Finding new in the Web

Learning from the Fluent Conference.

At Fluent 2015, we brought together a variety of stories about front-end engineering – some technical, some social, some more intricately intertwined.

From the very first day, it was clear that React was the big technical story of the conference, taking the place that Angular (which is still clearly important!) had had the previous year. Tutorials and sessions were busy, and I kept hearing conversation about React. Sometimes it was “what is React supposed to do?” but other times people were talking about exciting corners of React Native or techniques for integrating React with a variety of frameworks.

React makes me happy because it solves the problem a lot of people didn’t quite realize they had. Suddenly they are very enthusiastic about stuff that used to be really annoying. The Document Object Model (DOM) has been the foundation of most of the interactive work on the web since 1998, but it wasn’t very much fun then. As developers really get deeper into these things, the DOM has not exactly been a crowd-pleaser. In some ways React is a wrapper for the DOM, and in many ways it’s a just a better way to interact with the document tree.

The other technical key this year was JavaScript, often specifically ECMAScript 6 (ES6), the latest release. Brendan Eich talked about a world in which compiling to JavaScript has become normal, and how that frees much of the future development of JavaScript and the Web. Even Dart, which many of us saw as an attempt to replace JavaScript, has a home in this world.

JavaScript – even before you think about ES7 – has corners that many people are still mastering. Developers that come to JavaScript often come with expectations that don’t quite fit the language. After Axel Rauschmayer and Aaron Frost explored the new world of ES6, Kyle Simpson (You Don’t Know JS) explored the still-dark corners of JavaScript and coercion. From the outside, they can seem mysterious, but internal consistency gives them power.

Are Single-Page Apps (aka Native Web Apps) the true way forward for the Web? A lot of Fluent attendees build them, and our Native Web Applications training was full. Fluent also included exploration of other models, from the latest in PHP (and Hack) development to hybrid or isomorphic approaches that mix client and server processing.

While JavaScript (usually) handles behavior, CSS (usually) handles presentation. A constant theme of past Fluent conferences was that CSS can solve some kinds of problems much more efficiently than JavaScript. At this point, that’s become gospel, and developers were exploring newer frontiers in CSS like grid layout and SASS.

Development isn’t just a matter of tech, though. People and organizational structures can make more of a difference than your choice of programming language or application architecture. People who are working with organizations that are vast tend to have very different opinions on the rate of change than people who are working in organizations that are tiny. Sometimes you can call this enterprise and start up, though there’s a lot more to the story than that. PayPal hired Bill Scott a few years ago to release the Kraken and change their organizational structures. He returned to Fluent with an update on how technical change can restructure an organization.

Corporate culture comes in many varieties, though. PayPal likely drifted too far away from its long-ago startup flexibility for a Web company, but it’s not always a good idea to pursue every cycle of new Web technology. You start with new and great, and then you keep going with that same now slightly old. If companies hold on to old technology too long, though, they risk people leaving to seek something new, though some of those folks become consultants to keep things constantly fresh.

The cycle underlying all of these options is the learning cycle. How quickly can people learn, apply, and master? Kathy Sierra (Badass: Making Users Awesome ) rang bells, whether church bells or alarm bells, in her keynote.

This post is part of our ongoing exploration into cross-pollinating communities in the Web space.

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