What I Learned at the Developers Conference

Being in IT for so many years has made me wear a lot of hats: Web dev on some days, a designer on others and a guy who has friends ask him how to do “simple” things that aren’t all that simple. So it behooved me to grab a ticket and go to the HTML5 Developer’s conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

HTML5 DevCon Banner

Summary

The conference was packed — literally in some cases, as people were bumping shoulders taking notes during some talks, while others overflowed with people sitting on the floor — full of useful and informative sessions. My day was spent listening to best practices from those in the know and collectively sharing inside jokes about IE6, pirates, cats and how no one outside of the Web development world gives a rat’s ass about what Web developers, especially front-end developers, do.

The overall tone of the conference seemed to be that HTML5 (which is a catch-all term that also implies ECMAScript, aka Javascript, and CSS3) is but one part of the equation. While HTML5 is important, knowing how to use it properly will only take you so far. A bad back end can’t be salvaged with a good front end, and a great back end can be ruined by a dysfunctional front-end experience.

I wonder why hairbrained ideas, where one side is critically important while the other isn’t, take root. Front end and back end are equally important, because if both sides aren’t well thought out, you end up shipping half a product. I wonder why Web developers are not real developers, and why scripters writing in PHP aren’t real programmers?

The problem is that once an idea takes hold after an initial impression, no one ever thinks about updating their information. Chris Heilmann of Mozilla made a point about using workarounds long after they are necessary. His point was that we developers are being too clever for our own good by using workarounds that are no longer needed and that effectively hold us and the Web back.

He also made a great observation about how the glut of tools has led to an environment where tool count in resumes exceeds the importance of understanding the fundamental technologies. We have so many awesome ways to do things now that we are suffering from an awesome overload. Every week there’s a new framework a pro must know, even though it will eventually be superseded and replaced. Heilmann’s bottom line was “learn the fundamentals” and you will never be out of work. Knowing fundamentals was a point I thought everyone knew, and I heard it about audio some 20 years earlier from my advisor and one of my favorite professors, John Barsotti at SFSU.

The thing is, coming into this conference, I was not very confident that my self-taught skills (particularly Javascript) were up to snuff with people that have a Computer Science degree. But by the end of it, I felt pretty good. Here were speakers telling people things that I had already figured out (with the help of my heavy emphasis on production communications classes) on my own.

 

Conference Credentials

Conference Credentials

The lectures were by people who “get it” — a talent that seems to be missing from the cash-fat tech world. Heilmann put it all into perspective saying, “My brother is a fireman. When he makes a mistake, people die. When we make a mistake, something is 5 pixels off.” Oddly enough, I was the only one laughing at the dark part of the joke (probably because I knew where he was going with the punch line). But everyone that was there did care about that metaphorical 5 pixels. Each talk emphasized working together, and using best practices. The hot trends may be flashes in the pan, but standards stay.

After the conference I have come away with two things that are sticking with me:

(1) I wish all the browser makers would agree on a standard for audio and video support instead of battling it out for the one that makes them the most money. Having competition is great when platforms are independent, but the Web is not independent. Whenever people talk about technological standards and how everyone has their horse in the race, I can’t help thinking: This is less like everyone putting their horse into the race, and more like everyone putting their own jockey on one horse. That horse can barely walk with five-plus rendering jockeys, even if each one is lighter and faster than the previous one. Standards would make my job (and countless other developers’ jobs) easier. Luckily, we can code around the problem, but still — having to store two 50-MB files instead of one blows.

(2) Learning how to actually write the HTML and CSS using the proper syntax, and even some best practices, is easy, but layouts are still in the print age. Everyone still thinks of the Web screen like a piece of paper whose layout can’t be edited, and instead if they want a different view, they switch pieces of paper. The only use of animation is for small effects that add a bit of pizzazz or drop-down menus. If we only use dynamic boxes for menus we will never approach the finesse and feel of a native app.

Moovweb Remix Mobile Hackthon: Mobilize GitHub

Moovweb is having a “Remix Mobile Hackthon” contest from April 2 until May 1. The object is to make the best mobile version of at least two pages of GitHub for either iOS 6.1.2+/iPhone4+ (Retina Displays) or Android 4.0+. The instructions are simple, and can be found here.

The short version is that you sign up for Moovweb, download their SDK, and make a project on Github. Mobilize two or more pages using their tritium scripting language (which looks very similar to JQuery in terms of composition and syntax). The more pages mobilized, the higher your completeness score. The rules are pretty standard: Entrants must be current U.S. residents, 18 years of age or older before the contest start date (April 2), and not affiliated with either Moovweb or the HTML5 Developer’s Conference. Complete rules are available here.

Image:HTML5 Developer Conference

Comments

  1. BY Johnny Hopkins says:

    The best advice I took away from the article was learning the fundamentals of HTML/HTML 5 and CSS. I have the experience of hard coding HTML for a course I took on web-based programming several years ago. Every day, I check my email and read articles about another web framework or JavaScript library needed for application development. Keeping up my skills in the fundamentals allow me to use HTML 5/CSS tool effectively in building web sites and applications.

  2. BY outsider says:

    The idea of learning the fundamentals are important; I agree, but what are those fundamentals?

    My guess, in this context, we are talking about the underlying details on which these features (i.e. HTML5, CSS, etc) are built. And not nessesarily your CS fundamentals.

    Or maybe I am just restating the obvious.

    • BY M Noivad says:

      Yes, Heilmann was talking about knowing how to write in HTML5, CSS3 & Javascript without any other tools. And while to you it is restating the obvious, I thank you for clarifying it. Often with writing or any communication, if something can be misinterpreted, it will be. So, I will elaborate a bit more:

      He said a develop should be able to write a web site that displays all the trappings of best practices and some simple JS using nothing more than a text editor. Not that one would want to develop a large site with just a text editor, but being able to at least produce something without a single third party library or script was essential.

      The funny thing is, that when I was teaching myself Javascript, I would mention this to people and they would say, “oh check out [a popular JS framework]” or “Why are you doing this from scratch? Why don’t you use [Javascript library]?” And I would tell them because I am the type that like to learn things from the ground up: I am a foundational learner, and I understand things better when I know what goes into it. That said, after I learned to JS, I wrote some simple Javascripts with AJAX calls and DOM manipulation, I then learned JQuery. So, what Chris said, I was already doing because I understand the value of knowing the fundamentals.

      And to put it plainly: Once you learn the fundamentals of a technology you gain 2 abilities (assuming you are perceptive and really learned the technology inside out) that no one ever tells you about:
      (1) When new tools and fads come, you can spot them and which ones are the real disruptors that you should learn and which ones are the flashes in the pan that everyone will think is the new hotness, but you will see as a buzzword or buzz-meme. (Who remembers when it was all about “drill-down” and “synergy?”)
      (2) Learning tools and technology is more like learning a dialect rather than a whole new language. It is similar to if an American or English person went to Australia: instead of learning the words, they just need to pick up the slang, and the local conventions. So, it is a lot easier to adapt to the new hotness.

      Thanks for reading.

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