The second day of @media2008 conference in London was much more revolving around development than the first one, which was about the design challenges we face as web developers. Here are some short summaries of the different sessions I managed to attend:
Keynote "Professional Front-End Engineering" (Nate Koechley)
Our very own Nate Koechley started off the day with his keynote covering the aspects of being a professional front end engineer. Nate walked in detail through the best practices followed in Yahoo and published here and what they mean for the profession of front end engineer as a whole. We will make the slides available here soon and write a detailed post about them then.
In essence, Nate explained why and how the job of a front-end engineer is different but not at all less important than other developer roles and which pragmatic best practices to follow to make life easier for us. These best practices include progressive enhancement, the graded browser support and unobtrusive scripting. All in all, Nate delivered an uplifting keynote that should entice people to walk proud being those who create the front-end of what we put on the market.
Building on the shoulders of giants (Jonathan Snook)
The main takeaway was that we can easily do things these days we thought hitherto impossible, if only we keep our eyes open and build upon already established, stable solutions. Jonathan's slides and all the links will be available on his site.
For example: The Guardian (Marc Pacheco) and Dopplr (Matt Biddulph)
Marc Pacheco talked about the current redesign of the Guardian web site and the challenges they faced building it. In his very short but refreshingly open talk he described a situation that a lot of developers have to face and all the blue sky best practice presentations just don't cover: you have a system already in place that has become hard to maintain and needs to be cleaned up.
Most of the other information on the web you find is only applicable when you start from scratch.
Marc explained that it makes sense to develop CSS in different smaller includes and concatenate them into a single file on deployment. This also allows you to analyze already existing CSS files, find commonalities and collate them into a base.css file.
Marc made another, more controversial point that we should stop blaming good browsers like Safari, Opera and Firefox for our mistakes - if something goes wrong, then it is most likely our fault.
He went on to ask for some better tools for us to use. Firebug is a great start but for large and complex CSS files there are no sufficient tools to show dependencies, track changes and have clever merging algorithms. Version controlling systems are likely to break CSS when doing a simple merge and Marc showed an example where Subversion caused parts of the Guardian site to be unavailable. Overall this was a very interesting talk and longer discussion and I am looking forward to compare practices in Yahoo with Marc's approach to development.
Matt Biddulph is the founder and developer of Dopplr, a social network build on travel activitity. His talk was an explanation of how he built the system with an amazingly small code and hosting effort on his own but instead building on top of already existing APIs (all in all over a dozen). His main message was that it is not about your application, but that applications become a lot more exciting with other people's data in it. Instead of forcing users to enter data all the time we should try to re-use existing data and networks in as many ways as possible.
WAI-ARIA - it's easy (Steve Faulkner)
Steve Faulkner is one of the unsung heroes of accessibility. Together with Gez Lemon they worked on a lot of clever, pragmatic solutions for real accessibility issues and published them on Gez's web site and the Paciellogroup blog for all to use.
In this talk Steve explained what ARIA is and how it can already help us work around day-to-day problems of accessibility. He showed several examples using a screen reader and how ARIA allows us to enhance the limited amount of HTML elements to use as application widgets. The examples included how you could create a textfield that shows the available amount of characters as a countdown while you type available to assistive technology, how to implement a slider in HTML and ARIA and a tri-state checkbox. As with all presentations using assistive technology, there were a few hick-ups, but I am sure that a lot of people in the audience came back with a new idea of what ARIA can help us with and that it is not only a pipe dream.
Exploring the server side - Rails and Django (James Adam and Simon Willison)
In this back-to-back talk James and Simon explained to the audience the benefits of Rails and Django as development frameworks respectively. Both created an event site as their example. While James did the whole thing as live code (which is always a daring task), Simon showed a prepared solution and getting into details about the principles of Django and how he managed to re-create a 1:1 copy of the @media site in it in a very short time.
Both presentations were amazingly thorough for the short amount of time and showed that clever frameworks with a bit of coding can replace massive out-of-the-box software packages if you actually know exactly what you want to build.
Hot topics panel
The final session of @media2008 was a hot topics panel moderated by Matt Biddulph with Steve Faulkner, Simon Willison, Jonathan Snook and Nate Koechley. The questions from the audience ranged from "Why weren't there many Microformats presentations - are they old news?" over debates about IE8 and the question when we'll be able to use all the CSS3 enhancements we are promised by the spec up to questions about the feasibility of an accredited front-end engineer job title. All in all the panel was excellent, with all panelists giving solutions and examples and Matt steering the discussion in the right directions and providing additional info when and if needed.
The second day was much more technical than the first and the flow of the day was amazing. The audience was very much scribbling down notes and asking interesting and challenging questions throughout and it was interesting to see that we are getting much closer to more and more companies opening up their best practices and working patterns for discussion and improvement by a wider audience.
There will be podcasts of all the sessions available later on at the @media homepage. Make sure to check for anything tagged "atmedia" on the web the next few days to get slides and photos of the conference and I for one would be happy to meet you next year or later this year for @media Ajax in London.
Yahoo Developer Network