Reflections From React Conf 2019
This is an abbreviated conversation between Kat (@katsolberg) and Jess about their experience of React Conf 2019. We’ve shared our thoughts and observations on our first major tech conference as two women fairly new to the industry and touch on topics such as diversity, community, our favourite talks, and what we’d like to share with our teams.
Our story began two and a half years ago when we decided to change careers and met each other while learning how to code. Two years (and a job) later, we now get to call each other co-workers and share this part of our developer journey at Bench. Edited for brevity, clarity and laughs. Enjoy!
Here we are at React Conf 2019. Kat on the left, Jess on the right.
Kat: So I remember about six months ago you came to me and said, “hey, a bunch of us are going to try to go to this React conference, you should definitely look into it.” We weren’t working together yet and I was like “okay, I’ll see if my company is into it. I don’t think they will be but you know, have fun at your conference…”
But then I ended up at Bench too and you brought it up again. I hadn’t heard anyone else mention the React conference before so where did you hear about it? Why did you want to go so much?
Jess: It came from a couch conversation with Rowan (a fellow Benchmate). We were talking about learning opportunities and somehow came to googling conferences. We noticed the GraphQL conference and the React conference were back to back and we were like we’re working with React and GraphQL — we should go to a CONFERENCE and got super pumped about it. We put it out to the wider team and got lots of excitement.
Kat: I think it’s amazing that we have that education budget and it is generous enough that you can actually go do things with it, not just occasionally take a course. You can go places, meet people and expand your knowledge as much as you can and report back.
Jess: And then what happened was I applied for the diversity and inclusion scholarship which I got a free ticket from — thank you React Conf 🙏- and also applied through the lottery — which I also got! I was the only one who won the lottery so I picked you.
Kat: Yeah, I couldn’t believe that you were genuinely the only one who won the lottery cause 4 or 5 of us had entered it so when you said that you also had gotten the lottery I was like of course you did!
Jess: It was interesting because everyone we met also won the lottery and we met people from Norway, Russia -
Kat: Brazil, the US (and more!). I actually really like the lottery system for that, you know, in that there actually was way more diversity than I was expecting but I can’t help but wonder if it was rigged a bit.
…Or if the community is actually that diverse and a random sampling is always going to reflect that diversity.
Kat: There were more minorities than I was expecting. Definitely more POC, not as many women as I wanted but more than I was expecting.
But man, the speaker panel, you could tell that they wanted to make it as diverse as possible. I went back and counted and half the speakers were women.
Jess: Yeah — I loved that they showcased female technical leadership. It felt attainable — like if they are doing it, I can do it.
And then speaking to Jenn [Creighton], who did the talk on React is fiction -
Kat: I loved her talk.
Jess: The fact that she was a writer before, she did a creative writing degree… was super relatable! From her talk, she’s clearly been a developer for a long time and has lots of experience.
Kat: There was also that one woman who was talking about the food waste app [Tania Papazafeiropoulou], she was running their team, the woman who spoke from AirBNB [Maja Wichrowska] was definitely higher up in the ranks… it’s really gratifying, especially because in Vancouver it can feel like there’s so few women in leadership positions. To see these big companies like this have women, integral to the team, was so amazing to see.
Jess: A lot of highly technical women. Definitely exciting to see.
At the tables we found these booklets filled with relatable stories and advice from women who work on React.
Kat: I went in with, not with low expectations, but I was a little apprehensive. Especially post Me Too, you do hear about Silicon Valley and what happens when you get them all together in one place. That’s one reason I was really happy I was going with you, I was like “I’m not alone, we have a room, I can go hide. I’m not stuck in the middle of the desert.” Because we were in the middle of the desert.
I was very pleasantly surprised. Everyone I met was really nice, really open to conversations. I enjoyed being able to talk to anybody about the work that I do. I’m so used to having to really generalize because people don’t understand the jargon. Even within companies, not everyone works on what you do — they’re on different parts of the stack or the app — so it was just really cool that no matter who you talk to, they know React, they know state management, GraphQL. I could talk to anyone. It was just like what are you working on? How do you do these things?
It was one of the first times I was able to nerd out like that in a safe, fun environment.
Jess: I thought the environment was really conducive to getting to know other people. Often we would sit down at a table, eating food, and people would rotate sitting down and chatting with us. It was so easy to make conversation and people were really friendly. It was such a nice community to be a part of.
I also thought the production was well done — high quality… I loved the flashy transitions between each talk. They needed to figure out their tech support though, there were many issues with trying to get the clicker working…
Transitions between each talk had new vibrant, playful visuals. Here, you can also see tech support on stage.
Kat: That was hilarious, let’s watch a bunch of developers not know how to make a slide show work.
Jess: But the quality of the slide decks? Amazing. Each speaker was so prepared.
Kat: It was TedTalk levels of professionalism that I just wasn’t expecting.
Jess: I really appreciated that. It was also so nice to be able to sit outside and watch the talks from the balcony… we watched the lightning talks outside, enjoying the hot sun after coming from rainy Vancouver. The space was fantastic. Overall, the conference organizers did a great job!
Kat: I think the epitome of the conference can be summarized in the fact that during one of the breaks, I wanted to go back to the room just for half an hour by myself. I was overwhelmed by all the socializing. I was like ‘I’ll find you when I come back’ and when I did, you were talking with people from the core React team, you were getting a tour of who’s who in the React world and I was like oh my god, how long was I gone??
Jess: We made friends with another developer named Anna, and she and I went on a mission to meet other people. We ended up meeting a React Native manager named Zack and bonding over D&D — he showed us his recently purchased $200 dice set, and we nerded out about our characters.
Then somehow it led to Zack saying “so you want to meet some other people?” That’s when the tour began.
I got to chat with some of the conference speakers, contributors to the open source community, and many React and React Native core team members. Everyone was so friendly and chill. I left with more of an appreciation for the tools we use after meeting people who work on them. They seemed to really care about the developer experience.
Here’s us on Thursday night making new friends.
Jess: Ooh. I enjoyed the walk through history in Lee Byron’s talk. It started off in 1999 and a glimpse into the state of the internet at the time — the exciting new language of PHP and the introduction of web applications. It gave great context for when the presentation jumped into the current time and reflected back on the last 20 years. Interestingly, we are still applying many familiar patterns from the PHP days and the core concepts remain the same. But he illustrated how we have iterated through better abstraction, better syntax and better mental models to get us to where we are now. As a relatively new software developer, I appreciated the historical deep dive of building web applications and React.
What about you?
Kat: In terms of showmanship, I thought the AirBNB one was on point. I really liked the whole battle and knights illustrations on the slideshow as the two speakers went back and forth, especially because they were talking about the struggles within their team. We’ve all been in those situations where, you know, you have to divvy up the work and you can’t necessarily work all together on it and when you come back are like, “ I just built that button — you didn’t have to build it too”.
That was one of the biggest struggles at my last place of work — us trying to come up with a themed component library, and the designers constantly changing the smallest things on it. I don’t know how many versions of the same button existed but it was more than there should’ve been. That talk resonated with me the most, because it was something that I struggled with and I really liked the solution that they presented. I would really like to bring that to Bench.
AirBNB Design System Talk
I thought AirBNB shared a great way to allow developers to bring in new versions of components while also considering designers and PMs. With their Design Language System, any time the designers did want to change something, developers’ first reaction won’t be annoyance at building a tenth seemingly identical iteration of a button. So it’s not only making the developers lives easier but I thought it would help with the two sides being more supportive of each other.
Jess: Honestly I think it more reinforced ideas and patterns that we are already doing or starting to do (shoutout to David 🙏). Two things come to mind: typing (using FlowJS) and building better loading experiences.
It’s been a journey with us using FlowJS — one that we’re still navigating — but after a toe dip into Scala I’ve been starting to see its usefulness and the benefits of typing. Clearly we’re not the only ones either — there was a lot of talk of Typescript.
Kat: Yeah, especially with Tajas Kumar’s talk. That definitely shifted how I think about typing because I’m so new to it. I usually build things the way I know how to build them and then go back in and add what’s new to me. Watching him build a component using types, and how he allowed it to feed him answers about which props he was missing, what the API was returning, how it all integrated into the components… to me it looked like a choreographed dance.
It helped me see that when done properly, typing can be a helpful tool that can cut down on how long it takes to build components instead of yet another reason why my linter was yelling at me. After the conference I noticed that when I started a brand new container, I wrote it completely differently because I remembered, types first! It changed everything.
Jess: There was also a huge emphasis at the conference about building better loading experiences for users. We’re currently redesigning a feature we’ve been iterating on for almost a year now and will be bringing it into its new, improved version which is pretty exciting. These are some of the considerations we’re thinking about now, like how to make it faster, make it more seamless, and fetch what is important for the initial view. What we are discussing was very much in line with what we were hearing about at the conference.
Kat: I was frustrated, though, because I felt that a lot of the loading solutions that were presented to us were using tools that we’re just not using. Like Joe Savona’s talk where he showed how seamlessly Relay integrated with React Suspense, neither of which we’re using at Bench. I thought that his example was just… so smooth. I know exactly how to do it with those tools now. It would be nice to take these new things and adapt them into the systems and tools that we already have — there definitely was a part of me that was like ‘oh if everything was brand new this could be amazing ‘. But I know that we’re very carefully integrating new systems and techniques into our app because it’s built on top of so many legacy systems. But I couldn’t help but feel out of date because we don’t even use hooks yet and every presentation heavily relied on them.
Kat: I think something important to bring back is honestly just our renewed excitement for the tech. I think so many times we can get frustrated with the limitations in general, get frustrated with projects, stuck on a bug — we get disenchanted with the whole process. I do think that there is something very valuable in going to something like React Conf and getting excited about the technology and the possibilities with it, the community, so we can come back and being like actually, guys, this really is a good solution.
Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but look at all that you can do!! And get really excited and bring that back and get everyone excited again, get the energy back up.
Jess: One theme that was highlighted and resonated with me was Developer experience in service of User experience. In his keynote talk, Tom Occhino describes React as gateway technology that has a low barrier to entry, with helpful tooling that supports high productivity and an ability to scale. This allows developers to then focus on what’s important — creating a seamless user experience.
As a team that cares about our users and wants to improve their interactions in the app, we should better understand the tools that allow us to focus on this. My takeaway is that we need to continue thinking about our technology decisions with this in mind, and address technical debt not because we should or to have the next shiny thing, but as a way to utilize tools that allow us to focus on delivering better experiences.
Kat: Would you go back?
Jess: For sure. I’m already looking up conferences for next year.