• Picking the Right Speakers for Conferences

    I have been involved in events for some years, ever since running Flex Camp Boston back in 2007 and as recently as handling many aspects of the planning, in particular the speaker lineup, for this year’s TelerikNEXT event. I’ve also served on conference committees for events like QCon New York and Fluent. In my personal experience, the hardest part of running events are getting the word out and choosing the right speakers. Arguably, choosing the right speakers can heavily impact your ability to get the word out - after all, your content is the biggest selling point of your event.

    Yesterday, Lea Verou posted an opinion piece saying that blind reviews for technical conferences is a broken model. You should read the full post.

    In summary, she believes that while the goal is to reduce bias and allow unknown speakers an opportunity, it ends up leading towards choosing “safe” topics. This is because the fear is that the more advanced or atypical topics, in the hands of the wrong speaker, could totally bomb (I’m paraphrasing - these are my words not hers).

    I agree with her, and while I laud the goals of making the speaker selection more egalitarian, there is simply not enough information in a typical abstract to know how successful a presentation will be as the text doesn’t indicate the speaker’s ability to communicate effectively in the format of a session (and requiring a prior session recording already starts making the process less open to fresh faces).

    Here’s the response I added to her post:

    I totally agree with this. When I ran a conference for 5 years, I was of the mind that who gave the talk was generally more important than what they were talking about. There are people whose talks I want to see regardless of what the topic is - they are engaging, thought provoking and I always come away learning something. Other people could pick the best topic and even have the best slide deck and bomb.

    I chose to have invite-only speakers list. That being said, I always set aside a certain amount of slots for speakers I’d never seen or who were new. The trouble with invite only events is the tendency to invite from within the same group every time.

    To me the best option is to have a committee that you trust and who represent a diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and views. Have this committee be conscious of efforts to be inclusive and make sure there is room for some fresh faces (even acknowledging that some of these will inevitably bomb).

    As you say, each method has its flaws and potential for bias, but even the blind review (as you point out) has bias, just of a different kind.

  • Is the Web Really in Trouble?

    This morning I published a post on the Telerik Developer Network that asks the question “What’s Wrong with the Web?”? If you read about web development at all (and apparently you do, since you are reading this), you can’t possibly have missed the long list of posts declaring that the web, as we know it, is in serious jeopardy. The main issues are:

    • The web is losing the battle to native
    • The web is too slow, largely due to the weight of advertising
    • The web is too slow, largely due to the cruft of too many libraries and frameworks
    • The web is trying to be something it isn’t (i.e. native) and adding too many unecessary features

    There may be more, but these are the core debates.

    The thing about all these debates is they are very technical - they are about how we build web apps or the underlying technology of the web. None of these debates seems concerned with what we are building. As I argue in the conclusion of my post, perhaps we’re worried about the wrong thing. Perhaps if we focused on building awesome and creative things on the web again, the answer to these problems would work itself out.

    I worry that web developers have become like bureaucrats, too worried the procedure of building web apps, having lost sight of the point of building them in the first place.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment on the post on the Telerik Developer Network.

  • The Web is Boring

    When I was growing up, flying was fun. This wasn’t the kind of fun that a kid finds in simply new experiences - it was a legitimately enjoyable experience. The airport was a much less stressful place than it is today, with far less security and fewer lines. The planes seemed more spacious (though perhaps that part was really just that I was a kid). They served you food on most flights - with a real, metal fork and knife. Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest food, but wouldn’t we just love to get something, anything, nowadays? They’d even let kids go into the cabin and meet the crew, often handing them a junior crew member pin to wear.

    twa pin

    I fly more nowadays than I did back then, but flying is generally painful. The airport is stressful. The airline customer service is generally awful. There are few, if any, meals or snacks served. Flying has become something I need - for work, to visit family, to get to somewhere for vacation - not something I enjoy. Even on vacation, flying is something we power through to get where we want to be rather than being part of the vacation experience.

    The Web, Too, Has Lost Its Luster

    Much like the joy of flying, I am finally ready to openly admit that the web is no longer fun. Just like flying, I use it more today than I ever did back when it was fun, but it is purely out of necessity rather than desire. On a personal level, I use web sites to get news and to keep up with friends and family. The web is, obviously, an integral part of my work too, for news and information as well as the focus of my actual job. All of these things I need, but none of them bring the joy and exitement that the web used to bring.

    Perhaps you are not old enough to remember when the web was fun. If so, you may even think that it is fun. But back in the mid-to-late-90s, the web had the power to amaze us. New sites and new businesses would launch regularly and everyone had to try them out because each one seemed to bring something new and creative to the table. Sure, many didn’t survive long (and we had tons of useless accounts), but they all seemed to be part of an inexorable path towards something special - a future where the web would make our lives more enjoyable, easier and, yes, more fun. Many of us firmly believed that the web was the future of computing - who’d need a desktop or operating system when the web was eventually going to replace the need for either.

    That Didn’t Happen

    Let’s be honest. None of that ever happened. You may be thinking, “But what about my streaming movies or my streaming music or my multiplayer games? Aren’t those fun?” To which I’d say, “Don’t confuse the internet with the web.” The internet enables each of these, but they are rarely done via the web (yes, they all have web interfaces, but I’d bet the majority of people do not access them this way).

    There’s been a lot of talk about how the web is losing some unofficial battle for survival. Much of that has focused on the overwhelming amount of tools for web development and the way these tools are impacting the performance of the web. I am not disagreeing with those, per se, but I can say that the web was actually much more fun back when it was also horribly slow (most of us were on dial-up after all).

    I feel that the thing holding the web back is a lack of real, creative innovation. I read every day about new little features of the web platform, but I can’t remember the last time I read about something built on the web that really excited me. Until then, I’ll keep passionlessly reading my news and blog posts or getting my gmail and hating myself for checking Facebook for lack of something more interesting to do. Sorry, web, but you bore me.

  • Tips for Writing for a Tech Audience

    I’ve been writing articles and blog posts about web development and technology for a long time. The original version of this blog started in 2004, but by that time I’d already written a couple articles for the ultra-prestigious ColdFusion Developer’s Journal (it’s ok to feel jealous).

    However, I’ve also been editing articles and blog posts about web development and technology for a while too. It started when I was at Adobe helping to run the Adobe Developer Connection a few years ago and continued when I launched my own site (Flippin’ Awesome which is now Modern Web and not run by me anymore). I still do this on an almost daily basis running the Telerik Developer Network.

    All of this experience has taught me some things that I think help to make a really good (and potentially really popular) article or blog post for a developer or technology audience. In this post I’ll share my recommendations, though I should note that I’m not an expert at always following my own guidelines all the time.

    Read More ⇒

  • Why are Web Developers Hostile to Audio?

    I like to talk and write about Web Audio. It can be a fun topic. However, most talks and demos fail to touch on anything useful. Sure, we can build drum machines and sequencers to our heart’s content, but how does this apply to 90% of the web? It doesn’t. Thus, when I speak or write about web audio it seems to draw a niche audience.

    However, recently I have been on a mission to talk and write about how web developers can use web audio to enhance their applications in practical and useful ways. The frequent response I get is like the one below:

    I hate audio on the web

    You gotta love social media because not only did this person make it clear he never bothered to read the article, but 5 people (which on Google Plus is like everyone) gave it a plus one. However, leaving aside those issues, why are web developers so outright hostile and dismissive to even the suggestion of using audio on the web that they aren’t even willing to discuss it or hear arguments as to how it could be useful?

    Let’s recap:

    • Audio in game UI equals totally expected;
    • Audio in mobile app UI equals acceptable;
    • Audio in desktop app UI equals legitimate, within reason;
    • Audio in web apps equals ARE YOU INSANE?!?!

    I have a theory as to why.

    The Legacy of Years of Misuse

    I expressed this In the early days of the web, we didn’t have the web audio API. What we had was site’s that got clever and used MIDI or, even worse, had some obnoxious “Hamster Dance” like audio.

    Hamster Dance

    Then came years of Flash Intros and more useless audio. It became ingrained in web developers’ heads that audio on the web was purely a gimmick. It is such a widely accepted “faux pas” to include audio, that even the mention of carefully considering audio brings strong reactions.

    It’s Time to Let It Go

    But do we have to be held back today by the misdeeds of years ago? Sure, the web audio API can be misused. Sure, so far, we’ve mostly shown how it can be used for things like 8 bit video game music (guilty as charged) and web-based drum machines. (Not that those things are useful, even purely as excercises in having some fun with your programming skills, they are beneficial.) The point is, though, this doesn’t negate there being useful and practical ways to integrate audio into your web application. If it’s ok for every other type of application, why not the web?

    Unlike the commenter above, perhaps you’ll give my full article a read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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