JamstackConf: A virtual conference experience

These last couple of months remote work is the new normal for lots of us. The way we experience things like conferences has changed as well. How does a virtual conference compare to the real-life alternative? Read on!

Last week, Anna, Aitor and I got the chance to attend the Jamstack Conf. It was originally planned to happen in London, and at the beginning of the year we had planned to attend other conferences, like NordicJS and JS Heroes. Due to the COVID-19 situation, those were cancelled, and we were sad at the prospect of not attending any conference this year.

Luckily for us, the Jamstack Conf organizers decided not only to go forward with the conference, moving it to a virtual setting, but they also made it free for everyone! So we took the chance to experience a virtual conference for the first time.

I must admit, I was not thrilled by the idea. For me, a conference is much more than the talks. I'd even say that the talks are the least important thing, as they are usually recorded and made public. What I enjoy the most is the opportunity to bond with my colleagues, meet new people, and of course, get free stickers. So, how does a remote conference compare to the real-life experience? Let's see!

The talks

For some reason, I find it very hard to focus when watching a video. I guess I'm one of those old people who prefers reading to following a video course. Because I know how my mind works, I took extra preparation to be able to follow this conference as closely as I would have if I had attended physically. I marked the day as busy in my calendar, and did not plan to do any work (I consider attending conferences and learning part of my work, but you know what I mean). I turned off my notifications, put the video on full screen, moved away from the keyboard and took notes in a real notebook. From time to time I checked Slack to chat about the conference with my colleagues (that is also part of attending a conference right?), but other than that I tried to stay away from the keyboard as much as possible. It helped, although it was still harder for me to focus than in a real-life conference, I think it went pretty well. By no means would I have been able to follow if I just had the talks on my other screen while doing client-related work.

But enough about me, let's talk about the talks! They were all pre-recorded, which at first I thought this was a bit strange, but quickly saw the value: more relaxed speakers, no demo effect, and the speaker was available on the chat to answer questions while the talk was playing. I found the chat to be very chaotic (there were like 6000 people in the room so you can imagine), and maybe it would have benefited from a bit more moderation — not because of any Code of Conduct violation, but simply noise. Still, it's an interesting tool. To be noted, in-between the talks they had live Q&A sessions which worked great.

In terms of content, I especially enjoyed Christian Nwamba's talk about Jamstack for Emerging Markets, and Erin Kissane's about The COVID Tracking Project. It's refreshing to see a technology we love be put to use to make a positive impact on people's lives, and talk about performance in those terms instead of just being about more visits and making more money.

There were many other interesting talks, and they are already online so make sure to check them out!

The hallway experience

I was really amazed by the tool the conference used, Hopin. They really put an effort into making the virtual conference experience as close to reality as possible, and I'm sure it will be a killer app in the conference space.

As I said previously, it has a chat and there were live Q&A sessions, but that's not all. Sponsor booths were also virtual rooms with a live video feed. I think this suffered in comparison to the real-life experience, as usually when you approach a sponsor booth they always come to you and start talking about their product (which can be a bit annoying, but you are able to fully understand what they do). In these virtual booths, since you might join at any point, it's hard to follow the conversation if you don't know about the product beforehand, and I didn't find it very engaging.

To complete the hallway experience of a conference, one cannot forget the most important part. Networking! I'm a shy person, but I like to meet new people (yes, it's not as contradictory as it sounds). I often find it hard to talk to other attendees in real-life conferences, especially when groups start forming in the hallway and you are there all alone holding your cup of coffee as your only friend. Hopin offers the perfect tool for people like me. There is this chatroulette-like feature where they pair you up with a random attendee and you have a video chat for 5 minutes. No more standing alone trying to find the right angle to approach a group, all you need to do is click a button! Plus, being time-framed, you don't reach that awkward point where the conversation is over and you don't know how to say goodbye. I probably spoke to more people in this conference than any other before.

It's clear that they made an extra effort to match the experience of a real-life conference, so much that they might have missed opportunities to improve on it. For example, to visit the sponsors booths you need to leave the main stage video, which of course makes sense when you cannot be in two places at once in real-life, but in a virtual setting it would be cool to minimize and mute a video so you can check something else, but without losing all context. It would also be cool to have a log of the people you've interacted with, in case you want to connect with them later. Still, for being a platform in early access, it has offered a great experience!

Are virtual conferences here to stay?

I must say, I still prefer the real-life experience in many ways, especially for team-building. But, while I thought that virtual conferences (for me) were just a temporary thing while we are dealing with the COVID-19 situation, I'm now sure that I will be attending more of them. We need to keep in mind that virtual conferences are more accessible to everyone (or should be — Hopin doesn't support captions at the moment), and also more environmentally friendly, something that is essential to fight climate change (we talked about that in the first issue of our newsletter). Having more virtual conferences is in everyone's best interest, so if you were skeptical like me, I really recommend you try it!

Oh, and the stickers? RedwoodJS mentioned that they would email them to any attendee that wanted them. Here we go, the conference experience is complete.

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