Software programmers learn new tricks at Pittsburgh's Coderetreat

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 5:38 p.m.

Software developers work to make their codes perfect, but the deadlines they work under often make that task difficult.

“It's very important to get it right, sometimes more than others. If your browser crashes, it's not a big deal. If your pacemaker crashes, it is,” said Joe Kramer, a software engineer for IBM.

Glitches in software have compromised military security and the privacy of bank and credit card data.

Kramer and Jim Hurne organized Pittsburgh's Coderetreat on Saturday, one of 160 such events held around the world to help programmers perfect their skills.

The first was in New Zealand, and the last will be in Hawaii. Other cities hosting retreats include Milan, Italy; Tokyo; Brisbane, Australia; New Delhi; Durban, South Africa; and Buenos Aires.

“Coderetreat is a day dedicated to hands-on development exercise,” said Hurne. “Practice is essential for musicians, athletes, artists and all other types of craftspeople to remain on the cutting edge of their game.”

Saturday's event was held at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute in Oakdale. About 60 engineers attended.

Developers came from companies such as IBM, Highmark and FedEx. There was also a handful of students.

“It's fun to come out and hang out with other geeks,” said Chris Geihsler, 31, a software engineer for Omnyx, a joint venture between General Electric and UPMC that is developing digital pathology.

Software exercises were based on a cellular automaton devised by the British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970.

Participants worked with a different person every hour at Coderetreat, which lasted for nine hours.

“It's always fascinating to work with people I haven't worked with before,” said Bruce Adams, also an IBM software engineer.

Software engineers used to mainly work alone. It's increasingly common for them to work in pairs, Adams said.

Hurne, also an IBM engineer, said the event highlights Pittsburgh as a center of software innovation.

“This is a big deal for Pittsburgh. It puts us on the map in terms of software,” he said.

The technology sector has been the driving force of economic growth in the Pittsburgh region for the past 30 years and especially the past 15 years, according to Jonathan Kersting, director of visibility initiatives for the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

“Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt are the two drivers of that,” he said.

In the 13-county region of Western Pennsylvania, there are 9,900 tech companies that employ 282,000 people, account for 26 percent of the area's employment and have an $18.2 billion payroll, according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Rick Wills is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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