Front End Design Conference 2017

My sunburnt shoulders aren't the only memory of a great week at the Front End Design Conference in St. Petersburg, FL this past week. Although this was my first time attending, the 9th annual FEDC had some fantastic talks in a unique venue, but from what I've heard this is the norm for organizers at Unmatched Style.

A common thread throughout many talks was how to work more efficiently on projects and within our teams. Matt Griffin talked about the mindset and approach to the complicated process of designing for the web. Defining the difference between the goals of websites and web apps, identifying the intent of the project, creating personas, and starting with user needs are all easy ways for a team to begin a project before jumping into the design phase, or even prototyping.

“If we want to be better at our jobs, we have to be better humans.” - Ben Callahan

Amber Stickel, front-end developer at IBM, spoke about validating the prototyping process and started with a great point that the perception of this phase in a project is that it isn't a necessary added cost when it needs to be viewed not as more or extra steps but focusing time on validated solutions. She explained the IBM process of the “loop” of Create, Refine, Review and gave examples of the tools she uses for which phases in their agile and iterative workflow. Bottom line, there is no “right” method for doing this – it's not the time to be a perfectionist or reinvent the wheel. Setting clear guidelines and finding what is most efficient for you as an individual is what will make or break your prototyping process.

Libraries and tools come and go but great practices will stay great.” - Sergio Cruz

A few talks centered mostly around culture and personal life, not very “technical” stuff – but I almost enjoy hearing about these topics more. Ben Callahan explained how the team at Sparkbox views the value of their employees as investing in a skillset, investing in a person, and investing in a life. Diversity of perspective, empathy, and valuable collaboration will all lead to better results amongst our teams and for our work.

What's your one piece of advice for someone in the field right now?” - Audience member
“Hustle. There's no secret or shortcut to this stuff.” - Josh Higgins

Sort of a personal bit here – but I often struggle with not feeling smart enough, not really knowing what I'm doing or what to learn next. The I went to school for design, so what makes me credible in development or user experience? – kind of thing. When talking about things like UX, research, those beginning steps of design – we are applying the same problem-solving skills that astronauts and other types of scientists use. We all share the commonality of just doing the best we can. In the web industry, we're doing things that haven't been done before, thinking about things that didn't need to be thought about before. We aren't only putting in time to do the work at-hand, but additionally putting in the time to learn new things and solve problems. I identified with all of these points various presenters made throughout the conference, but also the idea that it can't be done alone – our teams and the community are our best advocates for moving forward. I also need to work on not telling myself I'm not smart enough for things (adding that to my vision board - created via Ela Conf.)

“Science isn't just for heroes, it's for all of us” - Matt Griffin

I'm looking forward to sharing what I learned at FEDC this year, and hoping to get more involved with Unmatched Style events as a volunteer in the future. A big thank you to the presenters, organizers, and attendees for making this an all-around great (and very much needed) experience. Not to mention, sunny Florida is not the worst place to travel and pick up a few pointers.

Ela Conf 2016

Talk about a two-for-one special; this weekend I attended a Girl Develop It class about Flexbox and also the second installment of Ela Conf!

I’d heard and read about Flexbox, but like many others, I learn best in a classroom style environment. It’s much easier for me to make parallels to my own work or projects when someone is explaining to me the uses and options of a tool while demonstrating themselves. This class was great to help in understanding what the capabilities of Flexbox are and when it makes sense to try to use it. We were given take-home exercises and resources and left with the reassurance that even those who know it still refer to that documentation page on CSS Tricks all the time.

If you read my post last year from Ela Conf, you know how much of an impact the conference itself (the messages, the people, the community) had on me. So needless to say, I was more than excited for another round. My notes were sparse in comparison to last year, I think I was more drawn in to the stories and experiences being shared then making sure I jotted down quotes and “tweetable moments”. That’s not to say there weren’t any though…

“Be human. Be bold. Don’t be a creep.” - Eleanor Whitney

“Find a place that not only tolerates you, but embraces you.” - Brittany Canty

“… is really just a fancy way of saying, being a woman is fucking exhausting.” - Nicole Zhu

“You can be an expert at being a beginner.” - Elise Wei

Over lunch, break-out sessions were hosted at various locations in the building. The one I attended was titled You Do You: Taking Ownership of Your Career Path. The group was provided a bulleted list of tips for how to do so, from simply beginning to #humblebrag to doing the job you want before it’s yours. I also received some personal advice from Marianna Morris, the moderator of the session, which to me is exactly what the value of Ela Conf is. Not just hearing recycled talks but sharing experiences, seeking advice, and learning from other women who have been in your place.

I’m so excited about how much the Ela Conf community has grown since last year; and the organizers are doing an awesome job at making it clear just how much it has, and how important this event is. Doubtful I’ll be getting up to give a talk next year, but I’m definitely going to be more involved as a volunteer and getting the word out locally about this phenomenal event.

Philly.NET Code Camp

This past weekend I attended Code Camp hosted by philly.NET. This is the first event I’ve been to that’s primarily geared towards developers and not web or front-end designers. If you know me at all, you know I suffer from a healthy dose of impostor syndrome, so making the decision to attend this event was a big one. There were a handful of talks that I kept up with and understood what was being discussed, while others went right over my head. A fellow attendee made the comment to me that it said a lot that I showed the initiative to attend in the first place, so that helped me to not feel quite so much like an outsider.

David Voyles, a tech evangelist for Microsoft (if nothing else, I at least learned what what was!) spoke about numerous JavaScript frameworks and how he implements them into different projects. JavaScript is my next big hurdle to try to figure out, so it was reassuring to hear an experienced professional say how overwhelming the options can be with something new coming to the surface practically daily. He showed other useful tools in relation to device testing, optimizing code, and load testing.

Another thing I’ve been trying to get a hold on is Git - while I understand the concept, I haven’t used it for any large-scale projects as we have other version control software in place on my team. Chris Gomez did a great job at breaking down the language of Git - what it means to commit and what a commit is doing; master vs. current branches; cloning and forking and everything in between. 

The talk I related most with throughout the day was more about “soft skills” - Kathleen Dollard presenting about Team Effectiveness. She shared examples including research about how we are affected when our work is interrupted, what kind of music helps focus, and how we need to practice psychological safety on our teams. I left her talk with a list of resources and readings to follow up on in order to learn more about how to work more confidently on my teams.

Abstractions 2016

I had the opportunity to attend Abstractions in Pittsburgh, PA after being graciously rewarded one of their diversity scholarships. Hosted by Code & Supply, this was the first conference of its kind but any attendee would have never known it - too many sessions to choose between, plenty of friendly faces volunteering, and a community that was growing before the conference even began via Slack and social media. 

“Technology changes fast, people change less fast” - Adam Gassman

The conference offered a variety of activities for attendees to partake in after-hours, which was great for me coming out of town yet still wanting to get to know Pittsburgh a bit during my stay. One evening, speaker Matt Griffin of Bearded Studio hosted the premiere of What Comes Next is the Future, a documentary about the web, told by the people who build it. The event was hosted at The Harris Theater, which was already on my list to visit during my stay. Since attending, I’ve already showed this film to numerous coworkers and colleagues; if you have an hour to spare, it’s a great holistic look at what’s gone (and it going!) into the web.

Find an original story vs. coloring in the lines of others.” - Petro Salema

Many of the sessions I attended shared the common thread of mentorship. Erika Carlson shared the process that Detroit Labs uses in training their junior developers in a 10-step format. The biggest takeaway from her list for me was engaging junior level team members in the process of finding an answer - don’t let them flounder on their own while also not just giving them the final solution. Joseph Matsey touched on more strategies teams can use in order to be sure they’re consistently learning (and learning together) - using guerrilla learning tactics like lunch workshops, book reviews, and trying to avoid only learning things as projects dictate them can all help teams looking one step ahead rather than putting out fires.

Brad Frost and Micah Godbolt both shared their thoughts about using design systems as a part of the web process. Brad shared some great examples of inconsistent UI of well-known brands and then talked through how this can be avoided through using pattern libraries, style guides, and addressing earlier in the design process. Micah compared using a design system to the “Road Runner Rules” - guidelines that animator Chuck Jones gave to his entire team (writers, developers, illustrators, etc.) in order to create consistent experiences. Both touched on how thinking this way isn’t easy, it requires planning for a bigger, messier world and embracing fluidity.

“Instead of designing a cathedral and thinking about what the doorknob might look like, design the doorknob.” - Jeffery Zeldman

As I said, Abstractions was overall a great experience and I learned a lot while solidifying other things I had already read or heard of in my own independent learning. If a therapy dog session is included every year, sign me up again!

Generate NY 2016

This past week I attended Generate Conference in New York - it’s one of many conferences by the name hosted in NY, San Francisco, and London annually. 

I was surprised to hear that the common theme amongst the talks of the day wasn’t so much about design or development even, but rather user experience (spoke from the perspective of designers and developers, however!)

“Design is the rendering of intent.” - Dan Mall

Matt Smith gave a talk about the “human build” of a website - how we can think of the parts in relation to that of ourselves. Skeleton, muscles, organs, and appearance are all crucial in both web anatomy and human anatomy and it’s hard for one to work without the other. He made the point that advocating for users should be something everyone does, and we as creators should care about the users of our products enough to not give them extra stressors.

Think of a travel experience from start to finish and all of the things a person touches - booking a ticket online, checking in on the mobile app, finding your way around the airport, checking baggage, ground travel, baggage claim, on-board the plane, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of these things were more seamless and integrated?

Lots of great content and quotes came out of Cameron Moll’s talk on Unified Design. I’ve littered my training presentation to my peers with points from this talk, so here are a few of my favorites:

“The best interface is the one within reach.”
“RWD (responsive web design) should just be RD.”
“We need to give users a cohesive experience regardless of where it begins, continues, and ends.”

My favorite talk of the day was from Stephen Gates, touching moreso on working as a designer. He used the quote “comfort is the enemy of greatness” to explain how as web designers and developers, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have the gift of making people pay attention, so we should center our careers around having ideas, not necessarily executing to perfection.

Energy is a finite thing. Spend it figuring out what you can do to kick ass. — Katy Thorbahn