Guest Speakers 2014-2015 on BSc Web Development at MMU

This time of year I do a short write up as way of a ‘thank you’ to all the wonderful folks you give their time to inspire our students. And this year…

Wow! Just wow!

There is no other way to say it without a load of expletives and exclamation marks. 

First, a few questions answered.

Why so many guest speakers? If you don’t already know, this industry is nuts. As academics (ageing in our case), keeping up with what is happening and changing in this industry is next to impossible. Web design and development is also a broad, multidisciplinary subject, many skills, many arts (as they say). We also have a simple aim to keep things real. This means for example in User Experience dealing with the tools and techniques that professionals are using in the work place (now) rather than what is suggested in a dated HCI text book. Bringing in guests with their experiences and industry ‘war stories’ bridges that gap between the theories and practice.

How do we get so many great speakers? Charm and coffee. Being in the centre of Manchester is also a big help We are smack bang in the middle of a dynamic digital economy. But more than anything by simply getting out there and making sure that we are talking to those in industry, making contacts and new friends each week. The pay off is that not only do we get offers from great and interesting speakers, but their businesses and employers get to know about us and more importantly our students. This then leads to job and placement opportunities coming direct to us.

Who speaks? Well you are going to get a break-down of this years amazing list. You will see that this ranges from the top of the tree ‘web personalities’ who are usually seasoned conference speakers, but also authors and professional speakers through to local developers, designers and UX professionals. In fact some of the well known names that visited us this year were indeed doing this kind of thing for the first time.

How does this fit in with classes? Pretty well thanks! Some guests are brought in as topic/subject experts, telling how it’s done in the workplace. Others add a wider context to the theories. Others bring in their experiences and insights into particular tools or techniques. Being able to show how x was handled with/for client B is invaluable. It often reinforces our own teaching (yes, you did cover that in my class!) and supports coursework. Our final year technical unit in web design, Agency Ready culminated in a portfolio show with a number of guest professionals providing advice and feedback to the students attending.

Students talk to guests from industry
Garry Finch (@gazraa) of the Hut Group talks to some of the Agency Ready class at the Portfolio Show.

So what happened this year? Well you asked, so here we go…

Before the term started (and after successfully hosting WordCamp Manchester for the lovely @wcmcr crew in June) we played host to the Front End North conference for the Make Do chaps (@makedoin). The conference consisted mainly of local speakers and a good gathering of professionals in the audience. Sadly few students attended either event. We were lucky to also see the first Upfront Conference in May 2015 here in Manchester, which again was a great opportunity to see some great speakers on all things front-end web design. This included being wowed by Ben Foxall () and his trickery with our phones. It was also great to see performance become a core theme in all the talks. We do our small bit by hammering students over the head about image optimisation and clean coding.

Once term started it was nice to bring back some former graduates. Michael Walsh @MichaelWalshMan who is working at @FrankDesignLtd came in for a Q&A with all BSc Web Development students. We asked him how scary it was starting work, what was a typical day, the tools he uses and how he got on with versioning. For our Project Management unit Jill Griffiths @Jill_Griff brought back Matt Scarth and Ben Lyon who provided a wonderful insight into their careers as digital project managers since leaving us.

One of our early guests for our UXD unit was former grad Lizzie Dyson, currently UX Designer at the BBC – Co-Founder of @LadiesthatUX, Co-Host of @LadiesthatUXMCR & organiser of @Talk_UX. Lizzie and her colleague Tina (@Digital_Orange) took the students though the BBC’s new personas, how they were developed and how they will be used. The students were working a client based project which was MMU’s own MyMMU portal. The ever kind Kieron Lonergan from the portal team took time out of his busy schedule to act as the client in this UX review and re-design. Sadly Kieron passed away this year and will be much missed.

The second term of UXD brought in a variety of speakers including Chris Collingridge – @ccollingridge – Planning and Conducting User Testing, Matt Thompson from Amaze on UX and analytics and our mate Barry Briggs @quiffboy covered Guerrilla usability testing (interestingly reviewing the same site as last year, this time post production -and yes, students still found some issues). Jenna Cosquieri from UserZoom introduced the product and remote testing. UserZoom kindly give the students access to use it as part of their assignment. Fiona and Lucy from Simply Usability came over from Leeds to show us how to use our Tobii Eye Tracker, again a tool students can choose to use for the assignment. Our great friend Chris Bush (@suthen) of Sigma (@wearesigma) talked multi-variant testing, showing some great tools and tips for successful A/B testing. And once again things were rounded up by Jane Murison @mewroh of the BBC, again giving advice (in her usual lively style) on pitching the results of your user research.

Michael Cropper (@MickCropper), founder & Managing Director of Contrado Digital in Blackburn talked all things SEO to second year students and the new final year unit, Agency Ready got off to a flying start with a series of ‘master classes’. Agency Ready aims to give final year students the opportunity and space to develop some of the technical skills they identify as being important as they head towards graduation. For some this may be improving their CSS, getting to grips with JQuery or conquering Git. The coursework also guaranteed that by Easter every student had an externally hosted portfolio site, ready for future employers. The masterclasses were aimed at many of the current trends. Dan Donald (@hereinthehive) and Darren Cousins  (@sygad1) – Senior UX Developer for Reading Room, Manchester both gave fascinating talks on responsive design. Dan took a top down approach of all the issues and elements of responsive, while Darren came ‘bottom-up’ from the coal face, with a very practical ‘this is how we do it’ talk full of tips and advice.

Former MMU Computing graduate and Little Chip winner Mike Stephens (@bit_byte_bit) came in and talked about portfolios and looked over the work of a number of students. Mike also talked about the importance of ‘self-initiated’ projects once in the workplace to help maintain and develop your skills and passion outside of the workplace.

The wonderfully sparky Jenny Wong (@miss_jwo) along with Robert O’Rourke (@sanchothefat) from Human Made came in for a class on developing a WordPress theme. Lots of tips and advice for all levels. Jenny shocked the students, having taken the time to look at all of their portfolio sites, and all of their blog posts. She then asked some pertinent questions, like ‘why hadn’t they blogged more’? What was setting them apart?

Mid term we all visited Manchester Talent Day, which is part of Manchester Digital’s Digital Skills Festival. Something like 70 employers had stands for our student to visit and discuss careers. A great opportunity from both sides of the table. It was also fantastic as we are now starting seeing some of our past graduates manning the stands for their employers. Hopefully there will be even more in 2016!

We were lucky to again have Andrew Clarke (@Malarkey) in (thanks Sue) talking this time about CSS typography  (man, do slides get any better!). Andy convincing us that that fraction of line hight made all the difference. It did! Lorna Jane Mitchell (@lornajane) talked versioning with Git, followed by our good friend Jon Duckett, author of and who came in and talked about programming followed by lots of sage advice as he shared many of the things he has learnt over the years. This included dealing with and billing clients, costing time etc. We even got to dog sit Ivy whilst Jon did his talk.

The following week we were especially pleased to bring in for the first time Harry Roberts, known to everyone under his @csswizardry twitter handle. Harry did a knock out session on writing and efficient and lean CSS architecture. Harry made great use of throughout the session as well as introducing us to a variety of other tools as he challenged the students to write lean CSS.

The final session of the term was from our former graduate Dave Sims (@sheepfred) who finished the term with a knock out session on integrating SEO in your coding.

I should round up by mentioning that this year we finally got off the ground (in a small way) an idea that has been there for some time. ‘Digital’ is in all areas at Manchester Metropolitan University, that’s why we now have the Digital Innovation unit as a lynch pin and focus for all things digital. The idea for some time has been about bringing student from all these diverse areas across the University to meet, discuss and work together. Therefore we were proud to launch the Digital Innovation Student Network. This started off with an evening in The Shed (home of Digital Innovation), inviting students and guests from industry to a Q&A between two of the leading voices for the web design industry, Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) and Andrew Clarke. Andrew hosted at MMU whilst Jeffrey spoke to us via Skype. It was an insightful discussion and we are very thankful to these busy professionals for giving their time up for the students. Somewhere there are pictures of me literally jumping for joy as Jeffrey validated our approach to web design on the BSc Web Development.

Audience listen and watch Jeffrey Zeldman from New York.
Jeffrey Zeldman Q&A hosted at MMU by Andrew Clarke.

The Network also hosted a UX talk by Andy Budd (@andybudd) whilst he was in town. As usual, Andy left us with lots to think about. It was also great to open this up to our friends from industry. This is something we like to do as students get to meet and talk to professionals.

And finally I also need to mention that we managed to take students to @nuxuk@DPMUKConf and Camp Digital. All great events, with great speakers, fab organising teams and invaluable to students. A huge thank you to those folks, all who are kind in their support and great friends of MMU.

There I did tell you! What a year! It’s going to be hard to top, but of course we will try. If you want to help and get involved, drop me a line via @eskins. That’s it.

ps. May 2015 saw the 3rd Web Teaching Day – now Web Teaching Today. Anyone involved in teaching this stuff, you need to be involved and join us in 2016.

pps. if your reading this in another part of the UK (or world I guess), please think about supporting your local students they way these fantastic folk have. As Jeffrey said in the Q&A, the whole ethos of sharing and supporting is integral to the (past and) future of the web.

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