jQueryUK 2015

10th March 2015


“Oxford is one of the country’s most active web technology hubs” say White October, organisers of jQueryUK. “Major front-end conference just down the road – yes please!” say I. While I returned with an ES6-Set of technical insights, and an eye-watering TODO list, the over-riding message for me was of privilege.

I metamorphosed into a Javascript developer about 18 months ago, having previously written server-side web apps and back-ends in Java, and before that C++. I never felt one tenth the enthusiasm for those tools as I do for Javascript today. Software development as a whole has moved towards the small, the lightweight, the agile, the rapid, the minimally-viable. If “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us” then the Javascript campus shapes us around these modern ideals of nimbleness far more effectively than the Java & C++ megaliths ever could. Excellent tools they may be, but I was never invigorated by a C++ conference, nor excited to be using Spring. The Javascript language and community embody how I think software should be, and how I feel software should be, and it is a privilege to be part of it.

Churchillian rhetoric aside, I’d like to mention a few of the talks I attended. Dave Methvin’s (jQuery foundation) keynote talked about ECMAScript 6/2015. I was already familiar with the new features in theory, but after this talk I am keen to install a transpiler into our Gulp process and start using them in practice. I’m also more tempted now to defect to io.js, as its ES6 support is some way ahead of NodeJS 0.12 (and we’re still on 0.10…).

In antiquity, receiving oracular wisdom necessitated live sacrifices; happily no animals were harmed by the recipients of Mark Otto’s (GitHub, Bootstrap co-creator) CSS masterclass. The cascading aspect of Cascading Style Sheets may make it easy to write, but at the cost of making it far harder to edit and maintain. This is a cost I studiously avoid paying in other languages, and so I should with CSS. He also talked about having CSS usage analysis in the build process – I’d love to try this.

Rosie Campbell (BBC R&D) took us for a ride in an ambiently-displayed TARDIS to show us the future: applications for display technology which doesn’t exist yet, of which Smart Wallpaper is an example. The background to our future lives will be ambient content. They prototyped turning an entire room into a cross between Google Now and the Chromecast slideshow, with sprinkles of Doctor Who. A questioner pointed out that such displays are an advertiser’s utopia; it is therefore admirable that the BBC are striving to claim this new territory for the public benefit. I’m a tech researcher for a public benefit company, so this is a resonant message indeed.

Ben Foxall (White October) gave his memorable take on the Internet of Things, in a demonstration which was less keynote than it was art installation. I strongly recommend watching the video when it is released. We will talk soon on these pages about our own take on IoT.

The outstanding talk of the conference was given by Alice Bartlett (Government Digital Service). Mere seconds of recorded user-testing destroyed native boxes for almost all use-cases. This, though, paled next to the underlying message: privilege. It is all too easy to write shiny software for “twenty-somethings with MacBooks” when we are (or were…) twenty-somethings with MacBooks. The GDS facilitate tasks people do only because they have to – like applying for benefits – for people often from demographics disproportionately likely to be non-tech-savvy. If your core audience is elderly carers using XP at their library, then engineering a system for the privileged just isn’t going to help. Hearing of UI developers who help people of all stripes in such a thoughtful and effective manner – and who deserve overwhelming credit for doing so – triggered some long, hard, introspection. Much of what I write is closed prototype software for which all but happy-path usability is unnecessary, since I can name each member of my tiny target audience. I make shiny things, but do I help anyone? This little tower I inhabit is an ivory one; I see now that whatever shape it is making me ought to be tinted with the conscientious guilt of the privileged.I’ll be attending BLN in Cambridge this week, and SmashingConf in Oxford next week; drop me a line if you want to disagree in person with any of the above.

Thanks to the White October Events team for laying on yet another excellent conference. See you there next year!