Flashback Conference Recap

I was thankful to spend the start of this week at the Flashback Conference, a small event hosted in Downtown Orlando. The event had the focus of, “Celebrating web development of today and how we got here”, and I think that it delivered quite nicely.

One of the reasons that I attended the event is that I have been feeling a bit of burnout around web development lately. I’ve gotten to a certain point that I have admittedly been able to coast on things that I’ve already got a good enough grasp on, and not push myself to do more. I’ve described my state lately as, “mentally and emotionally exhausted”, and I think that applies to work as well.

I’ll give a short spoiler: this event was fantastic. The cost was great, it was intimate, and I had great conversations with lots of new acquaintances. I hope that the organizers put it on next year, I’ll gladly volunteer, and I will try harder to push people in the local tech community that I know to attend.

Arriving at the Event

Flashback Conference 2020 was held at The Abbey, a concert and event venue with a stage, plenty of gathering space, and rows of chairs and tables setup for the conference. The location in the heart of downtown by Lake Eola made it convenient to step outside for fresh air, walk to Starbucks for fancier coffee during the breaks, as well as avoid having to worry about parking and travel since it was easy for me to get a ride to and from the event.

The hosts were welcoming as I arrived, easily checking me in and directing me to make a name badge. I was happy to not be the only one putting pronouns on my name badge, which was one of the first of many ways that I felt a bit more included.

I made a note before the event that it was the first conference that I’ve been to with a tech focus that was less than half white male. While it’s still a bit disappointing that it’s something worth noticing immediately, I was pleased with the diversity of people, experience levels, and thought that came from the conference. The event host, Jenell Pizarro, was entertaining, kept everything on track, and was all around a good emcee, having done research on her own to share interesting tidbits about speakers.

If all that I got were the conversations that I had with new people, that would have been worth it for me. Thankfully, the presentations were overall very good as well.

Day One Presentations

In another notable moment, this has to be the first conference in years that I attended every single presentation. Making it a single track event was a great idea, and was the only way that catching every talk was feasible. Though there were some minor technical difficulties, it’s not unexpected for a tech conference.

JavaScript developer and author Kyle Simpson was the day one keynote for the event. In his presentation he covered some of the history of web development, from single file pages with all scripting inline (or even before scripting existed for the web!) to the idea of separation of concerns, Kyle had a long timeline of web development tools and techniques.

Kyle had several takeaways for attendees around focusing on the user first, and suggesting that we don’t think about graceful degradation or progressive enhancement but instead on “Imprintable Design”. His overall thesis was that users shouldn’t have to mold to technology, but technology should instead fit users and meet them where they are, becoming imprinted with the needs, wants, and concerns of the user. I am fully behind design and development in this way.

Kyle Simpson at Flashback Conference 2020 in Orlando. Slide reads, "Need a new term: Progressive Enhancement, Progressive Experience, Personalized Experience, People Empathy", with all options dimmed except for People Empathy

Ben Ilegbodu was the second speaker, and also spoke about the history of web development. Both of these men were around and developing during most of this time, and Ben reminded us that things were both simpler, yet harder with a higher barrier two decades ago.

Before justify-content, we had the spacer gif.

Ben Ilegbodu

Following Ben was Ayşegül Yönet, who shared with us how WebXR is poised to redefine VR development for the web. The demo took a bit of time to get going but was interesting, and I look forward to seeing more done in the VR space that feels less just like novelties or vertigo-inducing games.

Jay Hoffman, creator of The History of the Web was the perfect person to talk about the death of webmasters. Spoiler: Jay doesn’t really think that they are gone, but they have definitely changed. He outlined what makes a good webmaster as being versatile, collaborative, and skillful. Jay also talked about why things simultaneously got too hard and too easy for the webmaster as they existed on the early web to keep existing.

The next talk was an accessibility primer discussion with Helena McCabe. She gave lots of good data around accessibility and disabilities, a variety of compelling reasons on why your site should be accessible, and a few ways to get started on working toward that goal.

Em Lazer Walker did a very cool talk about game dev on the web. Specifically, they shared some of the methods used to optimize a Flappy Bird battle royale game, which introduced me to some novel concepts of caching and creatively fudging to give the appearance of instantaneous interaction on a budget.

Em Lazer Walker at Flashback Conference 2020 in Orlando. Slide text reads, "Go forth and make weird things!"

Simon MacDonald talked about progressive web apps from their inception to the current state of affairs. The work that he did with PhoneGap helped me several times in the past, as well as let me see that something totally opaque to me (developing a phone app) was accessible by flipping the script on what tooling was acceptable.

Always Bet on the Web.

Simon MacDonald

Finishing day one, Divya Sasidharan talked about JAMStack, considering dynamic content in static site generators, and handling deploys. She shared some useful tools and links, and further encouraged me to experiment with moving my personal site to a static site for the good of my users. Maybe that’ll be a post soon!

Day Two Presentations

The keynote for day two was on “The Humble Radio Button”, by Estelle Weyl, someone who has written more books about development than I will likely learn in my life. She was gracious with her time to chat, and during her presentation she shared a lot of useful demonstrations on how something seemingly as straightforward as the radio button, a 26 year old HTML feature, could be used in stunningly diverse ways. I absolutely agree with Estelle that we as developers have to try to avoid breaking the accessible web foundation that we’re starting with when developing sites.

Someone is paying for your [JS library] downloads. It’s not you as the dev.

Estelle Weyl
Estelle Weyl at Flashback Conference 2020 in Orlando. Slide text reads, "HTML is by default accessible. It is our job as developers not to fuck that up."

Raymond Camden had an entertaining presentation on the history of the dynamic web. The first scripting that I ever learned was Perl for CGI, and being reminded of it was a weird treat. He also endorsed some of the static site generator frameworks that I have played with and considered for future projects.

I haven’t used Azure, but Burke Holland gave a good overview of some cool things that you could do with the platform, walking through most of the code that runs a public bookmarking demo site that he built that looked pretty cool. Following Burke’s talk and lunch was a panel focused on the current state of web development, which echoed a lot of what was heard earlier in the conference: it is simultaneously easier and harder to get into web development and to find a job these days.

David Kourshid is a talented developer who can do amazing things with CSS. I thought that I liked CSS, but I wish that I had used some of his examples in some talks that I gave last year. For now, I’ll settle on learning from him and trying to duplicate some of his efforts in my own way. David showed a lot about how web animation works, and some creative ways to think about design for the web. This had to be the talk that most made me immediately want to start coding something on the spot.

Before the afternoon break, Alyssa Nicoll talked about dark patterns in UI, something that frustrates me on a regular basis. She gave some good resources for combating them, as well as showcases of various dark patterns. Some of them are mind-blowingly brazen in how they attempt to deceive users, and many work.

Finally, the decision to end the event with Carlos Souza was a great idea on the part of the organizers. I’ve been to some of his Meetups in the past, and we used his company’s office for years to host the WordPress Meetup, for which I will be forever grateful. Carlos spoke about moving to the US and creating tech communities, how that impacted his career, and how all of us can give back as attendees, speakers, organizers, and sponsors of local events. The topic is near and dear to my heart and I was nodding in agreement the whole time.

Community Involvement

I overall liked the fact that it was a smaller, more intimate event. But I can’t help but agree with one of the panel speakers, Lee Warrick, about the lack of community involvement at the event. I know dozens of developers that would have benefited from this conference, and I posted to our Meetup group in advance of the event and told people that I was going.

What I didn’t realize, being self employed, is that some people simply couldn’t make themselves available to attend that wanted to. Lee shared this with me via tweet:

It’s sad that this is the case, but with some of my prior employment experiences I can also understand it happening. Business owners: encourage your employees to attend community events, or at least don’t discourage them when they suggest them to you!

Overall

I couldn’t have asked for a better conference to get me out of my funk a bit.

Did it solve every problem that I have right now? Absolutely not.

Did it give me pages and pages of notes to refer to later, both for specific problems and explorable ideas? checks notebook Yup, for sure.

Thank you Flashback Conference, for reminding me of where I started on the web, and why I’ve stuck with it for so long 💝

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