React Conf 2017: From Carpools to Code Cartoons

I started as an intern at Blend back in the summer of 2015, and that fall I decided I was going to return to Blend full time when I graduated. One big reason I decided to make Blend my home was that I really felt Blend valued me as an engineer. I was given large amounts of freedom with my projects even as an intern, and I felt that leadership was there to help me grow and learn rather than to simply tell me what to do. Now that I’ve been an engineer here full-time for about eight months, I still have just as much, if not more, freedom and support than I did initially. One way Blend supports us and helps us grow as engineers is by sponsoring our trips to technical conferences.

Earlier in March I was fortunate enough to attend React Conference 2017 in Santa Clara. It was my first conference, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I started working on a React Native project in October and have been loving it so far, so the idea of going to a React conference where I would get to immerse myself in the topic for a couple of days was extremely exciting.

Looking back, I wish I had done a few things differently, and despite the fact that I enjoyed myself tremendously I certainly learned some lessons. I hope to impart what I learned on any engineers who might be attending their first conference in 2017.

Opening keynote by Tom Occhino
Opening keynote by Tom Occhino – Credit: Facebook Developers

The conference opened with a keynote by Tom Occhino, the lead of the React team at Facebook. After a couple more brief talks by members of the React team, the scheduled sessions began. I was amazed by the wide variety of topics covered: many of them would be applicable to any front-end developer, or even anyone who uses Javascript. The most consistent themes were pieces of technology React developers find useful, ways to improve upon existing code bases, and uses for React outside of what we expect it to be used for. The organizers did a great job of picking speakers from a breadth of backgrounds and experiences, leading to a very diverse series of talks. Every talk was recorded and is available online: below I have listed some of my favorite talks, but I highly recommend you check out the schedule for any talks that might interest you.

Lin Clark during "A Cartoon Intro to Fiber"
Lin Clark during “A Cartoon Intro to Fiber” – Credit: Facebook Developers
  • Code Cartoons – Lin Clark: This was a fantastic talk that described the concepts behind React Fiber, the new update to React’s core algorithm. She did an excellent job of communicating a very interesting process in a short amount of time.
  • MobX vs. Redux – Preethi Kasireddy: I had not heard of MobX before the conference, and Preethi did a great job weighing the pros and cons of both technologies. If you are thinking about starting a React project and aren’t sure which to use, I’d highly recommend this talk.
  • 60FPS User Interactions in React Native – Tal Kol: This was a really cool talk that discusses how to make animations feel physically real. It was a topic I had not thought about before, and Tal was a great speaker who had some excellent visuals to go along with the talk.
  • Code Splitting in ReactNeehar Venugopal: One of the problems with single-page applications is the initial load time. Neehar’s talk examined how to solve this by splitting your app into the parts that need to load at the start and the parts that can be asynchronously loaded later. I hadn’t been doing a lot of React Web before this conference, but Neehar did such a good job presenting that I decided to include this one.
  • Taming the Meta-LanguageCheng Lou: This was probably the most unique talk of the entire conference. Cheng discussed the decision to integrate React with JS, and some of the pitfalls of this decision. He proceeded to imagine a new way to build in React.

Other talks were simply focused around introducing us to some new pieces of technology, and I’ve chosen some that I found the most exciting to include here as well.

  • Next.js: React + webpack + babel for simple, server-rendered React apps
  • GraphQL: A query language designed to be used instead of REST
  • Jest: Simple JS testing that can take snapshots of serializable objects
  • React Storybook: A sandbox for individually designing and testing React components
  • Mobile Center: A suite of tools for easy mobile integrations, beta testing, and deployment
  • Prettier: Automatic code formatting to replace your linter

Before the conference started, the most important piece of the event in my mind was the talks. Obviously, I thought, the main purpose of a conference was attending talks by outstanding members of the community. While this was of tremendous value, I found that my biggest takeaway from the two days was actually the interactions I had with other attendees. This started during my ride to Santa Clara on Monday morning: via the conference Slack, channel I found three other engineers who were going from my area in SF and we split a rideshare both days. This was a great start to my experience, as I got to meet some new people before the event had even started. In the breaks between talks I got to sit with new people each time and learn about theirs jobs and how they use React. By the second day I had I even got to meet some members of the React team, including Christopher Chedeau, who worked on some of the initial pieces of React Native.

Me with my carpool group at the end of the second day
Me with my carpool group at the end of the second day

If I had to give one piece of advice to someone who is going to attend their first engineering conference in the near future, I would say they should focus on interacting with as many interesting people as possible. My biggest regret from the conference is not meeting more people while I had the chance. I wish I had taken the time to research the speakers more – not for the content of their talks, but to find out what they were working on. Then I could have put some effort into meeting the ones whose work I found particularly interesting. You can also find out which members of the host organization will be there, in case it’s of interest to connect with them. So, the moral of the story here is really that you can learn about a topic, like React, through a lot of different avenues. But, the relationships you can build and the networking you can do at a conference can’t be easily duplicated elsewhere.