Dan Denney

Dan works at Envy Labs, where he does front-end work for projects including Code School. Dan publishes articles and quick thoughts on his blog, and is well-known for running the Front-End Design Conference, which is held once a year in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When Dan is not busy with his many activities, he tweets as @dandenney.

Published Thoughts

We’re all just making it up as we go along. Since this wonderful site is mostly themed around the design and dev community, you’re probably thinking that I mean “us”. You’re right, but only for partial credit.

CERN was launched in 1991, so we’ve only been at it for a little over 20 years. There have been times where I have looked up to people in the industry and have thought they knew it all and that I was so far behind. The more that I have read, attended meetups, attended conferences and organized conferences, the more I have learned that everyone is just making it up as they go along.

If you believe that, it may either scare you that no one has it all together or it may inspire you to grow your T. If you need a little more inspiration, my favorite quote about our industry comes from Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman: “It’s our responsibility to leave our industry better than we found it.” We need you. We need you to learn and to share the things that you learn in order for the industry to become better.

Now I have to take it further, as I said that thinking about the community was only partial credit. While we certainly have a much longer history, I say that humanity as a whole is just making it up as we go along. In beginning to believe this, I leaned towards the scared part at first but have been growing more inspired. There are many things that seem wrong with our world, so realizing that even our leaders don’t know it all inspires me to think that we can change things. Altering Leslie’s quote a bit, I think that we have a responsibility to leave our world better than we found it.

The crazy part is not just believing that you can do it, but in realizing that there are thousands of ways that you can. We are building things every day that make communication and education more accessible to the planet. These things can be used to make things better, to learn about life, and to share what we have learned with others.

This is my last entry and I will leave you with a thought from Steve Jobs. “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

I am a continual student of CSS techniques and I’ve been writing it on a daily basis for years. However, I have always struggled with creating my own systems. On top of the fantastic articles that I read weekly, I also have the benefit of working with Drew Barontini and Nick Walsh. Luckily, they are naturals at creating systems.

In a recent conversation, something finally clicked and I’m looking at things completely differently. It’s so simple and obvious, but it really has taken a long time for it to sink in.

My typical thought when approaching an element has been “What do I need to write to style this?”, where now I’m constantly asking “What can I add to something that exists in order to style this?”.

I’m sure many, maybe even most, of you are already thinking this way. If you’re not, though, give it a whirl. You’ll become more knowledgeable of your existing codebase and will naturally write in more of a DRY style.

I love the story of the The Knife Maker. If you haven’t seen it, please set aside 11 minutes to enjoy it. It is a story about creativity, struggle, and triumph. It’s also about a guy named Joel Bukiewicz.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to get to meet Joel and his wife, Julia. My wife, Cherrie, and I were exploring Brooklyn on Saturday after I had attended Brooklyn Beta. We wandered in to check out the Cut Brooklyn shop during their “open hours” and were greeted by Julia. We shared that we weren’t really in the market for the cutlery but that we had seen the video and were fans. In the background, Joel was putting the finishing touches on one of three knives he planned on releasing that day.

When he was done, something awesome happened. Julia introduced us and he offered us a tour of the shop downstairs (where the dusty stuff happens). He showed us around, explaining some of the tools and showing where different parts of the process happens. He shared the backstory behind this awesome machine that he had gotten not long ago and that had been sitting in a basement in Brooklyn. He says that the old machines are the best because you can easily find parts and keep them in working order.

We chatted about Brooklyn and The Maker Movement. He shared some stories about Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Brooklyn Homebrew, and Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue. Also, he shared the story of the growth of the areas in Brooklyn. It seems that once a few people open up shops doing interesting things, the people follow.

He took about 20 minutes out of his day to share these stories with us and then asked us if we wanted to sit and have a beer. We passed so that he could back to making awesome knives (and so we could go get some pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds).

I’m sharing this because if you are reading this, you are likely a maker. Joel and Julia represent all of the best things in the people who make up our community. They do something that they believe in, they keep doing it in the face of adversity, they support their community, and they are kind. The story in the video is fantastic and the way it is continuing is, too.

I want to spread Joel’s enthusiasm for sharing the stories of the others in his community in the hopes that you will do the same for yours. There are most likely makers with wonderful stories in your local area and not everyone gets an awesome videographer to share their story with the world. Seek them out, see if you can find out their story, and share it somehow.

My first best friend was a girl named Michelle who lived across the street. We hung out every day pretending, playing or whatever pre-kindergarteners do. One of my favorite memories from that time is picking tomatoes off the vines in their backyard, shaking salt on them and eating them right there in the garden.

Once school started, I made some other friends too. Nick and I hung out a lot, becoming probably my second best friend. He was overweight and it caused some health problems for him and he’d miss school often. I remember visiting him the first time he got back from the hospital after I had met him. I met Austin because we got off the bus right near each other, so we hung out a lot. His brother had a dirt bike and that was pretty awesome to a first grader. Austin wore a hearing aid and his parents were deaf. They had this TTY machine that streamed text typed from phone calls. It blew my young mind.

We moved about 5 times throughout my school years, so I grew up around all types of kids. My favorite people that I met and hung out with throughout my adolescence were a mix of guys and girls with a range of backgrounds. They came from married or divorced parents, had varied religions, varied family backgrounds and incomes.

As a late-teen and early adult, I worked in the hospitality and gambling industries. You meet people of all walks of life in those industries. I’ve become quite friendly with people who I would never have guessed were felons. I’ve been on teams with people that run the gamut of gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, income and criminal history.

I’ve spent a good deal of time around people that I liked and people that I disliked from every category possible.

What I have learned in my experience is that when it comes to people, there are no rules. There are certainly trends, but they tend more towards the social groups that people choose to be a part of.

I know that not everyone gets exposed to such a wide range of people in their daily life, but we all have regular access to the internet. We should be using it to lead by example. We should be learning more about people and unlearning our prejudices. A simple Google search for “college professor” or “drug addict” will yield results of people from every gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and so on.

We also need to keep sharing the stories of discrimination in our industry. Not too long ago I was ignorant to the level that people will go to in order to single out women as not belonging in the web industry. We need to hear these things so that we can fix them. Education is the primary tool for battling discrimination. Share stories, learn about people and keep building this tool that will help others do the same.

There has been a really interesting shift in the industry for front-end devs. A few years ago, it wasn’t a very popular full-time position. Most likely, markup was handled by back-end devs and/or designers. We had a little boom where front-end dev roles were created and offered all throughout the industry. I feel it was heavily related to the depth of technical knowledge necessary to build sites responsively or specifically for mobile devices.

The offering hasn’t changed, but the talent pool has. As a very active member of my local communities, people reach out to me fairly often when they are hoping to find people to help them build something. For the last 6 months or so, I’ve mostly shrugged and resorted to tweeting about opportunities that come up. I don’t personally know a front-end dev that isn’t either swamped with work or completely fulfilled with their job.

I wonder if this is a local problem or an industry-wide problem. My guess is that it is industry-wide because even Google is actively seeking front-end devs. It is either that there aren’t enough front-end devs out there to fill the demand or that there isn’t enough visibility for them. Things like CodePen’s hire me button help, but we likely need more ways too. If you’re a front-end dev and you’re looking for work, please make sure people know!

I’ve always been a pretty calm, easy-going person. However, I’m somewhat of an extrovert and pretty addicted to this whole internet thing. That combo will wreak havoc on your ability to focus on work. There are lots of posts out there with cool systems like checking email twice a day, the pomodoro technique, and various ways of minimizing distractions.

Rather than minimizing distractions, I wanted to focus on the ability to work in spite of them. One thing that has really been helping with this has been meditation. I was originally really curious about it when I read in Offscreen Magazine that Ryan Singer regularly meditates. If you’ve never had the benefit of hearing Ryan speak, he is a very deep thinker and can explain things down to a very granular level. So, I gave it a try.

It is wonderful and has provided way more benefits than just helping with focus. I cannot recommend it enough. I know it sometimes has a religious connotation, but it really shouldn’t. As with most beneficial things, it is easy to get started and challenging to keep doing regularly. You’ll find countless posts, videos, books, etc. on techniques but it’s really easy to get started. Ready to give it a whirl?

Don’t overthink it, just try this for a week. Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes and try to only think about breathing in and out. When other thoughts and distractions come in, it’s totally cool that you start drifting away. Once you realize you did, bring your focus back on your breathing. Set a timer and do this for 10 minutes a day for a couple days. Then do 20 minutes for a few more.

If you don’t love it by the end of the week, mark me down on your list of people who owe you a beer or a coffee the next time you see them.

We all see inspirational quotes so often that they are nearly cliché. One of my favorites is “Good things come to those who hustle.” So I thought I could share a timely story that helps back that one up.

We’re coming up on our fifth time running the Front-End Design Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. A question that I get asked often is “how did you start your first conference?”.

The most important things to know are “why” and “how”, which are both intermingled from life experiences that my (now) wife Cherrie and I had in the year before the event. We were engaged and wanted a destination wedding: Turks and Caicos and Jamaica lost out to Key West in order to keep it more accessible for friends and family. It was going to be expensive and we didn’t want to go into debt, so Cherrie lived and worked in NYC for about 6 months. (Partly just to see if she could do it, but also to earn more money. As the great philosopher Jay-Z once said “And since I made it here, I can make it anywhere”.) I worked 2 full-time jobs, one of which was my first job as a web designer for a small shop in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida.

There were two significant things that happened that led to why we wanted to run a conference: I attended the 2008 Future of Web Design Conference (which was in NYC in November) and Cherrie and I sadly had to fire our wedding planners about 2 months before our wedding, which was to be in February 2009.

FOWD was amazing. Being in a place with so many like-minded people and hearing stories from people that I had been learning from the past year blew my mind. It was my first conference and I came back completely inspired. I started looking for events like that a little closer to home but I didn’t find much besides a BarCamp.

Meanwhile, we were having a really hard time maintaining communication with our planners in Key West and getting anything booked. We made the decision to lose the planners and have Cherrie take over. I really didn’t do much except for agree to most of her awesome ideas. She put together a fantastic four days in Key West to celebrate with our friends and family.

All of a sudden it was all over and we had nothing to do except to live happily ever after.

Around that same time, Chris Coyier tweeted that he had just spoken to a high school class about web design. So, I pitched Cherrie on an idea. I still wanted a day in Florida to celebrate the web industry and the people who share their knowledge. Cherrie wanted to plan another event, even if it was for a bunch of my fellow web geeks. So, we agreed to give it a shot.

Here’s how it went down.

I sent out a couple of awkward “if you’re not doing anything on this day in July, would you kind of maybe want to come to Florida and talk to people on stage” DMs. Chris was the first to reply and the first to say yes. At that point, it was officially “on”. I asked a few others that I had been learning from and also asked what they would want in order to be able to break away from work and travel here to do it. It was pretty consistent amongst everyone so we started planning and promoting.

Twitter was still relatively focused at the time and I had gotten in early with the completely appropriate handle of “webdesignfanboy”. Since I was early enough and it was clear what I was about, I gained some traction in the follower realm. We relied on Twitter and the blog posts that the speakers wrote for about 97.5% of the promotion. (We whipped up 100 promo post cards and sent them to Florida web design shops as well.) One of my favorite things is that I had recently discovered Ricardo Gimenes and I hired him to do characters for the speakers. He rocks and they were so much fun.

Cherrie said yes to running the conf in March and we ran it on July 31st. We had 7 speakers: Fabio Sasso, Grant Friedman, Jonathan Longnecker, Chris Coyier, John Ashenden, Andrew Maier and Kevin Hale. We were fortunate to have some helpful sponsors and 92 people got to see me nearly pass out from stage fright as I stumbled through welcoming everyone and introducing Fabio.

It was stressful, but totally exhilarating. The speakers absolutely rocked and I was awestruck the whole day. When the presentations were over, Eric Azares sealed the deal on us running another one by walking up and asking if he could buy a ticket for the next one.

Running an event for the first time and putting it together in a few months meant that it wasn’t very efficient, so it cost us a good chunk of cash. It was totally worth it, though, as it started me down a path of front-end development and Cherrie as an event planner. I have personally had so many wonderful opportunities come from it and I now work with the rad folks at Envy Labs. I try to pay back the time Cherrie spends on it by helping with her other events throughout the year, but I’m still in debt in that category.

It’s a lot of work each year, but the benefits outweigh the work so much that it’s not even a factor. We have met so many wonderful people and formed awesome friendships. It’s almost starting to feel like a reunion with friends that we may have not gotten to see much throughout the year. We are sharing knowledge and celebrating community and it is absolutely fantastic. My absolute favorite part has been seeing people progress in skill and in their career path.

Running a conference isn’t for everyone, but there is definitely something that you want to do that feels intimidating. Dive in after it. Good things will come. In the meantime, we’ll be celebrating you and our community in a couple of days. Cheers!

We all know that it is important to find a good balance between life and work. What doesn’t get shared as often is how important it is to balance work that inspires you and work that does not. My all-time favorite quote is from Howard Thurman and he says “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

If you have been watching the activity in the design and dev community over the past couple of years, you will see countless examples of people who did this. It had never been more apparent to me than a couple of weeks ago at Converge SE in Columbia, SC. Every speaker that shared their story on the main day had a common theme. They worked on something that made them come alive (in addition to their daily job or work). Doing this led to some big opportunity or career change and ultimately led them to the stage to inspire us.

On an individual level we see people doing this kind of work (and sharing it) earn new positions or the type of clients that they really enjoy. At the company level, we see teams that build their own product get picked up by bigger companies to work on products with more impact. I can’t say how much longer it will last, but be sure to strike while the iron is hot.

Our industry is spoiled right now. The demand for what we do significantly outweighs the supply of people who can do it well. The things that we build are creating new industries with new opportunities and shaking up existing ones. There is work out there that would make you happily get out of the bed in the morning or work late at night. You just have to show the world that you want it.

I have a really bad habit or anti-habit that I am trying to break. Documentation and specs are often the last place that I look when I’m trying to figure things out. (I know, I know. I’m so glad I can’t see the look of horror and disdain on your face.)

When I’m messing with something new, I tend towards “just figuring it out” or Googling in order to find related blog posts and Stack Overflow questions. I’ve tweeted questions and even reached out specifically to people involved with the project to ask a question before reading documentation. Super bad. (I’m on Twitter a lot so I also know I'm not the only one with this habit.)

I’m not sure why I’m so documentation averse. Maybe it’s growing up in the 80s and 90s where novels were shipped with electronic devices to explain them. Anyhow, something clicked a while back and I’ve been slowly changing my evil ways. I realized that the people I look up to in front-end development all learn by reading specs and documentation, then experimenting. I could tell from their blog posts or their in-office explanations that they dive into these mysterious collections of information and learn useful information that makes them better.

I’ve been playful about explaining this, but here is my real point. Documentation is seriously underrated in our community and the people who write it tend to be unsung heroes. A ton of work goes into writing supporting docs. If you make the time to really read them you will learn so much more. The more that we focus on consuming docs, the better they will become.

If you’re like me, let’s dive into the docs a little more and use Twitter to thank people for writing them.

You often hear about people learning a trade from an elder, choosing it for their path and working their entire career in that trade. Given the amount of change that web design and development has created in the world, it amazes me that it is not yet old enough for anyone to have done that. We’re really just getting started.

As far back as trade work goes, there has always been someone who excels at the craft teaching others. In 2011, Kevin Hale gave a fantastic keynote at Converge SE, that led me to dive into research into craftsmanship and guilds. The history is so wonderful and I highly recommend reading The Craftsman. In the pursuit of mastery, people have learned directly from a master in their area. Many even lived in their master’s home and helped with other household chores in exchange for the teachings.

As communities grew, people formed guilds and established guildhalls for meetings and information sharing. These were formed for many reasons, my favorite of which is the good-hearted sharing of knowledge. However, there were plenty of examples where they were created in order to “influence” the flow of trade or in secret as a response to political happenings. Either way, there were now groups of people getting together to share that had learned from various masters (or journeymen at that point).

The very nature of the web made it so that people could instantly share their information with people all over the world. This is is a huge reason for the amount of impact that we have made. However, we’re missing out on something.

Blog posts, tutorials, online code challenges, magazine articles, books, etc. all inspire people to learn, but there is so much nuance lost in getting them into the medium. Watching someone perform their tasks is so important.

There are a few people beginning to do this and I hope for much more of it. The Sparkbox team are running an apprenticeship program and Chris Coyier is running The Lodge. I share them both because one is in-office training and the other is video training. I understand that not everyone can allow people in their office (or homes for that matter) to watch them in action. Screen recording and talking through processes is a really close example and can capture much more of the nuance involved with creating something for the web. (It’s much more powerful when done over the course of an entire project.)

I hope to see lots more of things like these.

Lately I’ve been wondering what is next for web conferences and events. More specifically: what events will get created that engage the talented people in the intermediate to advanced range?

Since attending my first FOWD in 2009, I’ve noticed serious growth in the number of available events. In the U.S. and the U.K., you can attend a high-quality event every month.

There are many events that are a mix of beginner-to-intermediate topics and some events where topics lean towards the thought leaders. While everyone can benefit from the camaraderie and inspiration that comes from attending any of these, many reach a level where only a couple of presentations at an event teach them something new.

During this growth period in skill development, the bulk of learning is done hands-on (preferably working with people who have more advanced and varied skills). I’d love to see some events pop up that are focused on this group.

I’m thinking that they would take pieces from conferences, workshops, hackathons and competitions like the Rails Rumble. There would need to be discussion, coordination and a goal for creating something. Let’s figure out a way to get groups of people together to share knowledge and create awesome.

The W3C is keeping a copy of the first website ever made online. If they weren’t, though, it could just be gone forever. This makes me wonder what we should be doing to preserve things from this digital world that we are creating.

Originally, my concern was about whether the story of how the internet was created will be preserved as we progress. There are important things like the introduction of images, CSS, JavaScript, etc. For example, I would love to be able to see the “Batman Forever” site that got Jeffrey Zeldman started with web building. Preserving examples of the internet’s growth is tiny compared to the bigger impact that this could have, though.

As we move more parts of our daily life to bits instead of materials, are we risking their total loss? We have learned so much about human life by archeologists piecing together drawings, writings, tools and personal items found from people that lived long before us. As we do less of that on materials that don’t require power, I believe that we have to be more adamant about ensuring that there is a way to protect them.

It seems like we need a plan for preserving things both digitally and physically. Like we do with national parks or historic zoning, maybe we should protect significant properties. Showing an archived progress of sites like dictionary.com and Wikipedia (amongst others) would say a lot about the internet and human life. There also needs to be protection against the biggest enemy of our digital world: lack of power. We have always lost important artifacts to fire, natural disasters and human destruction. Digital items are significantly more fragile in that they require specific technology and power in order to access them.

It’s important to keep moving and growing the internet at this fast pace because it is changing the world. I just think that some of us might need to make sure there’s a way for people to know how we did it.