Reblog: Cascadia.js — A javascript revival in Portland

Reblogging this post about Cascadia.js 2014 because Cascadia.js 2015 is in full swing and I’m feeling all nostalgic about last year.  Note that I’m posting an epilogue/update at the end.

chalk drawing of cascadia

This is my trip report of a javascript conference, Cascadia.js, which took place under a tent in Portland’s sunny, summery…ok, it was really hot.  It was hot like a church revival.

Revival Tent at Cascadia.js

Usually, when I do a trip report, I’ve taken lots of notes in conference talks and this is my chance to regurgitate them.  Happily, all of the 2014 Cascadia.js talks are online and, since the organizers had 170 proposals to choose from for 21 speaking slots, they are all phenomenal talks, so no regurgitation here.  Here is a bold statement: this was the best conference experience I have ever attended which includes speaking or just attending. This was not my first conference.  (Note: I was also on the roster to give a talk with friend and mentor, Ryan Dy.)


What made this such a great freakin’ conference?

There are some very specific reasons why I had such a great time and I hope that other conference organizers will take some of these reasons into consideration when organizing their own conference.  (If you know a conference organizer, please share this post with them.)

1. Code of conduct

This is not a standard yet, but all conferences, meet-ups, etc. should have one. NO EXCUSES.

If you are STILL wondering why this is so important, Leigh Honeywell has written an excellent blog post which puts this in simple terms even a nerd can understand.  

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept — David Morrison via C.J. Silverio

Cascadia.js was very up front with their COC and I’m sure it made the conference better.  If you are a conference organizer and don’t where to start, have a look at this template.

2. Single track…ftw!

Having been to both extremely large conferences and peer conferences that included about 10-15 people, I am now convinced that small and single-track is my favorite conference format.  It gives everyone at the conference a conversation starter.  There are no choices about which talk to attend, and the talks are usually better because there are fewer speaking slots.

3. The speakers had a wide spectrum of experience for speaking and for javascript

I’ve been to conferences where the speakers have all been “industry experts with X years of experience.”  I guess that’s one way to sell the value of what someone is saying, but people who are new to a language or to speaking have their own lessons to offer. For example, what Ruth Baril had to say about the anxiety of asking questions at meet ups was something that I think everyone needs to hear as it addresses approachability within the tech community.

4. Creating a wider audience for a conference

Watching Lydia Katsambaris’s talk on Bookmarklets and releasing her first code to the world resonated deeply with me since I’ve just had my own first release.  In fact, it resonated in a way that any of the deeper code talks wouldn’t have because it speaks to my personal experience.  I would much rather watch a talk that speaks to me in that way than to watch a man in an aloha shirt, stomping up and down a stage yelling out excessively boring metaphors about how building software is building a house. (This happened years ago and I walked out of that talk.)

5. Interspersing technical talks with cultural talks meant that more people watched both

There were talks I would not have watched but that I very much enjoyed.  I watched them simply because I was already seated and couldn’t be bothered to move.  This is how you get a talk out to people who need to hear the message but who might not purposefully watch it.  This conference was purposefully stacked with cultural talks intended to send a very clear message about inclusivity and there were also plenty of deep, code-y talks.  I listened to super-technical talks that I probably might have avoided, such as Nick Niemeier’s talk on event emitters because sometimes those talks intimidate me.  Listening to them anyway proved to me that I now know a lot more about javascript and web development than I did when I was sitting in the audience last year and it gave me something to aspire to for future talks.

On the flip side,  I’m sure there were people listening to my talk about mentoring who probably would have skipped it otherwise.  Because we were all sitting down in a hot tent, everyone was listening to all of the talks.  

This is how you expand someone’s mind.  
man expanding his mind in red pants
6. There was no Q&A section
Q&A at conferences is less of a discourse and more of an insult delivery system.  Cascadia.js wanted people to ask the speakers their questions face to face after the speaker had left the stage.  I like this because, aside from keeping the conference moving right along, it means the person asking the question is more accountable for what they say.  It also means if the question is really a way to patronize the speaker or to insult them,  it won’t be happening in front of a huge roomful of people who might even collude with the question troll to create a miserable speaking experience.  
I know how much work it takes to put together a conference talk.  It means you’ve shoved other responsibilities aside to practice and are working through any personal fears of getting onstage in front of lots of people.  I would much rather that people watching my talk remember the message I worked so hard to send rather than someone’s stupid, troll-face question they took 5 minutes to think up.
Does this mean people don’t get to ask questions? On the contrary, it means that people get better, more meaningful answers to the questions they ask.  Ryan and I were asked some questions after our talk and because we weren’t in front of a large crowd, faced with a time limit, we were able to answer the someone’s question thoroughly and specifically for their context with no constraints on time.  In fact, there were other conference attendees who were able to chime in during the conversation with some valuable input. This type of deep discussion can’t happen when you’re on the stage.  
7. Conferences are more fun when you go with a friend
I hate going to conferences alone.  You’ve made plans, spent money and gotten all excited about a conference.  Then you show up alone and feel like an outsider right away.  This doesn’t make it easier to make friends, rather, it makes it much, much harder.  Especially if you’re female, I’ve noticed that there will be a space bubble around you at all times.  People don’t sit next to you.  People don’t introduce themselves to you.  You really have to go an extra 500 miles to introduce yourself and then it’s assumed that you won’t be able to able to participate in a technical conversation. (Insert inevitable eye-roll here).
For these reasons, I’ve made it a habit of sticking out my hand and introducing myself if I am in line, if I am sitting at a bar or if someone sits down one seat away from me.  It doesn’t mean that I feel any more brave when I do it, but it’s more of a habit now.  I’ve also learned to let the first minutes of awkwardness ride.  It’s never going to be non-awkward to introduce myself to someone I don’t know, so I’ve accepted it.
That said, it is much, much easier to conquer these things with someone you already know standing by your side.  This was the 2nd time Ryan and I have attended this conference together.  It was refreshing to have someone sitting next to me, someone to eat with me and someone who understood that I was freaking out before my talk because he was freaking out too. After our successful talk, we got to sing together at karaoke too.
This made it a lot easier to reach out to other people and I met some folks with whom I hope I get to keep in touch.
We were both melting, but it felt great to get up on stage and say the things we did after so many hours of work.
Thanks to the conference organizers for including us in such a heavy-hitting roster of talks.
As a bonus, I tend to sketchnote conference talks, but this time, Willow Brugh (@willowbl00) sketched out mine!
Revival at summer camp…
Javascript hasn’t had the easiest year, but if there is any message sent by the talks at Cascadia.js, it’s that the javascript community is not held in the hands of any one person or any one man.  If we’re talking about revival, maybe the revival is that Javascript is now in the hands of its own community more than it ever was before.
Deep messages aside, the tent + being outdoors + flip-flops everywhere meant that the conference felt very much like a summer camp.  We broke the hotel’s ice maker, bonded over crazy javascript projects, drew all over the sidewalk and looked at way too many cat pictures together.
I’m still in withdrawal.  
Every conference should be this way.
A conference is a snapshot of a community at a moment in time.  This one left such a feeling of joy in my heart that I don’t know if it’s an experience that will ever be topped.  If anything, it shows that there is, indeed, a way to harness this type of joy in the tech community.  It can happen and I hope it happens again.  I hope it happens for everyone.
This year, Cascadia.js is experimenting with a festival format where each day has a theme.  It’s taking place at a resort in the San Juan islands, so it really is a summer camp!  I’m not there this year, but chances are pretty good that I’ll be returning at some point.
As for me and Ryan, we’re working on a new talk that we will be giving at Strangeloop in September about javascript, functional programming and collaborative sketching.  I can’t wait!
Photo credit:
The lovely professional photos seen throughout this post were shot by Matthew Bergman