Web Directions North in Denver, Colorado

I'm sitting in a small cafe in Breckenridge, Colorado waiting for the rest of the conference attendees of Web Directions North to come back from the slopes so I can get some more networking in. The last 5 days had about 150 attendees -- a generous number of illustrious speakers talking about all things web development in an hotel in downtown Denver, overlooking the city from the 37th floor.

Web Directions North was a well-designed conference: first there was a mix of presentations and workshops, but more importantly, one of the workshops on Day 1 was dedicated to bringing the good ideas and practices we follow in the web development industry to educators.

Ed Directions brought in educators from universities and high schools to listen to the ideas of the WaSP education task force, get introduced to the Opera Web Standards Curriculum, ask questions about web technologies, and get answers from subject-area experts.

Sadly, I missed the first day, when London ground to a standstill because of recording-breaking snow and my flight got cancelled. (Ironic, as snow in Denver is less of a problem.). That's why Derek Featherstone filled in to give my introductory presentation to JavaScript.

I managed to arrive in time for the main event and was immediately tapped in to interview people for the video Yahoo Developer Network Theater shot for the Wed Directions organizers. We also filmed several of the talks and they will be released on the YDN theater and here over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

In addition, the conference organizers recorded all the talks as podcasts and the slides and transcriptions will be available on the Web Directions web site once they've been edited. So if you weren't able to come you still can get the goodies.

Conferences are much more than just listening to talks or attending a workshop. Most importantly it is a chance to network and ask questions to the right people. The WDN folk, in partnership with MediaTemple and the Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 team, did a splendid job making it easy and pleasant for attendees to mingle over food, drink, and on a two-day, opt-in ski trip following the event.

All in all, WDN was a worthwhile conference. I especially enjoyed the chance to talk to university professors and high school teachers about the opportunities we have to give students of the future the essential web skills the industry needs right off the bat.

My own presentations were Things that go bump on the web, an introduction to web application security and an explanation of the connection between security and usability, and an An introduction to YUI as part of the JavaScript Libraries and Frameworks Super-session.

Here are some of my impressions of the sessions I attended:

Pete LePage of the Internet Explorer 8 team gave a good talk about ensuring compatibility of your web sites with Microsoft's new browser. Microsoft is offering a chance to make old sites work in IE8 . New sites benefit from the standards support by defining a META element telling the browser what to do with your sites - an extension of the old DOCTYPE switching if you will. With older sites, you can even do that on the server side as an HTTP header so you don't have to re-write all your pages. I get good vibes from Internet Explorer 8 as a whole but wish we had a better chance to make people upgrade to it.

Ex-Yahoo Nicole Sullivan gave a presentation on object-oriented CSS, explaining the benefits of re-use and clean CSS architecture, and the impact these factors have on web site performance. If you haven't watched Nicole's video on this same subject check it out - she really knows her stuff and has a good no-nonsense way of explaining complex matters.

Brad Neuberg of Google and Dojo gave a talk about persistent storage of web applications, covering all the possible ways of making the web a stateful platform without using cookies and even showed a video featuring an iphone, a demo of persistent storage (a sticky note application in Safari 3.1), and a cat! This was a conference first, as up to now nobody had thought of adding a cat to make the subject matter easier to grasp.

Fellow Ajaxians Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith started day two with a "State of Ajax" keynote. Dion and Ben explained why they feel very psyched about canvas and its opportunities and showed an exclusive preview of a browser-based code editor that will soon be released by Mozilla. The editor runs on canvas and uses web worker threads to stay responsive and smooth even when dealing with large amounts of code. All in all a very good introduction of technologies that could revolutionize the way we use the web if we only gave them more love.

Derek Featherstone gave a good talk about web accessibility beyond compliance, covering the need for usable accessibility and showing how a small change to an interface can mean an immense accessibility benefit.

An absolute highlight was the final keynote by Bob Harris - a writer and traveling blogger who gave us an overview of his learnings. When visiting places far and wide: we all mess things up, we all are part of history in the making and whilst there are terrible things happening we cannot deny that it is amazingly powerful to smile at people, learn how they tick before starting to demand information, and in general not to be afraid to gain new experiences.

All in all, I want to say a big thank you for the organizers, helpers, and attendees of the conference -- I am very happy to have spent 8 hours in the airport trying to get there. It was very much worth it. You should keep an eye out for the other events run by the same bunch of enthusiastic people, who simply want to empower others to build a better web for the future.

Chris Heilmann
Yahoo Developer Network