Tags: ning

35

sparkline

Optimise without a face

I’ve been playing around with the newly-released Squoosh, the spiritual successor to Jake’s SVGOMG. You can drag images into the browser window, and eyeball the changes that any optimisations might make.

On a project that Cassie is working on, it worked really well for optimising some JPEGs. But there were a few images that would require a bit more fine-grained control of the optimisations. Specifically, pictures with human faces in them.

I’ve written about this before. If there’s a human face in image, I open that image in a graphics editing tool like Photoshop, select everything but the face, and add a bit of blur. Because humans are hard-wired to focus on faces, we’ll notice any jaggy artifacts on a face, but we’re far less likely to notice jagginess in background imagery: walls, materials, clothing, etc.

On the face of it (hah!), a browser-based tool like Squoosh wouldn’t be able to optimise for faces, but then Cassie pointed out something really interesting…

When we were both at FFConf on Friday, there was a great talk by Eleanor Haproff on machine learning with JavaScript. It turns out there are plenty of smart toolkits out there, and one of them is facial recognition. So I wonder if it’s possible to build an in-browser tool with this workflow:

  • Drag or upload an image into the browser window,
  • A facial recognition algorithm finds any faces in the image,
  • Those portions of the image remain crisp,
  • The rest of the image gets a slight blur,
  • Download the optimised image.

Maybe the selecting/blurring part would need canvas? I don’t know.

Anyway, I thought this was a brilliant bit of synthesis from Cassie, and now I’ve got two questions:

  1. Does this exist yet? And, if not,
  2. Does anyone want to try building it?

Praise for Going Offline

I’m very, very happy to see that my new book Going Offline is proving to be accessible and unintimidating to a wide audience—that was very much my goal when writing it.

People have been saying nice things on their blogs, which is very gratifying. It’s even more gratifying to see people use the knowledge gained from reading the book to turn those blogs into progressive web apps!

Sara Soueidan:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer, a junior developer or an experienced engineer — this book is perfect for anyone who wants to learn about Service Workers and take their Web application to a whole new level.

I highly recommend it. I read the book over the course of two days, but it can easily be read in half a day. And as someone who rarely ever reads a book cover to cover (I tend to quit halfway through most books), this says a lot about how good it is.

Eric Lawrence:

I was delighted to discover a straightforward, very approachable reference on designing a ServiceWorker-backed application: Going Offline by Jeremy Keith. The book is short (I’m busy), direct (“Here’s a problem, here’s how to solve it“), opinionated in the best way (landmine-avoiding “Do this“), and humorous without being confusing. As anyone who has received unsolicited (or solicited) feedback from me about their book knows, I’m an extremely picky reader, and I have no significant complaints on this one. Highly recommended.

Ben Nadel:

If you’re interested in the “offline first” movement or want to learn more about Service Workers, Going Offline by Jeremy Keith is a really gentle and highly accessible introduction to the topic.

Daniel Koskine:

Jeremy nails it again with this beginner-friendly introduction to Service Workers and Progressive Web Apps.

Donny Truong

Jeremy’s technical writing is as superb as always. Similar to his first book for A Book Apart, which cleared up all my confusions about HTML5, Going Offline helps me put the pieces of the service workers’ puzzle together.

People have been saying nice things on Twitter too…

Aaron Gustafson:

It’s a fantastic read and a simple primer for getting Service Workers up and running on your site.

Ethan Marcotte:

Of course, if you’re looking to take your website offline, you should read @adactio’s wonderful book

Lívia De Paula Labate:

Ok, I’m done reading @adactio’s Going Offline book and as my wife would say, it’s the bomb dot com.

If that all sounds good to you, get yourself a copy of Going Offline in paperbook, or ebook (or both).

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.

Technical balance

Two technical editors worked with me on Going Offline.

Jake was one of the tech editors. He literally (co-)wrote the spec on service workers. There ain’t nuthin’ he don’t know about the code involved. His job was to catch any technical inaccuracies in my writing.

The other tech editor was Amber. She’s relatively new to web development. While I was writing the book, she had a solid grounding in HTML and CSS, but not much experience in JavaScript. That made her the perfect archetypal reader. Her job was to point out whenever I wasn’t explaining something clearly enough.

My job was to satisfy both of them. I needed to explain service workers and all its associated APIs. I also needed to make it approachable and understandable to people who haven’t dived deeply into JavaScript.

I deliberately didn’t wait until I was an expert in this topic before writing Going Offline. I knew that the more familiar I became with the ins-and-outs of getting a service worker up and running, the harder it would be for me to remember what it was like not to know that stuff. I figured the best way to avoid the curse of knowledge would be not to accrue too much of it. But then once I started researching and writing, I inevitably became more au fait with the topic. I had to try to battle against that, trying to keep a beginner’s mind.

My watchword was this great piece of advice from Codebar:

Assume that anyone you’re teaching has no knowledge but infinite intelligence.

It was tricky. I’m still not sure if I managed to pull off the balancing act, although early reports are very, very encouraging. You’ll be able to judge for yourself soon enough. The book is shipping at the start of next week. Get your order in now.

The audience for Going Offline

My new book, Going Offline, starts with no assumption of JavaScript knowledge, but by the end of the book the reader is armed with enough code to make any website work offline.

I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with lots of code up front, so I’ve tried to dole it out in manageable chunks. The amount of code ramps up a little bit in each chapter until it peaks in chapter five. After that, it ramps down a bit with each subsequent chapter.

This tweet perfectly encapsulates the audience I had in mind for the book:

Some people have received advance copies of the PDF, and I’m very happy with the feedback I’m getting.

Honestly, that is so, so gratifying to hear!

Words cannot express how delighted I am with Sara’s reaction:

She’s walking the walk too:

That gives me a warm fuzzy glow!

If you’ve been nervous about service workers, but you’ve always wanted to turn your site into a progressive web app, you should get a copy of this book.

Understandable excitement

An Event Apart Seattle just wrapped. It was a three-day special edition and it was really rather good. Lots of the speakers (myself included) were unveiling brand new talks, so there was a real frisson of excitement.

It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:

  • CSS grid,
  • variable fonts, and
  • service workers.

From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.” Now, depending on your mindset, that understanding can be expressed as “Oh shit! These technologies are here!” or “Yay! Finally! These technologies are here!”

My reaction is very firmly the latter. That in itself is an interesting data-point, because (as discussed in my talk) my reaction towards new technological advances isn’t always one of excitement—quite often it’s one of apprehension, even fear.

I’ve been trying to self-analyse to figure out which kinds of technologies trigger which kind of reaction. I don’t have any firm answers yet, but it’s interesting to note that the three technologies mentioned above (CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers) are all additions to the core languages of the web—the materials we use to build the web. Frameworks, libraries, build tools, and other such technologies are more like tools than materials. I tend to get less excited about advances in those areas. Sometimes advances in those areas not only fail to trigger excitement, they make me feel overwhelmed and worried about falling behind.

Since figuring out this split between materials and tools, it has helped me come to terms with my gut emotional reaction to the latest technological advances on the web. I think it’s okay that I don’t get excited about everything. And given the choice, I think maybe it’s healthier to be more excited about advances in the materials—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript APIs—than advances in tooling …although, it is, of course, perfectly possible to get equally excited about both (that’s just not something I seem to be able to do).

Another split I’ve noticed is between technologies that directly benefit users, and technologies that directly benefit developers. I think there was a bit of a meta-thread running through the talks at An Event Apart about CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers: all of those advances allow us developers to accomplish more with less. They’re good for performance, in other words. I get much more nervous about CSS frameworks and JavaScript libraries that allow us to accomplish more, but require the user to download the framework or library first. It feels different when something is baked into browsers—support for CSS features, or JavaScript APIs. Then it feels like much more of a win-win situation for users and developers. If anything, the onus is on developers to take the time and do the work and get to grips with these browser-native technologies. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, all of this helps me understand my feelings at the end of An Event Apart Seattle. I’m fired up and eager to make something with CSS grid, variable fonts, and—of course—service workers.

Just change it

Amber and I often have meta conversations about the nature of learning and teaching. We swap books and share ideas and experiences whenever we’re trying to learn something or trying to teach something. A topic that comes up again and again is the idea of “the curse of knowledge“—it’s the focus of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense Of Style. That’s when the author/teacher can’t remember what it’s like not to know something, which makes for a frustrating reading/learning experience.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to blog about stuff as they’re learning it; not when they’ve internalised it. The perspective that comes with being in the moment of figuring something out is invaluable to others. I honestly think that most explanatory books shouldn’t be written by experts—the “curse of knowledge” can become almost insurmountable.

I often think about this when I’m reading through the installation instructions for frameworks, libraries, and other web technologies. I find myself put off by documentation that assumes I’ve got a certain level of pre-existing knowledge. But now instead of letting it get me down, I use it as an opportunity to try and bridge that gap.

The brilliant Safia Abdalla wrote a post a while back called How do I get started contributing to open source?. I definitely don’t have the programming chops to contribute much to a codebase, but I thoroughly agree with Safia’s observation:

If you’re interested in contributing to open source to improve your communication and empathy skills, you’re definitely making the right call. A lot of open source tools could definitely benefit from improvements in the documentation, accessibility, and evangelism departments.

What really jumps out at me is when instructions use words like “simply” or “just”. I’m with Brad:

“Just” makes me feel like an idiot. “Just” presumes I come from a specific background, studied certain courses in university, am fluent in certain technologies, and have read all the right books, articles, and resources. “Just” is a dangerous word.

But rather than letting that feeling overwhelm me, I now try to fix the text. Here are a few examples of changes I’ve suggested, usually via pull requests on Github repos:

They all have different codebases in different programming languages, but they’re all intended for humans, so having clear and kind documentation is a shared goal.

I like suggesting these kinds of changes. That initial feeling of frustration I get from reading the documentation gets turned into a warm fuzzy feeling from lending a helping hand.

Audio I listened to in 2017

I huffduffed 290 pieces of audio in 2017. I’ve still got a bit of a backlog of items I haven’t listened to yet, but I thought I’d share some of my favourite items from the past year. Here are twelve pieces of audio, one for each month of 2017…

Donald Hoffman’s TED talk, Do we see reality as it really is?. TED talks are supposed to blow your mind, right? (22:15)

How to Become Batman on Invisibilia. Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller challenge you to think of blindness as social construct. Hear ‘em out. (58:02)

Where to find what’s disappeared online, and a whole lot more: the Internet Archive on Public Radio International. I just love hearing Brewster Kahle’s enthusiasm and excitement. (42:43)

Every Tuesday At Nine on Irish Music Stories. I’ve been really enjoying Shannon Heaton’s podcast this year. This one digs into that certain something that happens at an Irish music session. (40:50)

Adam Buxton talks to Brian Eno (part two is here). A fun and interesting chat about Brian Eno’s life and work. (53:10 and 46:35)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on Kreative Kontrol. This was far more revealing than I expected: genuine and unpretentious. (57:07)

Paul Lloyd at Patterns Day. All the talks at Patterns Day were brilliant. Paul’s really stuck with me. (28:21)

James Gleick on Time Travel at The Long Now. There were so many great talks from The Long Now’s seminars on long-term thinking. Nicky Case and Jennifer Pahlka were standouts too. (1:20:31)

Long Distance on Reply All. It all starts with a simple phone call. (47:27)

The King of Tears on Revisionist History. Malcolm Gladwell’s style suits podcasting very well. I liked this episode about country songwriter Bobby Braddock. Related: Jon’s Troika episode on tearjerkers. (42:14)

Feet on the Ground, Eyes on the Stars: The True Story of a Real Rocket Man with G.A. “Jim” Ogle. This was easily my favourite podcast episode of 2017. It’s on the User Defenders podcast but it’s not about UX. Instead, host Jason Ogle interviews his father, a rocket scientist who worked on everything from Apollo to every space shuttle mission. His story is fascinating. (2:38:21)

R.E.M. on Song Exploder. Breaking down the song Try Not To Breathe from Automatic For The People. (16:15)

I’ve gone back and added the tag “2017roundup” to each of these items. So if you’d like to subscribe to a podcast of just these episodes, here are the links:

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

Brighton conferences

I’ve been to four conferences in two weeks. I wasn’t speaking at any of them so I was able to relax and enjoy the talks.

There was UX Brighton on November 3rd, featuring a terrific opening keynote from Boxman.

James Box speaking at UX Brighton 2017

One week later, I was in the Duke of York’s cinema for FFConf along with all the other Clearleft frontend devs—it’s always a thought-provoking day out.

FFConf 2017 Day 2

Yesterday, I went to Meaning in the daytime, and Bytes in the evening.

It was amazing to get to see @ambrwlsn90 speak at #bytesconf tonight. She is a brilliant speaker! 🙌🏻

Every one of those events was in Brighton. That’s pretty good going for a town this size …and that’s not even counting the regular events like Async, Codebar, and Ladies That UX.

Words

I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.

Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.

Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:

Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.

Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.

Getting griddy with it

I had the great pleasure of attending An Event Apart Seattle last week. It was, as always, excellent.

It’s always interesting to see themes emerge during an event, especially when those thematic overlaps haven’t been planned in advance. Jen noticed this one:

I remember that being a theme at An Event Apart San Francisco too, when it seemed like every speaker had words to say about ill-judged use of Bootstrap. That theme was certainly in my presentation when I talked about “the fallacy of assumed competency”:

  1. large company X uses technology Y,
  2. company X must know what they are doing because they are large,
  3. therefore technology Y must be good.

Perhaps “the fallacy of assumed suitability” would be a better term. Heydon calls it “the ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy.” But I also made sure to contrast it with the opposite extreme: “Not Invented Here syndrome”.

As well as over-arching themes, it was also interesting to see which technologies were hot topics at An Event Apart. There was one clear winner here—CSS Grid Layout.

Microsoft—a sponsor of the event—used An Event Apart as the place to announce that Grid is officially moving into development for Edge. Jen talked about Grid (of course). Rachel talked about Grid (of course). And while Eric and Una didn’t talk about it on stage, they’ve both been writing about the fun they’ve been having having with Grid. Una wrote about 3 CSS Grid Features That Make My Heart Flutter. Eric is documenting the overall of his site with Grid. So when we were all gathered together, that’s what we were nerding out about.

The CSS Squad.

There are some great resources out there for levelling up in Grid-fu:

With Jen’s help, I’ve been playing with CSS Grid on a little site that I’m planning to launch tomorrow (he said, foreshadowingly). I took me a while to get my head around it, but once it clicked I started to have a lot of fun. “Fun” seems to be the overall feeling around this technology. There’s something infectious about the excitement and enthusiasm that’s returning to the world of layout on the web. And now that the browser support is great pretty much across the board, we can start putting that fun into production.

Balance

This year’s Render conference just wrapped up in Oxford. It was a well-run, well-curated event, right up my alley: two days of a single track of design and development talks (see also: An Event Apart and Smashing Conference for other events in this mold that get it right).

One of my favourite talks was from Frances Ng. She gave a thoroughly entertaining account of her journey from aerospace engineer to front-end engineer, filled with ideas about how to get started, and keep from getting overwhelmed in the world of the web.

She recommended taking the time to occasionally dive deep into a foundational topic, pointing to another talk as a perfect example; Ana Balica gave a great presentation all about HTTP. The second half of the talk was about HTTP 2 and was filled with practical advice, but the first part was a thoroughly geeky history of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which I really loved.

While I’m mentoring Amber, we’ve been trying to find a good balance between those deep dives into the foundational topics and the hands-on day-to-day skills needed for web development. So far, I think we’ve found a good balance.

When Amber is ‘round at the Clearleft office, we sit down together and work on the practical aspects of HTML, CSS, and (soon) JavaScript. Last week, for example, we had a really great day diving into CSS selectors and specificity—I watched Amber’s knowledge skyrocket over the course of the day.

But between those visits—which happen every one or two weeks—I’ve been giving Amber homework of sorts. That’s where the foundational building blocks come in. Here are the questions I’ve asked so far:

  • What is the difference between the internet and the web?
  • What is the difference between GET and POST?
  • What are cookies?

The first question is a way of understanding the primacy of URLs on the web. Amber wrote about her research. The second question was getting at an understanding of HTTP. Amber wrote about that too. The third and current question is about state on the web. I’m looking forward to reading a write-up of that soon.

We’re still figuring out this whole mentorship thing but I think this balance of research and exercises is working out well.

Amber

I really enjoyed teaching in Porto last week. It was like having a week-long series of CodeBar sessions.

Whenever I’m teaching at CodeBar, I like to be paired up with people who are just starting out. There’s something about explaining the web and HTML from first principles that I really like. And people often have lots and lots of questions that I enjoy answering (if I can). At CodeBar—and at The New Digital School—I found myself saying “Great question!” multiple times. The really great questions are the ones that I respond to with “I don’t know …let’s find out!”

CodeBar is always a very rewarding experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to try teaching. And having tried it, I can now safely say that I like it. It’s also a great chance to meet people from all walks of life. It gets me out of my bubble.

I can’t remember when I was first paired up with Amber at CodeBar. It must have been sometime last year. I do remember that she had lots of great questions—at some point I found myself explaining how hexadecimal colours work.

I was impressed with Amber’s eagerness to learn. I also liked that she was making her own website. I told her about Homebrew Website Club and she started coming along to that (along with other CodeBar people like Cassie and Alice).

I’ve mentioned to multiple CodeBar students that there’s pretty much an open-door policy at Clearleft when it comes to shadowing: feel free to come along and sit with a front-end developer while they’re working on client projects. A few people have taken up the offer and enjoyed observing myself or Charlotte at work. Amber was one of those people. Again, I was very impressed with her drive. She’s got a full-time job (with sometimes-crazy hours) but she’s so determined to get into the world of web design and development that she’s willing to spend her free time visiting Clearleft to soak up the atmosphere of a design studio.

We’ve decided to turn this into something more structured. Amber and I will get together for a couple of hours once a week. She’s given me a list of some of the areas she wants to explore, and I think it’s a fine-looking list:

  • I want to gather base, structural knowledge about the web and all related aspects. Things seem to float around in a big cloud at the moment.
  • I want to adhere to best practices.
  • I want to learn more about what direction I want to go in, find a niche.
  • I’d love to opportunity to chat with the brilliant people who work at Clearleft and gain a broad range of knowledge from them.

My plan right now is to take a two-track approach: one track about the theory, and another track about the practicalities. The practicalities will be HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and related technologies. The theory will be about understanding the history of the web and its strengths and weaknesses as a medium. And I want to make sure there’s plenty of UX, research, information architecture and content strategy covered too.

Seeing as we’ll only have a couple of hours every week, this won’t be quite like the masterclass I just finished up in Porto. Instead I imagine I’ll be laying some groundwork and then pointing to topics to research. I guess it’s a kind of homework. For example, after we talked today, I set Amber this little bit of research for the next time we meet: “What is the difference between the internet and the World Wide Web?”

I’m excited to see where this will lead. I find Amber’s drive and enthusiasm very inspiring. I also feel a certain weight of responsibility—I don’t want to enter into this lightly.

I’m not really sure what to call this though. Is it mentorship? Or is it coaching? Or training? All of the above?

Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to documenting the journey. Amber will be writing about it too. She is already demonstrating a way with words.

Charlotte

Over the eleven-year (and counting) lifespan of Clearleft, people have come and gone—great people like Nat, Andy, Paul and many more. It’s always a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, I know I’ll miss having them around, but on the other hand, I totally get why they’d want to try their hand at something different.

It was Charlotte’s last day at Clearleft last Friday. Her husband Tom is being relocated to work in Sydney, which is quite the exciting opportunity for both of them. Charlotte’s already set up with a job at Atlassian—they’re very lucky to have her.

So once again there’s the excitement of seeing someone set out on a new adventure. But this one feels particularly bittersweet to me. Charlotte wasn’t just a co-worker. For a while there, I was her teacher …or coach …or mentor …I’m not really sure what to call it. I wrote about the first year of learning and how it wasn’t just a learning experience for Charlotte, it was very much a learning experience for me.

For the last year though, there’s been less and less of that direct transfer of skills and knowledge. Charlotte is definitely not a “junior” developer any more (whatever that means), which is really good but it’s left a bit of a gap for me when it comes to finding fulfilment.

Just last week I was checking in with Charlotte at the end of a long day she had spent tirelessly working on the new Clearleft site. Mostly I was making sure that she was going to go home and not stay late (something that had happened the week before which I wanted to nip in the bud—that’s not how we do things ‘round here). She was working on a particularly gnarly cross-browser issue and I ended up sitting with her, trying to help work through it. At the end, I remember thinking “I’ve missed this.”

It hasn’t been all about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Charlotte really pushed herself to become a public speaker. I did everything I could to support that—offering advice, giving feedback and encouragement—but in the end, it was all down to her.

I can’t describe the immense swell of pride I felt when Charlotte spoke on stage. Watching her deliver her talk at Dot York was one my highlights of the year.

Thinking about it, this is probably the perfect time for Charlotte to leave the Clearleft nest. After all, I’m not sure there’s anything more I can teach her. But this feels like a particularly sad parting, maybe because she’s going all the way to Australia and not, y’know, starting a new job in London.

In our final one-to-one, my stiff upper lip may have had a slight wobble as I told Charlotte what I thought was her greatest strength. It wasn’t her work ethic (which is incredibly strong), and it wasn’t her CSS skills (‘though she is now an absolute wizard). No, her greatest strength, in my opinion, is her kindness.

I saw her kindness in how she behaved with her colleagues, her peers, and of course in all the fantastic work she’s done at Codebar Brighton.

I’m going to miss her.

Starting out

I had a really enjoyable time at Codebar Brighton last week, not least because Morty came along.

I particularly enjoy teaching people who have zero previous experience of making a web page. There’s something about explaining HTML and CSS from first principles that appeals to me. I especially love it when people ask lots of questions. “What does this element do?”, “Why do some elements have closing tags and others don’t?”, “Why is it textarea and not input type="textarea"?” The answer usually involves me going down a rabbit-hole of web archeology, so I’m in my happy place.

But there’s only so much time at Codebar each week, so it’s nice to be able to point people to other resources that they can peruse at their leisure. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of tricky to find resources at that level. There are lots of great articles and tutorials out there for professional web developers—Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, CSS Tricks, etc.—but no so much for complete beginners.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found:

  • MarkSheet by Jeremy Thomas is a free HTML and CSS tutorial. It starts with an explanation of the internet, then the World Wide Web, and then web browsers, before diving into HTML syntax. Jeremy is the same guy who recently made CSS Reference.
  • Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is another free online book. You can buy a paper copy too. It’s filled with good, clear explanations.
  • Zero to Hero Coding by Vera Deák is an ongoing series. She’s starting out on her career as a front-end developer, so her perspective is particularly valuable.

If I find any more handy resources, I’ll link to them and tag them with “learning”.

Exploring web technologies

Last week, I had two really enjoyable experiences discussing completely opposite ends of the web technology stack.

Tuesday is Codebar day here in Brighton. Clearleft hosted it at 68 Middle Street last week. I really, really enjoy coaching at Codebar. I particularly like teaching the absolute basics of HTML and CSS. There’s something so rewarding about seeing the “a-ha!” moments when concepts click with people. I also love answering the inevitable questions that arise, like “why is it like that?”, or “how do I do this?”

Fantastic coding tonight! Great to see you all. Thanks for coming and thanks @68MiddleSt & @clearleft for having us.

Thursday was devoted to the opposite end of the spectrum. I ran a workshop at Clearleft with some developers from one of our clients. The whole day was dedicated to exploring and evaluating up-and-coming web technologies. Basically, it was a chance to geek out about all the stuff I’ve been linking to or writing about. During the workshop I ended up making a lot of use of my tagging system here on adactio.com:

Prioritising topics for discussion.

Web components and service workers ended up at the top of the list of technologies to tackle, which was fortuitous, given my recent thoughts on comparing the two:

First of all, ask the question “who benefits from this technology?” In the case of service workers, it’s the end users. They get faster websites that handle network failure better. In the case of web components, there are no direct end-user benefits. Web components exist to make developers lives easier. That’s absolutely fine, but any developer convenience gained by the use of web components can’t come at the expense of the user—that price is too high.

The next question we usually ask when we’re evaluating a technology is “how well does it work?” Personally, I think it’s just as important to ask “how well does it fail?”

Those two questions turned out to be a good framework for the whole workshop. The question of how to evaluate technologies is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m pretty sure it will be what my next conference talk is going to be all about.

You can read more about the structure of the workshop over on the Clearleft site. I’m looking forward to running it again sometime. But I’m equally looking forward to getting back to the basics at the next Codebar.

Class teacher

ES6 introduced a whole bunch of new features to JavaScript. One of those features is the class keyword. This introduction has been accompanied by a fair amount of concern and criticism.

Here’s the issue: classes in JavaScript aren’t quite the same as classes in other programming languages. In fact, technically, JavaScript doesn’t really have classes at all. But some say that technically isn’t important. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, shouldn’t we call it a duck even if technically it’s somewhat similar—but not quite the same—species of waterfowl?

The argument for doing this is that classes are so familiar from other programming languages, that having some way of using classes in JavaScript—even if it isn’t technically the same as in other languages—brings a lot of benefit for people moving over to JavaScript from other programming languages.

But that comes with a side-effect. Anyone learning about classes in JavaScript will basically be told “here’s how classes work …but don’t look too closely.”

Now if you believe that outcomes matter more than understanding, then this is a perfectly acceptable trade-off. After all, we use computers every day without needing to understand the inner workings of every single piece of code under the hood.

It doesn’t sit well with me, though. I think that understanding how something works is important (in most cases). That’s why I favour learning underlying technologies first—HTML, CSS, JavaScript—before reaching for abstractions like frameworks and libraries. If you understand the way things work first, then your choice of framework, library, or any other abstraction is an informed choice.

The most common way that people refer to the new class syntax in JavaScript is to describe it as syntactical sugar. In other words, it doesn’t fundamentally introduce anything new under the hood, but it gives you a shorter, cleaner, nicer way of dealing with objects. It’s an abstraction. But because it’s an abstraction taken from other programming languages that work differently to JavaScript, it’s a bit of fudge. It’s a little white lie. The class keyword in JavaScript will work just fine as long as you don’t try to understand it.

My personal opinion is that this isn’t healthy.

I’ve come across two fantastic orators who cemented this view in my mind. At Render Conf in Oxford earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of hearing Ashley Williams talk about the challenges of teaching JavaScript. Skip to the 15 minute mark to hear her introduce the issues thrown up classes in JavaScript.

More recently, the mighty Kyle Simpson was on an episode of the JavaScript Jabber podcast. Skip to the 17 minute mark to hear him talk about classes in JavaScript.

(Full disclosure: Kyle also some very kind things about some of my blog posts at the end of that episode, but you can switch it off before it gets to that bit.)

Both Ashley and Kyle bring a much-needed perspective to the discussion of language design. That perspective is the perspective of a teacher.

In his essay on W3C’s design principles, Bert Bos lists learnability among the fundamental driving forces (closely tied to readability). Learnability and teachability are two sides of the same coin, and I find it valuable to examine any language decisions through that lens. With that mind, introducing a new feature into a language that comes with such low teachability value as to warrant a teacher actively telling a student not to learn how things really work …well, that just doesn’t seem right.

Small lessons, loosely learned

When Charlotte published her end-of-year report, she outlined her plans for 2016, which included “Document my JavaScript learning journey.”

I want to get into the habit of writing one JavaScript post every week to make sure I keep up with learning it. Even if it’s just a few words about some relevant terminology; it can be as long or short as desired or time allows, as long as it happens.

An excellent plan! If you really want to make sure you’ve understood something, write down an explanation of it. There’s nothing quite like writing to really test your grasp of an idea. Even if nobody else ever reads it, it’s still an extremely valuable exercise for yourself.

Charlotte has already started. Here’s a short post on using JavaScript to pick a random an item at random from an array:

Math.round(Math.random() * (array.length - 1))

It might seem like a small thing, but look what you have to understand:

  • How Math.round works (pretty straightforward—it rounds a floating point number to the nearest whole number).
  • How Math.random works (less straightforward—it gives a random number between zero and one, meaning you have to multiply it to do anything useful with the result).
  • How array.length works (seems straightforward—it gives you the total number of items in an array, but then catches you out when you realise there can never be an index with that total value because the indices are counted from zero …which gives rise to an entire class of programming error).

I really like this approach to learning: document each small thing as you go instead of waiting until all those individual pieces click together. That’s the approach Andy took when he was learning CSS and it led to him writing a book on the subject.

When it comes to problem-solving in general (and JavaScript in particular), I have a similar bias towards single-purpose solutions. Rather than creating a monolithic framework that attempts to solve all possible problems, I prefer a collection of smaller scripts that only do one thing, but do it really well; the UNIX philosophy.

Take, for example, Remy’s bind.js. It does two-way data-binding and nothing else. If you only need one-way data-binding, there’s Simulacra.js, which takes a similar minimalist, hands-off approach.

This approach of breaking large problems down into a collection of smaller problems also came up in a completely unrelated discussion at work recently. I floated the idea of starting a book club at Clearleft. Quite a few people are into the idea, but they’re not sure they could commit the time to reading a book on a deadline. Fair enough. Perhaps we could have the book club on a chapter-by-chapter basis? I don’t think that would work all that well for novels, but it did make me think of something related to Charlotte’s stated goal of learning more JavaScript…

Graham has been raving about the You Don’t Know JS book series by the supersmart Kyle Simpson. I suggested to Charlotte that we read through the books at the rate of one chapter a week. The first book is called Up and Going and our first chapter will be Into Programming, starting this week. Then at the end of the week we’ll get together to compare notes.

I’m hoping that by doing this together, there’s more chance that we’ll actually see it through to completion:

Why can I hit deadlines imposed by others, but not those imposed by myself?

A year of learning

An anniversary occurred last week that I don’t want to let pass by unremarked. On November 24th of last year, I made this note:

Welcoming @LotteJackson on her first day at @Clearleft.

Charlotte’s start at Clearleft didn’t just mark a new chapter for her—it also marked a big change for me. I’ve spent the last year being Charlotte’s mentor. I had no idea what I was doing.

Lyza wrote a post about mentorship a while back that really resonated with me:

I had no idea what I was doing. But I was going to do it anyway.

Hiring Charlotte coincided with me going through one of those periods when I ask myself, “Just what is it that I do anyway?” (actually, that’s pretty much a permanent state of being but sometimes it weighs heavier than others).

Let me back up a bit and explain how Charlotte ended up at Clearleft in the first place.

Clearleft has always been a small agency, deliberately so. Over the course of ten years, we might hire one, maybe two people a year. Because of that small size, anyone joining the company had to be able to hit the ground running. To put it into jobspeak, we could only hire “senior” level people—we just didn’t have the resources to devote to training up anyone less experienced.

That worked pretty well for a while but as the numbers at Clearleft began to creep into the upper teens, it became clear that it wasn’t a sustainable hiring policy—most of the “senior” people are already quite happily employed. So we began to consider the possibility of taking on somebody in a “junior” role. But we knew we could only do that if it were somebody else’s role to train them. Like I said, this was ‘round about the time I was questioning exactly what my role was anyway, so I felt ready to give it a shot.

Hiring Charlotte was an experiment for Clearleft—could we hire someone in a “junior” position, and then devote enough time and resources to bring them up to a “senior” level? (those quotes are air quotes—I find the practice of labelling people or positions “junior” or “senior” to be laughably reductionist; you might as well try to divide the entire web into “apps” and “sites”).

Well, it might only be one data point, but this experiment was a resounding success. Charlotte is a fantastic front-end developer.

Now I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. I’ve done my best to support, encourage, and teach Charlotte but none of that would matter if it weren’t for Charlotte’s spirit: she’s eager to learn, eager to improve, and crucially, eager to understand.

Christian wrote something a while back that stuck in my mind. He talked about the Full Stack Overflow Developer:

Full Stack Overflow developers work almost entirely by copying and pasting code from Stack Overflow instead of understanding what they are doing. Instead of researching a topic, they go there first to ask a question hoping people will just give them the result.

When we were hiring for the junior developer role that Charlotte ended up filling, I knew exactly what I didn’t want and Christian described it perfectly.

Conversely, I wasn’t looking for someone with plenty of knowledge—after all, knowledge was one of the things that I could perhaps pass on (stop sniggering). As Philip Walton puts it:

The longer I work on the web, the more I realize that what separates the good people from the really good people isn’t what they know; it’s how they think. Obviously knowledge is important—critical in some cases—but in a field that changes so quickly, how you go about acquiring that knowledge is always going to be more important (at least in the long term) than what you know at any given time. And perhaps most important of all: how you use that knowledge to solve everyday problems.

What I was looking for was a willingness—nay, an eagerness—to learn. That’s what I got with Charlotte. She isn’t content to copy and paste a solution; she wants to know why something works.

So a lot of my work for the past year has been providing a framework for Charlotte to learn within. It’s been less of me teaching her, and more of me pointing her in the right direction to teach herself.

There has been some traditional instruction along the way: code reviews, pair programming, and all of that stuff, but often the best way for Charlotte to learn is for me to get out of the way. Still, I’m always on hand to try to answer any questions or point her in the direction of a solution. I think sometimes Charlotte might regret asking me things, like a simple question about the box model.

I’ve really enjoyed those moments of teaching. I haven’t always been good at it. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I’d lose patience. When that happened, I’d basically be an asshole. Then I’d realise I was being an asshole, apologise, and try not to do it again. Over time, I think I got better. I hope that those bursts of assholery are gone for good.

Now that Charlotte has graduated into a fully-fledged front-end developer, it’s time for me to ask myself once again, “Just what is it that I do anyway?”

But at least now I have some more understanding about what I like to do. I like to share. I like to teach.

I can very much relate to Chen Hui Jing’s feelings:

I suppose for some developers, the job is a just a means to earn a paycheck. But I truly hope that most of us are in it because this is what we love to do. And that we can raise awareness amongst developers who are earlier in their journey than ourselves on the importance of best practices. Together, we can all contribute to building a better web.

I’m writing this to mark a rewarding year of teaching and learning. Now I need to figure out how to take the best parts of that journey and apply it to the ongoing front-end development work at Clearleft with Mark, Graham, and now, Charlotte.

I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m going to do it anyway.