Thinking About An Event Apart and 2017

Hello, from a coffee shop on the road. I’m in Seattle for a CSS Working Group meeting, where we are nerding out on the details of coming-soon CSS properties. Being in Seattle makes me think of An Event Apart, since it was AEA who first brought me to this beautiful town in 2013. In April, I’ll be back here for AEA Seattle 2017.

I love An Event Apart. If I could get in a time machine, I would go back to 2005 and tell myself to attend the first one, in Philadelphia. I lived there at the time and easily could have gone, but I didn’t know about it. It must have been a few months later when I first heard of AEA. I desperately wanted to go. I just didn’t. Year after year, I decided not to attend. First living on a grad school fellowship income, and then struggling as a web designer who was charging clients only what they could afford (and not what I could afford), I watched AEA from afar. I knew I could probably scrape together the money, but I wasn’t sure it’d be worth it. It seemed like a lot to spend on just a few days.

I now wonder how my life might have been different – better – if I had gotten to know the community that surrounds AEA sooner. I was well into my 40s before I figured out how important personal relationships, face-to-face networking, and community are to shaping your trajectory. It’s only looking back that I can see that yes, the investment of paying to go to AEA would have been worth it. I feel like if I had, opportunities to work on some amazing projects would have come my way.

Meanwhile, I did attend and speak at many conferences. I was part of the Videoblogging community. I went to one DrupalCon after another, lots of WordCamps and DrupalCamps, too. I made websites because I believed they’d be powerful tools for clients I cared about. I believed in accessibility, HTML semantics, web standards, great design, putting users first, diversity, and having empathy for everyday people. I used open source software because it was free, and it put powerful content publishing tools in hands of organizations with tiny budgets. I expected everyone was involved with the web for similar reasons — to empower others.

It was painful when the Drupal community started rejecting me, first in NYC and later internationally. I was too opinionated of a woman, too much of a designer, and I just didn’t fit into their flavor of nerd. I considered leaving the tech industry completely. Why should I work so hard to try to fit in with people who don’t really want me around? Why pour so much energy into convincing arrogant developers they shouldn’t use tables for layouts — in 2009!? Or that design is important. Or that other humans don’t experience the world the same way as they do, and we should be making decisions based on what our audience needs, not what you personally prefer. Such battles are exhausting. And when you are one of a tiny minority saying such things, you quickly become “the problem”.

Then I crashed AEA Boston. Well sort of. I didn’t go into any of the conference sessions because I hadn’t bought a ticket. (I respected the organizers too much, and the attendees who had stretched their last dollar to be there.) I took the cheap bus up to Boston, and stayed in the conference hotel, on a cot in the room of friends who were attending. And I did the “hallway track”. I came down for coffee breaks and chatted with folks (without eating anything — again, no stealing). I went to dinner with those same friends, and met more people. And it changed my life. It changed the course of my career. Not because it led to speaking at AEA — no, that came much later through other channels. Being around the attendees of AEA changed my career because I realized I didn’t have to struggle so much. I didn’t have to fight with people who didn’t want me around in order to have a career in this field. I just needed to slide over a bit, and find people who see the tech industry like I do. These were smart, friendly people, the kind of people with whom I could easily collaborate. An Event Apart reminded me of what I believed, and showed me a lot of other people did, too. It told me I’m not crazy.

Within the year I stopped going to Drupal events, stopped working for Drupal shops, and refocused my own public speaking on Design, HTML & CSS. I had a better sense of what kind of clients to find, and who to avoid. A year and a half later I was speaking at AEA. Three years later, my whole professional world looked different.

I’ve now presented at An Event Apart twenty times. It’s an honor to be there. I feel just at home now as I did the first time. The crew running the show works incredibly hard to make sure all the speakers have everything we need. They challenge and inspire everyone to do the very best job we can. I speak at a lot of events these days, all around the globe. There’s still something very special about An Event Apart, and the high level of the craft that goes into putting together each show. Something special about the level of passion Jeffrey and Eric have for the web and why we make websites.

In 2017, I’ll be at six more — Seattle in April, Boston in May, Washington DC in July, Chicago in August, San Francisco in Oct/Nov, and Denver in December.

In each city, I’ll present a one-hour talk titled Designing with Grid. In Boston, I’ll also be presenting the whole day on Wednesday, Designing Layouts: The New Superpowers of CSS. You can use the code AEASIM when registering, and save $100 off a two or three-day ticket.

I’d love to see you there. We can have lunch. You can share with me what you are passionate about. We can talk about design, and what’s next, and why we still like being part of this crazy industry. Because I am still here. And I have AEA to thank for that.