Jammin in Atlanta

Last weekend an illustruous group of known designers and developers came to Atlanta, Georgia to share their ideas and give direct feedback to the audience. The Webmaster Jam Session or short WJS organized by Coffeecup software is a refreshingly different conference that allows to reach attendees you don't normally see at other conferences.

Webmaster Jam Session Atlanta 2008

I went to Atlanta after speaking at the Ajax Experience conference in Boston, Massachussets (on YUI for control freaks) and arrived in Atlanta to give a talk about Computing for Good covering Scripting Enabled at Georgia Tech. After that I arrived just in time for the speakers dinner of the WJS. The WJS is an annual conference formerly held in Texas but now moved to Atlanta. The line-up of the conference was impressive, featuring a lot of long-standing designers and developers that had quite an impact forging the web as it is now.

The really cool thing about the WJS is the format. While there are formal presentations there are also break-out sessions allowing the audience to show off their products and get feedback from the speakers about possible improvements. These "website smackdown sessions" are a great opportunity for both the attendees (getting professional reviews without having to pay a lot) and the speakers (getting a healthy dose of reality in terms of what people have to build within which constraints).

The overall conference theme is that none of the sessions are set in stone and questions from the audience and specialist input from other speakers during presentations is highly encouraged. Furthermore there was no problem with speakers giving impromptu lunch-break talks or call a quick workshop should they feel inclined to do so.

As you might have guessed, this is what I did. During one of the smackdown sessions we got to review a site that was still using tables for layout and got to know that the reason was the lack of resources in the company to have a go at creating a proper CSS layout. Therefore I took the YUI CSS grids and showed the audience how it was possible to create a nicer and easier to maintain layout for the site in 15 minutes. Following are the screenshots of the original and the redesigned site:


The feedback on this was great and it inspired me to create some more "refit your site with frameworks" tutorials in the future.

My real purpose at the conference was a joint presentation with Dan Rubin telling people how to make accessibility sexy:

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The idea is that it is high time for us to stop seeing accessibility as something that stifles creativity and beauty. Instead we should see that making our products more available and inclusive is an opportunity to create pretty and useful products that please everybody - regardless of ability.

Overall the WSJ was a blast. I had an amazing amount of fun and realized that the famed southern hospitality is not a myth but fact. I've never felt as pampered as a speaker. The audience was very different to other conferences and I had a great time being challenged to help people find ways to be more productive in their companies and sell web standards to upper managements who just don't care. This is where we should be helping out, as this area of our market is keeping us all in the 90ies when it comes to technical infrastructure.

The mood of the conference was friendly, engaging and never felt rushed. Technical issues like a less than stable wireless and presentation projectors with a max resolution of 800 x 600 pixels were more the reason for joking with the audience and collectively finding ways around them ("Who has a cell that can be used as a 3G modem?") than a show-stopper.

The sponsored after-parties can only be described as epic and both the chosen locations and the wonderful sunny autumn weather made it is easy to let your hair down and network without time pressure.

Watch out for the presentations and information on the conference by monitoring the "WJS08" tag on social networks, and - given that there is interest - I'll be very happy to hop over to Atlanta again next year.

Chris Heilmann
Yahoo Developer Network