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CFDJ: Article

Lots to Learn at CFUN 2004

So many great sessions, it was difficult to choose

CFUN is the national ColdFusion and Web programming conference that Rockville, Maryland-based IT firm TeraTech (www.teratech.com) hosts each June in the DC area. CFUN (www.cfconf.org/cfun-04/) stands for ColdFusion User Network, and based on my trip to CFUN-04 there were plenty of people learning, networking, and having fun doing it!

CFUN Day Zero and Some Helium
While the conference proper didn't start until June 26, I flew in a day early to catch up with some of the other speakers at the MMUG manager meeting day and the speaker dinner. I spent a lot of the day talking to Matt Liotta about He3 - his company's new ColdFusion editor, based on Eclipse, that debuted in beta form at CFUN. The CFUN "party pack" contained the He3 beta on CD along with many other goodies. So what does He3 offer? A color-coding ColdFusion editor with tag completion - a little rough round the edges but with great things promised - and built-in Regex and XPath panels that let you build and test your regular expressions and XML queries in "real time" using arbitrary snippets of text and XML (highlighting matches as you type). He3 also recognizes Mach II applications and provides an intelligent XML editor for the mach-ii.xml configuration file, showing both a source view and a tabular view of each of the sections of the file, with the ability to add and delete entries using the table view - very useful for building out the skeleton of the application. I haven't tested it yet but I understand He3 also supports Fusebox 4 and has a similarly intelligent editor for FB4 XML files.

Based on Eclipse, He3 has a variety of cool editing tricks up its sleeve, including auto-updates from RichPalette's Web site (so you'll get new features as they're made available), "quick diff" against all previously saved versions of a file (very useful to keep track of what you've been doing to a file!), integration with CVS, and so on.

Other than He3, I caught the tail end of the Macromedia User Group Managers' sessions with Ed Sullivan talking about the history and future of MMUGs, which was interesting. That was followed by the speakers' dinner at a Brazilian BBQ restaurant (where I spent more time chatting with Matt) and then the obligatory evening in the bar discussing everything CF-related. This tailed off into sessions in various rooms, with more beer, talking about Mach II, and then a late-night bitch-fest about the good, the bad, and the ugly in ColdFusion and the developer community.

Change of Plans
I was planning to start the day with more Matt Liotta (his "Utilizing Web Services" session), followed by Ray Camden's "CFC Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks," then, after lunch, Hal Helms' BOF on methodologies, Michael Smith (standing in for Shlomy Gantz) on "Managing CF Projects," Simon Horwith on evolving from a scripter to an architect, April Fleming's "XSLT for Data Manipulation," and finally, the CFDJ panel that included Macromedia's Tim Buntel. At least that was my plan... .

 

The Keynote - Stephen Shapiro of 24/7
This was kind of fun but not CF-specific. A creativity guru, Stephen Shapiro talked about some techniques for generating new solutions to problems and how to think outside the box. I'd like to have heard more about his forthcoming book, Goal-Free Living - Passion-Filled Life, but I guess that will have to wait for another time.

By the time I got to Matt Liotta's talk on Web services, it was completely full so I hung out and chatted with folks in the hallway. Next up was Ray Camden's session about best practices for using CFCs. He had a lot of technical problems with the projector, which unfortunately cut short his talk somewhat, but he went through some good basic tips for folks coming to CFCs. Personally I had hoped for a bit more technical depth but I think it was appropriate for the audience overall. And Ray more than maintained his sense of humor through the traumas of the projector problems!

BOF Lunch and XSLT
Lunchtime meant a Birds Of a Feather session with Hal Helms, Ben Edwards, Jeffrey Houser, Joseph Flannigan - and me (co-opted by Hal). We talked about the good and the bad in frameworks and methodologies. It was an interesting and lively discussion but hard to summarize any particular sentiment from the group as a whole. After lunch, Michael Smith ran Shlomy's session on managing CF projects. The Standish Group was quoted as saying that the key factors in successful projects are: user involvement, executive management support, and a clear statement of requirements. These three factors accounted for 50% of the influences!

The final session of the day was April Fleming on using XSLT for data transformation. I've never used XSLT so it was a good introduction for me. She showed code using an MS-specific XML parser (a COM object), which made the examples look more complex than they needed to be - she'd done that so the code would run on CF5 as well as CFMX (but wouldn't run on non-Windows platforms!). Her primary example was cool though, taking a single XML packet and transforming it into both HTML for display and SQL to create and populate database tables. This certainly showed the power of XSLT!

CFDJ Panel and CF Chat
Then it was time for the CFDJ Panel (chaired by Jeff Peters since Robert Diamond was delayed). Charlie Arehart (New Atlanta), Tim Buntel (Macromedia), Michael Smith (TeraTech), Simon Horwith, and Hal Helms took questions from the floor. Tim said that Macromedia is looking to raise the profile of CFCs, and drive more folks to use them, by making them more accessible to beginners (e.g., through Dreamweaver behaviors that produce clean code with logic in CFCs, separated from presentation code). I would have liked to see the panel go on much longer but all good things come to an end. Stan Cox made a traditional appearance, muttering about problems with his <blink> tag but was, mercifully, removed by security before he could disrupt the panel too much!

 

After the panel, Michael ran a ColdFusion version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire but I retired to my room with Chris Philips to look at a problem he was having with SES URLs. Then it was time for the networking social event in the hotel's nightclub. A brief visit to Hal's and Ben's suite (where a poker tournament seemed to be in full swing) was followed by a fairly brief visit to the bar, followed by a not-so-brief visit to Steve Nelson's and Rey Muradaz's rooms to be entertained by Bogdan Ripa's beer bottle-opening talents (how to be creative in the absence of a proper bottle opener). Bogdan and his Interaktcrew were visiting from Romania to promote their sophisticated suite of Dreamweaver MX extensions!

Reaching Mach II
On day 2, I had planned to attend two accessibility talks first thing, but lack of sleep got the better of me and I had to skip them, catching another two hours of much needed rest so that I could function during the rest of the day. Apologies to John Hamman and Larry Hull for missing their talks. Before my talk, I met with Daniel Dougherty, who'd been picked to interview me for five minutes, and he had some great questions. I believe TeraTech will post the various attendee/speaker interviews at some point so I'll keep y'all in suspense!

Then it was time for my Mach II talk. This is the ColdFusion OO methodology, not twice the speed of sound! A good percentage of folks in the audience were on CFMX 6.1 and were already using either Fusebox or Mach II so that was quite a change from some of my gigs. The presentation seemed to go over well and there were some good questions from the floor - thanks to everyone who attended (and special thanks to those folks who gave me good evaluations - I got a bottle of wine at the wrap-up session for tying as "best speaker" with Charlie Arehart from New Atlanta! I'm honored!)

Tools BOF and Blackstone Secrets
Sunday lunchtime saw a new Birds Of a Feather session added, for IDE and tool support for frameworks, led by Matt Liotta. He demo'd some of He3's support for Mach II (table-based editing of the XML file). I showed a utility that renders Mach II's event handlers as hyperlinked pages (so you can click on filter, listener, view, and event names and jump to their definitions; I haven't made this public yet!). Jeff Peters showed a couple of tools relating to Fusebox (MindMapper and FuseMinder) and then Steve Nelson showed his test harness generation tools. The aim was to raise awareness and to get feedback about what sort of tools people wanted. One thing that wasn't demo'd but seemed to generate interest was Dave Ross's tool for converting XMI (the XML output from several UML modeling tools) to CFCs.

Next up was Ben Forta's keynote on Blackstone! He raced through some of the things he's been showing at CFUG presentations (Flash forms, PDF generation, report generation, sourceless deployment and EAR/WAR file packaging) and then gave a CFUN exclusive sneak peak: the event gateway! This is probably the most exciting and radical addition ever to ColdFusion: by writing a small amount of Java, it allows you to connect pretty much anything to ColdFusion and have external, asynchronous events trigger method calls on a CFC. The example Ben showed was an agent that watched a folder for new, changed, or deleted files and automatically called the appropriate method on a CFC to populate/update a database based on the contents of the file. While this generated a lot of "ooohs" from the audience, I suspect that the real impact of this feature will take awhile to sink in - it opens up a whole new field of use for ColdFusion since this lets it process requests that are not Web-based.

 

The Final Lap
One of the great things about CFUN for me was the wealth of really good sessions. For every single session slot, there were actually two sessions I wanted to attend (sometimes three!). Of course, the downside is that you just can't get to see everything. (Apparently CFUN-05 will repeat popular sessions). I'd already had to make several hard choices and, following the keynote, I had to make another one. I decided to go hear Jeff Peters talk about "Fusebox 4 in 40 or Fewer" (instead of David Epler's session about HTML markup for accessibility, which was my other choice). Sorry David. Jeff went through the entire life cycle process he uses, starting with wireframing and prototyping, followed by fuse analysis and circuit architecture, and finally code generation, all supported by tools. Because Ben's talk ran over (understandable!), Jeff's session was a bit compressed but, although he clearly felt the time pressure, he managed to cover everything in a fairly comprehensive manner. It was very interesting to see someone else's process, especially one so different from mine.

 

The final session I went to was Sandra Clark's on "Accessible Web Forms." She started out by demo'ing a screen reader trying to read a fairly typical Web form. The result was incomprehensible! Then she went through a long list of stuff you can do to help make forms more accessible (using fieldset, legend, label, etc.) as well as what not to do. (Don't use accesskey - it conflicts with screen readers' keyboard shortcuts and they don't provide a "reset" button on the form). She got into a lot of depth and it made me realize what a complex subject this is, but I sure learned a lot from her!

 

There was a final general session with prizes and thank-yous and then folks began to drift off toward home. I spent most of the evening in the bar with Michael, Sandra, the guys from Interakt, Nate Nelson, and many others, discussing everything CF-related (and many things that weren't). And then goodbyes... until next time! All in all, it was a terrific conference with some awesome material. I enjoyed myself immensely, especially talking to so many CFers! I also learned a bunch of stuff (especially from April's "XSLT for Data Manipulation" talk and Sandra's "Accessible Web Forms" talk!). Sandra got a well-deserved "second," behind Charlie and me - she really is a very good speaker and loves her subject matter! See y'all at CFUN-05?

More Stories By Sean Corfield

Sean Corfield is Chief Systems Architect at Broadchoice, Inc. He is a staunch advocate of software standards and best practices. You can reach him at www.corfield.org.

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