Culture

Five Things That Make A Difference At Tech Conferences

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A few weeks ago, I had a chance to take part in a local Polish frontend event. It was called FrontendConnect and was inspired by the idea of bringing different frontend developers together and bury the hatchet between users of different frontend frameworks such as Angular, React or Vue.js. I won’t analyse the event making comments on every presentation I visited. Neither will I complain there were not enough gluten-free snacks. I’d like to point out five things I’ve noticed as a growing trend in tech conference organisation.

Gloomy stage, dimmed light and smoke coming from overheated computers. The speaker is trying to hide behind the lectern in their carried sweater or flannel shirt. Their voice is low and flatter than a flat white. Except those by Apple and Google, that’s what tech conferences used to look like. At least, that’s why people not involved in tech perceived them as the doomed territory where nerds play their games. Luckily for tech, it’s changing fast even on local conferences such as FrontendConnect.

Workshops before the conference

The idea is to attract participants who want to learn something solid and are willing to pay for it. I find it a great way to promote the event, invite well-known trainers and leave participants with hands-on experience they would never gain simply listening to a 30-minute lecture. By giving participants the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge, conference organisers attract more advanced developers and facilitate knowledge sharing.

It’s a pattern I first saw at Angular Connect – an annual angular conference in London. Then, ngPolandfollowed presenting workshops on PWA, RxJS or Angular Material. They were so happy with the results, they decided to do it once more this year. FrontendConnect didn’t break out from the trend. The participants could choose between Modern Javascript or Angular Kickstart. Good for them.

Better speaking skills

I have to say (as a retired Toastmaster), it’s something I’m extremely happy about. Naturally, not every developer and not even every conference speaker is a showman. Still, though they cover complicated and very technical topics, they need to be good communicators. Tech speakers started to use a lot of techniques recommended by speaking mentors. Let me mention some of them.

Storytelling

At Frontend Connect, for example, Martin Sonnenholzer known as @chaos_monster started his presentation with something very far from chaotic.

“Today I had to decide what to wear. How did I do it? With 12574 days of experience.”

That’s a brilliant way to show how our daily experience shapes our future choices.

To present the ways machines learn, Martin used an example everyone is familiar with. Couldn’t be simpler. The story was coming back in the presentation as a consistent background for explaining decision trees and neural networks. Nicely done.

Vulnerability and failures

In his tech about security, Asim Hussain, on the other hand, shares a few personal fuckups. It built a solid rapport between him and the audience. We all make mistakes after all, even though, let’s admit, we’re uncomfortable talking about them at loud. By exposing his past naiveness, Asim achieved much more. He screwed in his message deep in my brain. What I learned was that hackers don’t have to look like Mr Robot. They can be primary school pupils if we’re careless enough to invite them to our code.

Rhetoric questions

Lea Veroux and CSS variables. As far as I’ve written a few web pages and know what CSS is, Lea enchanted me with the awareness of how to lead the audience through her presentation.

“At this point you might be thinking of the use cases of CSS variables.”

She was right – I was thinking of the use cases.

“It should work, right? It doesn’t. I’ll tell you why.”

She answered a lot of questions before they were asked. Using such technique, Lea made sure her audience did not derail their thoughts from CSS variables even for a moment. Hats off, Lea. One could see you were a seasoned speaker.

Pro bono incentives

The third noticeable change, a change maker actually. A conference is a great way to meet people interested in the topic, talk to more advanced developers or project leaders. But what if you only want to start? Is it still a place for you? More and more organisers make effort to reach out to beginners with a pro bono incentive such as a free Angular workshop for women.

Shmuela Jacobs, a freelancer from Israel, has started doing this last year. The demand was so high she organised over 10 ngGirls events last year. Most of them were a part of frontend conferences, each time gathering tens of women work in small groups with mentors and code for a day. Some of those women joined the conference as well. The idea is so appealing to me that after having interviewed Shmuela, we’ve decided on having a stand-alone ngGirls event in Poznan.

Engaging communities

Tech communities are a driver for popularisation of new technologies. Almost in every city of 50000+ citizens, one is able to find at least one voluntary group that meets on regular basis and discusses technologies. In Poznan, where I come from there are more than 50 different meetup groups. You can join them easily on Meetup.com, the biggest meet up platform in the world.

The great thing about the communities is that they consist of people who are extremely tech driven and open to sharing knowledge. As long as sharing it with hundreds of people may seem scary, most communities are run by engineers who speak in public on regular basis. Frontend Connect used the power of communities twofold – to share promo codes and discounts, and to invite community leaders to give a tech talk at the conference. I have to say it worked really well as most of the speakers were involved in at least one community, often as an organiser but most of all, as technology enthusiasts.

Roundtables

My favourite. It was the first time I saw a roundtable session at a conference.

The idea is simple:

  1. Create a space to discuss certain technology in a group interested in it.
  2. Have a conference speaker moderate the discussion at a table about the area of their expertise.
  3. Put a nice logo of the technology/topic on each table to have people easily decide whether they want to discuss React, Ionic, Vue, CSS, visuals or project management.
  4. Let the magic happen.

I would never imagine that the roundtables can be so popular. A 30-minute session seemed to be not enough as the engagement in the discussions was enormous. One thing to keep in mind – if there’s no one at a table, no one would approach. Better make fewer tables but have people circulate from one to the other than make an impression that no one cares about particular technologies or causes.

Summary

Taking part in FrontendConnect opened my eyes to amazing things happening in tech communities. Finally, tech conferences become not only content driven but also community driven. You can meet fantastic people at roundtable sessions, take part in advanced workshops, listen to breathtaking stories and narratives and finally, be a part of a community incentive such as ngGirls.

I’m thankful to Emilia who was in charge of FrontendConnect for bringing so many ideas to a single event. It does make the future of tech conferences brighter.

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