Fronteers12 – Q&A results, quick reviews and impressions from the stage

Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Last week the fifth annual Fronteers conference lured a few hundred developers, designers and managers to Amsterdam, The Netherlands to hear about what’s hot and new in web development. This year I did not speak, but played the MC and interviewer instead.

I have a very soft spot for Fronteers as a conference. I spoke at every one of them and I am always amazed by how much the audience knows. You speak to a group of experts and as such speakers are expected and do deliver sensible, useful talks with lots of technical detail.

Having an audience in the know also makes for a buzzing back channel at a conference and in the past this one was ruthless – shooting down speakers who held back or didn’t know 100% what they were talking about in flames.

In order to turn this into a more productive environment I proposed to the organisers last year that I’d volunteer to introduce the speakers and instead of a traditional Q&A do a sit-down interview with them directly after the talk. I’ve done this before at Highland Fling and found it to be a much more efficient way to handle questions.

And that’s what we did. As Fronteers has a working wireless it was simple to convey to the audience the procedure:

  • I introduce the speaker
  • The speaker gives his presentation during which the audience can tweet questions they have using the #fqa hashtag (Fronteers Q&A)
  • I sit down with the speaker on the side of the stage and conduct an interview using the questions during which the next speaker can set up

All in all this is an incredible effective way of running the conference as you use the time normally wasted in between speakers and you get much more questions answered. There is no waiting for roaming microphones and there is no “can you repeat, I can’t understand you”. Having a 120 character limit also means that people think of their questions much more.

Here are all the talks with a quick note by me and links to the collected tweets. I will try to contact all the speakers to grab them and answer them on their own blogs which I will link from here should that happen:

Fronteers Day 1

Mark Boulton, Adapting to Responsive Design

I’ve just seen Mark talk at Smashingconf and at Reasons to be Creative and still I am not bored of him. Good insights and a very “story telling” approach to speaking.

Addy Osmani, The New And Improved Developer Toolbelt

Addy works tirelessly to collect great information and build and connect tools to make our lives easier. This talk covered the need for tooling and build processes and ended introducing Yeoman. All in all this was a good talk, but to my taste it had far too much content. At times Addy read out his slides with a sentence per bullet to the audience and I found myself basically wanting the deck as I was overwhelmed with the offerings.

Peter-Paul Koch, A Pixel is not a Pixel

PPK did a great job explaining why viewports and pixel densities are not an easy matter and showed a lot of examples how hard it is to build a consistent experience across various browsers just on one device. A good advertisement for PPK’s research into the matter and why we need it.

Alex Graul, Using JS to build bigger, better datavis to enlighten and elate

Alex gave me the first slight heart attack of the event as he had a mix-up with his slides, spoke far too fast and hard to understand if you are not used to speaking to Britishers, and finished after 15 minutes or so. This is where I came in to cover 35 minutes of Q&A until the catering staff was ready for the feeding of the hordes. It was incredible to see though how Alex caught himself and calmed down a lot when in an interview situation rather than a “where are my slides, what is this” one. I think all in all I got much more out of Alex than he’d have covered in his talk this way and as the topic was incredibly interesting it was easy to chat for a bit.

Mathias Bynens, Ten things I didn’t know about HTML

Mathias is dangerous. He is very intelligent, charming and does a lot of research into the ins and outs of markup and browser rendering. Based on that he shows us just how much code is not needed to write for a browser to show a page. That this code is necessary for people to understand what you do is something Mathias believes a lot himself, I just hope that when he says it people still listen rather than just going for the quick “oh, good, I need no closing tag”. Talent like Mathias makes me confident about the future of the web, when I will be sitting on my porch, chasing ducks with my cane and grumbling about darn kids eating my cherries.

Stephen Hay, Style guides are the new Photoshop

Stephen, the only other speaker apart from me who spoke at every Fronteers, is an institution and rightfully so. In this talk, which he also gave at Smashingconf he showed how to automatically generate style guides from mockups, thus making our workflow much shorter. A designer who likes the CLI and uses VIM. What more do you want?

Antoine Hegeman, Bor Verkroost, Bram Duvigneau & Chris Heilmann, Accessibility panel

OK, this was the moment in the conference where I was – as one says – shitting bricks. I know my a11y and I have seen live demos of a11y technology fail spectacularly on stage over and over again. It shows just how professional and pragmatic the panelists were that nothing went wrong at all, and I’d say that this was one of the most informative a11y sessions at a conference I’ve ever seen.

Lea Verou, More CSS secrets: Another 10 things you may not know about CSS

Lea once again dazzled with amazing CSS tricks, once shown before at Smashingconf and coded live on stage. Great stuff, but she was quite over time sadly enough. That said, play with what she showed here, lots to learn.

Fronteers Day 2

Marcin Wichary, The biggest devils in the smallest details

Marcin is the master of Google doodles, builds his own slides using two browsers talking to each other via Node, doesn’t get phased too much when he drops his laptop on stage and in general is a total tinkerer. Great speaker. Lovely, lovely talk.

David DeSandro, Keep it Simple, Smartypants

David changed his talk in the last minute after realising how much in the know the audience is and instead of his planned session talked about trying to make money with “open source” JavaScript solutions and how it can be done. This was the most animated interview I did as there seems to be a massive misunderstanding what open source means. I will blog more about this soon.

Jeroen Wijering, The State of HTML5 Video

Jeroen is the man behind JW player, the HTML5/Flash video player in use in YouTube and seen a lot on the web. He covered the basics of HTML5 video and kept his talk very short which allowed me to dig a bit deeper into the newer unknowns in open media like streaming and DRM during the interview.

Anne van Kesteren, Building the web platform

Anne van Kesteren is scarily smart when it comes to the web, browsers and standards and in this talk he shared some of his thoughts and ideas. Sadly enough, I found the talk very confusing and lacking an overall story arc or goal. It all might become more obvious when I watch the video again, but I for one was more confused than inspired.

Phil Hawksworth, I can smell your CMS

Phil seems to be a clone of Jake Archibald who went to design school. Very funny, very quick, with beautiful slides and examples and tales from the trenches he knows how to engage and to give out good info to boot. To me one of the best talks I’ve seen lately.

Peter Nederlof, Beyond simple transitions, with a pinch of
JavaScript

Peter is a silent star. He does incredible work and participated with solutions in some of the larger breakthroughs in library code in the past without tooting his horn much. The same happened here. Peter had some great examples and code ideas but lacked the oomph needed to get people excited about it. All in all this would have been a kick-ass 15 minute lightning talk but felt stretched as it was. Nevertheless, use what he talked about, there is a lot of good in there.

Rebecca Murphey, JS Minty Fresh: Identifying and Eliminating Smells in Your Code Base

Rebecca is a trainer by heart and gave a very nice overview how to refactor and clean up stale JavaScript code that is based on laziness or “quick, get this out of the door” thinking. Good advice, but to me too much focused on jQuery. I’d like to see this at the jQuery conf as it reminded me of my talk there last year, with the main difference that Rebecca knows it inside out.

Alex Russell, What the legacy web is keeping from us

Alex is very smart indeed and delivered a talk that surprised me and made me happy. Instead of damning outdated technologies and pushing kicking and screaming into a more app-centric web based on current browser technology, Alex started with some thought experiments and built up to a great conclusion that it is up to us to free ourselves from the shackles of outdated tech. Splendid talk, go see it.

Summary

All in all Fronteers delivered again. And this was a massive surprise to me as I didn’t prepare anything and neither coached the speakers in time, nor knew some of the speakers. I also convinced the organisers in the last minute to go for the “interview Q&A” approach and scrounged chairs on the spot to make it happen. As it stands, I am damn proud having pulled it off and hope more conferences will follow the principle. For anyone who is out to do the MCing and interviewing: rest up, it is a truckload of work and quite exhausting as you need to be first there, last out and 100% concentrated on the content. Doing ad-hoc interviews with live questions coming in is not a simple feat, but when you do it, it is very much worth your while. I had a blast and I hope people got a lot out of Fronteers 2012.

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