Interview with Sam Vloeberghs: Organizing the coziest Angular conference
Agiledrop is highlighting active members of different open-source communities through interviews focusing on their projects and initiatives, as well as trends and innovations in the digital sphere.
This time we spoke with Sam Vloeberghs, an active member of the Angular community as a GDE and co-organizer of the NG-BE conference. Read on to learn more about Sam's beginnings with Angular and get an exclusive look into the origins and organization of NG-BE.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself. What is your role in the Angular community and what do you do professionally?
I’ve been a freelance software engineer for more than a decade now. I started small, doing really simple jobs like setting up contact forms, while I was still in university. I started my first business in my first year of university and I gradually moved to bigger projects, eventually becoming senior software engineer at bigger companies.
I also recently joined a startup as a senior software engineer, as a freelancer. I’ve been freelancing for all of my professional life. I did do some full-time employee work, but that only lasted 9 months and I was still freelancing during that. I’ve always just done web applications, I’ve never done fat clients or desktop applications.
As for my role in the Angular community - I’ve been organizing events for the Angular community and also in general for the web community in Belgium for more than five years, so, meetups, conferences, Angular quizzes (e.g. the Angular challenge, a recent project).
I’ve been a blogger and a speaker since I joined the Angular community. I’ve picked up blogging again more recently; and I don’t like to write short blogs, I really do a deep dive into things that I’m interested in and I try to educate other people on that.
It’s the same for my talks, my talks are always inspired by the things that I write, so all my recent talks can also just be read online on my blog. Not only does this force me to research the topic more thoroughly, but it’s also a business generator for me, as it leads to workshops and consultancy work.
That’s actually the thing that I wanted to achieve in my career, that I can get an income from my passion. I write stuff from personal interest, I get invited to speak on the topic, and people find me because of the exposure due to the talks and through my blog.
So it’s a little bit of a dream coming true. And I really believe that doing your dream job will make you much better; if you’re really passionate about it, you’ll dive deeper into the stuff and really get the expertise in it, which will also translate into how you approach the market.
If you can market yourself as an expert, you’ll be able to charge more, which will give you more time to spend on what your true passion is - investigating technologies and finding different, potentially better solutions to existing problems.
Getting better allows you to charge more, so you can work less and learn more. Of course you can’t scale that forever, at some point you need to hire other people. I’m not there yet, I’m really thinking about moving there, but I cannot do that on my own.
For the NG-BE conference as well, I didn’t do that on my own, it was with Jurgen Van de Moere who’s also a GDE. We’d never met, and then Pascal Precht introduced us to each other, and during the first meeting we had, we decided to organize a conference.
2. Can you tell us more about NG-BE? How did the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns impact this?
The general idea about NG-BE was always that we wanted to be the coziest Angular conference that people would want to go to. It’s really about creating relationships between people and not about growing professionally as a conference.
We don’t want to grow big, we don’t want to grow in the number of attendees, we want to grow in the network connections that we can create between the people coming there. Our goal is that everybody knows each other at NG-BE, or at least keeps some friends from the conference they can turn to for any questions.
We started in 2016 with 2 workshops, so already 5 years ago now. We have an amazing team on NG-BE, people that have been loyal to us for almost 5 years, which is really nice.
And from an organizer point of view, we don’t want to put a burden on our team since they’re all volunteers. What’s very important for us as organizers is that people just do what they want to do, we will never ask them to do something that they don’t want to do.
So, if we have 10 tasks and only 5 of them will be taken up by the team, we - the organizers - will do the rest. It’s not like, here are 10 tasks, divide them between the 10 core team members - no, if there are 3 groups doing 3 of the 10 tasks, then we as the organizers will do the other 7.
As for how Covid has affected NG-BE - it was a hard decision, but the logical thing to do was to postpone the 2020 edition until 2021. But, as we’re a very personal and cozy conference, we didn’t want to lose the connection with our community, so we decided to pivot our in-person conference to a more online format.
It’s not on the scale of the conference itself, but more a one- or two-talk session every other month, and we call it NG-BE Live. So, starting with August 2020 and lasting till December 2021, we’re doing live sessions remotely every two months, hopefully restarting the organization of our in-person conference in December; as long as Covid is a health risk, though, we won’t do in-person events.
3. Do you have any words of advice for event organizers based on lessons learned in 2020?
The highest priority is the health of the people. And we do believe that NG-BE was a contribution to people’s health, because the social and networking part, both professionally and personally, is very important to people’s health.
I think the most important advice here, whether you do it online or in-person, the goal is not to lose the core values. So, stick to your values, prioritize health, put the people first rather than the business.
The same is true for the organization of NG-BE. NG-BE is not a nonprofit, but we always reimburse people first. We know our conference wouldn’t be able to take place without our core team members, speakers, sponsors, attendees, workshop trainers - every person that is involved.
So, our goal wasn’t profit, our goal was to make sure everybody felt comfortable in participating. That’s the core value of NG-BE and Innovatus, the company that’s organizing it.
4. How and when did you first get into web development?
I wrote my first website in 2006, so almost 15 years ago now. It was actually quite funny because it was my informatics teacher at high school who really challenged me to do something with the internet, I was about 16 years old.
Together we created the first online event calendar and news feed for our local community, and then we started a business together after I graduated from high school.
We worked together until about 3 years ago actually, and then Jurgen bought the shares off my teacher and we used that company to start organizing NG-BE professionally.
It’s all connected - the business I did with my teacher was stagnating and we were going in different directions, but we had a company, it was healthy, so the logical approach was to just transform it into another company rather than start a new one, so we “recycled” the company actually.
5. How did you see the front-end development industry evolve through the years?
The front-end world really grew a lot and I believe that if you jumped in now it would be very mind-blowing. It would seem aggressive and have a steep learning curve; there are so many frameworks and methodologies and ways of doing different things and eventually reaching the same goal.
I think the front-end world evolved from being fairly simple to really complicated. Back in the day you would just build a website in HTML and CSS and you were done, but now you need to add all these layers of dynamic properties and stuff, and applications have really grown in terms of complexity.
The web as well, browsers have grown in their capabilities. The front-end development industry has professionalized a bit, and it also expanded its capabilities. An important part of this is the global aspect, so, people being really challenged by the global aspect.
And what I mean with that is - as soon as you start blogging, for example, you don’t realize the impact of your writing. In the beginning, you might have visitors from your own country, because you share it on your Facebook and within your own personal network.
But as soon as Google picks it up, people are coming from everywhere, from Africa, from Asia, from South America. And then you really start thinking about the global impact of the internet and start coding around it, and then you realize that you need a content delivery network that will serve your site fast in all parts of the world.
So, the internet was already global, but in the last 15 years its impact has grown. You can start a business in Europe and also have a revenue in other parts of the world, which is amazing for freelancers like me.
6. What are some projects or initiatives in Angular or the front-end ecosystem that you’ve particularly enjoyed or are excited about?
I’ve always had a big interest in search engine optimization and that also shows in my work with Angular - in Angular, I really specialize in Universal and recently also in Scully, and that’s mainly because of the work that I was doing.
I was trying to find solutions for SEO using Angular and then I quickly came upon Universal. My own website has been an Angular Universal application since the beginning, since 2016.
Not many people were doing Universal yet at that point, so it was a real challenge, but that’s what I liked about it. I see a lot of potential for the future here, also because of Core Web Vitals which were recently implemented by Google. You can achieve good results with that by using Angular Universal or Scully.
The Angular team has been really targeting performance lately. And that’s what I also wanted to mention about Angular, is that it’s really stabilizing the core and the interface, and now they’re approaching performance optimizations, e.g. how can we optimize the initial load of the application?
And how can we make sure that a website coded with Angular is instantly available on a phone used in Africa with a slower internet connection? Stuff like that. So I really see opportunities there; for me there is no real change needed anymore in how we code Angular, it’s more about the output - it’s about what we ship in the end.
7. To you, what’s the biggest thing for front-end development this year?
There’s been a lot of buzz about the Jamstack and there are a lot of criticisms as well. Because the Jamstack basically goes back to the beginning, back to static HTML and CSS that make websites very fast, but the counter side is that the build process for that is very slow. So, if you have a website or web application with a thousand pages and you update a header, then you need to regenerate everything.
For me, the Jamstack is the result of the fast evolution process in the front end. There came new ideas, new engineering, new frameworks, but they lost the connection with the true meaning of the web a bit - the initial idea for the web was just making information available, which resulted in ignoring certain aspects of performance.
And then came Jamstack, which was like, ok, we’re going to try to solve that, but then we just started circling back and going full circle. That’s what I mean with the criticism; Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress, made a very critical post on the Jamstack about what I just said earlier about having to regenerate everything.
I have clients that have 40,000 pages on their website. If I need to regenerate 40,000 pages every time something changes, then what the hell are we doing? Jamstack is used as a solution for when your application is actually not performant. So you don’t need Jamstack if every part of your stack is performant.
We’re actually just patching our mistakes from the quick evolution of the front end, and other parts of web development, that we forgot several years ago in the process of this evolution.
This is a good thing, we’ll come to a good solution in the end, and we’re accepting it as it is now. That’s part of engineering and that’s part of the evolution of course. But yeah, I think we’re in the stabilization phase of the web, cause I don’t see how the web as it is as a browser can change much anymore.
If the internet changes, it will have to change from the bottom up, because now we’re just filling in the holes. So, the basics are there, we’re now focusing on the performance and the effectiveness of the technologies that we’re using.
Group photo from NG-BE