Tags: teaching

24

sparkline

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.

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.

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.

Teaching in Porto, day five

For the final day of the week-long masterclass, I had no agenda. This was a time for the students to work on their own projects, but I was there to answer any remaining questions they might have.

As I suspected, the people with the most interest and experience in development were the ones with plenty of questions. I was more than happy to answer them. With no specific schedule for the day, we were free to merrily go chasing down rabbit holes.

SVG? Sure, I’d be happy to talk about that. More JavaScript? My pleasure! Databases? Not really my area of expertise, but I’m more than willing to share what I know.

It was a fun day. The centrepiece was a most excellent lunch across the river at a really traditional seafood place.

At the very end of the day, after everyone else had gone, I sat down with Tiago to discuss how the week went. Overall, I was happy. I was nervous going into this masterclass—I had never done a whole week of teaching—but based on the feedback I got, I think I did okay. There were times when I got impatient, and I wish I could turn back the clock and erase those moments. I noticed that those moments tended to occur when it was time for hands-on-keyboards coding: “no, not like that—like this!” I need to get better at handling those situations. But when we working on paper, or having stand-up discussions, or when I was just geeking out on a particular topic, everything felt quite positive.

All in all, this week has been a great experience. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I felt it was a real honour and a privilege to be involved with the New Digital School. I’ve enjoyed doing hands-on teaching, and I’d like to do more of it.

Teaching in Porto, day four

Day one covered HTML (amongst other things), day two covered CSS, and day three covered JavaScript. Each one of those days involved a certain amount of hands-on coding, with the students getting their hands dirty with angle brackets, curly braces, and semi-colons.

Day four was a deliberate step away from all that. No more laptops, just paper. Whereas the previous days had focused on collaboratively working on a single document, today I wanted everyone to work on a separate site.

The sites were generated randomly. I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”

For a bit of fun, the first brainstorming exercise (run as a 6-up) was to come with potential names for this service—4 minutes for 6 ideas. Then we went around the table, shared the ideas, got feedback, and settled on the names.

Now I asked everyone to come up with a one-sentence mission statement for their newly-named service. This was a good way of teasing out the most important verbs and nouns, which led nicely into the next task: answering the question “what is the core functionality?”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first part of the three-step process I outlined in Resilient Web Design:

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

We did some URL design, figuring out what structures would make sense for straightforward GET requests, like:

  • /things
  • /things/ID

Then, once it was clear what the primary “thing” was (a car, a book, etc.), I asked them to write down all the pieces that might appear on such a page; one post-it note per item e.g. “title”, “description”, “img”, “rating”, etc.

The next step involved prioritisation. They took those post-it notes and put them on the wall, but they had to put them in a vertical line from top to bottom in decreasing order of importance. This can be a challenge, but it’s better to solve these problems now rather than later.

Okay. I know asked them to “mark up” those vertical lists of post-it notes: writing HTML tag names by each one. By doing this before doing any visual design, it meant they were thinking about the meaning of the content first.

After that, we did a good ol’ fashioned classic 6-up sketching exercise, followed by critique (including a “designated dissenter” for each round). At this point, I was encouraging them to go crazy with ideas—they already had the core functionality figured out (with plain ol’ client/server requests and responses) so they could all the bells and whistles they wanted on top of that.

We finished up with a discussion of some of those bells and whistles, and how they could be used to improve the user experience: Ajax, geolocation, service workers, notifications, background sync …the sky’s the limit.

It was a whirlwind tour for just one day but I think it helped emphasise the importance of thinking about the fundamentals before adding enhancements.

This marked the end of the structured masterclass lessons. Tomorrow I’m around to answer any miscellaneous questions (if I can) and chat to the students individually while they work on their term projects.

Teaching in Porto, day three

Day two ended with a bit of a cliffhanger as I had the students mark up a document, but not yet style it. In the morning of day three, the styling began.

Rather than just treat “styling” as one big monolithic task, I broke it down into typography, colour, negative space, and so on. We time-boxed each one of those parts of the visual design. So everyone got, say, fifteen minutes to write styles relating to font families and sizes, then another fifteen minutes to write styles for colours and background colours. Bit by bit, the styles were layered on.

When it came to layout, we closed the laptops and returned to paper. Everyone did a quick round of 6-up sketching so that there was plenty of fast iteration on layout ideas. That was followed by some critique and dot-voting of the sketches.

Rather than diving into the CSS for layout—which can get quite complex—I instead walked through the approach for layout; namely putting all your layout styles inside media queries. To explain media queries, I first explained media types and then introduced the query part.

I felt pretty confident that I could skip over the nitty-gritty of media queries and cross-device layout because the next masterclass that will be taught at the New Digital School will be a week of responsive design, taught by Vitaly. I just gave them a taster—Vitaly can dive deeper.

By lunch time, I felt that we had covered CSS pretty well. After lunch it was time for the really challenging part: JavaScript.

The reason why I think JavaScript is challenging is that it’s inherently more complex than HTML or CSS. Those are declarative languages with fairly basic concepts at heart (elements, attributes, selectors, etc.), whereas an imperative language like JavaScript means entering the territory of logic, loops, variables, arrays, objects, and so on. I really didn’t want to get stuck in the weeds with that stuff.

I focused on the combination of JavaScript and the Document Object Model as a way of manipulating the HTML and CSS that’s already inside a browser. A lot of that boils down to this pattern:

When (some event happens), then (take this action).

We brainstormed some examples of this e.g. “When the user submits a form, then show a modal dialogue with an acknowledgement.” I then encouraged them to write a script …but I don’t mean a script in the JavaScript sense; I mean a script in the screenwriting or theatre sense. Line by line, write out each step that you want to accomplish. Once you’ve done that, translate each line of your English (or Portuguese) script into JavaScript.

I did quick demo as a proof of concept (which, much to my surprise, actually worked first time), but I was at pains to point out that they didn’t need to remember the syntax or vocabulary of the script; it was much more important to have a clear understanding of the thinking behind it.

With the remaining time left in the day, we ran through the many browser APIs available to JavaScript, from the relatively simple—like querySelector and Ajax—right up to the latest device APIs. I think I got the message across that, using JavaScript, there’s practically no limit to what you can do on the web these days …but the trick is to use that power responsibly.

At this point, we’ve had three days and we’ve covered three layers of web technologies: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Tomorrow we’ll take a step back from the nitty-gritty of the code. It’s going to be all about how to plan and think about building for the web before a single line of code gets written.

Teaching in Porto, day two

The second day in this week-long masterclass was focused on CSS. But before we could get stuck into that, there were some diversions and tangents brought on by left-over questions from day one.

This was not a problem. Far from it! The questions were really good. Like, how does a web server know that someone has permission to carry out actions via a POST request? What a perfect opportunity to talk about state! Cue a little history lesson on the web’s beginning as a deliberately stateless medium, followed by the introduction of cookies …for good and ill.

We also had a digression about performance, file sizes, and loading times—something I’m always more than happy to discuss. But by mid-morning, we were back on track and ready to tackle CSS.

As with the first day, I wanted to take a “long zoom” look at design and the web. So instead of diving straight into stylesheets, we first looked at the history of visual design: cave paintings, hieroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, the printing press, the Swiss school …all of them examples of media where the designer knows where the “edges” of the canvas lie. Not so with the web.

So to tackle visual design on the web, I suggested separating layout from all the other aspects of visual design: colour, typography, contrast, negative space, and so on.

At this point we were ready to start thinking in CSS. I started by pointing out that all CSS boils down to one pattern:

selector {
  property: value;
}

The trick, then, is to convert what you want into that pattern. So “I want the body of the page to be off-white with dark grey text” in English is translated into the CSS:

body {
  background-color: rgb(225,225,255);
  color: rgb(51,51,51);
}

…and so one for type, contrast, hierarchy, and more.

We started applying styles to the content we had collectively marked up with post-it notes on day one. Then the students split into groups of two to create an HTML document each. Tomorrow they’ll be styling that document.

There were two important links that come up over the course of day two:

  1. A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp, and
  2. The CSS Zen Garden.

If all goes according to plan, we’ll be tackling the third layer of the web technology stack tomorrow: JavaScript.

Teaching in Porto, day one

Today was the first day of the week long “masterclass” I’m leading here at The New Digital School in Porto.

When I was putting together my stab-in-the-dark attempt to provide an outline for the week, I labelled day one as “How the web works” and gave this synopsis:

The internet and the web; how browsers work; a history of visual design on the web; the evolution of HTML and CSS.

There ended up being less about the history of visual design and CSS (we’ll cover that tomorrow) and more about the infrastructure that the web sits upon. Before diving into the way the web works, I thought it would be good to talk about how the internet works, which led me back to the history of communication networks in general. So the day started from cave drawings and smoke signals, leading to trade networks, then the postal system, before getting to the telegraph, and then telephone networks, the ARPANET, and eventually the internet. By lunch time we had just arrived at the birth of the World Wide Web at CERN.

It wasn’t all talk though. To demonstrate a hub-and-spoke network architecture I had everyone write down someone else’s name on a post-it note, then stand in a circle around me, and pass me (the hub) those messages to relay to their intended receiver. Later we repeated this exercise but with a packet-switching model: everyone could pass a note to their left or to their right. The hub-and-spoke system took almost a minute to relay all six messages; the packet-switching version took less than 10 seconds.

Over the course of the day, three different laws came up that were relevant to the history of the internet and the web:

Metcalfe’s Law
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
Postel’s Law
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Sturgeon’s Law
Ninety percent of everything is crap.

There were also references to the giants of hypertext: Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Douglas Engelbart—for a while, I had the mother of all demos playing silently in the background.

After a most-excellent lunch in a nearby local restaurant (where I can highly recommend the tripe), we started on the building blocks of the web: HTTP, URLs, and HTML. I pulled up the first ever web page so that we could examine its markup and dive into the wonder of the A element. That led us to the first version of HTML which gave us enough vocabulary to start marking up documents: p, h1-h6, ol, ul, li, and a few others. We went around the room looking at posters and other documents pinned to the wall, and starting marking them up by slapping on post-it notes with opening and closing tags on them.

At this point we had covered the anatomy of an HTML element (opening tags, closing tags, attribute names and attribute values) as well as some of the history of HTML’s expanding vocabulary, including elements added in HTML5 like section, article, and nav. But so far everything was to do with marking up static content in a document. Stepping back a bit, we returned to HTTP, and talked about difference between GET and POST requests. That led in to ways of sending data to a server, which led to form fields and the many types of inputs at our disposal: text, password, radio, checkbox, email, url, tel, datetime, color, range, and more.

With that, the day drew to a close. I feel pretty good about what we covered. There was a lot of groundwork, and plenty of history, but also plenty of practical information about how browsers interpret HTML.

With the structural building blocks of the web in place, tomorrow is going to focus more on the design side of things.

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.

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.

Notice

We’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching at Clearleft recently; examining our values; trying to make implicit unspoken assumptions explicit and spoken. That process has unearthed some activities that have been at the heart of our company from the very start—sharing, teaching, and nurturing. After all, Clearleft would never have been formed if it weren’t for the generosity of people out there on the web sharing with myself, Andy, and Richard.

One of the values/mottos/watchwords that’s emerging is “Share what you learn.” I like that a lot. It echoes the original slogan of the World Wide Web project, “Share what you know.” It’s been a driving force behind our writing, speaking, and events.

In the same spirit, we’ve been running internship programmes for many years now. John is the latest of a long line of alumni that includes Anna, Emil, and James.

By the way—and this should go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said—the internships are always, always paid. I know that there are other industries where unpaid internships are the norm. I’ve even heard otherwise-intelligent people defend those unpaid internships for the experience they offer. But what kind of message does it send to someone about the worth of their work when you withhold payment for it? Our industry is young. Let’s not fall foul of the pernicious traps set by older industries that have habitualised exploitation.

In the past couple of years, Andy concocted a new internship scheme:

So this year we decided to try a different approach by scouring the end of year degree shows for hot new talent. We found them not in the interaction courses as we’d expected, but from the worlds of Product Design, Digital Design and Robotics. We assembled a team of three interns , with a range of complementary skills, gave them a space on the mezzanine floor of our new building, and set them a high level brief.

The first such programme resulted in Chüne. The latest Clearleft internship project has just come to an end. The result is Notice.

This time ‘round, the three young graduates were Chloe, Chris and Monika. They each have differing but complementary skill sets: Chloe is a user interface designer; Chris is a product designer; Monika is an artist who knows her way around hardware hacking and coding.

I’ll miss having this lot in the Clearleft office.

Once again, they were set a fairly loose brief. They should come up with something “to enrich the lives of local residents” and it should have a physical and digital component to it.

They got stuck in to researching and brainstorming ideas. At the end of each week, we’d all gather together to get a playback of what they were coming up with. It was at these playbacks that the interns were introduced to a concept that they will no doubt encounter again in their professional lives: seagulling AKA the swoop and poop. For once, it was the Clearlefties who were in the position of being swoop-and-poopers, rather than swoop-and-poopies.

Playback at Clearleft

As the midway point of the internship approached, there were some interesting ideas, but no clear “winner” to pursue. Something else was happening around this time too: dConstruct 2015.

Chloe, Monika and Chris at dConstruct

The interns pitched in with helping out at the event, and in return, we kidnapped some of the speakers—namely John Willshire and Chris Noessel—to offer them some guidance.

There was also plenty of inspiration to be had from the dConstruct talks themselves. One talk in particular struck a chord: Dan Hill’s The City Of Things …especially the bit where he railed against the terrible state of planning application notices:

Most of the time, it ends up down the bottom of the lamppost—soiled and soggy and forgotten. This should be an amazing thing!

Hmm… sounds like something that could enrich the lives of local residents.

Not long after that, Matt Webb came to visit. He encouraged the interns to focus in on just the two ideas that really excited them rather then the 5 or 6 that they were considering. So at the next playback, they presented two potential projects—one about biking and the other about city planning. They put it to a vote and the second project won by a landslide.

That was the genesis of Notice. After that, they pulled out all the stops.

Exciting things are afoot with the @Clearleftintern project.

Not content with designing one device, they came up with a range of three devices to match the differing scope of planning applications. They set about making a working prototype of the device intended for the most common applications.

Monika and Chris, hacking

Last week marked the end of the project and the grand unveiling.

Playing with the @notice_city prototype. Chris breaks it down. Playback time. Unveiling.

They’ve done a great job. All the details are on the website, including this little note I wrote about the project:

This internship programme was an experiment for Clearleft. We wanted to see what would happen if you put through talented young people in a room together for three months to work on a fairly loose brief. Crucially, we wanted to see work that wasn’t directly related to our day-­to-­day dealings with web design.

We offered feedback and advice, but we received so much more in return. Monika, Chloe, and Chris brought an energy and enthusiasm to the Clearleft office that was invigorating. And the quality of the work they produced together exceeded our wildest expectations.

We hereby declare this experiment a success!

Personally, I think the work they’ve produced is very strong indeed. It would be a shame for it to end now. Perhaps there’s a way that it could be funded for further development. Here’s hoping.

Out on the streets of Brighton Prototype

As impressed as I am with the work, I’m even more impressed with the people. They’re not just talented and hard work—they’re a jolly nice bunch to have around.

I’m going to miss them.

The terrific trio!

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Carla Diana

The dConstruct podcast episodes are coming thick and fast. The latest episode is a thoroughly enjoyable natter I had with the brilliant Carla Diana.

We talk about robots, smart objects, prototyping, 3D printing, and the world of teaching design.

Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast feed in any podcast software you like, or if iTunes is your thing, you can also subscribe directly in iTunes.

And don’t forget to use the discount code ‘ansible’ when you’re buying your dConstruct ticket …because you are coming to dConstruct, right?

100 words 093

There are many web-related community events in Brighton. There’s something going on pretty much every evening. One of my favourite events is Codebar. It happens every Tuesday, rotating venues between various agency offices. Tonight it was Clearleft’s turn again.

At the start of the evening, students and teachers get paired up. I was helping some people with HTML and CSS as they worked their way through the tutorials.

It’s a great feeling to watch things “click”; seeing someone making their first web page, style their first element, and write their first hyperlink—the very essence of the World Wide Web.

100 words 044

It was Clearleft’s turn to host Codebar again this evening. As always, it was great. I did my best to introduce some people to HTML and CSS, which was challenging, rewarding, and fun.

In the run-up to the event, I did a little spring cleaning of Clearleft’s bookshelves. I took some books on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that weren’t being used any more and offered them to Codebar students for the taking.

I was also able to offer some more contemporary books thanks to the generosity of A Book Apart who kindly donated some of their fine volumes to Codebar.