I’ve just returned from three fabulous days at Dot All conf in Berlin, the CraftCMS community’s annual international get together. And, as with any good conference it felt somewhat like drinking from an energising firehose of new ideas and perspectives, many of which I’m still processing. Pixel and Tonic curated a programme of diverse speakers with an excellent balance of topics and depths, that ranged from introductory, through deep-dives of technical topics, to the inspirational and (dare I say it) even philosophical.
Rather than just summarise the dozen or more talks I went to*, I thought I’d write up some notes on three of the themes that coalesced out of the interplay between speakers presentations and the serendipitous conversations that go on around the conference fringes, and which so often form the best parts of any conference.
The high level picture that emerged was one of a platform and a community that have matured to a point where they’re ready to take on new challenges and opportunities, and of a community that’s broadly in consensus about the tools, changes and approaches required to respond, be they in design, development or community & governance. Even more broadly it was of a group of people who aspire to do their best work, using the best tools to do it, and who were generous in sharing what they learn.
The considerable number of talks on structuring and tuning Craft for high performance and large scale reflected the growing size and ambition of Craft deployments in the wild, and it was great to feel that the approach we take to this at Kind was validated by the use of very similar techniques among our peers. Though the conversations I had and overheard about the state of support for unit and integration testing in Craft made it clear that this was one area where we need both better tooling and educational resources in order to drive adoption of best practices, but equally this felt like something both P&T and the community at large were aware of.
A really strong strand of talks challenged established conventions around the best way to conceive and organise the abstractions we use to build out UI's, with those from Courtney Bradford, Simon Vrachliotis, and Souvik Das Gupta being particular highlights. These argued for either rethinking or even ditching ideas that (for some) are among Sacred Cows of web development best practice, all in the service of achieving far more rapid development and huge reductions in technical debt. This prompted a series of animated conversations around the conference that chimed with what we’ve learned over the course of the four years we’ve been building Craft sites at Kind, while leaving us with plenty of new ideas and alternative approaches to digest over the coming weeks.
This in turn got me thinking about how, as UX thinkers and developers, we like to think that we can pride ourselves on taking an empirical approach to the problems we’re hired to solve. We gather and analyse as much information as possible and then use it to inform and evolve our work and practice. If we find a better way of doing things, we change and adapt. But we’re also human beings, as subject to cognitive biases, as attached to our existing beliefs and as blind to their consequences as anyone else. Being challenged on something you do, and which you’re invested in can be a discomforting experience.
That brings me to the most interesting theme of Dot All, and it didn’t relate to new features or technical best practises. It was around seeking a better understanding of, and responding to, our responsibilities as people making software. Specifically, in highlighting that a crucial aspect of our work concerns the responsibilities we have to ensure that both the things we make and our community are as inclusive as possible, and that we remain alive to the unintended consequences of our work and the ways in which we undertake it. This is especially the case because such consequences and the harm they may cause can so often be entirely hidden to us due to the limited nature of the perspectives that we are typically exposed to.
These talks ranged from the grounded and practical: Kaitlyn Martinez’s talk on the whys and hows of making Craft sites accessible to users of assistive technologies, to Aaron Berkowitz’s inspiring talk on his team’s work at PBS Kids using Craft to back educational content that is delivered at huge scale to millions of US kids and their families, as well as and the cutting-edge work they do to keep those children safe when using PBS Kids properties. But it culminated in Eryn O’Neil’s closing talk on Using Our Superpowers for Good.
I’m not sure I could do justice to Eryn’s presentation in the space that I have here, but suffice to say it was genuinely excellent and I’d urge you to seek out a video of it**. Her ideas and the stories she told struck a chord with me, as they seemed to have done with essentially everyone I spoke with about it. Mat and I founded our company on the simple idea: do high quality work for organisations whose values align with our own, while treating everyone from our staff, to our clients, to most importantly, our users with the respect & dignity they deserve.
In my necessarily limited experience as a white, straight, cis male, CraftCMS has been a consistently welcoming, open community of peers who go out of their way to share, help and educate one another, whatever an individual’s background or level of experience. That said, both here at Kind, and in the Craft community and our broader industry, we clearly still have a huge way to go before we are even vaguely representative of the people who use the things we build. At Kind we know it’s a moral and business imperative that we build both our company and our work to be inclusive of and responsive to the the needs of the broadest possible range of people. That’s not a switch we can flick, rather it’s going to be a long term, iterative process of listening, reflection and structural change, but it’s one we’re wholeheartedly committed to.
Likewise Pixel & Tonic have consistently shown that they are committed to progressive values and to making the CraftCMS community an open, inclusive and respectful place. We work with Craft as our CMS of choice because it’s design & capabilities enable us to deliver so much value for our clients. However, knowing that the people at the helm of the product we’ve built much of our business around, as well as the broader community, share our values on inclusion and diversity only reinforces our belief that we made the right choice of platform.
I’ve come home from Dot All believing it’s a fantastic time to be part of the Craft community; that we’re at the beginning of an important and exciting phase in Craft’s development and adoption; but, that there’s much work to be done in order to fulfil that potential.
We’re looking forward to playing our part.
If you couldn’t be at Dot All, I’ve aggregated links to slides of all the sessions I could find in the list of links below, and full videos of all the talks are available now.