Web Directions South 2014

My first conference back in Australia was Web Directions South 2014. Major tech conferences are surprisingly thin on the ground in Australia, and most tend to be fairly general. Web Directions South caters to the web development and design community, and attracted a mix of product and tech types from the more prominent agencies and local tech houses such as Atlassian and Campaign Monitor.

I won’t trawl through every session here — I would only be covering the same ground as other fellow bloggers barryvan, Ricky Onsman and Ben Buchanan. Check the wrap up at the bottom for the TLDR.

Personal highlights:

Matt Webb: Interconnected (Keynote)

Matt Webb is co-founder of Berg, design studio turned Internet of Things tech startup. No surprise then that the main gist of his keynote was the interconnected society — a “soul” forming amongst our everyday objects. Or more likely the fact that we are humanising technology and objects around us. His main prop was a stuffed dog at the train station which had seemingly begun tweeting.

Perhaps the main point was about the new role of the internet, and the leveling of the playing field in regards to the information that society is built upon — egalitarianism in other words. “The network is the new electricity” he declared.

Intentional or not, Matt also set the tone by reflecting on the sci-fi predictions of the 1960s, and where had ended up. He would not be the last to bring up 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Bill Scott — Lean Engineering

Bill’s talk was the perfect template of what we wanted to hear from all the presenters. He outlined his own journey and spoke about all the real-life challenges, successes and failures along the way.

Unfortunately the majority of speakers were very sparse on specific examples which made their talks feel very much like university lectures. We didn’t know it at the time (as Bill was the second speaker), but he was a breath of fresh air.

He previously worked at Netflix (an example of a ‘lean’ new-age organisation), and is now transforming Paypal (a slow moving dinosaur). He spoke of what it has taken to get Paypal to be more lean and agile. His achievements were impressive.

His analogy of organisations containing antibodies, that resist change, and ways in which you could insert new DNA to initiate change was great. He identified that PayPal had all the characteristics that were anti-agile, describing all of the anti patterns in the typical enterprises:

Also a big evangelist of Node.js in the enterprise, he described how it lends itself to quick prototyping, failing quickly, and encouraging flexibility and change — all the things he claims the existing Java code base was reinforcing.

Emily Nakashima — The operable front end

The next talk was from Emily Nakashima from GitHub. She raised some eyebrows by identifying herself as a ‘frontend-ops’ engineer — not a common or well known title, however what she had to say was very compelling.

She identified the typical development team as being totally unconcerned about what happens after “dev-done”. Rather we need to be adding in operability, automation, and monitoring to everything — even on the front end.

She continued to demonstrate some of the tooling available (New Relic, Errorception, Raygun, lognormal, Google Analytics, Circonus, Nagios) as well as the internal GitHub monitoring tools for their front end.

There were a variety of approaches, but most involved instrumenting the Javascript with calls to APIs, which can have a performance impact, so finding a balance is vital. She said this fills a hole that tests can’t fill, and makes support so much more effective.

This was a light bulb moment for me personally as none of the properly large scale apps I’ve worked on have featured such monitoring from the client side, other than simple logging. Something I’ll be pushing for next time around.

Paul Theriault — An introduction to the WebCrypto API

This session caught my attention simply because it’s a topic that has been completely off my radar. Crytography and frankly anything to do with security simply is not the domain of the browser — until now, perhaps.

Paul introduces us to the new Web Cryptography API which enables solid client-side cryptography which he claims is all the more important “especially in a post-Snowden era”.

Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Jake Archibald — ‘Appy times with Service Workers

Yet another fresh API spearheaded by the Chrome team is Service Workers which picks up where AppCache failed.

Basically it’s a platform for bringing native-like features to the web such as offline, background syncing, push notifications, and local cache. Very cool in so many different ways.

Jake’s talk was the first I had heard of the API, and it was certainly eye opening, and I’ve been evangelising it since. However everytime I mention it to a fellow front end developer I am met with a blank stare. Perhaps it’s just too new, or maybe it’s not being evangelised enough. Do I hope it’s not another API that never takes off.

Wrap up

I’m not a conference veteran, but I was keen to sample the local scene. For my first major conf in Australia it was a decent introduction. I would have liked to see some more local speakers talking about local experiences, but maybe that’s just because I’ve spent so long overseas.

Organisation was ok, the food and coffee was great. But more importantly it was lacking in a couple of areas. Firstly the opportunities to mingle and network were very limited. The lanyards had everyone’s company printed in incredibly tiny text which could not be read without a magnifying glass. This meant you couldn’t just sidle up to someone opening with some line about their company without attempting an awkward eavesdrop before hand. On top of that the seating was sparsely arranged in tables each with four seats. Individuals killing time on their laptops, and groups who obviously worked together was pretty much the scene.

The videos for all or most of the sessions were promised to be available, but to this date seem to be MIA on YouTube and on the Web Directions website. All the organisational effort shouldn’t just cease as soon as everyone leaves the auditorium. When you return to the website 6 months later, and it’s still advertising a conference that is ancient history, it reeks of laziness.

I do hope the Sydney conference scene becomes a bit more competitive. Web Directions has been around for years and it feels a little bit dated now. An incumbent ripe for disruption, maybe?

Originally published at www.raycashmore.com on December 4, 2014.

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