Last week I had the fortune of being at the JISC Developer Happiness Days, or Dev8D. I’d like to write a little about what went on there, and why events like it are important.

The format of the event is somewhat unconventional, and therefore quite hard to justify. A large number of developers, not necessarily with any previous affiliation, are brought together for 4 days to work on whatever they feel like. There’s no real schedule, just a few pre-planned events which are constantly subject to change. No-one’s obliged to take part in any of the sessions. And it’s free, which means someone other than the developers’ employers have to stump up a not unsubstantial amount of cash. And it’s during the week, so their employers are still paying them.

The event is described as “4 days of 100% pure software developer heaven,” and that’s right on the money. There’s unlimited tea, coffee, snacks, electricity and dodgy WiFi. There’s everyone from gurus to newbies, and most people are both in one respect or another. Any developer in this environment is going to be happy, but to justify its expenditure the event has to provide more than just smiles.

The first argument in support of the event can be taken straight from The Simpsons. There’s an episode where Homer gets promoted to an executive position after growing hair with a baldness cure, and he tells Mr. Burns that there’s not enough tartar sauce in the cafeterias at lunch time. After more explanation, Mr. Burns realises that a “happy worker is a busy worker,” and by the gods he’s right. While I was at Dev8D I achieved more in a day than I sometimes achieve in a week in my office (where I’m the only full time developer). We learned programming languages, we built applications, we designed algorithms, we gave talks, and all for fun! You can see that happiness can be an end in itself, because happiness provides motivation.

Another clear justification is looking at what he developer community produced during just 4 days. Everyone was encouraged to documents their doings on the wiki, and the list is as long as the printout of MPs expenses receipts that was produced on the Friday. A few developers including myself produced a set of web widgets to integrate with VLEs that I’ll describe more in another post. People found new uses for existing public APIs. The Arduino workshops produced a storm of ideas for new electronic devices.

Finally, one of the most powerful outcomes from Dev8D is the community it builds. Bringing together like minded people in a situation where they aren’t under pressure to see talks and report back to their bosses, but instead have the chance to meet each other and find out what makes each other tick promotes some of the strongest professional and social connections you’re likely to find. The whole point of Dev8D is to bring the “chat in the pub” part of the conference (which, in all honesty, is where a lot of the best ideas and connections are made) to the fore, and it truly succeeds.

Here’s to Dev8D 2011!