Web Directions 2014 - The Wrap

By Will McClellan1st November 2014
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I had the pleasure of heading to Sydney for Web Directions South 2014 at the end of October with a few other Inlight team members. It was the 10th anniversary of the conference and as a whole it was brilliant, but here are my particular highlights.

Emily Nakashima & The Operable Front-end

This was the talk that I got most takeaways from. Emily crammed it full of useful advice, tools and techniques that I wish I knew about yesterday. Front-end ops is one of those areas which can be neglected, but with a bit of effort the rewards can be huge.

I remember reading the Front-end ops article by Alex Sexton, who first introduced the term Front-end ops. Emily's talk highlighted the concepts and how they are implemented by the Github team.

One particularly cool insight was Github's internal logging tool, Haystack. It monitors front-end logs, such as errors, as well as performance metrics to give developers an overview of how an application is performing. It links repository commits with a page performance & error count graph so commits that have adversely affected the front-end can be identified. Open source this now please Github!

Another nice workflow was Github's automated deployments with hubot. Deployments can be initiated by anyone with one line in a chat room which is followed by real-time front-end performance charts posted to the same chat room. So any team member can see how the deployment has gone. If errors have ramped up because of a bad deployment, then anyone can jump on and fix it.

Jeremiah Lee & Elements of API Excellence

Jeremiah gave some brilliant tips for how to build solid APIs. This wasn't a talk about specific technology or methodology, but instead focused on the User Experience of an API. I know, who'd have thought us developers were users too!

I must admit, when it comes to APIs, architecture and elegance of code is always at the front of my mind, but never from a UX perspective. It was a real eye opener. Some ideas/concepts of API UX were:

  • Who uses your API? What kind of developers are they?
  • Developers should provide support on a regular basis
  • Developers should learn UX principles. They apply as much to APIs as they do to visual interfaces
  • Carry out user testing. E.g. Go and observe another developer using your API
  • Does your API design meet your business requirements. Does it do what users were told when they bought in to it
  • Use your own API. Sounds like a no-brainer, but we've been guilty of this too.

It was great to hear someone talk about APIs without going down the well trodden path of telling you how to build your API. The UX principles that Jeremiah spoke about apply to any API, no matter how it was built.

Sarah Mei & Unpacking Technical Decisions

I really enjoyed Sarah's talk, which mostly revolved around how to choose a new library/framework. This happens all the time in a development team and sometimes a quick decision might be appropriate. But what about those decisions that shouldn't be quick or where the amount of choice is so vast that a smart and educated decision is really important.

The obvious example that Sarah spoke about was JavaScript frameworks. Backbone? Angular? Maybe Ember? Or 1 of the 657 other open source frameworks on Github?

This is the debate of our time in web development and everyone has an opinion on which one to use. But how do you choose? Sarah highlighted the huge amount of variables that go into making the decision:

  • Github stars
  • Commit frequency
  • Contributors
  • Team familiarity
  • etc.

Sarah proposed a solution based upon accessibility, interface, popularity and activity of the framework. Combine this with internal/external influences, the project, and the people and you have a pretty smart way to make these huge decisions.

And it is a huge decision. Building your new web startup on a JavaScript framework that doesn't work for your team/product could weigh you down while the competition streaks ahead; or even worse it could kill the product.

For me, this was all invaluable and I'll be using Sarah's process the next time we choose a new library or framework at Inlight. That will be later today then!

The Conference Experience

I thought I'd say a little about the experience at the conference too, which was excellent overall. The food was fantastic, the coffee great and the service team were unbelievably attentive. As Maxine said in the closing words, it was like a military operation.

We didn't have a lot of time to stay at the after party but the venue Carriageworks was an incredible space and once again the staff were fantastic. I couldn't eat or drink fast enough!