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J.D. Hillen
J.D. Hillen

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My Experience at Modern Frontends Live!

Let me preface this article and make one thing very clear. I am not an influencer. I don’t have 200k followers on Twitter. I don’t have a popular YouTube channel. I am not an international keynote speaker. Hell, I’m not even in DevRel. But I speak at events because I have a story and a desire to share it with as many people as possible.

Now that we have that out of the way, I have a new story to tell. It’s a story of a mid-western American that got accepted to his first international conference. It's a little long winded but hey, that's how I write.

The Event Was Announced

Speaking is a relatively new thing for me. I’ve only been at it for the past 2 years. But I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak at several different conferences since I started pursuing this dream. My attitude towards my first CFP I submitted was “what’s the worst they could say? No?”. Fortunately, my talk was accepted and things just kind of snowballed from there. Unfortunately, I have been paying for travel accommodations out of my own pocket. But I see it as investing in myself so it doesn’t bother me one bit.

Now let’s rewind to July 1st, 2022. I was mindlessly browsing Twitter when a fellow speaker, whom I had met at several events, Tweeted about the CFP for Modern Frontends Live in London. As soon as I saw the Tweet I thought to myself “WOW! An international conference. I’d love to try that”. So after several revisions, I submitted my talk and figured I’d never hear back. Like I said earlier, I’m not “Twitter Famous” or anything.

But that’s not what happened at all. In less than an hour after submitting, I received a confirmation email saying that my talk had been accepted. Holy Shit! I got into an event that was being advertised as having over 100 speakers, 3000 plus attendees, over the course of 4 days. My biggest conference to date.

But wait… Hold on a second… My talk was approved in less than an hour? That seems rather sudden doesn’t it? Normally CFP’s take a few weeks to approve at least. This should have been a red flag but my thought was “Whatever, I’m going to London Baby!

I immediately started making travel arrangements. Hotel. Airfare. Passport. I was so excited. This was an opportunity of a lifetime and I did not want to screw it up. I must have gone over my presentation a hundred times. It was encouraging, informational, and dare I say inspiring. It was 45 minutes on the dot. It was everything I wanted it to be. I was ready to give the best talk of my life.

Leading Up To The Event

Weeks and months went by and Modern Frontends social media was on point. They had amassed a great speaker line up with some very well known people from the industry. The sponsors they had gotten were also just as impressive. The event was booked at the largest event space in London. Everything seemed to be on the up and up and this was looking to be one hell of an event. But all that changed a few weeks before the show.

There were rumblings on Twitter that Modern Frontends had yet to post a schedule and people started to get concerned. No communication was sent about what was holding up the schedule from being posted. Red flag number two.

A few days before the event we finally heard from the organizers that there had been a death that caused the delay and that the schedule would be posted tomorrow. Ok. That’s reasonable. But tomorrow came and went with no schedule. Then we were told the schedule would be posted Saturday or Sunday the weekend before the event. Those days came and went as well with no updates. This was when I really started to get concerned.

Workshop Days - Tuesday and Wednesday

Monday afternoon I boarded my flight to London. I had a day or two to explore the city before the conference and wanted to make the most of it. But upon arrival I started seeing more rumblings on Twitter about the event. A couple of speakers canceled at the last minute. Then a few more. Then I heard of speakers' workshops being canceled. Some of which had flown in early to give their workshops. The excuse that was given by organizers was low workshop ticket sales and again, communicated late. The conference was now three days instead of four. This was red flag number three. But they at least posted the schedule.

That was when I started hearing rumors about money. It was rumored that the number of tickets were not the 3000+ tickets that were advertised. In fact it was more in the 1000 range. That is significantly lower than what was promised but in this post COVID conference era, numbers for conferences have been low so I brushed it off. 1000 is still a pretty good turn out in my opinion.

Workshop day on Wednesday came and speakers were greeted with empty rooms. Some workshops only had three to four people in them. I immediately felt bad for the presenters. Especially ones who had traveled from the states to give a workshop to an empty room. The kicker was these workshops were priced at £699 which, in my opinion, is a ridiculous price for a workshop. This left a pretty sour taste in both the presenters and attendees mouths.

The Speaker Dinner

Wednesday night was also the speaker dinner which I was really looking forward to. I was excited to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. The location of the dinner was on a yacht hotel next to the venue. My first thought was, “a yacht? Wonder how much that cost?” The vibe was fun but awkward and seemed overly extravagant for no reason. The organizer seemed to be reveling in the fact that we were at some exclusive hoity-toity dinner. I have no idea how much it cost, but I’m sure it was a pretty penny.

Conference Day - Thursday

Thursday rolled around and it was the first day of sessions. I was up early and at the venue ready to go. According to the late posted schedule I presented at 10:45am. The first thing I noticed where the badges. They were cheaply printed cardboard with a blank back. It felt like someone had printed them at home. The next thing I noticed was the lack of signage. No branding. No maps to rooms. It was the standard bland conference hall. After entering the conference area I wondered where all the people were? Like I said, the rumor was they only sold about 1000 tickets. But looking around the hall, I was seeing 200 to 300 people max. Then I noticed there was no breakfast. Nothing! There was coffee and tea but that was promptly whisked away at 9:30am. There was a single office water cooler for refreshments for everyone with no cups. What is going on?!?

My time had come so, I went to do my presentation. I had a decent turn out of around 35 people. I gave my talk and it went great! The audience was engaged. I hit all my talking points. Like I said, I was very prepared. And after it was all said and done, I walked away feeling on top of the world!

But that’s where it ended… Twitter came alive with complaints of fraud and deception.

The Backlash

Apparently Modern Frontends had been selling virtual tickets to the conference with no communication on how to access the stream. They claimed technical difficulties but to my knowledge, there was no attempt made to stream anything. I didn’t see a single camera at the venue. I’ve heard that refunds were issued, but I can’t confirm that.

Then I learned of the organizer DM’ing people on Twitter to “stop piling on” and asking people to delete negative tweets. I even read in one instance that she reached out to someone’s boss to get them to stop Tweeting negative things about the event. Again, no direct communication from the organizers addressing the obvious issues. What really threw me for a loop was her lack of empathy to the attendees and speakers. She did not even attempt to care. Just sat on her phone in the speakers room, retweeting only positive things. Trying to keep the smokescreen alive.

Next it was lunch time. If you could call it that. Lunch consisted of pre-made finger sandwiches, chips and the saddest fruit I had ever seen. It tasted like hot garbage. So much so that I had to go down to the main event space and get some real food with my own money.

Conference Day - Friday

On Friday it was more of the same. No refreshments in between sessions. Lunch was the exact same terrible food as the day before. Negative feedback on Twitter. There were some really great sessions but low attendance that only got lower as the day went on. So much so that the sponsors started packing up around 3:30pm. I truly felt for the last session presenters which were at 5:30pm. They had maybe 5-10 people in the room. Those presenters traveled a LONG way to give a talk to an empty room. I consider myself lucky that my time slot was early on the first day before the community realized that they were taken for a ride.

Thoughts On The Conference

The whole point of going to conferences is to engage in the developer community and learn something new along the way. The sessions that I attended were informative and well prepared by the speakers. The attendees I spoke to seem to have gotten something out of it as well. So from a certain perspective, one could say Modern Frontends a success. The goal of bringing together a community was achieved. But that's where my praise for the event ends.

The event itself was oversold and Modern Frontends way underdelivered. There were not 3000+ attendees. There were not over 100 speakers. There was no live streaming. There was no accommodations for speakers or attendees. Everyone walked away feeling duped by the grandiose promises made by the organizer for an epic event to cap off the year.

The worst part about the whole thing was that I left feeling stupid for having bought into the bullshit. I truly believed that this was going to be the event of a lifetime. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Thoughts On The Community

Never underestimate the power of your community. I have never seen so many people try to make the most out of a bad situation. As soon as there were winds of deceit, the community took to the internet to call the organizers out on their bullshit. The community rallied around each other and voiced their opinions. Though nothing has been finalized, I have no doubt that our community will emerge victorious and will not let these charlatans take advantage of us again. Ever.

In Closing

For me, traveling to London was not even on my radar when I started speaking at conferences. I never thought I would have the opportunity to tell my story across the pond. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy so I made the most out of a bad situation. I got to explore London and all that it offers. I ate some delicious food! I met some AMAZING people! And ultimately got a lesson in what it is to be part of this thing we call the developer community. I'm so thankful to all of you that spoke up about this debacle. Lessons have been learned. And I am proud to be a part of this community.

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