Notes from FFConf 2023

Today I attended ffconf in Brighton for the second year running.

Here’s a rundown of the talks, and my reflections from the day.

Imposter syndrome, overworking and working environments by Amber Shand

We kicked the day off with a talk on dealing with imposter syndrome by Frontend Engineer, Amber Shand.

Amber discussed her own struggles with imposter syndrome when she moved into software engineering a few years ago. Despite impressive achievements, she found herself unable to internalise her own success, and couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d simply got lucky, or tricked her employer into hiring her.

I especially related to Amber’s tendencies towards harmful perfectionism and over-reliance on external validation to give her a sense of self-worth, and how this can lead to burnout.

However, for Amber, this is exacerbated by her own experience as a Black women working in the white-dominated tech industry. Growing up, she was told she’d have to work twice as hard as her white counterparts to get ahead.

Since one of the main characteristics of burnout is a decreased sense of accomplishment, I particularly liked Amber’s small wins tracker template - a free tool that helps people to record and acknowledge their achievements.

Amber’s talk finished with a call for self-compassion: a recognition that most of us are doing our best, and are deserving of recognition, rest and recovery. Amen to that!

The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI by Maggie Appleton

I really enjoyed hearing Maggie speak on this subject at Smashing Conf in Freiburg in September, so I was excited to see her on the lineup for today.

The dark forest theory of the web builds on the dark forest theory of the universe, which says that the universe is like a dark forest at night: it seems quiet and lifeless. And that’s because if you draw attention to yourself, you attract predators. Therefore, says dark forest theory, those of us who remain in the universe either just haven’t died yet, or have learned to shut up. We don’t yet know which group the human race sits in.

Maggie pointed out parallels with our behaviour on the web: the risk of attack when sharing content on social media means many of us move our content to semi-private spaces like newsletters or private discussion spaces to express our views safely.

She talked how the rapid increase in capabilities of generative AI agents to cheaply and convincingly churn out massive quantities of content in different formats on the web means we are about to “drown in a sea of questionable and mediocre information”.

Why does this matter?

First, AI generated content has a different connection to reality from humans. As humans, we read, compare and communicate information with a foundational experience of physical reality. Generative AI, by comparison, can learn from the information we provide it, but has no experience of physical reality to compare that with.

Generated content also doesn’t have any human relationship potential. If a piece of content written by a human resonates with its reader, the reader and author can discuss that content and engage and connect over it. AI does not have the capacity to create such relationships, although may be able to emulate those very convincingly.

This leaves us with a big question: how do we as humans prove our humanity on a web which will soon be filled with non-human agents?

And what happens when generative data becomes its own source? How quickly will the majority of information we see on the internet lose its connection to our physical reality.

Despite a thread of humour through Maggie’s talk, the ominousness of the implications of this impending reality was clear.

Returning to dark forest theory, Maggie predicted that one way we’ll cope with this is to retreat further into the cosy web. We’ll see more content put behind paywalls, being blocked from scraping or from API access, with less and less content living on the open web. This creates its own problems for people who research and write for a living.

Maggie’s talk concluded by posing a question: which possible futures would you like to make happen? Will we use this technology responsibly or for harm? Time will tell.

We need to talk about the front web by Angela Ricci

Angela spoke passionately about the importance of using traditional frontend technologies (HTML and CSS) if we want to preserve the open standards, the separation of content and style, and the semantics that ensure the web remains democratic and sustainable.

She discussed how our increasing focus on the developer experience over the user experience threatens these foundations.

The introduction of JavaScript frameworks like React have widened the gap between those building the web and those using it. Risks to the performance and accessibility of our applications are accepted in pursuit of a seemingly faster and simpler way to code.

Angela’s call to action was to return our attention to teaching and upholding traditional frontend development, to make sure we’re delivering great user experiences.

She explained the importance of preserving frontend development as a specialism in its own right, and ensuring we don’t lose it in the face of full stack. She also advocated for close collaboration between designers and developers to make sure we’re keeping a constant eye on our user experience.

I couldn’t agree more.

Future Proof CSS by Ire Aderinokun

Ire‘s talk explored the role of CSS and JavaScript in delivering accessible user experiences.

We often talk about HTML as being accessible by default but, she explained, we can easily undo this with incorrect use of CSS and JavaScript.

HTML provides semantic meaning to information. CSS is designed to add styling to that information. JavaScript is designed to provide additive functionality that can’t be achieved with HTML and CSS combined.

Like Angela, Ire advocates technologies in the way they were designed to be used. She went on to share a set of practical and specific dos and don’ts for achieving this when writing CSS and JavaScript.

As a non-developer, a lot of the detail here went beyond my understanding. However, the principles she shared matched those that I try to apply in my work design systems and content: simplicity, inclusivity and accessibility.

I find it really heartening to see developers like Ire and Angela so skilfully advocating these principles, in practical terms, to their communities of practice.

Ada Lovelace and the Very First Computer Program by Steve Goodwin

Developer Steve Goodwin delivered a lively post-lunch history lesson which was a welcome wake up after eating myself into a carb coma.

He introduced us to her text for the first ever computer program, how it was intended to work, and why it didn’t (there was a bug!) then recreated it in JavaScript.

Steven left us with this thought: given all Ada Lovelace achieved (from conceiving of variables and loops to foreseeing technologies like ChatGPT) would people be questioning her status as the first ever programmer proper if she were a man?

Embracing Neurodiversity in Tech: Building Empathy, Unveiling Strengths by Jonathan Fielding

Jonathan opened his talk with an overview of his personal journey and route to his diagnosis of autism.

He went on to share symptoms of 5 common neurodivergent conditions: ADHD, Autism, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

Jonathan talked us through the common stereotypes attached to each condition compared with the reality, and the strengths they can bring if properly supported at work.

He shared some principles for helping to create more empathetic working environments that helps a neurodiverse workforce to thrive, including:

  • making it safe to disclose neurodiversity
  • adapting hiring processes to support different preferences and requirements
  • using clear, concise communication
  • using person or identity-first language based on how someone refers to themselves

Jonathan has shared a helpful list of practical resources mentioned in his talk on his website.

Exploring the Potential of the Web Speech API in Karaoke

This is the second time I’ve seen this talk from Ana Rodrigues, the first being at this year’s State of the Browser. It was as joyful today as it was the first time.

A self-professed karaoke enthusiast, Ana has harnessed the web speech API to create a gamified karaoke tool that uses speech recognition to track your accuracy in singing a song’s lyrics.

Delivering a pitch perfect rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to showcase the tool, she perfectly demonstrated the possibility of incorporating fun and joy into our learning.

Entertainment as Code

Salma Alam-Naylor closed the day with her talk, Entertainment as code.

Leading on from Ana, this talk also concentrated on the intersection between fun and learning.

Salma, a livestreamer, frontend engineer and developer educator, promotes the idea that working in the open can help us humanise technology, and make it more accessible to learn.

It also helps to foster collaboration. Salma explained:

“Building stuff for your stream live on stream with viewers, for viewers is the best way to test functionality, get the QA going, crowd-source ideas, and make people feel part of that process, part of the product, and part of the stream.”

Yes, yes, yes!

That’s a wrap

A huge thank you to all of the speakers and to Remy and Julie and everyone else involved in organising ffconf.

It’s a wonderful conference with a clear emphasis on community, diversity and inclusivity. The result is an eclectic line up and an array of talks that validate, inspire and energise.

If you’ve never been, I can’t recommend it enough.