What sets a conference apart?

By Amanda Wallin, front-end developer at North Kingdom

What do you think about when you hear the word “conference” and how do you prepare to go for one, especially when overseas? In my case, I always approach it with a mixture of eager expectation and a slight uneasiness. How can I make the most out of it when there is so much to see, hear and do? And how can I translate the inspiration into the context of my daily work? After recently coming back from the Smashing Conference in San Francisco, I can definitely say that I shouldn’t have worried and that it was a great experience!

Let’s take a walk through some of the highlights.

Photo: Marc Thiele

Work in progress (rather than polished end-results)

In most of the conferences I have attended before, I have been impressed by the high quality of the presented work, but at the same time wondered how the process looked before the finalized version.

The speakers at Smashing Conference though took an alternative approach to their presentations. They could have easily taken the well-paved route of showing slides of perfected work, but instead, they shared their work-in-progress via live interactive sessions. They showed setups, shortcuts, debugging and redesigning — all live, and with incredibly inclusive mindset along the way.

Photo: Marc Thiele

As a front-end developer, this was infinitely more useful for me to transfer real tricks and shortcuts to my actual work, but also from a confidence standpoint. Instead of the worry of not being able to achieve the same level of result I felt before, I am left with a more empowered and collaborative attitude towards excellence in the industry.

Inclusiveness for actual change

As a female developer, I hear a lot of discussions about inclusiveness within tech before. Granted, there have been a few recent good examples such as Code2040 and Gap Jumpers, but also less successful ones.

Once again, this is where SmashingConf strength laid, and what really sets them apart from other industry festivals. The handbook and a code of conduct aren’t just fancy words, it’s something the speakers have continuously invoked during the event, and a topic encouraged in conversations all-year round.

Celebrating & nourishing creativity

Guest speaker Brendan Dawes, the Kim Kardashian of data visualization, is the man behind great projects such as The Happiness Machine, The Art of Cybersecurity and Doris Le Bot.

During SmashingConf, Dawes talked about creating environments for others to play within. Only by opening your work to being critiqued by others can we create a meaningful conversation and creative processes able to, as Brendan Dawes points out, “narrow down a broad idea into something singular.”

He also challenged everyone attending to “do stuff you don’t know how to do” and to “find new ways to accomplish the task.” How can you set yourself out of your comfort zone, experience new process and keep on developing and evolving as a professional? This is a question I’m bringing back with me into my daily working life.

Brendan Dawes. Photo: Marc Thiele

Probably, these last points resonated best with me because North Kingdom, the company I work for, shared similar intentions in the New Year’s Resolutions article. In it, they talk about “sharing more mistakes” and “explore creative play.”

It’s no puzzle, black magic or ancient secret that, for us to reach a more inclusive and diverse tech community, have to incorporate sharing the unfinished work and the untamed creativity throughout the whole process. Opening up for feedback also opens up for strengthening your abilities, the team, and the work. In the end, it further nurtures a culture of continuous learning and cross-collaboration.

Sara Soueidan. Photo: Marc Thiele

To sum it up

It’s hard putting into exact words what SmashingConf does differently than other events. Sure, it’s in the small details such as having period-kits in the bathrooms, collaborative notes and a great gender balance in the audience and on stage. Maybe it’s Vitaly Friedman and Sara Soueidans, among other speakers, warm and inclusive approach. Above all, it’s a mindset that resonates within the SmashingConf walls and can be hard to find within tech. I feel empowered by finding myself in a unique community that looks at the work-in-progress rather than the end result. I’m no longer in the audience, fed with perfected inspiration, but rather as a part of a collective team of education.

There is real beauty in the creative, unfinished work. Allow for mistakes to happen; otherwise, you won’t develop yourself or the team in the process. By sharing, encouraging and acting inclusively, we also create a shared toolbox with the essentials and power of action to develop further.

That is precisely what SmashingConf did.

Thank you.

Photo: Marc Thiele