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Chris Perry

Web Developer

Modern Frontends (workshop & conference): An Attendees Perspective

Party poppers let off during Jhey Thompkins talk at ModernFrontends 2022

First thoughts

It’s worth saying up front, that I am commenting on this event as an attendee of both one of the workshop sessions, and then the conference event itself. I intend, as far as possible, to only describe things that affected me directly, or was able to observe myself. In doing so though, I am very much aware of other accounts of what happened, or didn’t, either because they have been reported elsewhere, or through conversations taking place around the conference margins. Those are not my stories to tell, though I’ve linked to some at the end of this post.

Conference Announcement and Booking

I am a working developer at Lancaster University in the UK. My interest in the conference came earlier this year, when I became aware of the Modern Frontends (MF) website. It had an extensive and impressive lineup of speakers for the conference, was to be held in a premium event space, and was promising 25+ workshop sessions over the two days before the conference itself, though these weren’t initially detailed as to what they were going to be.

Initially, I got approval to attend the conference only from my management team, and on 12 August, arranged a ticket; one of the Early(ish) Bird tickets (Batch 02) at £322.92. I didn’t make arrangements for hotels or transports at first, as I was waiting on announcements around the workshops to see if any of those might also be justifiable in context of my PDR objectives.

Although I don’t recall a precise date on which the workshops were published, when they did appear, one of them stood out as something that fit right in with where I wanted to take my career. It was a 2-day workshop titled ‘Angular Architect/Team Lead Training’ and was due to be run by Bonnie Brennan, an American working in Amsterdam. Perfect! After a bit of convincing, it was agreed I could attend, and on 12 October it was booked for me at a cost of £1,185.32.

With that done, I could sort out train and hotel bookings. No real issues with the latter, but not so much with the trains, as the rather late announcement of the workshops, left me very limited options for trains, particularly for the return journey, but it was at least done.

Immediate Lead-Up

On the 11th November, just a few days before the start of the event, I begin to see a few signs that maybe not everything was going as well as it had initially seemed. One of the speakers whose name I’m almost sure had been there on the MF website commented on Twitter that she’d “dropped out”, then another, Todd Libby, said that there was still no schedule - bear in mind that there were around 100 speakers, many coming from outside the UK, and they didn’t yet know when they were due to speak.

The real bombshell for me personally came at 12:32 that day, when I received an email from MF via Eventbrite announcing that the workshop had been cancelled, “due to various reasons, one which, is a visa issue with one of the instructors”, but offering me a place on another, ‘Web Performance - Back to Front’ being run by Harry Roberts. The email arrived whilst I was having lunch, so I didn’t see it until nearer 13:00. Now I’ve done one of Harry’s workshops before around 5 years back, I like his style of delivery, am interested in the topic, so initially thought it wouldn’t be too bad an alternative, though covering nothing like the ground I’d wanted to meet my development objectives. Also, it was a 1-day workshop, not a 2-day as I’d originally booked.

Update: I have been contacted on Twitter by Bonnie Brennan to advise that the reasons given for the workshop cancellation “was not true”.

The immediate problem I had was working out how to accept the offer. The email was an Eventbrite ‘no-reply’, and on following the supplied link to the MF page for that workshop, found that the only option was to go through the booking process again, which required payment (again). It was at this point I discovered that the website had no obviously displayed contact details.

Just as I’m figuring this out, a second email appeared with the subject line “CORRECTION - CANCELLATION of 2-DAY WORKSHOP - Angular Architect/Team Lead Training”. The impression was that MF had recognised I’d booked a 2-day workshop, and were offering me another 1-day one to complete the 2 days that had been paid for. Again, it was an Eventbrite ‘no-reply’, and the associated webpage required payment to book.

Not seeing a means of communication on the website, I took to Twitter to ask how I was supposed to accept the alternatives offered, albeit ones that were nothing like the one I’d used to justify my attendance to my management team.

Whilst I waited for a response, I continued to see if I could find an email address, or a phone number on the MF site, but still came up blank. I did though spot a chat icon on the bottom right of the MF - in my defence, it wasn’t what I’d been looking for. I put in my details and a message asking the same question I’d done on Twitter, but with no signs of activity on that, I looked to see whether anyone had responded on Twitter.

Some 10 minutes after my initial Tweet question, and still seeing no response, I posted a reply to my previous message asking Harry whether he knew of a way of contacting the organisers, given it was his workshop they’d offered me.

That appeared to do the trick. Almost immediately, I got a message back on Twitter to say they’d got my message and had emailed back. I also got a DM from MF that read “We’d appreciate you emailing us and not contacting the workshop lead directly as we are managing the bookings and don’t want to bother them with the admin. Thanks!”. A few things to unpick from that… 1) if they’d published an email address, I would have used it 2) I hadn’t asked Harry to manage anything for me, just whether he knew a way of contacting them, and 3) I really don’t think MF get to dictate what communications I have with someone I’ve known for quite some time now - maybe I could have done that on a DM, but that’s hindsight speaking.

Anyway, back to the chat app. There I found a message offering me another alternative, a 2-day workshop on ‘Vanilla JS Web Components’ with Dylan Beattie. This at least was more directly connected to tickets we have in our backlog currently, as we’ve been looking at switching away from building VueJS components and refactoring them into native web components. Still not what I’d justified the spend against, but at least more directly relevant. At 13:44 I got a chat message to say they’d switch it over to that one, and at 14:23 I get another one to say that everything has been transferred over, and that I should receive an email. Finally I think I can get back to doing some work, and although I’ve seen nothing formal arrive, I put it down to message queues.

Maybe another hour passes, but still nothing arrives in my inbox. It’s now rapidly heading towards 4pm on a Friday, I know I’ll not have access to my work laptop, or email, when I travel to London on the Monday, so get back to the chat app to ask what’s happening. Finally at 15:49 an email confirming the new workshop appeared in my inbox, then one minute later at 15:50 another identical one shows up. I’ll let you figure out what happened there for yourselves.

I am least confirmed on something, and just maybe the levels of agitation that accompanied the afternoon can finally subside.

On Sunday, 13th I’m made aware that the speaker schedule has appeared for the conference, and it shows, as I’d suspected, that it’s a multi-track event, with some talks I wanted to see scheduled at the same time as others I’d like to have seen - decisions have to be made.

By lunchtime on Monday, I’m on the train heading south, I see another Tweet to say that Cassie Evans is another who is no longer going to be speaking; she’s one the the speakers I’d really been looking forward to hearing and meeting. As I said at the time, Bugger….

The ExCel Centre and Finding the Workshop

On arriving at the ExCel Centre, the first realisation is that the place is VAST. My hotel is a short walk from its western end, so my first task is to find the London Suite. I ask for directions, but the staff member I ask is a little uncertain but thinks it’s at the far end of the complex. I walk to the far end, conscious all the time that none of the signs mention a suite by that name, and there are steadily getting to be fewer and fewer people around. At the far end, I ask another member of staff (security I think) who say it’s back the other way. Still can’t see any signs for the London Suite though. I ask a maintenance person, surely he’ll know. He says it’s upstairs above where I’ve just been - I go up there - it’s the Capital Suite and no one is around - I come back down. Two more security people later, and I’m down on the level below. At last, the London Suite is located.

I go into a corridor containing only anonymous white doors, no notices on them to say what they might contain. I open a first couple, empty. Eventually, I find one with a couple of people in it, one who I immediately recognise as Harry Roberts; a familiar face, but clearly not the right room. Someone directs me to the room next door for my workshop, but there’s nothing in there but a long table, a projector, two chairs with coats on them, but no owners. The rooms have no windows and feel a little like you’re underground, though I suspect they weren’t. A few minutes later some other workshop attendees arrive and sit with their coats.

That Fire Briefing

Before we can get started though, we’re invited into the next room for a fire safety briefing. The gentleman doing the briefing has brought his own TV, and proceeds to start a video on it. The usual stuff in the main; assembly points, exit routes, fire alarms and so on. But then it gets a bit peculiar, the video continues on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. We’re told what to do if someone calls us and tells us there’s a bomb in the building, what questions to ask, how to find out what kind it is, how to keep them talking and locate the thing, but not to touch it, not to use two-way radios near it, and what coded messages to listen out for on the centre’s PA system to advise there’s an incident going on and to recognise when it’s been declared over. It’s quite obvious at this point that this is a briefing geared towards staff members, and not members of the public - there’s very little in this we ought to know. Finally we’re asked to sign a sheet of paper and include contact details to say we’ve received the briefing.

The workshop

The workshop itself was well run, interesting, and it was very clear that Dylan knew his stuff and had prepared an excellent set of reference materials for the event. To the best of my recollection, there were no questions Dylan was unable to answer, nor were there any issues he couldn’t diagnose and solve.

We were supplied with coffee on a regular basis, apparently from a nearby coffee shop in the ExCel, brought to us by Gen Ashley, who by now we understood to be the main person behind the conference organisation. Lunch was taken at an eatery a short distance from the London Suite, we picked what we needed, and Gen paid at the till.

What was perhaps more unexpected, was that there were only 6 people in the workshop. There was certainly room for more. The workshop next door had another 7 attendees. As best I could make out, there weren’t any other workshops running in the area we were in. I’m not sure about other spaces in the ExCel, but I didn’t hear of any.

The Conference Setting

The conference itself was set in the Capital Suite two floors above where the workshops happened. This was a long open area, a little corridor like in a way, with various named rooms off on either side. This was where various vendors and sponsors had their tables set up, and also where refreshments were served.

The main room, ‘Ada Lovelace’, was set up cinema style I guess. Long rows of chairs all facing toward a low stage; Modern Frontends branding above it and a lecturn, with screens either side for the speakers to present on. This room was used for keynote speakers, and at the start of the day, after lunch, and at the end was more or less the only room in use. It was capable of holding all the attendees present at once.

The others rooms were set up more delegate style, with chairs set around round tables, much as you would in a workshop needing breakout groups, and more narrow than wide. These were considerably smaller and were often standing room only for the more popular talks.

The projection equipment was all ceiling mounted, so presumably part of the what the ExCel supplied. Over the course of the two days, it became apparent that the projectors were only capable of projecting in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and were causing the speakers some difficulties, as their laptops were running at 16:9 and they were having trouble accessing everything they needed for their presentation. Audio seemed well covered though.

The one thing that was evidently missing though, was any sign of any video recording equipment. As tickets for virtual attendance were being offered on the MF website, concern over this was starting to show up on Twitter and it wasn’t looking good.

The one thing that stood out though, was that it appears inconceivable that the space used could have accommodated the 3000+ attendees that the MF website was touting. At best, I’d guess there were around 400 people there on day 1, and there were noticeably fewer there on day 2. Even with those numbers, the central area where the sponsors stands were located, and lunch was served, were quite busy at times. Given that some of the smaller rooms used were standing room only at times, quite what would have happened had there been even twice the number of attendees I could see, is anyone’s guess.

The Talks

I think the first thing to say was that the talks I saw happen were excellent. The standouts for me being those by Tejas Kumar, Jessica Sachs, Ben Lesh and Jhey Thompkins.

There were though some that didn’t happen. After the first round of single track talks of day 1 in the main Ada Lovelace room, things split into the multi-track talks. The first one I picked was one being presented by Eeva-Jonna Panula who was to talk to us about ‘Learnings from My Accessibility Journey’, a subject that interests me, but a name I wasn’t familiar with. After a few minutes wait and getting on for 10 minutes after the talk was scheduled to begin, Gen Ashley popped her head around the door to announce that the speaker was sick. Cue a scramble to get out of the room and arrive in another talk late.

A little later in the day, Austin Gil was due to speak on the topic of ‘What does it take to make a div?’. Again, another potentially fascinating talk and a new speaker to me, but a couple of minutes after the due start time, someone comes into the room to tell us that Austin has COVID - definitely a risk around anyone attending a large gathering as speakers tend to do, but I did a little digging…

I checked Austin’s Twitter timeline, and sure enough there was a Bad news update: Tweet, but it was posted on the morning of the 15th, a full two days before the conference started. So what happened? Did Austin not tell the organisers, or did the organisers not update their scheduling? Hard to tell, but it’s difficult to believe there was no way of announcing this until they had a room full of people sat there waiting for it to happen.

Update: Austin has since reached out to me and confirmed that he “had inform [sic] the organizers well in advance”.

At this point, not having even reached lunch on the first day, that things are beginning to look distinctly off.


It’s been well documented at this point that lunch and other refreshments were a little underwhelming. There were a variety of sandwiches, and a selection of fruit. There was plenty of it though. I’ve seen worse at events before, some don’t provide anything at all. Drinks provided were pre-made urns of tea and coffee, with water also available at lunchtimes. They also offered a selection of bottled beer, wine, and soft drinks just before the final session of day one, which was a live episode of the podcast hosted by James Quick and Amy Dutton.

Parting Thoughts

There’s quite a lot of negativity been posted already about this event, and I’m conscious that I’m adding to that here. My assessment has to be based on what happened to me, whether I got what I wanted out of it (the workshop in particular), and how I’m left feeling about this event for the future.

I booked for a specific workshop that I hoped would have a direct bearing on my current career - it was cancelled. That happens, but the utter confusion around trying to sort out the alternative didn’t need to.

Cancelled talks also happen, but again, was there really no way of letting people know in advance?

As for future instances of this event being run, my impression is that it’s going to be really hard to get much traction next time around. It seems to me that there’s been a loss of trust in the organisers, both on the part of speakers and attendees, and that is going to take a huge amount of work on someone’s part to rebuild. I also doubt that this can happen with another event that is billed on the scale that this one was. Work to do there I think…

On the plus side, I have met and listened to some really wonderful people. Some connections have been renewed and others made. It was those people that made it worthwile, and not the organisation I witnessed.

And a ‘how it ought to be done’

Or not…