My presentations at the MnSCU IT conference a couple weeks ago were mixed.

The Ruby on Rails talk did not go well. I decided to start with a demo to give some flavor of what Rails development is like and how very little code it takes to get up and running. I had trouble with the demo so ended up behind schedule and didn’t get to talk enough about what I really think is important. I like Rails well enough, but about a month ago I realized that I wasn’t all that interested in talking about it. To my mind, it’s a bit over the top to claim that it’s the future of web development, although its release did mark the emergence of energetic activity in the web app framework space that embraces DRY and convention over configuration. Less code. Rails is interesting and downright fun, but so are the similar frameworks that came out at about the same time: Django, TurboGears, Symfony, CakePHP… I wanted to focus not on Rails but on the ideas it represents, but I didn’t leave enough time. I had hoped, too, to talk about share nothing architectures and spend a little more time plugging dynamic languages. But it’s over, and that’s just fine. I don’t think I’ll be doing many live demos in the near future, and I might stay away from Big Idea talks — or at least structure them differently.

The Ajax presentation, which I did in collaboration with Dave Kruse, webmaster at South Central Technical College, was much better. Planning for it, Dave and I struggled with how to address the fact that the audience would have all sorts of skill levels ranging from knowing nothing about Ajax or even JavaScript, to understanding XMLHttpRequest at a really deep level. We opted to avoid lots of technical explanation and code examples. Instead of focusing on the technical, we talked more about the ways in which Ajax is changing how people experience web apps, what they expect from them, and how to ensure that using Ajax improves the user experience. Because that’s what it’s all about.

Would like to have had more handouts, but time got the better of me and flu got the better of Dave, so that didn’t happen.

During breakfast before the session, I threw together some code examples using Prototype, which I did end up showing since we had some time left. Also at breakfast, Dave worked on some Flash animation illustrating the difference between traditional web application interaction and Ajax-style asynchronous requests. He dismissed them as hopelessly cheesy, but despite the lack of polish I think they do a better job of visually representing Ajax at work than anything else I’ve seen. I’ll try to get Dave’s permission to post them here.

MP3s will be available at some point.

The best part of the conference was the conversation, connecting with my colleagues on the campuses. Face-to-face is a Good Thing. Getting to work with the amazingly talented people at our colleges and universities is one of my favorite aspects of my job.

The next best thing was the introduction of Al Essa, who started working with us a few weeks back as Associate Vice Chancellor / Deputy CIO, and from what I saw at the conference people are impressed. As they should be. I’m downright giddy about Al joining us. This Educause interview with him should make it clear why: he’s thoughtful, articulate, and apparently values many of the same things I do: open source, Web 2.0 (yeah, yeah), dynamic languages… Even in his first weeks here, sounding out the territory, I get the sense that he has Ideas.

And he blogs. Check. I’m pretty sure I ended up at his blog via Stephen O’Grady, which is another good sign.