BDConf & Mobilewood: 10-years later

Subtitle: How a Wisconsin-based wastewater management magazine forever changed the trajectory of my life.

In early 2010, I was hired as a “mobile web developer” at R/GA at a time when the iPhone 3GS was brand new, Android was still getting its sea legs, Nokia dominated the mobile market, and Blackberries were still very much a thing. I didn’t even know what a “mobile web developer” even did before taking the gig, but I was eager to apply my Zeldman-derived love of web standards to this weird new mobile world.

The web industry hadn’t yet turned its focus to this emerging mobile landscape, so in order to do my job I found myself inhaling any and all resources related to modern mobile web development. This was challenging since many pre-iPhone mobile web technologies like WAP (before Cardi B forever changed that acronym) were still floating around and weren’t always relevant to my day-to-day challenges building mobile-optimized websites for brands like Nike, Mastercard, and Tiffany & Co. I devoured Mobile Design and Development by Brian Fling and started to pick up using Twitter to follow the handful of people chatting about making web experiences for the mobile landscape.

Breaking Development Conference

It was through Twitter that I learned that the Breaking Development Conference (BDConf) was to be held in Dallas in April 2011. BDConf was one of the first conferences (at least in the US) to really focus on “the mobile web”. It was bizarrely organized by a publication focused on wastewater management and spearheaded by the (low legendary) Wisconsinite Tim Kadlec. Apparently their company were looking to send their team to a mobile web conference, and upon discovering there were none decided to throw a conference themselves!

I begged work to let me fly to Dallas to attend the inaugural conference, and thankfully they reluctantly approved my request. I filled my brain with the sessions’ content, had riveting conversations with likeminded practitioners, and came back to work with a sense that I was working at the frontier of what’s possible with the web.

When BDConf announced a follow-up conference in Nashville in September 2011, I again begged to go. Work wasn’t so ready to approve yet-another conference request so I had to get creative. BDConf announced they would hold lightning talks, so my colleague Jack Bishop and I applied. I was thrilled our talk was accepted.

At the Gayloard Opreyland Resort (aka The Biodome), there was a sense of excited urgency in the air to figure out how the web and mobile all fit together. Ethan Marcotte had recently written his seminal Responsive Web Design A List Apart article, and Scott Jehl unveiled The Boston Globe responsive redesign from the BDConf stage. The electricity in the room was palpable; each speaker fed off of the concepts and themes of the prior speakers, and the hallway/after-party conversations were just as important as the conference talks themselves. It was so damn fun and exhilarating.


And the fun didn’t stop when the conference ended. Leading up to the conference, I was invited to join a retreat to the woods outside of Nashville with 9 other speakers from the conference. The objective was to explore how the web and mobile fit together. By some stroke of dumb luck, another speaker couldn’t make the retreat so Jason Grigsby suggested me as a stand in. I will be forever grateful they extended that invitation to me.

With BDConf wrapped and all these new ideas swirling around in our heads, we traveled to the woods and spent a few magical days in a cabin pondering the intersection of the web and mobile. We worked hard and also had a hell of a lot of fun.

The cabin we rented had a closet full of toys and costumes. One of those items was a toy space helmet. Since we were talking about the future of the web and this whole new breed of devices, a space helmet seemed to be an appropriate mascot for the whole thing. We all took pictures with the helmet on, and updated our Twitter avatars.

Jeremy Keith wearing glasses and a toy space helmet with a green t-shirt

The tangible result of the retreat was the Future Friendly Manifesto, which aimed to encapsulate the challenges and opportunities of this brave new multi-device web landscape. The manifesto offered some principles for thinking about multi-device experiences as well as a round up of resources around future-friendly concepts.

Future Friendly
The Future Friendly Manifesto website

A lasting effect

A 10 year anniversary is a great time to reflect. It’s fair to say that my BDConf/Mobilewood experience was one of the most impactful experiences of my life and set me on a course for professional growth and success.

  • BDConf was the first conference I ever spoke at, and over the last decade I’ve since spoken at nearly 200 events across 6 continents.
  • Being associated with some of my more established web heroes gave me clout that made it possible for me to step out on my own.
  • In late 2012, my fellow Mobilewood compatriot Josh Clark recruited me for a client project. Nearly 9 years later, Josh and I are still working together helping clients make successful multi-device digital experiences! I’m so incredibly grateful to continue to work with such an amazing, talented, sharp, and sharp-dressed guy.
  • It introduced me to many life-long friends who I’ve shared many adventures with all over the world.
  • It gave me a helmet avatar that’s apparently become part of my brand. Clients, colleagues, and workshop attendees always ask where my helmet is.

I’m so incredibly grateful for the experience. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a part of such an exciting moment in this field again. Of course technology continues to evolve, but the web landscape has settled down a bit. While I’m more than okay with that, I occasionally miss the electric, optimistic feeling of being on the cusp of something new and exciting.

My sincerest thanks to the whole BDConf family and my fellow mobinauts.