Founding a front-end professionals' organisation

Phew.

Last Tuesday, exactly one week ago, was one of the busiest and most exciting days of my life, and I think that it was a success all in all.

For me, it was the first time I organised a conference, moderated a panel, founded a front-end professionals' organisation, and went into a personal battle that for a moment threatened to become very bitter, but fortunately didn't thanks to the generosity of my opponents and an extremely professional chairman. And all that on one day.

Anyway, it's wrapped up now, and I thought I'd give my international readers some idea of what I've been working on these past months.

The plan

Back in March, when I was at SxSW 2007, I had a few interesting conversations that made me conclude that something had to be done about professionalising front-end programming. After a month or so I realised I wanted nothing less than a front-end professionals' organisation; an idea that was discussed briefly back in November 2006.

Founding a professionals' organisation is all fine and dandy, but the professionals in question have to be interested in founding one. When my thinking had proceeded to that point, I started calling a few lead front-end programmers in Amsterdam. To my surprise and relief, every single person I talked to was enthousiastic about the idea.

The four preliminary meetings were visited by about 100 to 120 people in total. So there was widespread interest in the basic idea, even though there were plenty of questions and criticism of the details.

Part of my plan was to get the large website creation companies on board. I did some heavy thinking on the nature of the web standards movement; thinking that resulted in my Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Large Companies article.

My conclusion was that large companies weren't really interested in the web standards movement as it exists today, and that we needed a formal organisation with members, membership dues, offline meetings, committees, and all the rest.

Would such a formal organisation scare away the freelancers and small company owners that form the mainstay of progressive web development? I hoped it wouldn't, and after last Tuesday I can say with some confidence that we've got decent-sized groups of front-end programmers from both large companies and the traditional web standards movement on board.

Of course there are plenty of people who aren't really interested in becoming members, but their decision seems to be based on personal factors, and not on the fundamental nature of the organisation we're trying to set up (at least, I hope so).

The right time

Then the PIBN, which unites about 40 of the largest Dutch website creation companies, also came aboard pretty quickly—and that was a huge surprise to me. Initially I'd assumed we'd have to slowly talk the managers into seeing our point of view, but that turned out to be totally unnecessary: the managers came to us almost as soon as we unveiled our ideas. Better still, they agreed to foot the bill for our founding conference, leaving me with one less worry.

Also, Eden Design kindly agreed to sponsor us in kind with a logo and graphic design after only minimal prompting from my part.

I think that right now is the ideal time for an idea such as this—at least, here in Holland. For some reason or another everybody who has even the remotest connection to web standards and accessibility is not only willing but eager to help our initiative succeed. I think that's something which can only happen right now—not last year or next year.

Bismarck once said that statesmanship is all about recognising God's tread through history and grabbing hold of His coattails. I definitely do not want to pretend to statemanship (see below), but after this experience I understand what the old fox was talking about.

Conference

Back to practicalities. A formal organisation needs a formal foundation meeting, and wouldn't it be fun to have a small, free-for-all conference attached to this meeting? That led to my first stab at conference organising.

Not that I did a lot of work after securing the sponsor and booking the venue (which was excellent, by the way).

My task mainly consisted of asking other people to handle certain well-specified jobs. All of them quickly agreed and handled their tasks admirably. I was left with organising a few minor details such as exact session times and gifts for the presenters, as well as one out of seven sessions.

Unfortunately I cannot really say anything about the conference because I saw too little of it. The only session I attended from start to end was the managers' panel—and that was because I moderated it. Links to reviews are very welcome indeed.

(Incidentally, that panel required four busy managers of large web companies to offer a few hours of their scarce time; and the client panel required the same of three more people with similar duties—and all that with an advance notice of rather less than a month. Clearly our professionals' organisation is followed with rather more than polite interest outside standards-aware web development circles, too.)

I did not see anything of the three code review sessions by Arjen Geerse, Tom Greuter, and Johan Huijkman, lead front-end programmers of Lost Boys, info.nl, and Eden Design, respectively; about two minutes of Robert Jan Verkade's client panel; and about ten minutes each of Stephen Hay's presentation on the Web Guidelines and Bobby van der Sluis's presentation on Flash within our organisation. (Incidentally, that means that, despite being chairman, I have no idea what our Flash strategy is; an oddity I hope to rectify later today.)

Fortunately, having seen Patrick Griffiths in action, I knew in advance that this, as well as a certain nervous and exhausted hangdog air, is perfectly normal for a conference organiser.

Last Tuesday I wasn't only a conference organiser, though. After the conference was wrapped up, we met with about 65 members of our professionals' organisation to elect a board and decide on our basic policies.

The outcome

Now we come to the part I'd rather skip.

When another web developer suddenly announced his intention to run for chairman (frankly, a role I pictured for myself ever since I started the initiative), I'm sad to say that I did not react with perfect equanimity and impartiality. Even worse, I did so for personal reasons rather than reasons of policy.

The web developer in question was Lon Boonen, who is one of the founders of Q42. That fact should have been (but wasn't) my first clue that Lon had a good idea what he was talking about; after all a company that employs Anne van Kesteren, Sjoerd Visscher, and Mark Wubben is one to be taken seriously. Later, Lon was reinforced by Tino Zijdel.

Fortunately I do not have to describe the occasionally unpleasant debate that ensued. Lon, Tino and I have agreed to forgive and forget all personal matters, and are now cooperating for the good of the whole organisation. Nonetheless, I have to apologise for occasionally being too uncommunicative, as well as not taking Lon and Tino entirely seriously. Those were mistakes on my part, and apart from apologising the only thing I can do is try not to repeat them.

Before summing up the actual decisions we took, I'd like to propose a vote of thanks for the chairman of the meeting, Koen Willems of the municipality of Stadskanaal. In addition to being an extremely able chairman of our meeting, he took an active part in the creation of the Web Guidelines and created the first Dutch web site that complies for the full 100% with the Guidelines; an achievement that's not to be despised if you know how strict some of the Guidelines are.

Certification

As I said before, one of my ideas was creating a kind of informal certification for front-end programmers, the results of which would be published on our site. It was this proposal more than any other that Lon objected to, and in the end the members voted for a compromise that went his way more than mine.

Therefore our official policy is now two-fold:

  1. We will create a committee that will investigate the setting up of an official, objective certification. Although we hope to get a report with reasonable speed, the actual process of creating such a certification will easily take a year, and probably much more time.
  2. Simultaneously, another committee will start to organise test exams, the purpose of which is clarifying the "right" questions and answers. In time, we might even start taking "real" exams and giving out some sort of semi-official bit of paper, but the results of these exams will not (yet) be published and will thus remain wholly internal.

Ideally, these two tracks will meet somewhere in the future. Track #1 will give us a basis to create a formal certification, with track #2 supplying the actual examination details. That gives us the best of both proposals; and it should be noted that this compromise was supported by the vast majority of members present.

Other decisions

We took plenty of other decisions:

  1. The name "Gilde van Front-Enders" was rejected; currently we're looking for new names (a process which requires excellent knowledge of the Dutch language, so there's little to see here for my international readers).
  2. Membership dues were fixed at € 100 a year.
  3. Knowledge sharing will be a two-track affair, too. We will organise as many physical meetings as possible, while simultaneously setting up an online community.
  4. A committee looking into the state of front-end education in Holland, led by Robert Jan Verkade, has already started its work. I hope to report some of its findings later on.
  5. Flash is definitely a front-end technology and thus belongs within the organisation. Months ago I asked Bobby van der Sluis to head this effort, and he presented his ideas on Tuesday.
  6. We wholly support the Web Guidelines of the Dutch government, and are looking for ways and means to promote and explain them.
  7. Finally, we will take collective action to secure better standards, documentation, and implementations from standards bodies and software vendors in order to lighten the heavy load front-end developers are currently carrying.

All in all an excellent start for our initiative. Although some of these points will take considerable time, others can be solved fairly quickly, and every sort of front-end developer can find something interesting to do within our organisation.

Finally, Tom Greuter of info.nl, Arjan Eising, and I were elected to the board. So all in all the board I envisioned was elected to execute Lon's plans.

Fortunately, this turned out to be the end of the struggle. Tino Zijdel has kindly agreed to head the online community effort; something he has vast experience with due to his work as a senior developer at Tweakers.net, one of the most popular Dutch forums for all computer-related activities.

Lon has proposed hosting a physical meeting at the Q42 offices in The Hague, details forthcoming. I'm looking forward to it, since JavaScript has been decidedly underrepresented in our past meetings.

To work

In summary, despite a personal struggle I look back on with shame, our organisation has taken off excellently. There is an incredible amount of work to do, but fortunately members from all over Holland are volunteering to do their share of it. It's far too early to comment on actual results; that will have to wait for another time.

Now let's get to work.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Arjan Eising on 25 September 2007 | Permalink

Nice overview of the day. My blog post about the congress and general members' meeting can be found over here:

http://arjaneising.nl/me/im-the-future-and-more-about-yesterday

It includes some photos I took that day.

2 Posted by KW on 24 October 2007 | Permalink

I watched your presentation at the Yahoo!-theatre. I recognized that the ideas I had were quite similar to yours. Except that my plans were more practicable. :P
I hope you open a forum or a "wishlist" for this particular topic, so I can post my suggestions there. ;)