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JavaScript in the Empire State

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The afternoon of Friday, May 2 found me on a packed-like-a-can-of-sardines, Brooklyn-bound E train headed for Jamaica, Queens to meet my brother, Jared. Based in Austin, Jared is a front-end developer for RetailMeNot, and he had blown his 2014 convention budget on JSConf, but decided that EmpireJS would be a half-decent excuse to take a vacation and come and see me. We spent the weekend enjoying the fine weather—a relief after the brutal winter we had in New York City—and acclimating him to the cultural differences between South Austin and the Upper West Side.

Monday morning we took yet another journey into yet another, different culture: That of EmpireJS, one of NYC’s largest JavaScript-centric events of the year. Held over two days at Location05, EmpireJS 2014 boasted a typically impressive speaker roster: jQuery creator John Resig, Ember.js co-creator (and self-described “Star of Bravo’s hit show Shahs of JavaScriptTom Dale, Johnny-Five creator Rick Waldron, and many more. This year’s topics ranged from no-build build systems (Peter Müller) to WebRTC (Michelle Bu of Stripe) to “BeagleBone Black: the Versatile JS Underdog“ (Kassandra Perch of RetailMeNot). Monday afternoon’s bill featured a couple of familiar faces: Gilt Lead Software Engineer Eric Shepherd on “Gadgets for Holistic Web Detection”; and our old pal Mark Wunsch, who recently became Rent the Runway’s Director of Engineering after spending several years at Gilt stirring up scandal(bars). Go here to view all of this year’s fantastic EmpireJS presentations.

As the Monday morning traffic rush swirled all around me, Jared and I stepped off the M34 crosstown bus into the desolation that is 10th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Jared made an offhand comment about a scene from the Ninja Turtles as we took in the construction, the long-term parking, and the largest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. The conference was in a studio space, which was another contrast to the gritty atmosphere just outside. Registration was calm, peaceful. White walls, white tables, white floors, and warm smiles. The negative space seemed primed for the colorful display that would unfold during the rest of our time there.

I made my way to the restroom to wash the New York subway off of my hands. The bathroom was reminiscent of a beauty parlor in Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1987: A chandelier, a 10-foot shabby-chic mirror, flowers in gently distressed vases and wicker hampers for trash cans. The stalls had full domestic doors, and were wallpapered in soft colors. An elegant human contrast to the mechanical subject matter of the conference. I continued on, grabbed a bagel and piled it high with cream cheese, lox, and bacon.

I waltzed into the main conference room and was greeted by a multitude of brightly-clothed tables. They were large and round, and orbited a glass pulpit. It looked like the site of an eclectic wedding, or a bizarre family gathering. The speakers and event staff were rushing around in final preparation; the attendees meandered around like sleepwalkers.

The next hour was spent trying to consume as much caffeine as possible.

The morning’s slate of talks reflected the breadth and diversity of the JavaScript world. A few years ago, if you told people that you wrote JavaScript for a living, it went without saying that you were making web pages. Today you could be building web apps, making games, writing servers, or developing robots. And the community is as diverse as the subject matter: During one talk, the speaker asked everyone who had studied computer science in college to raise their hands, and only about half the room did. JavaScript, because of its default monopoly in the browser, has attracted all sorts of humans who are intrigued by the web: Architects, outdoor enthusiasts, film students, bakers, ex-captains of ships, psychologists, historians, people born in the circus, people raised by wolves … all of these and more find common ground in crafting the Internet.

My bagel breakfast barely tied me over till the lunch break. An underestimation of conference attendance and enthusiasm led to an extraordinary lunch truck line stretching up W. 34th Street. There may have been a grumble or two, but they were drowned out by the shouts of joy from voyeuristic Twitterers having something to tell the Internet.

The post-lunch doldrums made the comedy stylings of the afternoon’s speakers even more hilarious than they already were. Nothing brings down the house like well-placed cat gifs and DOM Deluise jokes. At least not at a JavaScript conference!

As the closing time of 5:30 PM approached, so did some stir-crazy madness. As the day’s last speaker concluded and Bocoup Director of Community Adam Sontag made his benediction, the room cleared as if there had suddenly been a fire or a sweepstakes giveaway. The attendees scattered like animals escaping danger; wild and with no direction, pouring out into the hopeless crossing of 10th Avenue and W. 34th St. in search of food and rest. We had a precious few hours until the Statue of Liberty Cruise/after-party launched down the Hudson River.

A few hours later at Chelsea Piers, Jared and I charged down the dock to board the Spirit of New Jersey and were stopped by our cruise directors for a group photo. Being one to never deny a photo op, I posed obligingly. Jared and I then continued our march up the gangway in search of a drink.

I bellied up to the bar and bellowed, “What have we got?” Beer and wine were complimentary, and liquor was not, said the bartender. I ordered a Knob Creek on the rocks (“go easy on the rocks”). After accepting my drink I broke from the crowd to walk out onto the bow and admire the cleat hitches and mellow sun turning west Manhattan into gold. I stood brooding and alone in the failing sunlight while I pondered the power this city has over us all.

They rest of the EmpireJS tribe arrived and were hustled off the bow as the crew threw off dock lines and prepared to get underway. It was a beautiful night with fair winds and a receding tide. We were directed to the roof deck to get a better view of the city. Manhattan stood glorious in the clear night. As the sun set, the lights sprung to life. Those lights and Manhattan’s sinewy silhouette serenaded us and lulled us into revelry. The drinks flowed, cameras refused to stay holstered, conversations turned easy and generous. The wind-shy found comfort in the galley, which looked like a buffet found inside an Atlantic City casino. An attentive DJ nurtured the dancefloor, which beckoned. Down the Hudson we sailed, taking a few turns under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

We swung over to Lady Liberty for a visit before turning the boat back up-river. The dance floor filled and remained that way till the cruise’s final moments. When our ship safely docked, Jared and I decided to head home. I set foot ashore and admired the courage of those who fought on to the sounds of Nikki Minaj and ignored the warning signs of an ending party. We were left with the final challenge of the day: escaping 12th Avenue at night. Cabs were as scarce as hen’s teeth, but fortune favored the bold and an empty taxi appeared.

Day Two

I wondered if I was the only one who had survived. The mood was quiet and reserved, the EmpireJSers bleary-eyed and sullen. As I sat down to take in the day’s talks, I only spotted those who were conspicuously absent from the previous night’s cruise. Our numbers were small and weak but determined. We put on our bravest faces and carried on with much resolve. The morning speakers were as chipper as the day before and seemed immune to the sparse attendance.

Hilarity and hijinks were just as abundant as during the previous day. The comedy stylings of Adam Sontag and Stripe Engineer Alex Sexton harked back the great comedy duos of old, except the jokes were puns about JavaScript. After lunch an impromptu quiz show broke out and Sontag & Sexton offloaded six prize toasters, one of which Adam was rumored to have broken during breakfast.

After spending a day with dancing robots, prank WebRTC calls, Japanese image art analysis, and dancing pixels made of box shadows, we gathered in a mass of humanity for a group photo. And as quickly and strangely as it had all begun, EmpireJS was over. Chairs were folded, tables were stripped, and half-finished energy drinks were gathered into trash cans. The exodus of the day before repeated and the attendees fell, like so many Plinko chips, into the nearest bars and pubs. I left Jared with a joyous crew from Spotify as I took our bags home to prepare for another after-party.

I caught up with Jared and the others a few hours later on 8th Avenue as we made our way to a place called The Lightbox. It was a long cavernous room with high walls illuminated by city scenes and dancing pixels, and with an open bar at both ends. I decided that the Mount Gay rum was the best offering available and received a generous dose on the rocks.

For me, the very end of a technical conference is the most crucial moment. Now comes the time to connect with those who share your hopes and dreams. These are your peers. And while we’ve had time to profess our observations of the state-of-the-art, it isn’t until the social scene changes to a room full of friends who can honestly engage in unrestricted camaraderie. The JavaScript scene seems to expand and change at the speed of the exploding universe, but here we find stability. The JavaScript community is much like the language itself. The language isn’t exactly beautiful or particularly efficient. It’s a mash-up of features and mistakes. But it is the most accessible language in the world. It’s accepting, allows for weirdness, and is free to all.

Gilt 340 Gilt Groupe 282 Gilt Tech 287 Nathan Stilwell 7 EmpireJS 3 Eric Shepherd 12 Tom Dale 1 JavaScript 18 Location05 2 John Resig 1 Jared Stilwell 1 JSConf 1 Rick Waldron 1 Michelle Bu 1 Kassandra Perch 1 Mark Wunsch 5 DOM Deluise 1 Adam Sontag 1 Alex Sexton 1 Peter Muller 1 WebRTC 2