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JSConf Iceland 2016 Recap

05-22-17 Catherine Meade

Conferences can be overwhelming, especially for a new developer. In the spirit of conference season, Catherine shares a recap of her first conference.

I hope that this recap of my first conference alone (overseas no less), will encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and into an experience that has a worthwhile, potentially life-changing impact on your role and work in tech.

Panoramic View of Reykjavik
Panoramic view of the bay near Reykjavik Harbor.
View of Greenland from the airplane.
View of Greenland from the airplane, on the flight to Iceland.

I have been described as perpetually nervous. I hate rollercoasters, high buildings, and at times, escalators. I am not afraid of the world, I simply see no logical gain in extraneous risk-taking.

Imagine my surprise when, only a month after completing my apprenticeship and starting as a “real” Sparkbox developer, I found myself terrified, alone, and traveling across the Atlantic at roughly five hundred miles per hour, headed to my first developer conference. By myself. In Iceland. By myself.

Rewind to roughly April: a fellow Sparkbox Apprentice found that JSConf Iceland was offering diversity scholarships which included a ticket to the conference and up to $1200 USD in travel reimbursement. JSConf is a series of JavaScript conferences held all over the world by members of the JS community. As a lady coder, I qualify as diverse; women are still a minority in tech (a fact that doesn’t help settle the uneasiness of traveling alone).

Just enough time later to have forgotten that I applied, I received an email. I had been awarded a full scholarship. My brain wouldn’t accept the idea that it was real. I contemplated ignoring the entire thing. I told that same apprentice first and he was ecstatic for me. “Catherine, if you don’t go, I’ll be so mad at you,” he said. Okay. Deep Breath. I could do this thing.

It was appropriate, then, that the opening speaker of JSConf Iceland 2016, Myles Borins, chose not to talk about code, but instead about empathy.


The Harbor as seen from the Harpa center.
Reykjavik Harbor as seen from the Harpa.

Myles discussed being mindful of your peers, understanding that every person has a likely innocent, good-natured reason for how they do things. Humans are inherently selfish, yes, but we are not inherently malicious. Empathy allows for calm minds and greater productivity. Take a moment to understand how others may have landed in their current situation.

Afterward, the Icelandic host called Myles’ talk a “full-blown hippie speech.” I found it exceedingly motivating. In fact, being empathetic to fellow developers, clients, and the web in general became a sort of central theme for the conference. Not only in my experiences, but a guiding thread of every speaker.

As developers, we have the same struggles. Accepting that leads to a community of understanding, and after, innovation.


My “brain [was] growing at incredible speeds,” as speaker Mariko Kosaka said so well. Nineteen talks in two days about various web and JS topics felt like I was drinking from a firehose (a favorite phrase here a Sparkbox). Two things stuck out to me. First, I wasn’t nearly as clueless as I thought I was. I was able to learn new things from even the most technical code talks. Second, every single speaker loved their job. The room was full of passion.

The best example, in my mind, was Max Goodman’s Bicycle.js. Max rigged both himself and his bicycle up to live code. Talk about make-or-break! Max’s excitement at a successful live demo was tangible. The entire room joined in awe. It was a fantastic experience, and the entire talk is available on the JSConf Youtube account.

Max Goodman demonstrating Bicycle.js
Looking good, Max.
Streets and shops of Reykjavik Harbor
Streets and shops of Reykjavik Harbor.

Not every talk had a bicycle on stage, but they were just as grand. Mariko’s talk, Making a Robot Eye with JavaScript, explained clearly and concisely how a computer interprets things like color filters and Photoshop brushes, down to which pixels are shifted when you apply a Gaussian Blur. Alex Kaminsky spoke about quadrant theory in choosing technologies as the first developer on a new project. Brian Holt created a slide deck that lived inside the command line itself.

Each talk was made so much more interesting due to the passion of the presenters. When a speaker cares about their topic, that care spreads to the audience. So many were honest and transparent experiences of real developers, sharing their mistakes and growing knowledge within the community. Web Development thrives when we as a community can learn from the experiences of our peers.

Murals on buildings near the harbor.
Murals on buildings near the harbor.


Just before lunch during the first day, it was announced that at the afterparty that evening, there would be a code competition. Sixteen volunteers would be given a design for a website and tasked with building it, from skeleton-to-css, in fifteen minutes, with no live code preview. The three competitors with the most accurate site from two eight-person heats would move on to face each other in a third and final keyboard battle.

A row of monitor stations ready for the code competition.
A row of monitor stations ready for the code competition.

I am not very social. I do not attend parties, I do not do small talk well, and I definitely don’t go up in front of rooms full of people much more experienced than myself and attempt to code in high pressure situations.

So of course, I signed up.

Come competition time, my nerves were on fire. I hadn’t had so many stomach butterflies since some sort of middle school dance. I lined up, eyeing my competition. Fifteen tech-savvy men, plus me. And crap! So many of them were speakers, including the aforementioned Alex Kaminsky and Max Goodman. What was I doing?!

I was sitting in a beautiful conference center in Reykjavik Harbor sharing a table with some of the biggest companies in technology: npm, Spotify, and Netflix. On the first day, I had introduced myself as a scholarship student to nearly every person I met. I felt like I had no right to be there, a total n00b surrounded by 1337 h4x0r legends.

Placed in the second heat, I had the advantage of watching the first round of (hilarious) website builds. I’m not going to lie to you, seeing the disastrous mistakes resulting from not being able to check in-progress sites, well, it helped my confidence.

My view from the competitor’s stage.
My view from the competitor’s stage. Not at all terrifying!

My eyes kept finding the exits. I could totally bail. No one would know! But I was wearing my Sparkbox t-shirt, and I was the only woman who signed up. I had imaginary people counting on me, so I couldn’t run away. Another deep breath. I had this. I knew my HTML/CSS.

My heat was asked to recreate the website. YES! Flexbox all the things. I had this. Fifteen painfully short, but still glorious, minutes later, I was ready to hit “go” and reveal my site to the entire room.

The vote results, with Catherine at 68 percent and the next closest at 12 percent.
The voting results from the first heat at the Code Competition.

I won my heat with a bulldozing 68 percent of the vote. No Way! I could barely believe it. No. Way.

My second heat went, well, not great. We were recreating the Tesla homepage. I had a typo in my background image and nothing but white text on the page, combined with my lack of a background color (progressive enhancement, anyone?) meant my page loaded completely blank. But I kept going, eventually getting the background image to show via Chrome inspector edits, but it was too late. I was finished, though very, very happy with runner-up.

The Glacier peeking over the Harbor.
The glacier peeking over the Harbor.

The winner of the competition, Nick Doiron, was indeed a speaker, and sat next to me throughout the entire competition. He won second in our first heat. He was constantly praising the work others were doing. He helped me find my typo after the final heat. We even discussed my scholarship status, and he offered that, after seeing my code first hand, I absolutely had reason to be at the conference.

I attended Nick’s talk on the second day, and no surprise, it was about building computers to bring the internet to schools in third world countries. Some people are just good people. No motive.

I didn’t stay much longer after the contest. My emotions were high and the walk back to my hotel room in the brisk Iceland cold was the precise sort of solitude I needed to calm down. I felt so human. The entire conference was filling me with a passion for code I did not know existed.

(The software used for the code competition is available open source from Code in the Dark, and it is so, so cool.)


JSConf Iceland left me with a number of meaningful lessons about myself, code, and traveling.

Myles Borins’ introductory keynote talk included the rule “Set meaningful boundaries.” For me, this meant taking an hour during lunch to sit by myself in a secluded, sunlit area catching up on Slack and what was happening back home in Dayton. I didn’t stay at the afterparties past 9:30 p.m., and I made sure to get all of my sleep.

Talks were very open about failure. I didn’t really expect developers to speak only about their successes, but I was surprised to see that every single speaker ended their talk with a recap of “lessons learned.” As if a Jedi Master was imparting knowledge to the masses, saying, “Young Padawan, learn from my mistakes, do better than I have done.”

As an aside, the country itself was full of breathtaking landscapes. Reykjavik Peninsula is surrounded by lava fields, rocky remnants of erupted volcanoes, and they are beautiful.

Lava Fields of Reykjavik Peninsula
Lava Fields of Reykjavik Peninsula

Code is a language with human interaction. There are people behind every app, library, and web page, and we as developers have a responsibility to recognize humanity and practice empathy in all that we do.

Above all else, Iceland showed me that I do, in fact, have what it takes to travel outside the country alone, I have a place at developer conferences, and I do not need to justify myself to practically every person I meet. I have a whole lot to learn moving forward, but I am doing pretty well where I am.

View of the Iceland Coast, from the plane.
View of the Icelandic Coast, from the plane.

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