&yetConf 2015

Once again, I find myself in the position of describing an indescribable conference. But the effort should be made, because my brain feels like mush and I want to remember this.

&yetConf was… emotionally heavy. It was a conference that asked us to look at what we’re making, why, and whether we’re actually ok with that or not. We were asked to take a look at the road we’re on, where it’s going, and whether that’s really the destination we want. Most conferences are more concerned with upgrading our cars.

If you came to &yetConf looking for new technical skills, you were bound to be disappointed. We had some of the best minds in technology sitting in a single room (on some very comfortable couches), but most business-focused people would call the event a failure. My fiancé attended, and despite a very basic understanding of the industry, there were no talks he felt out of his depth for. We didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of JavaScript, nor did we discuss architectures or how to increase productivity.

Instead we talked about how identities form online, and the part we (as creators) play in that. We talked about how information is dispersed on the ground in emergency response situations, and how creators can help (“don’t build another people finder app, we have enough, just fix one of the ones we have”). We talked about how we can help our users keep getting value out of our software long after we’ve stopped supporting it. We talked about our global economy, and where it’s headed. We talked about how to communicate with each other. And that was just day one.

Day two continued our conversations, including a fantastic talk about being more than one thing by the very excellent Lynn Fisher.


But when lunch came around, the talks seemed a world away. We were put on buses, given sealed envelopes, and told to open them when the bus left. The letters would tell us where we were going.


We were going to Richland’s B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. Our envelope contained the above-excerpted letter, a copy of Einstein’s letter to President Franklin Roosevelt discussing the creation of the Manhattan project, and information about the site and the tour we were about to go on.

It’s impossible to describe the feeling of sitting on that bus, surrounded by optimistic people pushing us into the future as best they know how, and having the greatest mistake of another generation of makers shoved in your face. Knowing that when the physicists were at their apex, it came with a body count. And here we are, on the rise. What will our legacy be?

The uncomfortable feeling only grew more pronounced as the tour guide talked more about the engineering accomplishment, the “great science”, and our “triumph”. The discrepancy between how we felt and how the tour guide felt was palpable, and the tension did not go unnoticed.

B Reactor

When we returned to our venue, we held an open discussion of how the trip made us feel and what we were thinking. We talked about remorse and attitude, we talked about how the Japanese felt. We talked about nuclear power, and we talked about local heritage. We talked about celebrating technological achievement, and we talked about how what that technology is used for fits into its value.

I think it’s fair to say that, not for the first time during the conference, there weren’t many dry eyes among the attendees.

After our talk, we took a trip into the future. While the details of this are a secret, I’ll say this: the experience was emotionally heavy in the exact opposite way. It asked us to tap into the things we need most, and realised them in a palpable way.

Taken altogether, the conference left me considering our legacy, considering courage, and rethinking my goals for my career. And that’s before we start taking into account the complex, nuanced, and relevant storyline that played throughout the conference. That’s before we talk about the opening parade. That’s before we discuss the lengths that &yet went to to make everyone feel included. That’s before we talk about the dozens of tiny details that made the conference seem… well, unreal. And returning to reality is hard.

Imagine taking some of the most amazing, thoughtful people in our industry, putting them in a room, and asking them to take responsibility for the direction our industry is pursuing. That’s &yetConf.