What I learned at Webstock 2016

Posted by Alex on February 13, 2016

Over the last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking. Thinking about what, and why should you care? I’m not sure I know the answer to those questions any more.

What I do know, is that I want to go back to webstock next year, regardless of whatever else is going on in my life at the time. These words are coming out like treacle right now, I don’t usually have a problem communicating like this.

Last night I said something that resonated with the people I was with. In a rare flash of brilliance, I said something that my friends were so affected by that they specifically mentioned it to others - “You have to hear this, it was amazing not shit 2deep5me interesting, come on and talk to Alex about it”. That’s not really something I’m used to

So what did I say? And more importantly, What did I learn?

What I said can wait until later, my exact words feel slippery, and at the edge of my vision right now. Rands said that writing helps teach how to order thoughts, and build opinions. He also said “Just hit publish” and he gave me this pen.

So here are a few things that I learned at Webstock:

  1. The speakers of webstock, are at the top of their game technically. These are the gods of of our industry. People breaking new ground in user interaction, CSS, responsive design and content, the works. All these people, focused on the user, they focused on people. There were no java devs speaking at webstock this year (though I’m sure many of them knew java). This is important, I’ll address why it’s important soon.

  2. The attendees, were people from Spark Ventures, Xero, Trademe, Digital Arts Network, and a huge amount of other companies. If the speakers were gods of the industry, the attendees were all minor deities, everyone who I spoke with was a leader in New Zealand - incredibly skilled developers, designers and others. What could we learn from the gods at webstock, that we couldn’t learn more easily through a technical blog? Why bother with it all?

  3. The attendees were mainly technical people, but not a single technical talk was given. This initially confused and upset me, before I gained time and context around webstock. This is webstock’s 10th birthday, and that’s also important.

  4. In isolation, none of the talks had anything to do with each other, there were several talks that, at the time, felt like missed opportunities. Harry Roberts talked about making cocktails. Michael Lopp talked about pens and writing. Askew One talked about graffiti and growing up poor in Auckland. I was gutted.

  5. When viewed through the lens that I stumbled on during the after party, every talk I had previously been disappointed in, changed. Remarkably so. Askew didn’t talk about growing up in Auckland, he didn’t talk about the regional differences in graffiti. He said words about those things, but that’s not the meaning that he was communicating. He taught us about community. About a group of people creating something bigger then themselves.

Keavy avoided all talk of her work at Github, because she was teaching us about identity. About who we are and who we want to be, and how that can and should change at different stages of our lives, in response to different stimuli. She spoke about growth, not of our technical skills, but of our minds as people. She spoke about the messy growth of flawed human beings, who get hurt, get better, get sick and well again, and how we can help ourselves grow in the direction we value the most.

Debbie spoke on rejection. Here’s a giant in her industry, one of the finest design minds out there, and she’s telling us about how she got rejected from every postgrad school she applied to, about how she was ousted from industry organisations. But what she taught us was very different. She taught us about determination and doggedness. About refusing to be refused. About every failure in our lives being a defining factor in our eventual success.

Harry could have spoken about CSS architecture, about his work as a consultant, about literally any technical topic he had on his mind. Instead, he crowd sourced his talk. He showed us how to trust in others, he showed us that there is more to life then a nine to five. He showed us that amazing people are literally everywhere, and all you have to do to see that is to flick a tweet out into the ether.

Casey Gerald. I think I had began to link up these threads by the point that Casey spoke, that or he was the one who forced me to drag the threads and weave them in to rope. Of all the people I have ever heard speak, he is the most memorable. He was the last speaker at webstock and by far the most impactful. He’s better then Petraeus, Obama, he’s better then any actor or actress in any movie I’ve ever seen. Every word held meaning to him, every moment, considered. It’s the most surreal situation I’ve ever been in. It was just.. right. I have never been as certain of anything in my life. But what he talked to us about, was doubt.

He talked about his upbringing, his education and his work, he detailed how each stage in his life was renewed by an earth shattering break in his beliefs. He taught us about doubt, about how examining a crack in our beliefs could shake the foundations about who we are as individuals, and who we are as a collection - whether that collection is a community, a nation, race or people. How could we not question everything? We live in a world where there is injustice, inequality and hate - but we equally live in a world where amazingly talented people care. Where people who can do something, do. Casey challenged us all to evaluate what we were doing was helping as many people as we could. He dedicated his professional life to helping people until he had the realisation that he couldn’t save everyone, then he gave away everything he had built, so that we could all save each other. He leads by example.

So what gives?

Why should anybody give a shit and what epiphany of yours was it, that affected people the way it did?

The point of webstock this year, wasn’t to teach us new technical skills. It wasn’t to help us get ahead of the pack or beat the competition. The goals of webstock 2016 felt much loftier then that. Webstock 2016 aimed for nothing less then to fundamentally shift the way that we, the attendees, interacted with the world. We had the best of the best, the gods of our industry; people of such astounding intellectual brilliance that we looked up to them as personal heroes, just.. being human. Being good humans. Good humans talking about developing the traits that we want to see reflected in our world. These people helped us see that as an industry, we are in a position to change our own futures. Whether that’s fighting global surveillance, addressing poverty and inequality, challenging and changing rape culture, domestic and sexual violence or just helping people be happier, healthier humans. It’s incredibly humbling to think that the most valuable contribution these people made to our lives was to help us think differently. A personality request rather than a pull request.

So what exactly did I say? I don’t know, but it went something like this:

What they taught us transcends any one technology, methodology or practice. These speakers are specialists in technology, yes, but more then that, they are world leaders in interaction. They showed us new ways of interacting with people, new ways of thinking about how things interact with people. Any technical subject would have been mundane by comparison amongst talks that taught about no less then a fundamental shift in our own psyches.

That sounds shit, and it doesn’t capture what I said or the inebriated eloquence of the thought I put out there. But it’s a start. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that starting is the hardest part. It’s also the most worthwhile.