How does one get in to coding and development? What is your background?
I got into development almost completely by accident. When I was younger, I really wanted to be a designer. Me and a friend started doing logos and flyers for local companies when we were around 15 and, after a while, I decided we needed a website to showcase our work and attract new clients. I took on the task of designing and building it, and that’s when I realised I was a much better developer than I am a designer. I still really value and understand design, and the importance of it, but I feel I lack the actual execution side of things. I stuck with the dev route from there on in, and my friend is still a designer. I think we both learned to play to our strengths.
You left a permanent job with Sky to go at it alone. Did you hesitate to hand in your notice or not?
It was a huge, huge decision for me to leave Sky, and not one I made quickly. I worked for Sky as a Senior Developer for almost three years, and it was the best, most formative work of my career: I can guarantee that I would not be where I am now if it wasn’t for Sky. However, alongside working for Sky full-time, I was speaking at a lot of conferences, as well as co-authoring books, and getting asked to run workshops. I was aware that there was a complete other career available to me outside of Sky, but I could only have it if I decided to leave… which eventually I did. I’m really glad I made the decision to work for myself, but I’m equally glad I never rushed it. I actually spoke about exactly this
at a conference earlier this year.
What do you find most difficult about working as an independent? How do you overcome these difficulties?
Honestly…? Nothing. I’m been very fortunate that I’ve had a very steady, constant stream of work with my ideal clients; everything has gone amazingly for my first year! I suppose one thing very specific to me and my work is that I spend a lot of time alone. Because I do consultancy work as opposed to freelance, I have to travel a lot, eat a lot of meals for one, spend a lot of time alone in hotels rooms. I do love being around people, but it’s such a small price to pay for having a job that I love so much.
You are firm believer in simplicity and order. How hard is to find to find either of those things on a design project? It can vary a lot. Typically I find myself working with product teams (Sky, the BBC, the NHS, for example) where simplicity is incredibly valuable. When working on these kinds of project, simplicity is usually about asking ‘Does the user need this? Will the user miss that? Does this add enough to the user’s experience to warrant including it?’ With these projects, UI designs are often very task focussed, so it is quite easy to be objective, and almost brutal, about what makes the cut and what doesn’t. I don’t really find myself working on ‘traditionally creative’ projects any more, where there is more creative license (which is actually probably a good thing for the designers involved). I would even go as far as to say that product-led developers can have the potential to stifle creativity if they aren’t careful.
If developers were meant to learn to design, where would they even start? Great question! I love how developers always say that ‘designers should learn how to code’, but it seldom gets put the other way round. I think—and this is me speaking as a developer—that developers should learn about type and typography. Design is communication, and a fairly fundamental part of that is type. Typography is my guilty pleasure; I am absolutely fascinated by typography and typesetting. The good thing about typography is that it is based on a lot of tried-and-tested rules (of thumb), which means that it’s a fairly safe and logic-friendly way for developers to begin to understand it. Developers love rules and order and discipline, so something very traditional and rule-based like typography would be a very accessible start for them.
Tell us a bit about what you do during your training workshops? Workshops vary quite a lot from client to client: it depends on what a certain product or team need to learn. Broadly speaking, however, I tend to focus a lot on how designers and developers can work more effectively (and more happily) alongside each other. As someone who really understands both sides, I get a lot of pleasure from joining the dots. The best teams are most productive—and produce much better work—when they’re working well with each other. There’s a long-standing ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality between a lot of design and development teams, so I try and break down those barriers and get both sides appreciating and understanding their shared abilities and responsibilities a lot more. After that, it’s usually much more technical stuff: performance, UI architecture, coding standards, working at scale, that kind of thing.
Do you get a kick out of your client projects?
Hell yeah! I love it. Because most of my work is consultancy and workshops, I get to meet a lot of people, which is loads of fun. I also get exposed to a lot more industries, products, and problems than a lot of other people might do. This keeps me on my toes (every client brings their own set of problems to the table) but also makes for very interesting work. I often find I get the biggest kick out of seeing that ‘lightbulb moment’ on clients’ faces—when a concept starts making sense for them, and you see them understand it for the first time. I get that a lot because of the amount of workshops I run, but I’ll never get tired of it.
You like to share a lot of your findings and knowledge with the wider audience through blog posts and magazine articles. What is the future of learning in the dev community?
I do. I’m a huge believer in the sharing and openness of knowledge, so I try and share as much of mine as I can (where it makes sense). I think we’re currently paving the future of learning, actually. I feel we’re in the midst of quite a large shift in approaches as it is. We’re seeing fewer full-length books—because they’re expensive to produce and purchase, and just get out of date so fast—and a lot more A Book Apart
-style mini books. We’re seeing a lot more large-scale and canonical blog post-style resources, like my own CSS Guidelines
, and we’ve got a meteoric rise in video and eLearning platforms like Treehouse
. I think that, as an industry, we’ll keep on sharing no matter the medium.
Your code review sessions seem to be widely popular and beneficial to clients, what gave you the idea to start them?
Due to the nature of my work, and the clients I work with, it can be very expensive to hire me, especially when travel costs are factored into the equation. This is something I’ve always been aware of, so I wanted a way to provide similar levels of service to companies who don’t have quite the same budgets as most of my clients do. I don’t want to work exclusively with wealthy companies, and I certainly don’t want to exclude any companies just because of money, so I tried to work out a way of being able to provide consultancy work on a more affordable basis. It’s kind of like when a fancy restaurant offers a prix fixe option: the same level of quality and service, but a fixed offering for a fixed price. It seems to have worked out really well, and I’m doing a lot of them at the moment!
User Experience Design has seen a huge increase in overall importance over the last few years. Why do we care so much more now?
The web is like a pendulum: we started off with Webmasters who would do everything from design to development to deployment; then we really diversified and got specialists in everything; then we swung back again and started to look for generalists who, for example, can cover all of the front-end side of things. Now I think we’re swinging back again because we’ve seen that websites can be products, and that websites can turn over billions of dollars. Companies of a sufficient size have realised that they need to invest strongly in the teams who work on these products, and one key area is keeping users happy. I’ve always said that UX is everyone’s job (designers need to design nice UIs; developers need to write fast code; and customer support need to have a pleasant tone when they answer the phone) but UX specialists—people who can conduct research and interviews, and can study data to influence product design decisions—are valuable people to have on a team if you can afford them.
What are the key attributes to building a successful website?
From a product point of view, I would echo everything written in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup
. Test and de-risk ideas; don’t build things people don’t want; and stay open and adaptable to change. The build-it-and-they-will-come attitude to building digital products just doesn’t work, and a new startup or app is not a golden ticket for anyone. From a tech point of view, I would say that there is a lot of value in having a strong team of business-minded developers on board; people who can plan for the future without wasting time optimising sites prematurely. Again, staying open and responsive to change is hugely important for teams, so that they can continue to adapt the tech to suit the changing directions of the business. It’s often been said that 80% of the cost of a project is spent on maintaining it, so building websites with that in mind is a good habit to get into.
What is the most exciting project you’ve seen come out of hacker culture?
There are a lot of success stories out there! Being able to build your own ideas is an incredible privilege for developers to have, so a lot of people really capitalise on that. Stripe
is an incredible story: Two brothers born in 1988 and 1990 (what?!) built a company that was recently valued at $1.75bn. With a B. But they’re not alone; plenty of people doing similar things right now. I just hope it’s all sustainable.
You’ve been a frequent speaker at dev conferences for the past few years. What ingredients make a good talk?
It can vary tremendously! The Meat Conferenc
e at which you and I met was fantastic, but for completely different reasons than I’m used to. As a speaker at tech conferences, it was a real treat to attend a design conference, because all of the talks were a different style and feel to the ones I’m normally involved in. So, speaking purely from my own technical perspective, I think: empathy is important, let the audience know that you understand the problems they face, and speak to them in a way that feels like you’re speaking directly to each person individually; then offering something of tangible value, like a solution to the problems you previously outlined, is great for a tech conference. A lot of the best talks I’ve seen—and the ones I try to give—start off by clearly and explaining and outlining a problem, and then finish by giving the attendees a solution to that problem. Useful, but personable.
Where do you see future of conferences and events?
I’d actually like to see fewer of them. I had a real moment of clarity a few weeks back: I’d just finished my third conference in a third country within a three-week period, and it hit me that speaking at conferences was at the risk of becoming ‘just another talk’ for me. The problem here is that my ‘just another talk’ might be one person’s training budget for the entire year, and that worried me. I fear that the same people doing so many talks could potentially lead to complacency, and paying attendees do not deserve that. That said, I would like to see more grassroots and local/meetup conferences! Smaller crowds, more affordable pricing, more intimacy. I just came back from speaking at DaFED, a meetup in Serbia run by a really, really wonderful team of volunteers. That was a very humbling experience, and one I will never forget. Seeing people putting so much care and effort directly into the community for purely altruistic reasons was great.
Do you have a favourite speaker or talk that has somewhat influenced your work/life?
There are certain people I do love to watch speaking. Bruce Lawson
is amazing to watch, because he’s like the web’s own David Attenborough
: very wise, but has a really accessible and friendly way of imparting knowledge. My friend James Hall
is just an absolute hoot to watch: he’s had me literally in tears laughing at his talks before. There was one specific talk, by James Victore, that actually had a huge impact on me. His Your Work Is a Gift
was part of the motivation behind me deciding to leave Sky when I did. It’s interesting that James’ talk stuck with me so much, and that he’s a designer. I think there’s a lot of value in watching talks by people who aren’t directly in your own field, like I did at Meat.
What is your view on social media versus business benefits?
As in do I think it has any business benefits? I think the benefits can be tremendous for the right company. Blogging and Twitter have been instrumental in my success; there’s no way I’d be here without them. For other companies, it can open them up to a whole wave of new customers. A lot of the time when I visit a new city I will tweet asking for dinner/drink recommendations, and getting replies back from restaurants and bars is a sure-fire way to get my interest! I have a friend whose parents run a butcher in Nottingham
, and they’re constantly putting photos of amazing meats on Facebook. I cannot wait to go and visit them and spend all my money on sausages and smoked bacon and their salt beef and their steaks and… well I think you get the point. This is a small butcher hundreds of miles away who do a really great job of advertising their wares to a potentially international audience. On the flip-side my parents own a company that designs and builds children’s school playgrounds
. They sell directly to councils and local authorities, so I’d say there is little benefit in them having a Twitter account compared to the effort they would have to put into finding anything useful to say on it. I can’t imagine they’d get great returns.
How do you spend time away from the screen?
I try and cycle and take to the hills
as much as I can, although that hasn’t been all that much in the last year. I also really enjoy cooking (and, more accurately) eating, so I try and do as much of that as I can. Getting away from the screen is a good idea, but I need to work on doing it more. It also doesn’t help that I have my phone on me 24/7, and that’s basically just one giant screen.
Lastly, what do you consider to be a creative classic?
For personal classics (i.e. I don’t know if many people would agree with me): Film: The Consequences of Love: The storyline, the cinematography, and the soundtrack are great. I’ve watched this film so many times! Album: Illmatic
: Amazing, timeless album. Every single track is the best track on the album.