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A Tale of Three Conferences

Conference season is upon us, and that means social media is awash with controversy. Conferences with eye-watering ticket prices but who don't pay their speakers. Conferences that stress how inclusive they are, hosted in an inaccessible venue with sexist jokes on the free t-shirts. Conferences that stretch over 5 days in glamorous locations, leading to accusations they're holidays in disguise for tech workers keen to avoid a few days of household chores with the excuse of 'it's for work'. Somewhere in the middle of all this, people will pipe up that conference speakers are just enhancing their CVs and 'should spend more time coding', and others will dismiss the whole thing as one big ol' marketing scam, more about stickers, social media and skiving than about personal development and improving technology.

This backlash was at odds with my own experience attending FFConf in Brighton in 2016. Even though I was not yet a developer, the talks were engaging and the passion of the speakers was infectious. I took a lot of lessons away on topics such as accessibility, modularity and the importance of ensuring the web works for everyone that I still endeavour to adhere to today.

Despite following the latest conference-related criticisms, I remain convinced that - done well - they are valuable, not just for experienced developers but for juniors as well.

I've been lucky enough to attend three so far this year and, though similar on the surface, each showed how the focus, curation and aims of the organisers can create a different experience each time.

Upfront Conf, Manchester

If you're fortunate enough to live near a city with a thriving tech scene, chances are you can start with a local conference and cut out any hefty travel costs. UpFront covered a range of topics that affect all web developers, such as accessibility and ethical design, as well as topics more centred around front-end development like design systems and an exploration of CSSGrid. I felt the most valuable talks were the ones exploring more general ideas - such as challenging ones' perceptions of a user's needs - and was a little less able to relate to ones that tackled something very unfamiliar and complex, though it's always going to be a challenge pitching talks at just the right level, especially when the conference is aimed at many sorts of developer.

React Amsterdam

If you're willing to travel further you could attend talks by some of the most prominent names in your field, attend a workshop from a renowned expert and meet representatives from a wide range of international companies. React Amsterdam had around 1500 developers in one place purely to discuss all that's new in the React ecosystem. Intensive 1-day workshops were also on offer, for an additional charge, on advanced React concepts such as Hooks, Portals, the Context API and other design patterns. The talks were exceptional - knowing that everyone was familiar with React, speakers could explore deeper topics knowing they wouldn't leave the audience behind, and some speakers put forth quite divisive viewpoints which would spark debate rather than keeping things simple and ensuring widespread agreement. All were adept at keeping points relevant but succinct. The conference organisers took the time to put on additional transport to the venue and arrange local tours for those who wished to make the most of their weekend.

ReactJSGirls, London

Organised by YLD off the back of their successful meet-up group, the conference featured an all-female panel and encouraged first-time speakers, hoping to increase the number of experienced speakers for future conferences. Attendees were split approximately 60% male, 40% female, by my very hazy scanning of the crowds, which was considerably more balanced than previous tech events. Talks were just 20 minutes, which at times was just a little too short - one would have to be an adept and experienced speaker to condense an idea into so short a time. Topics such as design systems and reusability patterns were covered, as well as some useful demos of tools like Storybook and Percy, which aid with reusable component design and visual integration testing. Live-subtitling was on offer, as was a quiet area.

How much!?

Many companies will have schemes to encourage staff training and development, so start there. Those from under-represented groups - these could be, but not limited to, gender, ethnicity, disability or socio-economic hardship - can apply, at some conferences, for diversity scholarships. Check individual conferences for more information. Also, many conferences now put the talk videos online for everyone to see, so bookmark the ones you're interested in and check a few days after it's over.

So why attend?

As a junior, especially one from a non-traditional background such as a bootcamp or being self-taught, it can be tough to find your voice when you're still learning and absorbing everything around you. But at a conference, everyone's keen to share ideas with one another. I spoke with both new and experienced developers about their current projects, about our tech stack and about theirs, about their workflow process. I agreed with some ideas and disagreed with others. I was able to challenge and question and not just absorb. Afterwards, I had a list of tools I wanted to come back to the office and try out, to see which would benefit our project.

Most of all, I felt part of a community, able to understand, question and make silly Twitter jokes about coding ideas and principles. Just as in 2016, the speakers' obvious enthusiasm and passion for coding was inspirational and it reminded me, as it always does when times get a bit tough, just why I love this line of work so much: the creativity, its ever-changing nature, the new challenges and people's willingness to try fresh approaches.

Top comments (1)

harri_etty profile image

Great article Sally! Jealous of you getting to attend React Amsterdam and ReactGirls.... both looked awesome and would have loved to attend. Been a while since I've been to a conference!