • The bi-directional routing engine looks awesome. It allows for very flexible and human-readable URLs. The use of lambdas to create URLs was very cool.
  • The default view engine is ASP.NET. So you get all the design-time, CSS, and Intellisense support, but without the complex ASP.NET Page lifecycle, as noted above. You can easily create typed view data to communicate between your controller and view. (In MonoRail, the controller and view communicate via an untyped property bag. So you don’t get Intellisense and refactoring support.)

Overall, the design of ASP.NET MVC looks a lot like Castle MonoRail and has aspects of Ruby on Rails and Django sprinkled in. I’m looking forward to watching this technology develop. Jeremy Miller echoes my sentiments when he says, “I’m more excited about an upcoming Microsoft technology than anything else since moving from VB6 to .Net.” If you know Jeremy, he’s a hard developer to impress. So that says a lot!

There was so much more. I’ll try to put my thoughts around other discussions in the coming days as I mentally digest everything that was discussed. I’ll leave you with some personal highlights:

  • I enjoyed finally meeting Jamie Cansdale (TestDriven.NET) and hearing that he and Microsoft had come to an amicable agreement over TestDriven.NET.
  • It was great to meet Jay Flowers and thank him for all his great work on CIFactory. I even convinced him to implement an option in CIFactory to flip from using the command-line, CCNet.exe, to the Windows Service, CCNetService.exe.
  • Rock climbing Saturday night with Scott Hanselman, Russell Ball, and others was a blast. I didn’t feel like “a monkey with fly paper gloves”, but it was still a lot of fun. Maybe I’ll take it up as a hobby… 
  • Talking to Martin Fowler over dinner about the challenges in parallel computing. He said, “Concurrency is a lot like a white fluffy bunny…” at which point he leapt up and down wildly yelling, “with fangs and a mean streak a mile wide!!!” (Fans of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail will understand the reference. If you don’t, go rent the movie right now.)