3 Life Lessons from a WebDev Conference

Growing up, I wanted to make robots. I drew pictures of blocky, 90’s looking robots, full of rectangles and youthful dreams. I saved every last cardboard box for my creations, even signed up the local hairdresser to my monthly machine magazine. As it turned out, magazine writing was far too ambitious a goal for even the pluckiest 10 year old, and the obsession with robots didn’t last into high school.

special brewjust for youIn adolescence, I turned my gaze towards game design and development. Later, after a few weeks of science camp in high school, I decided to become a particle physicist.

After all these best-laid plans, I somehow landed the role of web developer – at least, that’s what it says on my card.

A few weeks ago, I attended 3 web development conferences. Beneath the lectures, the workshops, and the esoteric technical details, I learnt 3 major life lessons.

Creating is more rewarding than passively experiencing.

The most rewarding experiences for me during the week of conferences were not of listening to lectures and enjoying the show. Instead, it was the time spent behind-the-scenes, volunteering and keeping the event running. To whatever limited extent I could, I was helping to create this event.

“Rewarding” is not the same as “pleasurable”. In measure of worldly pleasures, listening to a clever talk ranks higher than making sure the drinks fridge is stocked. Replacing bin liners isn’t quite on the same level as relaxing in a beanbag on the auditorium floor. Yet we are often led astray in seeking pleasurable activities. The gratification provided by these activities is almost always fleeting, and requires continually chasing after more to maintain the same level of satisfaction. Consider eating a delicious meal. The sensory pleasure is surely immense throughout each course. Yet, once the last bite of dessert is complete, what remains? To quote the great Daoist thinker Laozi, “pleasures and delicacy can only attract passers-by to stay temporarily”. The pleasure received from such an experience cannot be carried with you, and we are left with another hole to fill.

Rewarding activities, on the other hand, provide benefit beyond the tangible and sensory. This benefit becomes part of ourselves, and remains after the activity has passed. The time spent practising an instrument may, for some, be a pleasurable experience. Yet the reason most musicians undertake hours of practise is to better themselves and their art. Performing great works is a pleasurable act, and it is the long hours and difficult road to reach that point which allows for that reward. There are thousands, millions of stories already written – yet a writer does not content themselves with simply reading, but instead writes. The reward is not in the practise itself, nor the act of writing, but in how it changes the actor.

Being part of a team which created an event, attended internationally by hundreds, was truly rewarding. For my own part, being up on stage as MC had a powerful effect on me – though some could argue this was more a matter of feeding my ego and desire for the stage than is was any altruistic and wholesome endeavour. Were I to have spent a week simply absorbing the talks and enjoying the spectacle, the event would have less relevance to me now than it does otherwise.

As with everything there is a balance to be struck. Most of us cannot give up fine dining, entertainment, music, or any other of these worldly pleasures. What we can do, however, it to spend some time, any time, creating rewarding experiences for ourselves, to create works of art, to create powerful movements, and to create better versions of ourselves.

Find role models, and talk with them.

I’ve always been a very singular person – not yearning for or requiring much from others. While I’ve known some great people, for most my life there’s not been one who I could point to and say, “yes, they’re my role model, I want to learn from this person and reach their heights” (the exception, of course, being my boy Justin Vernon, light of my life).

However, to try progressing anywhere in life without the help of others is to handicap yourself. “Soft skills” such as communication and the ability to ask questions are more relevant than ever to succeed in the workplace and to succeed in life. For conferences, a large part of the benefit lies in the people you talk with. As a veteran conference-attender, internationally distinguished academic and colleague of mine has said, “conferences are 20% listening to talks, 80% talking with people over drinks”. Networking is not my strongest suit, though it’s something I make efforts to improve upon. A networking endeavour from the conference led me to late-night dumplings and drinks with a team from Sydney – and though I’ve no plans to relocate anytime soon, having such contacts is always beneficial.

On the first day of the conference, there was a speaker who I was particularly impressed by. They were obviously knowledgable and successful, and spoke on the intersections of language, culture, and team-building, all of which are of interest to me. For one of the first times in my life, I was compelled to meet this person who I had only known from afar. Mustering some courage (and a friend who already knew the speaker), I struck up a conversation at a post-conference event. My inexperience was apparent, however, as I had no insightful questions to ask, nor a real objective in mind. What I gained from the conversation was not a deeper understanding of the speaker’s interests. What I gained was an understanding of my own lack of understanding, and a readiness to learn.

You cannot expect someone to give you all the answers – especially when you give them none of the questions. What makes someone a role model to you? Just asking yourself this question and understanding your answer is a useful place to start. If you’re looking for direction in your own life or work, try to learn about and learn from the journeys of others. Be aware of what it is you’re trying to learn, what parts of life you’re trying to understand, and what facets of your role model you aspire to emulate. Once you know this, finding the right words for the right questions becomes easier.

I’ve still yet to find a role model or mentor. However, there’s no shortage of places to begin looking. An easy place for anyone to start is in the books they’ve read, or the art they enjoy. If someone has written a book which captivated you for hours and taught you many things, reach out to them. If someone has painted a work of art which has left an impression, reach out to the artist. For me, next time I talk with a role model, I’ll know what to say.

What you do for work doesn’t have to be your life – and that’s okay.

Up on stage at the conferences were career web developers and programmers, leaders in their fields. People working at Microsoft, Facebook, Google. Some talks were about cutting-edge technologies, others were about problems overcome in the line of work, others still on the blending of art, language, culture with the technical field.  With enough work, anyone could learn what they’ve learnt and do what they do. What cannot be copied, however, is their unmitigated passion for their field.

I’ll use the specific example of programming and web development, though it’s a concept that can be applied across many disciplines. There are two “accepted” pathways of making it into the industry. First is the traditional tertiary-based pathway. This means completing a degree in computer science, taking on a few internships, and coming out with a recognised qualification. My particle physics degree doesn’t quite make the cut as recognised currency.

The second “right” way to break into the industry is to spend all your time coding, become part of the community and community projects, and make your name known.

In either case, the motivation is the same – a strong passion for programming and a commitment to the field. This passion is evidenced by the years spent on formal education, or the hours of free time spent on personal programming projects and community work. People who make it into the field live and breathe it. Programming is not just a career, it’s a calling, it extends beyond the boundaries of the working day. Every person I spoke to had their own personal projects in programming. The end of the working day merely means more time for more programming, now as a hobby and creative endeavour free from limitations.

As someone who more-or-less stumbled into this field, I feel like somewhat of an outsider looking in. The talks and workshops presented during the week did not inspire me to head home and launch into a new project. What I did realise, however, was that my job does not define my life, my interests and my hobbies. Only a fortunate (or unfortunate) few of us will ever spend a career in a single field. Fewer still in a single job. The constant within our lives is not where we go to work or even what it is we do, but the person that we bring each day along with us. If we are dedicated to becoming the best versions of ourselves, then it is this which matters more than what we do for work.

Several weeks have passed since the closing talks of the conference. In a few weeks more, I may remember the titles of some talks, a few insights here and there. Yet in months time, what will remain will be these 3 life lessons, which I learnt at a webdev conference.

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