Christopher Schmitt on web conferences

Designer, developer and author of the CSS Cookbook Christopher Schmitt is the brains behind online web design conferences like next week's CSS Summit. He tells Oliver Lindberg what you can expect from the event, how it distinguishes itself from the competition and the importance of proper web design education

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.net: What can people expect from the CSS Summit?
Christopher Schmitt: I’m a big CSS nerd, so we’re having our third annual CSS Summit on 26-27 July, which is a geeky all-day online conference all about CSS. You can be anywhere in the world to attend. The first day is dedicated to CSS3, covering stuff like background images and gradients, and the next day is not directly tied to CSS3. It’s going to be CSS optimisation, CSS and keyframe animations and stuff like that. CSS3 only took half a day last year but it was really well-received, so we want to dig deeper into it.

This year we have Lea Verou and Rachel Andrew. While Rachel has spoken at other conferences and I've followed her work for years, she's speaking at the CSS Summit for the first time. And Lea's great work on CSS3 and background images made me reach out and ask her to speak.

.net: What other conferences are you planning?
CS: We’re doing a jQuery Summit in November and an Accessibility Summit on 27 September, which is going to be our second one. We’re going to talk about how to make sure websites can be accessed by people with screenreaders, people with colour blindness and other disabilities. That was a great big success and we have people from all over the world chime in for that because they really want to know how to make sure their sites are accessible.

We’re also doing a Mobile JavaScript Summit on 30 August. We did an iPhone Summit last year and it was really good but I feel like, based on my web standards background, you have Android and all these other platforms, it’s really hard to make an app across the board very easily. So we’re looking at tools like PhoneGap and jQuery Mobile that quickly make a web app and then convert it into an iPhone app. The core for this is JavaScript, so we have some good speakers lined up for the Mobile JavaScript Summit. Finally, there will also be a UX Web Summit and maybe a Web App Summit.

But we also do traditional face-to-face conferences. We recently wrapped up In Control, which we do in tandem with AIGA Orlando. So while we love doing online conferences, we also make sure that we do something different for traditional conferences. In Control is a two-days one-track conference and the sessions are longer, around an hour and 40 minutes, so that is enough time for the speakers to not feel rushed and also find time for people to ask questions. We really want to make sure that there’s enough time for attendees to talk to speakers. And then also at the end of each day we have a wrap up panel with all of that day’s speakers, so that you can go a little bit deeper into the topics.

.net: How many people are logging in for the conferences?
CS: We’re different to other online conferences. We actually limit the number of people who can sign up because we really want a conference experience. When people think about online conferences, they think about the ‘w’ word: webinar, which we are totally against.

What we really want to do is to humanise the experience as much as possible because we realise that we’re up against people who are maybe in a cubicle and looking at a computer screen, which isn’t that much fun. But we’re trying to make sure it’s as much fun as possible and we limit it to 200 per conference.

People can also chat with each other. You get this with every conference that has a speaker helping people learn: the people in the audience probably know more than the speaker. So we want to make sure that there’s engagement between the audience and the speaker, too. It’s cool when the audience facilitates what the speaker is trying to do, like find links that they’re referencing and somebody can just drop it into the chatroom or maybe add more background knowledge. I host the conference, so it’s MC’d, and we also engage on Twitter and Flickr and Instagram.

pic of the environments for humans web design conferences homepage

.net: Who are your competitors?
CS: Carsonified isn't doing online conferences any more but they did a great job. I think they are trying to become the Lynda.com of web design. They’re a great bunch of guys and girls and I met some of them after we did In Control Orlando. We dropped by their Orlando office since it was right next to where we were staying.

.net: People always complain that web design conferences feature the same kind of speakers and topics. What’s your take on that?
CS: We pride ourselves on how we create the shows. We go out and find people who can do a great job and also who are up and coming. I’m really happy with the CSS Summit. The first one, three years ago, featured someone no-one really knew about: Nicole Sullivan. I was so happy to have her on there. She just blew everyone away. The chatroom was dead quiet while she talked for an hour and a half. It ran over, into my session but I was okay with that. Now Nicole is well-known. And I’m happy to say that we’ve got a couple of people like that for the CSS Summit this year.

I think one of the things that I bring to the table as the organiser is that I work in the same field as everyone else. I just look at who’s doing some really groundbreaking stuff out there or who I feel like needs to be out there and is doing some really great stuff that should be explored and shared with everyone.

Chris Eppstein, for example, has worked with Compass and it’s a really great tool that you can use to shorten workflow. Nobody knew much about it but it saves so much time, gives you variables and so many extra things to do. So instead of handcoding a 140 lines of code, you do some shortening of the CSS. So we brought him to CSS Summit and a lot of people were just woken up to this new way of a workflow. There is a big audience for Sass and Compass. Just that it's not so well-known to a lot of web developers. I must claim some ignorance on the subject and one of the reasons I am glad that Chris Eppstein is sharing his time and expertise at CSS Summit again.

.net: How important are such conferences, be they physical or virtual?
CS: They’re very important. I’m actually part of the Education Task Force for the Web Standards Project. I did my master’s for interactive technologies and I had just finished the CSS Cookbook for O’Reilly when one of my first courses was to create web pages with table-based layouts. I had just written a book on how not to do that!

There’s a serious disconnect between education/academics and the professional environment. With the Education Task Force one of the things that we do is work with teachers and we actually have a curriculum called InterACT and if you’re a teacher it helps you structure the teaching of front end code… we have around 20 courses in the syllabus, question ideas and that’s all under a Creative Commons licence.

I think conferences are one of the great ways of maintaining and keeping yourself fresh. There are lots of great resources out there but a lot of them are kind of stale and basic. If you have a specific question, it’s hard to drill down to it. People aren’t writing that sort of material.

So it’s really important to get engaged with the speakers who have that content. We allow time for questioning. It’s the most important thing at conferences, to keep that conversation going.

I was at a Voices That Matter conference with Peachpit and New Riders and I had done my presentation and I was talking between sessions and someone came up to me and asked me a CSS question and it took me less than a minute to help her out. I made sure that she understood everything and she was the happiest person you’ve ever seen. It made her conference experience worthwhile. So if people can take something and turn it around and use it right away, especially for online conferences, we’ve done our job.

.net: Why is web education at conferences so horribly out of date? There seem to be only a few really good ones, like Liz Danzico’s MFA in Interaction Design at SVA and Hyper Island.
CS: It takes a lot of effort to do them. You have to keep on top of the game and the industry and that takes a lot of time. In my personal experience with going through my master’s degree, I found out that it takes a while to update computers and the technology. When I got there they had just updated to the latest CS version from Adobe. It’s hard to deal with a lack of funding…

Our industry also moves at a very fast pace. It takes a quality person who wants to be a teacher AND someone who wants to reach out and get on top of this industry. Jinny Potter, who is part of our Education Task Force, is trying to do a monthly user group for colleges and communities to bring people in to see how they can tell what the latest tips and techniques are for doing the job. But it’s hard if you don’t have people like Jinny Potter or the people at the University of Minnesota who are trying to put on conferences themselves to bring people in and share that knowledge. It’s hard to maintain that.

.net: What else are you working on?
CS: I’m working on an HTML5 Cookbook, which covers the entire spec, not just the front-end and the new HTML elements and how to code for them but we’re also working with the APIs that are part of it. I’m a co-author and more focused on the frontend, while the API part is spearheaded by Kyle Simpson, who’s known for LABjs and JavaScript optimisation. It’s scheduled to come out in September and features Kimberly Blessing, Emily Lewis, and Molly Holzschlag is doing the tech editing.

I’m also working on HTML5 and CSS3 Makeover. We’re looking at pages that may not be coded very well in today’s standards and how we can reduce the JavaScript dependency and rely more on CSS3 as well as bringing in HTML5 features. Again, we want to make sure that we have people that have actionable knowledge that they can use right away. That’s our overriding goal: not to just tell people what’s out there but also how they can use it.