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Converge conference brings together 250 Midlands web industry professionals

Classic rock, 80s cartoons, biker vests, and lots of coffee worked together to set a friendly atmosphere for ConvergeSE, the Midlands’ regional web industry conference. The event brought together 250 designers, developers, and other web professionals from around the southeast and beyond to explore the technological and social changes facing the industry.

This year’s conference took place at the USC Alumni Center on June 14-16, 2017 and featured presentations by local, regional and national industry leaders. Speakers led intensive workshops, inspiring keynotes, and deep dive discussions on the latest industry innovations.

Speaker tracks covered UX (user experience) design, front-end development (how a website looks & acts), back-end development (how a website works) and general business principles. Presenters represented such well known names as IBM and GAP as well as web-specialized companies like Sparkbox and the Midlands’ own Truematter.

Eight years ago, web designers, web developers, marketers, and others who contributed to the web gathered to talk about the the industry as a whole – its past, present and future. ConvergeSE co-founder Gene Crawford called that first year “just a day where we all got together.” Conference growth has been organic since then, he said, “Year one worked. So we did it again.” Hitting their stride in year three, ConvergeSE started acquiring sponsor income and growing their speaker and participant pool to outside the southeast.

Increasing empathy through diversity was one of the main themes of the 2017 conference. With industry movements such as Women Who Code, Black Girls Code and Yes We Code bringing attention to the need for minority representation in web design and development.

Crawford said ConvergeSE has always been well attended by women because the conference team brought together multiple segments of the industry from the first. He admitted that if they had focused on a back-end “developer-heavy background, we’d have been all dudes.” But by bringing together designers, front-end developers and marketing professionals, they were able to diversify.

The conference speakers echoed this desire for inclusivity. Sam Kapila, Iron Yard Director of Academic Ops & Diversity gave a Thursday keynote on bringing diverse voices to the table to create better products that serve more people. “Diverse teams make more money” she said, suggesting that different perspectives can only improve the final product.

Speaking on Friday, Sparkbox President Ben Callahan encouraged businesses to hire minority developers in order to create a more humane business culture. He said diversity creates opportunity for empathy and “empathy is the grease of collaboration. It makes collaboration easier. It shifts the spotlight from the differences between individuals to the differences between ideas.”

Since that first year, the conference structure has become more refined, but that original sociable informality from year one persisted. Crawford referred to the web industry as his community and said ConvergeSE exists to strengthen that community.

Conference participant Fern Blair, the sole web developer for the City of Salisbury, NC, has attended ConvergeSE for several years now. She said she buys her ticket as soon as it goes on early-bird sale. Being the only web designer in her office, she says she often feels isolated, so coming to a conference like ConvergeSE gives her the chance to meet other like-minded people and to learn new skills. “Every time I come to this conference, I go home with a long list of things to do better,” she said.

ConvergeSE offered both a professional and a social draw for Georgetown University Senior Front-End Developer Joni Halabi. On Friday, Halabi presented about how to create a website that is accessible to people with disabilities such as vision impairment or color blindness. She said she was as excited to attend the conference as she was to present, looking forward to connecting with other developers and learning about cutting edge changes to her favorite coding language, JavaScript. “This is my opportunity to be a geek,” she said.

Cutting edge change is part of working on the web. Crawford said the team that runs ConvergeSE doesn’t make firm plans for topics year to year. “You can’t plan it out too far,” said Crawford, but he is certain of one thing, “We’ll be here in 2018.”

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