What Was SmashingConf In San Franciso Like?

About The Author

Ren Chen is a paleontologist/model turned software engineer. Volunteering with Smashing has recently joined her/his list of favorite things, along with hiking, … More about Ren ↬

Email Newsletter

Weekly tips on front-end & UX.
Trusted by 200,000+ folks.

One way of getting a more behind-the-scenes experience of any Smashing event is to apply as a volunteer, and Ren did just that! The SmashingConf team organized a conference in good ol’ San Francisco this year, and here’s pretty much how it went down.

“Give them sweet memories.”

It was an unexpected suggestion from one of the Smashing event organizers when I asked for guidance on this article. But then, so much of the week had been unexpected. As a baby dev, volunteering at industry events is a no-brainer; I’ve been to nine this year, and this Smashing Conference has definitely been the standout.

There was none of the frenzied desperation that characterizes so many conferences; rather, the atmosphere was relaxed and casual. I talked to anyone who didn’t actively flee my approach, so by the end of the week, I’d spoken with guests, speakers, sponsors, fellow volunteers, catering staff, and the bouncer at the afterparty. Most people described the week as “fun” and “intimate,” not what one usually expects from a tech conference, although returning guests clearly did expect it.

I believe this pleasant expectation, this trust in Smashing to create something good, was the foundation of the get-together-with-friends vibe at the event. First-timers (myself included) were welcomed and soon made a happy part of the community. Many solo attendees ended the week with the intention of returning next year with their entire team in tow.

This year’s Smashing volunteers at SmashingConf in San Francisco
This year’s Smashing volunteers at SmashingConf in San Francisco. (Left to right, top to bottom: Alanna Risse, Yi Zong Kuang, Greg Schoenberg, Dana Ng and Ren Chen.) Photo by Ari Stiles.

A significant reason for this welcoming feeling was the schedule. Speakers were arranged in a single track, on a single stage, thus avoiding the dreaded either/or dilemma and relieving guests and speakers alike of the need to rush around in search of their next session. Breaks were long enough to enjoy lunch at a relaxed pace and to socialize — I even spotted a couple of impromptu chess matches in the lobby.

Jem Young held a talk on Engineering Management
Jem Young on stage speaking about things he wish he had known about Engineering Management when starting out early in his career. Photo by Marc Thiele.
Una Kravetz during the Q&A after her talk
Una Kravetz during the Q&A after her talk. Photo by Marc Thiele.

For those who wished to continue learning over sandwiches and orzo, there were optional lunch sessions held in the workshop building. These sessions were well-attended, and it was heartening to see such honest enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Ren and Jarijn gathering lunchtime session attendees
Jarijn and I did our best to gather attendees for lunchtime sessions. Photo by Marc Thiele.

The speakers were very accessible — everyone loved how they were happy to meet, not just for fist bumps but for meaningful conversations. I overheard a group squealing like K-Pop fans about the excellent chat they’d had with their favorite speaker.

As a volunteer, it wasn’t always feasible to sit in the theatre and enjoy the talks in person, but it turned out that missing content wasn’t a concern: presentations were streamed live in the lobby, complete with closed captioning.

Miriam Suzanne talking to attendees
Miriam Suzanne talking to attendees. Photo by Marc Thiele.

Presentation topics seemed to have been thoughtfully curated, such that hardly anyone could settle on a single favorite. For the familiar topics, there was professional eagerness. For the unfamiliar ones, there was first polite interest, then appreciation. The crowd always emerged for caffeine and snacks eager to gather and talk about their recent revelations.

I’ve personally heard from several people who are already trying out ideas they haven’t heard of before.

“I didn’t know [frequently-used tech] could do all that!”

As for the hands-on workshops, I actually heard someone describe these deep dive sessions as “magic.” Workshop topics were practical and, one could argue, essential, including accessibility, flexibility, performance, and more. The breakroom chatter sounded like a huge improv troupe riffing on the theme of shameless plugs for workshops.

“I can’t wait to use this at work — this is going to make [task I don’t understand yet] so much faster!”
“I can’t believe how much I’m learning in just a few hours!”

It was amusing, and exciting.

Carie Fisher during her accessibility workshop
Carie Fisher during her accessibility workshop. Photo by Marc Thiele.

If the speaker presentations, lunch sessions, and full-day workshops weren’t enough for the lifelong learners in attendance, the conference also featured Jam Sessions — an evening of dinner, drinks, and “lightning talks” designed to spark curiosity and interest in fascinating mini-topics. I’m grateful to have been able to present the closing talk on “Developing Emotional Resilience” that night, and if you’re wondering whether you should give a talk of your own next time, the answer is a resounding YES.

Beyond all this quality content, the event organizers had also planned a number of purely fun activities. A Golden Gate 5k kicked off each morning and attracted a dozen of the cheeriest faces I’ve seen on this side of the bridge at any hour. Alcatraz, sailboats, and sea lion pups completed the quintessential San Francisco summer scene (the freezing winds were also quintessential San Francisco summer).

The Tuesday morning running club
The Tuesday morning running club. Photo by Yi Zong Kuang.

As the only Bay Area native volunteer, I had the honor of leading the photo walk around the picturesque Presidio neighborhood. I’d been expecting a group size comparable to the morning jogs, but over thirty determined photographers showed up for the tour. Together, we visited several popular destinations and braved the famous Lyon Street steps, but the crowd favorite had to be the Yoda fountain at Lucasfilm. Nerds.

After the first conference day, a good crowd met up for the afterparty at Emporium, where drink tickets and game tokens were plentiful. Between pinball, arcade games, and seemingly endless other entertainments, the party was a hit with the night owls.

The Smashing organizers really wanted people to enjoy themselves, and even a bookish misanthrope like me couldn’t help but have a great time. Many of the chattiest people I met that week later confessed, in nearly the exact same words:

“You know, I’m actually an introvert. I usually dread social events — but it feels so comfortable here!”

I had to agree. Thanks to early access to the Smashing Slack channel, we were able to get acquainted in advance and meet in person as not-quite-strangers. More than that, the emphasis on kindness and open-mindedness seemed to attract the loveliest people.

I made more friends in those few days than I had in my whole adult life in the same city. In the week following the conference, I’ve had brunch with an East Coast engineer, lunch and an office tour with a San Francisco team, a laugh-filled hour-long video call with an exec in Uruguay, and I’ve been invited to a group project with an energetic pack of devs dispersed across the country, but connected by our love of coding and cats. I’ve exchanged recipes with a Senior Engineer, book recommendations with an Engineering Manager, and Instagram handles with enough people to start our own mid-sized company. I wonder what kinds of connections others were able to make!

In terms of networking, Smashing was unparalleled, yet it felt like we didn’t “network” at all. We certainly learned a lot, and we have some new LinkedIn connections, but unexpectedly, we made honest-to-goodness friends. As far as I’m concerned, that’s more than a sweet memory. It’s a sweet beginning!

If you’d like to join the SmashingConf team next time, feel free to apply as a volunteer yourself anytime. There are even discounts for students and non-profits available — all you need to do is reach out to the team!

  • SmashingConf Freiburg 🇩🇪 (in-person + online, Sep 4–6) with adventures into design systems, accessibility, CSS, JS and web performance.
  • SmashingConf Antwerp 🇧🇪 (Oct 9–11), on design systems, usability, product design and complex UI challenges.
Smashing Editorial (jn, cr, il)