Three Great Talks from self.conference 2014

self.conference is a new technical conference right here in downtown Detroit. The inaugural event took place recently, and I had the opportunity to attend, along with several of my fellow Atoms.

One thing that struck me about the conference was the sheer breadth of topics, covering many different facets of technology. Naturally, there were technical talks about specific technologies and concepts, but there were also talks about people skills, empathy, teaching, career development, team and project management, design, social issues, philosophy, and more.

Here are my thoughts and interpretations of three of my favorite talks from self.conference 2014.

Web Components with Chris Nelson

Web Components: The Bright and Shiny Future of Web app development – Chris Nelson

It’s an exciting time to be a web developer. In recent years, we’ve seen the advent of new browser technologies like HTML5, CSS3, WebGL, and improved JavaScript engines; new languages like CoffeeScript, LiveScript, and ClojureScript; and new frameworks like Backbone.js, Ember.js, and Angular.js. Web apps today can offer highly interactive and engaging user experiences using standard, open technologies built into browsers, without relying on proprietary extensions like Adobe Flash.

In his talk, Chris Nelson gave us a preview of “web components,” a group of upcoming web technologies that will make it easier to create reusable components in web apps:

  • Templates: craft HTML content that is not rendered, but is available to copy, modify, and insert into the page via scripts
  • Shadow DOM: embed self-contained HTML and CSS contexts within a page
  • Custom elements: define your own custom HTML tags
  • Imports: load another HTML document (with linked CSS, JS, etc.) in the background; useful for “distributing” templates and custom elements

Frameworks like Ember and Angular can already provide some of the functionality of web components, but having these building blocks available will make current use cases easier to implement, and will pave the way for exciting new use cases.

People Skills with Angela Harms

Careful with those People Skills: You’ll Poke Somebody’s Eye Out! – Angela Harms

I enjoy learning about new technologies, but many of the biggest challenges our industry is struggling with are social, not technical. As technologists — and human beings — our capacity for empathy and collaboration is just as important as our ability to write code or design interfaces. That is why I was so pleased to see social skills so well represented at self.conference, including in the opening keynote address by Angela Harms.

Most books and lectures about people skills are full of trite aphorisms — Be a good listener. Ask powerful questions. Express appreciation. Smile more. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

These sorts of sayings often come off as shallow and simplistic, or are treated as a means of getting other people to do what you want. In her talk, Angela Harms took a number of these common sayings and turned them inside out, revealing the true value behind the clichés.

As human beings, we benefit from genuine connections and relationships with other people. That genuineness requires being open and honest — and thus vulnerable — yet we put up emotional barriers in front of ourselves. Angela showed us how people skills can help you lower your own barriers, and help other people lower theirs, so that genuine connections can form.

These are skills we can all benefit from: as individuals, as teams, as an industry, and as a society.

Philosophy with Leon Gersing

Leon’s Allegory of the Cave – Leon Gersing

In Leon Gersing’s talk, he explored the role of technologists in today’s society, likening them to the philosophers of old. Similar to the freed prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, technologists sometimes catch a glimpse of a possible new reality, but are met with skepticism and disdain by the establishment.

In creating software and other technology, we are directly shaping the way people today communicate, work, and live. The established hierarchies and relationships of teacher and student, employer and employee, governor and governed, are not inevitable or immutable. We have the power to invent new realities, along with the responsibility to make them better and more just than the old realities.

Leon’s talk was a very heady and philosophical one, and no summary I could write can do it justice. Fortunately, you can watch a recording of the talk from Ancient City Ruby 2014:

So Much More

There were a lot of interesting talks at self.conference — I found myself wishing I could attend multiple sessions at the same time.

Did you attend self.conference? What were your favorite talks?