Five years of Fronteers

Back in Spring 2007 it dawned on me that what we needed in Holland was an association of professional front-end developers. Front-end was on the rise, but not nearly as popular as it is nowadays, and it was marred by archaic types who were still using table-based layouts and were discussing the use of CSS internally ... and discussing it ... and discussing it.

I started reaching out to front-enders I knew, and pretty soon it was clear almost all of them agreed that a professional association was a good idea. Consequentely, Fronteers was founded in September 2007, slightly more than five years ago. I was elected chairman.

In November I’m going to step down as chairman and board member (blogpost in Dutch), and I’d like to close off my active duty time at Fronteers with a retrospective. Which plans worked, which ones didn’t? Which lessons can you draw if you’re considering a similar association in your country?

This is a personal retrospective. It may not conform entirely to the vision of the new board that will be elected in November. However, if there’s one thing I learned in the last five years it’s that all Fronteers members are entitled to elaborate and complicated personal opinions. I now choose to exercise that right.

Membership

Currently Fronteers has close to 500 members. If I recall correctly we were at about 150-200 members after a year, and there’s a natural ebb and flow because every year about 5-10% of the members forget to pay their membership dues. The general trend is clearly upward.

Back in 2007 I was fairly certain Fronteers would reach freelancers, small business owners, and employees of large institutions such as universities. I was less certain that we would reach employees of large website creation companies. I wrote an article at ALA about the phenomenon that employees of large companies need web standards, but not the web standard movement. I hoped to make a change there.

Looking at the current membership list, I’d say that we succeeded up to a point. There are employees of large website creation companies on the list, but not as many as I’d hoped. So let’s call it a qualified success. Maybe more will flock to the Fronteers banner in the future.

Meeting each other, improving your skills

An important part of Fronteers is organising meet-ups and such, where front-end professionals can meet their peers and argue about technical stuff over beers, or improve their skills in a slightly more formal way. This part of the Fronteers vision is a resounding success.

Nowadays we have meetings once or twice a month, except during summer holidays. Usually meetings are organised by a website company who arranges for a venue, a projector, and some beers and bites. Essentially the companies sponsor us because they want to hire good front-enders.

This part of the Fronteers portfolio is very easy to copy to your own town, and you don’t even need a professional organisation. In 2010 I wrote a post about this subject.

In 2011 we started giving courses about all kinds of front-end topics from heavy-duty JavaScript to typography. Attendance was generally good, and both teachers and students like it.

Finally, there’s the annual Fronteers conference. It’s likely that this is what you think of when you hear our name, but it’s really only a small part of what we’re doing.

Back in 2008 I decided a conference would be fun, and hey, I’d visited a lot of them and knew how they worked. Hah! What did I know? We had a troubled start: we lost money on the first one. 2009 went better, in 2010 we moved to our current venue and general quality rose again, 2011 was awesome, and the fifth edition last week confirmed it is the best general front-end conference in Europe. I’m very proud of my brain-child.

The first two editions were mainly organised by Krijn and me, but from 2010 on (when I took a break and wasn’t involved) we built up a core of volunteers that have taken a lot of work from our hands. The conference is the only Fronteers activity I’ll likely continue to work on.

Oh, and it is my regarded opinion that every European country should have its own front-end conference. If you need help to organise your country’s, read the handbook.

Certification

Let’s turn to a less successful endeavour: front-end certification. Back in 2007 I was convinced that we needed some sort of certification so that clients could distinguish a good front-ender from a bad one.

From the outset this was a hotly-debated topic. If we’d instate certification, how exactly would it work? How would examinees be able to appeal a decision? Who would actually sit on the examination board? And if you’re already an accomplished front-ender, why would you submit to this process?

We took informal polls at several meetings in 2007 and 2008, and also during our first Belgian meeting in 2010. In general, about 20-25% of front-enders were passionately in favour of certification, about 10-15% were passionately against, and the majority wasn’t sure.

Nothing much happened. It turned out that actually setting up a useful, impartial examination was a lot harder than we initially thought, and besides we didn’t have enough volunteers to even make a start. Years passed without much action on this front.

About a year ago we re-opened the discussion. It turned out that the passionate defenders of five years ago had become lukewarm, while many neutrals had shifted to the No camp. An important cause is that front-end development stands at a much higher level now than it was five years ago, which diminishes the need for certification. The fact that we couldn’t show even a test examination after five years of talking won’t have helped.

So the certification idea is essentially dead. Although the new Fronteers board may decide to resurrect it, I don’t think that that’ll happen, because it’s just too much work for too little gain.

Education

Another point we essentially failed at is education — not our own meet-ups and courses, but getting in touch with universities and helping them create a modern front-end curriculum.

Although from the outset Fronteers was supported by a number of individual teachers, breaking through from the teacher level into the institutional bureaucracy has proven to be an impossible task. Besides, the teachers that support us usually have little time beyond their day jobs.

Our education outreach programme isn’t exactly dead, but it’s definitely ailing. This year nothing has happened, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next year. I hope the new board will take steps to continue this job, but knowing how daunting and frustrating it is I can’t blame them if they let it slip.

International outreach

Fronteers was set up as the association of Dutch front-enders. Except for the conference all our activities are in Dutch, and that’s by design. We had neither the time nor the inclination for international outreach.

Still, about half of Belgium also speaks Dutch, and front-enders on the other side of the border followed the Fronteers initiative with interest. In 2010 we had our first Belgian meeting, and meanwhile we have about 30 Belgian members and a thriving meet-up programme.

That raises the question of international outreach. From time to time we discussed setting up a separate Fronteers Belgium. I also had several conversations with people from other countries who’d like to set up something similar. During my recent visit to Bologna it turned out a group of Italian front-enders has already set up a Fronteers-like organisation.

During my time on the board we’ve always been very practical about international outreach: due to lack of time we would not start it up ourselves, but if a group of front-end professionals from another country would approach us we’d be willing to offer advice, as well as the use of the name Fronteers (which, incidentally, we've registered as a Europe-wide trademark).

So far nothing has happened. We see Belgium as the test lab for this experiment: if enough Belgian members desire so, they can set up their own Fronteers.be, and we’d have to create a loose European federation of national Fronteers organisations — or something. We were always quite hazy on the details, mostly because there was no urgency.

In the very long run, and only if there are at least half a dozen national Fronteers-like organisations, the point would be lobbying for web standards at a European level. It’ll take a long, long time before we get there, and maybe it’s just a pipe dream. But one can hope.

In any case, this, too, is in the hands of the new Fronteers board. Suffice it to say that the Dutch core would welcome the creation of more Fronteers-like organisations in other countries, but will not do any of the work.

Conclusion

Fronteers has succeeded admirably in bringing together Dutch front-end professionals in meet-ups and conferences, but less so in other areas. The main lesson is that it’s easy to get front-enders together over beers, but much harder to change anything else.

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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