Based up near Manchester, Dan is recently ex-BBC now Front-end & Interaction Lead at @mccannmcr, tries his hand from time to time at speaking, and tweets nonsense as @hereinthehive. He writes at Break the Page about the stuff outside of our day-to-day work on the web. When not webbing it up he makes noise in Mark of 1000 Evils and stacks up side projects he’ll never get to.
Sharing by Default
I think sometimes we forget that us people who work on the web maybe see things a bit differently to those in other jobs. From the earliest days of the web, we learned how to make sites from viewing each other’s source code, we’d write articles or blog posts around a method, process or technique. Maybe what we’d figured out might help someone else in a similar position. Social media came along and we’d have the capability to share everything through to what we had for breakfast. It’s a powerful opportunity we have readily available.
We’re the early adopters. We’re the ones who will answer a question from a total stranger on Twitter who may be experiencing a technical problem we can help with. We’re the ones that’ll share something that’s happened somewhere far away in another part of the world in seconds. Sharing is part of life on the web. It’s integral to how so many of us can do what we do. Without that reflex; offering up our own experiences with no expectation of direct reward, maybe we wouldn’t even be working on the web. I know I wouldn’t.
The web has gone from being a platform to facilitate collaboration between academics through to an immense, diverse, sprawling, messy, beautiful, ugly place. As wonderful as it’s been to connect us and help us to be more than individuals, it also amplifies the darker sides of humanity. The brevity and ease of publishing often leads to loss of context, loss of intent, confusion and misinterpretation. One person’s difference of opinion can be another person’s troll. One person’s right to privacy can be another’s wall of anonymity to hide behind. If we want to, we can hold on to the positive side of sharing.
When I got the chance to write for The Pastry Box, I had a few ideas of what I might write about but not enough for all 12 posts over the course of a year. I’ve never gotten myself into a habit of blogging, which I’ve always regretted. I post on Twitter a fair amount about but often find the character constraint too small to express what’s on my mind in a way that I feel might be of use to anyone else or to debate anything in a meaningful way. Bound by conventions and constraints of tools, I’m often not sure how to share whatever I have on my mind. That may just be a personal failing of mine but I think the ability to have a deadline on a regular basis has really worked.
I think I’ve surprised myself by sharing not just observations about what we do but personal stories and things I’d struggled to even share with family. I don’t know if any of it has been of use to anyone else but the process of creating something, however small, that means something to me has been entirely worthwhile. It’s been a great platform and I’m grateful to Alex & Katy for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their project this year. If there’s anything I’ll take away from this, it’s that I need to find a way to share that works for me.
It feels like in many ways I owe a debt to everyone that ever blogged a CSS fix, shared some code to do something I wasn’t yet capable of doing, or opened my eyes to something in UX or design. Finding a way to try to contribute in a similar way feels like it’s part of the job, part of the web and it’s all the better for it. That could sound like pressure. Like we have a real obligation. In a sense there is some truth in that. Everyone is at a different place in terms of what we know, what we do and what path we’ve taken to get there. Never make the assumption that your experiences or knowledge is any less worth publishing in some form than anyone else's. A first year college student has so many experiences I can’t know – about coming into the web as it is now, confronted by the realities of our times which are far beyond when I was that age. An older person who has perhaps recently discovered blogging would be as fascinating as any of the brilliant stuff we share in the sense of improving our skills. This is one of the most amazing strengths of the web. It’s all about people.
Every time we share on the web, we have a choice. We can choose to be supportive or sarcastic, share something we’ve learned or tear someone down. It’s not always easy to see how our words will be interpreted but each time we publish we have a choice. To try to make the web a good place. To try to be more than an individual by contributing to something bigger than ourselves.
You're Not Alone
I have no idea how to write about this.
Everyone is different. When it comes to talking about mental health more than anything, we only have our own experiences to draw from. We can’t know what it’s like to be anyone else, so comparing how you feel with others is a weird thing.
In many ways that’s what I’ve done. The way I’ve felt, pretty much always, I assumed was how everyone felt. When I realized it wasn’t, and the effects were more heavily felt, I couldn’t acknowledge that it was depression because that’s something other people have, in really severe ways – I just was...crap. I never wanted to have any kind of diagnosis from a doctor because at the time it felt like it’d be a label I couldn’t shake, or the potential to become an excuse. While it’s been hard many times, I’ve tried really hard to be sure it’s doesn’t become one.
So far as I can remember, I’ve more or less always felt this way and along with it, had some difficulties with anxiety and self-esteem. Earlier on, it was almost monthly dark mood swings. Then they’d change and become more frequent, darker, longer spells. At least at times when it was somewhat predictable you’d have a clue what to do: lie low for a bit and hope it didn’t last that long. I’ve been in some truly dark places over the years and never known how to deal with it. There have been times I’ve worried about how or if I’d get through some spells.
It took a long time before I finally went to get some help and gave counseling a try. Talking therapies like this aren’t for everyone, and I was skeptical. I think I’m a fairly self-aware person, so at first it felt like I had to unload everything, otherwise the counsellor wouldn’t really get where I was coming from. They’re not there to give you answers though. I talked and was listened to and over a few months it felt like I got somewhere with some of the issues. It’s really hard to be honest with yourself. Certainly I found being in that kind of environment helpful, but it was really hard work. Between sessions I’d feel far worse, but for me at least, it was worth persevering.
For a few weeks afterwards I felt OK for what might be the only time in my adult life I can think of. Instead of my usual state of feeling I was a piece of crap, this brief spell allowed me to feel like maybe I was alright. Nothing more. It didn’t need to be.
When I’ve tried to articulate what my experience of depression has been like, it takes a long time to find the words. It manifests in many different ways. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming numbness – almost feeling nothing at all. Sometimes it’s a roller coaster of despair. Other times it’s as if you’re as lonely as you’ve ever felt, whether you have people around you or not. Years ago I had a bit of a habit of wandering off during social occasions – I didn’t intend to, I’d just find myself somewhere else to escape having to deal with people. I still do that more than I mean to. If I’m at a party, I just need to disappear for a while – just enough to make sure I can keep up being sociable. There are times where you realize you need to get out and just be anywhere else, through no fault of anyone else’s.
In some cases you go up and down like a yo-yo; in tears one minute and smiling the next. In whatever form it takes, it’s totally exhausting trying to do normal stuff. Going through the motions of your routine can be like every activity uses 10 times the energy or something.
In times like that, the last thing I’ve wanted is for anyone to notice. Sympathy often ends up compounding the feelings even though you know they’re meant well. I get irritable and snap at people and that too can feed it. It feels like there’s no way to change it.
For me, it’s like there’s been this internal voice always trying to undermine everything I do. It’s almost like you feel the effects of someone telling you what a horrible human being you are and goading you into failing. There have been occasions where negative behaviors emerged as a way of that ‘voice’ proving how crap I am.
A few years ago I had a really hard time of it, which made work hard and then once I went freelance, hit me really hard. There were times when after dropping my daughter at school I’d collapse on the floor in the hallway and not move for hours. Not that I couldn’t. It was a mixture of numbness and despair and I couldn’t fight it off. There were more instances than I would’ve liked where I let people down and I felt it keenly. It was hard, but I had to not let it drag me down. The pressure of having to fend for myself as a freelancer meant I had to – there wasn’t a choice. It felt like I had to fight really hard just to maintain a basic level of being.
At this point I feel like I should delete the article and start again…
Underneath it all, I feel like I’m a real optimist, almost relentlessly so! Don’t confuse depression with feeling a bit sad or under the weather. There have been so many times when despite being in a really bleak place, something has caught my attention and I’ve enthused and however briefly, gotten excited. Maybe it’s this that has prevented the really dark times from being as impactful as they otherwise could have been. I had tried to hurt myself. I had tried drinking. It didn’t change anything. I think I found my lowest points and realized I wasn’t going to take anything too far. I’m still here.
Over the last few years I’ve tried speaking at events. I’ve spoken at quite a few now, in part as a reaction to try to disprove that inner, undermining voice that I can do stuff. The feeling after doing it rarely gets above relief, though I do enjoy it. It’s like I managed to get away without that voice being right...that somehow I was going to prove not just to myself but to anyone listening that I was not a waste of space. It’s hard...the nerves can be really difficult anyway, but when at the back of your mind you know if you suck, the voice was right – you are crap – and down you go. The audience reaction comes secondary to whether I can fend off that ‘voice’.
At worst most days, it’s like it – this collection of feelings – is a few inches from my face and I’m trying to get on with stuff despite it. I don’t pay as much attention as I’d like to the details of life, like where I’m supposed to be and when. It feels like there’s this bigger stuff I should be sorting out. I don’t want to feel this way.
It turns out there are a number of people in the industry I’ve found that wrestle with depression in their own ways and in some small way, that helps. Not that we talk a lot about it, but it kind of eases the burden when you know you’re not alone. The reasons why each of us might feel this way will be different. Maybe there were triggers in our lives that we either are aware of or not, maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. You might never know.
Recently, I’ve gone back to counseling to try to see what I can do. On the whole it’s better than it has been, though there are still loads of erratic down times. Maybe I can find a way to deal with it? I’ve been considering taking medication, which is something I’ve resisted for a long time. There’s a part of me that saw it as some kind of defeat. I suppose it always felt like something I should be able to understand and try to fix. I probably can’t. There might not be a ‘fix’ or an ‘answer’, but I can try to make it less bad, and maybe even find that ‘alright’ level for a while longer. It’s been suggested that meditation might help. Maybe it could. I don’t think I can quiet my mind for long enough. It’s constantly in loads of places at the same time as it is. Often changing my environment helps a little, but I can only do that when I’m past the worst of it. The house will get messy when I’m down so trying to sort stuff out a bit when I’m starting to improve really helps the process. That’s doubly hard when I’m working on a house that needs a lot of work!
This session has been different than the last and has definitely been a help. We tried an exercise to see if that kind of thing might help. It was a simple prompt. Something along the lines of “think about a few words to describe yourself in a positive way”. I hate these kind of things but I was actually stunned that I couldn’t think of any. When I tried, it actually really upset me. The paper was left blank. Clearly I’ve got a long way to go.
I’ve struggled to work out why I’d share this. It’ll be on the Internet after all. Maybe it’s that I feel like I’m starting to get somewhere with my situation? Maybe someone might read these jumbled words and identify a little and not feel alone?
I hope that if you are feeling anything on the spectrum of depression and related mental health issues that maybe you find enough courage to try to find some help; whether that’s a friend’s ear or a doctor, a therapist or a counsellor. You might not be able to fix everything, but it’d be a good start.
I wrote that a week ago, just to empty my head in response to Petra’s article. I didn’t know if I’d share it or not. Because there was a possibility of publishing it, I wanted to share it with my family first. That in itself wasn’t easy. I just emailed my Mum, Dad & brother and left it with them. They’ve all been great and supportive. They’d not realized how I’d felt. If I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge there was a problem, how would anyone else know? Their reactions were great and perhaps why I’ve felt like this might be worth sharing. It was worthwhile writing this just to explain myself to them, but maybe someone else might see some of themselves in it too.
I’ve recently been to the doctors to see about medication, so I’m giving it a try at the moment. It’s early days, but putting aside that poorly formed idea that somehow doing so was a defeat of some kind has been tough. In the end it felt like the right thing to do. I’d far from rushed into the decision and understand what it does and any potential side effects. I’m hopeful.
Now I’m wondering if I’ll hit ‘publish’...
Passion is a funny thing….
When you do anything for a period of time, your faith in your abilities or passion for the subject matter can wain. Where once you had seemingly boundless energy or enthusiasm for what you’re doing, there can be an overwhelming flatness or loss of direction. Why this happens can be an intensely individual thing, and I’m sure we’ve all had it at times.
I know when I’ve found it happening to me, there’s a sense of loss. Maybe you hadn’t even noticed you’d lost that feeling for something you once enjoyed and got a kick out of. I guess the reason I bring this up is in part down to friends of mine for various reasons.
Dan wrote a post on September 19th about how he’s feeling at the moment, the ups & downs, the uncertainty over the change he’s noticed. I’m sure there are a lot of us that can relate to how he’s feeling in some way. You can look over at peers or people whose work you admire and see how they appear to be driving forwards with the passion you felt you once had. What happened to it?
It’s funny where our passions can take us. Side projects (like Dan’s Oozled project with Ryan Taylor), change of job, relocating; sometimes with sacrifices along the way. Naomi has had a dream she’s working damn hard to realise. Her project is around creating a place for independent design: Whosit & Whatsit. In doing that she’s found some great premises in Newcastle that she’s renovating at the moment. This isn’t a whim or a fun little side project; this is bricks and mortar, something real and tangible and that’s not without its many challenges. Designers can get on board to have their products for sale but more importantly we can all help support her passion by supporting her Indiegogo campaign (live until October 13th).
Haje, originally a trained journalist and photographer, from a rough home-made prototype creating a fantastic product called TriggerTrap, raising funds through Kickstarter. From that project, working with a friend, it’s turned into a great company with multiple products and expanding team. He’s always had such passion for everything he’s done, you can’t help but admire it!
I was lucky enough to bump into Gavin (or ‘The Undeniable Gavin Strange’ as I’ll now call him) again and see him on stage at Reasons to be Creative. He embodies everything about having passion for what you do through his work at Aardman, his own work as JamFactory, photography, film-making...and learning to play the drums. He’s self-deprecating as always but seemingly boundless with a sense of wonder.
These angles on passion show me so much. Dan is a great designer, I wish I were half as talented, and I know somehow he’ll find that something to either rekindle that old passion or ignite a new one. I wish I knew what to say to him to help with that. I get the feeling that just being open to finding it again might be enough. Naomi has really put her money where her mouth is and is really trying to create something special, not just for the short term. I can only hope I’ll have that kind of conviction one day for something. I’ve long marvelled at Haje’s ability to always seem positive and enthusiastic but applying that to so many cool things that he puts out into the world. Gavin is all about passion. Give things a try, put everything you have into it and even if you don’t consider yourself that good, being open and positive and enthusiastic is more than half the battle. Awesome.
I try to remember that it’s not everyone that finds something they’re passionate about for their job. While we might lose our way sometimes, we know what it is to have felt that way about what we do. I like to believe through time and a bit of introspection, we can find it again. Being around people doing things outside of our area of expertise and almost feeding off the expression of their passions can help.
It’s not easy, but stay positive and open to trying new things; maybe it’ll come back again if you’ve lost it. If you have it, don’t be afraid to follow it.
It’s easy to assume that people out there have a plan. When you start out in the industry and see people whose work you admire or ideas you respect, it’s easy to wonder how they got there. The more people’s stories I hear, the more I realise how few people have a plan. If they once had one, they’ve tended to end up somewhere very different. Take comfort in this! In looking at my own ‘heroes’, I’d feel like everyone else must have things figured out and know where they were going.
For me, I wanted to be in a band, a record producer, a film director or screenplay writer. None of these seemed to have a natural career path you can sign up to. You also need to dig in, make it work for you in any way you can and have the passion to explore it. I had a failed attempt at university, being on an ill-suited course, and so ended up working in my Dad’s warehouse. It seemed to me, I’d hit a brick wall very early on. I was clueless. It didn’t seem like I could be any one of those things and certainly the aborted university experience knocked my confidence. A lack of confidence can be a powerful element in smothering whatever passion you have.
I’d dabbled in making websites for my band and a few friends but used time in the warehouse office out of hours to learn how to do it better. Eventually I started making sites for the businesses’ customers and a new career option kind of revealed itself. Maybe I could do this ‘world wide web’ thing?
At that time there weren’t blogs or social media and I had no idea how to get into the industry. I had an idea of something I really wanted to create that I couldn’t describe – a huge sprawling concept. I kept learning more about design and programming to find out how to express what this thing was. I suppose I hoped whatever it was, it could be very cool and in some way perceived it as redeeming myself for poor grades and a previous lack of focus. It became what they call in the film business, a ‘MacGuffin’. By going on a quest for this ideal, I ended up finding another path. Clearly no plan here!
I didn’t know if I’d be good enough to make this a full time job. I saw sites that blew me away and had no idea how they were done. In the background, I was still trying to find a way to express my idea…this concept that I struggled to communicate. Then I realised in going after this goal I’d equipped myself with some skills that might give me some sense of direction.
I think I realised after a while that what I saw in other people who I thought had a plan was passion. Perhaps the passion I didn’t know how to direct earlier on. I don’t believe we need plans, we need something that drives us, something that gives us that feeling in our gut that we maybe can’t explain.
What drives you? Being really honest with yourself about what that is for you has to be way better than a plan.
We Work in a World of Assumptions
It’s worth reminding ourselves, especially when working with responsive design: almost everything we do on the web is based on assumptions and that’s increasingly the case.
I’m not meaning this in a purely negative light, in fact it’s meant in a really positive way. We don’t actually know very many facts about the environment our sites load in - we have a number of things that appear to be the case.
Reminding ourselves of this can be quite liberating. Instead of ‘knowing’ dimensions and whether certain capabilities are present, we can think more carefully about progressive enhancement by framing the questions we ask as ‘may be’. The viewport may be 40em wide. An ‘em’ may be 16px. The device we’re on may be touch enabled. Letting go of what we thought was a sure thing actually helps us to provide a stronger solution. What if any of the elements you are relying on for your site aren’t accurately reported by the browser or device? Realising these conditions might not be 100% reliable across every known platform encourages a layered approach - progressive enhancement at it’s core.
While I love the conceit of ‘mobile first’ too often this has been reduced to ‘start designing at 320px because that’s a phone’, which is kind of missing the point. The 320px value is nothing more than a viewport width. The fact that an amount of smartphones have that measure isn’t exclusive. A desktop viewport could be resized to that - maybe Windows 8 snap-mode resizes to around that size. The width of a viewport does not tell us anything more than a dimension of the space we have available - it doesn’t infer it’s any kind of device. It also feels very short term. Handset dimensions change with every new raft of releases and who knows what tomorrow may bring...a phone whose viewport is 319px wide maybe?
OK, so if we’re talking about working in a mobile-first kind of way, what is it about a phone that may make us want to design our web content in a specific way. Is it the touch capability perhaps? That’s not a bad call. So what would you change if you know a device did or didn’t have touch capabilities? Larger hit areas for buttons perhaps, greater line-height for in-line links? Maybe detecting touch isn’t 100%, so maybe it’s worth considering making some of these concessions regardless of whether our test for the capability indicates it’s presence or not? In some cases, maybe touch-first might work.
It boils down to this vast range of devices made by many manufacturers with constantly shifting standards being the environment we find our sites loaded into. We have few certainties. On the server-side, along with the request for our site, we’ll have a User Agent string, which provides little of any real use and can be altered to whatever someone may want it to be. What we can check for in terms of capabilities has to be done on the client-side and the results we get aren’t all that reliable but they’re the best we have. There may be a case for device detection. It’s far from ideal but there may be a legitimate case for doing this. We know it’s a great collection of assumptions albeit fairly well done through projects like Wurfl. If we know a device is a desktop or a tablet or a phone or a TV, what would we do differently? Can we ever categorically know for certain? It feels like what works well in the current climate is working with capabilities rather than what a device ascribes to be but could both approaches co-exist if we had better feedback from devices?
We commonly make all kinds of other assumptions; from the days of moving from catering from 800*600 to 1024*768 resolutions to assuming that our experiences might in some way be approximations of our audience’s. Assumptions in themselves don’t have to be inherently bad but let’s recognise them for what they are. We know very little but that can hopefully enable us to be far more flexible and understanding in what we create.
What it means to be a Front-end Developer in 2014
Remember the time that pretty much anyone who made a website was dubbed ‘Webmaster’? Over the last 20 years we’ve figured out more about how to work with the web but then things move on and we find ourselves in this loop between feeling close to understanding and being out of our depth playing catch-up with progress. A single job title doesn’t really encompass what all of us do in creating for the web.
Inevitably, as roles diversified we ended up with two main camps: web designers & developers. As we attempted to better our craft, we found that UX was crucial, and that within development there were specialisms typically grouped as being back-end (responsible primarily for the server-side work) and front-end (the stuff you see in the browser). Perhaps it’s a facet of a maturing industry to see specialism emerging.
As someone who has been in around front-end development for a fair while, you notice how differently people perceive what someone in a front-end role does. This specialism alone has grown to include a wide range of tasks, processes and tools as we in effect bridge the gap between user experience and server side logic.
Maybe we feel more affinity with design? Maybe we consider ourselves to be more of an engineer? What’s expected of us can vary. In reality, we often need to understand a lot about these related mindsets. We need to know about content, colour, typography, and how people will use what we create as much as we might need to comprehend about logic, data, automation, deployment and security.
We have a spectrum of things to be aware of before we’ve even delved into what current thinking is around aspects of what we do; to keep up to date with what it means to be a professional front-end focused developer. Not everyone knows the same things and because of this raft of subjects we need to know or at least be aware of, sometimes we lean more towards one side than the other.
It feels that we have a time where a front-end role can mean different things to different people, which can make it difficult to recruit for. I’ve seen some job adverts listing server-side technologies such as Ruby or PHP as part of the requirements; others where rapid prototyping and working with UX or the design team might be what’s required. Some people might fit the bill for both but not everyone.
Too generic a job title and you may miss or fail to recognise skills people in your team have, too specific a title and a person may be too hard to replace.
Do we need to be more specific with how we label front-end developers or are we at the point of needing more descriptive job titles once again?
CSS itself can swallow all your attention as you get on board with varying ways of creative flexible, responsive sites or maybe work with a CMS that doesn’t give you the freedom you need. Maybe you want to try out writing OOCSS or a naming convention like SMACSS or BEM. Yup, even the way you name your classes and structure your code can be demanding.
We need to be flexible and adapt but people always have aspects that suit their nature better than others. As developers know we always need to learn but there is a breadth of what we can chose to learn about.
What is a front-end developer? Where do you or your team choose to define the remit for such a role?
Those who prefer logic to imagery: take the time to learn about the basics of design. At even a cursory level read up on grids (symmetrical, asymmetrical, using the golden ration…it’s interesting stuff), typography (What classifications of typefaces are there? How do they best work together? Why should you care?) and colour theory.
In reality what we do as front-end developers is all about people. We’re creating the bit that is rendered in the browser that the user experiences. It’s a privileged position and one that will no doubt continue to be challenging and diverse.
As responsive sites are more or less the norm, all aspects of what we do can be seen in a new light. Performance is a huge issue and one that falls quite heavily in the front-end area of a build. You might feel you’re doing a small site so what does it matter? A few changes could make the world of difference to how people perceive your site. This kind of optimisation can feel more like the engineering side of us.
What should a front-end developer be? What should we be expected to know? Is there are consensus around the answers to these questions?
No doubt we’ll always feel we’re behind the curve as there always seems like more to learn. That’s OK. No-one knows it all, but it is hard knowing what people expect of you.
What Makes Us Who We Are?
I’d started writing some notes for this a while ago. Trying to think of all the events that had shaped who I am and maybe find something relevant to pass on about them. Looking at it, it felt incredibly self indulgent but there was one which I thought I’d share.
Although I was born in Yorkshire, we moved to Kent when I was a baby, and so I considered myself a Southerner (as much as a child of my age thought about these things). When I was 5 or 6 years old, we moved from a small village up to Huddersfield in Yorkshire. From my point of view at the time, I was totally confused about what was going on and mainly resented it…the way a child of that age might.
My dad with his long ginger hair, passion for music, hot curries and beer somehow ended up working for the international division of a major bank. The idea of him being made to wear a suit in a formal setting like that just doesn’t work. I also understand the commute to London wasn’t a lot of fun.
We lived in a little village, outside the M25, my mum at home with me and my brother. We had our network of friends and I’d not long started at the local school. I remember not really understanding that we wouldn’t be going back. Our belongings went on their way. That space that used to be our home, vacant. I can’t be sure if I remember the actual journey up North but the sense of the unknown and feeling daunted by it all is clear.
I don’t think we’d seen the house we moved to before arriving there. It was a good size but out of the way for most things, making it affordable for a family of four of unknown income. My mum didn’t work at this point so the business had to work.
The house had damp issues, it was rented so we could never really make it our own. The first shop closed. My brother and I got on with our new school(s). Eventually I suppose things stabilised and he opened a shop in the town centre, ‘Revolution Records’.
So why did we move? The situation of having a ‘proper job’ at the bank didn’t suit my dad. Why not sell up and move to a town we didn’t know to start a second-hand record shop with a friend? Certainly at the age I was, it made little sense.
What I realised as time went on was that my mum had never wanted to move. What was wrong with having a ‘proper job’ and staying in the community she’d forged relationships in? At the time she was more reserved and didn’t express this in a way that would have changed plans. The fact she couldn’t drive then made it harder to do things with us kids. Taking us to and from school or out and about on weekends was all by limited bus service and the extent we could walk. This led, I think, to a sense of isolation. We weren’t on the top of a mountain or anything but I think it felt like it from time to time.
The business swallowed all the hours it could get from my dad so I don’t remember him from those years as much as I’d like. If not in the shop, he’d take stock out to record fairs and university halls around the UK. These are the things you sometimes need to do to make a business work.
We’d moved house closer to where we went to school — finally one where my brother and I could play out in the street with our friends. From time to time we’d notice the difference in lifestyles between us and the others.
At weekends we’d go down to the shop. I’d help clean up a collection that someone had sold on, looking for imperfections in the vinyl, carefully cleaning labels from the sleeves. It’s easy for me to romanticise about this now but I know as a child the last thing you want to be doing when all your friends are out playing is be wiping records. The building was fairly big so me and my brother took advantage of this and made space ships, cars or hideouts out of the boxes used to cart collections around. This was a great time for invention and imagination. Flexi-discs were thrown like frisbees, scratched records destroyed in interesting ways. It wasn’t all boring!
Being a nipper in a record shop in the 80’s, there were strange band posters on the walls, weirdly dressed adults flicking through the racks. I’ll hold my hand up; at times I was a little bit freaked out by some of it. Over the years though I learned who the bands were on the posters (art used for bands like The Cramps, The Cure, Iron Maiden and Metallica stays with me) and to recognise the kinds of fashion that roughly equated with genres of music. For a period, we had second hand instruments on sale too, which meant they might be at home for a while first. (I bet my mum must’ve loved the period we briefly had a drum kit in the lounge!)
I think we did alright. My mum learned to drive and went to work as we grew older. She blossomed and I guess in some ways started to find out who she was aside from our mum. She’d made friends through work, was mobile and far more confident, which was great to see.
Years later, a shopping centre was planned to be built over the street where the shop stood. My dad cashed out and went on to start a different business, selling home-brewing equipment and ingredients with bottled beers from around the world (when seeing these was considered quite rare). From this business, he did well enough and ended up moving on to be a wholesaler. I suppose as a result of these years and all the change and challenges within them, a fundamental difference in opinion under the surface, their relationship suffered which eventually led to them divorcing.
So why tell you this? Writing for The Pastry Box with such a wide remit is a great opportunity to try and think outside of the work we do as developers and designers and in my case (and some of the other contributors) feel a bit reflective to see if there’s anything about my set of experiences might have some value to anyone else. It is weird writing about yourself but trying to translate your personal experiences into words is an interesting exercise in itself.
So what do I feel, reflecting on all this? The fact that leaving a stable income and becoming self employed can be really hard but you can make it work with perseverance. You often need to put in a lot of hours, away from your family and that can be difficult from all sides. There will be hard times but it can be worth it to be your own boss.
I was freelance for a few years and I didn’t go about it in a sensible way to start with. I have a family and had only one job lined up and no savings. Scary. Maybe these past experiences made it alright to be scary? My dad is a fairly quiet guy but managed to get himself out there and do all these things so maybe I could overcome being shy and slightly introverted? Going freelance and not knowing where work would come from turned out to be a great catalyst for making connections, figuring it out and try to work out how to at least appear more outgoing.
Some of the first gigs I had after that initial piece of work were just horrible so I tried to get to know people involved in digital scene in the Manchester. Though I didn’t have many followers at the time, I used Twitter to sort a fairly regular and informal lunch near where I lived to see who’d show up. Sometimes it’d just be me. Maybe one other person might come through to one time where there was about ten of us. Daunting but it worked out. It’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone but it can be worth it.
On reflection, in some ways I’m still not too sure how I feel about the move and the years after. I think there’s been enough time gone by for me to really appreciate aspects of them and for others, time has dulled the less good bits. The strange sense I have of identity might be part of it, which I find weird as I was so young when we moved. I don’t have full rich memories of Kent and spent most of my life up North but feel like a Southerner or more specifically, out of place, not from either. Maybe those first few years down there act as some kind of emotional anchor?
While around me, friend’s parents appeared to have ‘proper jobs’ (that phrase again!) it felt like we were kind of renegades and a little unconventional, through my point of view back then. Times have changed. To work for yourself isn’t so unusual, especially in the web industry. Maybe it taught me about the ebb and flow of income? That we didn’t need to try and keep up with friends which maybe had more than us? Perhaps stability and predictability aren’t that important to me?
I have a lot of memories of music from the time, of record shops as they used to be, the smell and sound of vinyl, the art accompanying albums and tours. All through my teenage years I’d hunt out record shops wherever I could and trawl the racks for the chance of finding something unusual or missing from my collection. As much as I’ve loved so much about the web, it’s impact alongside the closing of many independent stores has totally changed this landscape. You can be on a bus and on your phone find a new artist, check through their discography and buy an album before you reach your destination. Shops like my dad’s were more than just for retail, you’d see people that’d just come to chat and hang out, maybe ask for recommendations and have tunes played in the shop to figure out what they might like to take home. When bands played at the university, they’d often stop by the shop too. In some ways I feel like a dinosaur with these memories that I know people born since the web became commonplace will be unlikely to relate to but I’m grateful for them.
I’ve often wondered if I would’ve preferred it any other way. I’m sure I did at times. I really didn’t enjoy school, and the hard times we shared as a family leading to my parents splitting up weren’t what we’d have chosen but these things make us who we are. I’m a firm believer it’s what you do with the result of these experiences that help define you, not necessarily the experiences themselves.
It's All About the Culture
I’ve recently left the BBC after two years. I got to work on some great projects with some fantastic, talented people. Reflecting on my time there, what stands out is the culture. Hearing my colleague @jameshd do a lightning talk about it at one of my Speak the Web events really served to remind me how important it was for us.
All I know is the experience I had in my team who work on the web and apps in Sport, I can’t comment on anyone else’s experiences. I started at the BBC at MediaCity just before the London 2012 Olympics and got to see behind this huge project. There were people in London and Salford covering the web side of it. It amazed me that everyone appeared calm and most notably seemed to take their appropriate level of responsibility, never seeming overawed or visibly stressed by it, which compared to some agencies I’d seen and heard about, was a very different view on how things could be done.
I loved the lack of blame culture I’d witnessed elsewhere. People make mistakes. We’re human and even with the best hopes and skills, things can sometimes go wrong. It felt very much like a real sense of shared responsibility and a case that the team will find a solution to the problem; after all, building for the web isn’t getting any easier! It’s not whether mistakes are made but how you collectively deal with them if and when they do. The lack of finger pointing, I believe, leads to an environment where people might feel more able to admit to an error so it can be dealt with. By knowing it's OK to say when you're unsure of have doubts over a piece of work gives the team something that can be addressed.
It didn’t matter what your level was, we could express an opinion or put forward ideas about the product, code or design and feel our views were respected. We had a real sense of collective responsibility for the work we did. We’d push each other on, could take feedback well (and there were times through code reviews where real debates were had over approaches used) because the culture and personality of the team could sustain it. We could take criticism because we knew definitively how it was intended — to make what we put out on the web better and never anything personal.
As we were often reminded by our guv'nor, it was all about the way people treated each other, with respect and good communication, that made it a great place to work. He was totally right about that. We all felt valued and part of something bigger than our own pieces of work, no difference made through gender, race or sexuality. We all just wanted to make the best possible product.
I know this might read as a massive promo piece for the BBC but it’s only to give context to the things I’ve found valuable. These few things might seem like they must surely be present everywhere but anecdotally, I realise that’s not the case. It was a fantastic example of how the culture of a company or team makes a world of difference. Of course the quality of output of any web agency or team is what they’re judged by externally.
People talk a lot about culture, which often seems to be in a start-up context. It's true of all organisations. How we treat each other and how a team works together can’t be underestimated. We can plan what values we’d like to see but ultimately it’s individual's actions that make an internal culture work. Being around people that weren’t ‘too cool for school’, leveraging seniority or trying to outdo each other in a genuinely supportive environment was something to be treasured. As the team grew, I like to think we always made people feel welcome and showed them through our actions how the team’s values should be propagated.
What I hope for moving on is that I can try and keep a bit of this with me and maybe help spread this kind of environment around. From time to time, maybe I’ll read this back to remind myself of the things I found so good about that experience. I wondered how I'd adapt to working within such a massive organisation after being freelance but because of the people, because of the culture it wasn't only easy to adjust to but difficult to leave.
When I was 16, I started to learn how to play guitar. Though when I say play, it was more like hit it vaguely in time, coated with distortion. Once that phase had passed and I could string together a few power chords, I started to wonder how people wrote songs. I’d stop by a newsagent on the way to college and buy a guitar magazine with the little money I had, mainly for the tablature to help learn more songs. Alongside the few tracks they had transcribed, there’d be interviews; often too ‘muso’ for me but I remembered reading one with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam.
McCready talked about how wherever he went, on tour or wherever, he carted around a 4 track or some way to record an idea. Over time, he’d stockpile riffs, melodies, jams and maybe they’d come in handy someday or he’d be able to spot patterns or some way his playing was evolving.
Being a metal/grunge kid at the time, I’d watch VHS tapes bands I liked churned out. ‘A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica’ showed how James Hetfield would do something similar, sometimes while driving, just hum a riff, tap the steering wheel for a beat or sing if a melody came to mind.
There are loads of ways to sketch, and this way of sketching with music stuck with me from that time. I have a band and try to write all the time. It’s a hobby. Some are badly recorded humming, some aren’t far off complete songs, most have a verse, a chorus or at least a melody that could be worked on. More than the recordings themselves, more than the expression of an idea, it’s the process of creating that I love about this more than anything. Wherever I am, it’s something I can do to briefly step out of what I’m involved in at the time and capture that spark.
One thing that took a while to get to was letting stuff just come out. Instead of preemptively judging an idea, try and give it some time, record it and try to listen back later with a fresh point of view. Sometimes your instinct may be right, sometimes you can surprise yourself. After almost giving myself the freedom to just create, I kind of felt that burden to somehow be in line with how I perceived what my music should sound like lifted. I have this view that I don’t like music I perceive to be cheesy so I’d steer away from ideas that felt at all like that. Over time, letting down that guard meant playing about with different vocal techniques, trying out different beats or instruments.
While I draw far less than I used to, I saw a similar thing when trying to get started again with paper. I’ve always drawn superheroes and little cartoon heads but trying to forget about I’ve always done and just draw — maybe stuff around me or the first thing that popped into my head — made it fun again. I didn’t try to draw to achieve a specific thing, just for the love of it and that changed how I saw it entirely.
Whether it’s with pencil & paper or humming into the voice memo app of your phone or something more elaborate. Capture those sparks when they happen. Even if you never go back to them, it’s the process. Keep a part of you creative in something outside of your main focus.
The Creative Framework of Superheroes
I’ve always been a fan of Batman. When I first got into reading comics, it was the 90’s darker, more brooding version of the character that really grabbed me. Some graphic novels, like Arkham Asylum, were beautiful artefacts regardless of their source material. At the same time, repeats of the campy 60’s Batman TV show were shown on a Saturday morning. Even as child, I was amazed at the contrast the character and his world could encompass.
Comics as an art form always appealed to me, as much for the story and art as what happens between the panels. While occasionally appearing simplistic, juvenile or cheesy to some, they provide a mechanism where the reader does a lot of the work. Your imagination carries the material somewhere else.
Shortly after getting into regular reading of Batman, X-Men, Green Lantern and others, the Tim Burton Batman film came out. Another different take on the character; slightly changing the origin of the Joker, the (interesting choice of) actors taking the characters to new places. The dark, gothic take on it was almost a period film but actually still quite light and fun — definitely a Burton film. What he then did with the sequel Batman Returns, it was more his film than in any way slavish to source material. While it didn’t have the same acclaim as the first, his take on Catwoman and The Penguin have stayed with us and returned something back to the cannon of what Batman is.
What I love isn’t necessarily what we read or see on screen but the fact that these titles are a creative framework. Since the late 1930’s Batman has been through so many writers’ and artists’ hands through comics, cartoons, TV shows, merchandise and films. Throughout each, they’re essentially the same characters. A few core ideas remain relatively consistent, while the interpretation is up to the current creative team. Even these core elements have been reinvented on occasion.
I count screenwriting as a hobby, though I’ve so much to learn. The process of getting from concept to screen fascinates me for its failures as much as its successes. The film made of Watchmen interested me for that reason; here was an apparent literal translation of a book most people thought was unfilmable. Aside from whether you liked or disliked it, I think as an example of this approach to the work it was really interesting. From what I understand, they pretty much used panels from the book as the storyboard. For me it didn’t work because it really was a piece of work, made for the original medium and time it was created in, that didn’t translate so well directly.
A few years ago I went to a seminar by Robert McKee (whose book Story is dense but very detailed about the craft of story). I’ve never seen someone talk for days on end, barely looking at his notes and be consistently engaging. Walking past him on the way out, I had to ask for his main piece of advice to a would-be screenwriter: “Write the truth” (which is essentially his catchphrase). He was totally right. What is it really about? Who are these characters?
When I watch one of these superhero films, for me it’s about what creative choices were made from the source material (which often spans decades and many interpretations), what did they see as their truth of the character(s)? Even if the film doesn’t turn out so well, I still find this fascinating.
With my favourite character, he’s been interpreted in so many ways from a campy TV show, cheesy films and Super Friends through to someone unhinged and dangerous, someone who comes up against the worst and most violent and demented characters around. Some of these are suitable for young kids while others are definitively not.
These comic book characters are capable of surviving countless reinventions and interpretations. Every creative team adds something to the mythology, however long their run. Captain America has been at times as cartoony and patriotic as his name suggests but also at times embroiled in serious times of espionage and uncertainty (within the context of someone who is a super soldier).
To my mind, Superman is about the toughest character to work with. Consider the basics: he’s an alien baby sent to Earth who has incredible powers and a fighter for truth, justice…and all that. As time’s moved on, he’s become too powerful, too strong. There’s no real sense of jeopardy. We know he’ll win in the end — he’s the good guy. Being too powerful almost negates any real sense of dilemma or chance he’ll not survive. As a framework, he’s the archetype of a superhero but not necessarily the easiest to transfer beyond comics in a relatable way. DC killed him off for a period with a view to showing him as being fallible, that he wasn’t all powerful (and I’m sure in reality to drive more comic sales). If you’ve not seen it, check out Max Landis’ rant about The Death & Return of Superman.
So when superhero films like these come out, it’s not just my inner 10 year old that gets excited to see them, it’s trying to understand the creative journey that might’ve happened behind the scenes; to see what ‘truth’ the writers and director saw in the source material, which itself often has many versions. There have been some really poor films made…from Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 to the 1990 version of Captain America and depending on your point of view, many others too. Search the web for Tim Burton’s aborted attempt at Superman Lives, which would’ve starred Nicholas Cage, and check out what his take would’ve been and early costume fittings. Reading stories of ‘development hell’ for Superman (and other superheroes) over the years has give me an indication of how difficult it has been for so many reasons.
The treatment of characters and story is interesting because they can be almost anything (though ultimately still considered fantasy) and can have a very different tone or perspective — each creative hand can find something different in them. It serves to remind me how much capacity we have with creative works like brands and websites. What’s the truth in your project? What is the core of the brand you’re working with? What does this website really need to communicate?
The Web, Code & The Classroom
A little while ago I was given the opportunity to teach a one-off class at my daughter’s school. I’d long thought about getting involved with CodeClub or some other way to help kids get familiar with the web. Her class at the time was thirty 7 and 8 year olds. As my session drew nearer, I started to wonder…how do I explain this stuff to them in a way that doesn’t make it seem too remote or difficult…maybe even make it fun?
At first I thought I’d have an hour with them but shortly before, I heard it was a whole morning. Mild panic set in. I could talk to my daughter about this stuff or an audience at a conference, but I must admit I was apprehensive about talking for so long to a whole classroom of kids.
I ended up trying to think of a few things that might help demystify what the web is, what it does, and hopefully show that they could make sites too if they wanted. We ended up going over:
Packet switching or How stuff gets around the Internet
In really simple terms, I was curious if they’d understand how traffic worked on the Internet. Using four sheets of paper, one for the browser (with a range of browser logos shown), one for Google and one with a search term I asked them to shout out. I tore it into pieces and asked two of them to hop like rabbits between the desks to get to Google and put the pieces together. The result was then torn up, hopped back by the pair and reassembled. Overly simplified but they seemed to enjoy it and got involved!
What’s a URL?
Across more sheets of paper, I’d printed out the BBC Sport web address into ‘http’, ‘:://’, ‘www.', ‘bbc’, ‘.co.uk’, ‘/sport’ (as an example), mixed them up and asked what order they should go in. Fairly quickly they got them in order through shouting out and I quickly explained what the bits were for. Great to hear that most recognised how a URL should look and which part was the domain.
What do you do on the web?
Bit more of a Q&A session mainly because I was curious what they thought the web was for. What sites did they visit? What was their experience of the web so far? It was as much for me to learn as a chance for them to get involved in the session.
What shouldn’t you do?
Kind of a reminder on looking after yourself online. What should you do with passwords? Don’t give away any personal details, etc. Again, most were fairly savvy. They knew that you shouldn’t share your password but they didn’t know about not using simple words and phrases made for unsafe passwords, which was good to highlight.
How do you stay safe online?
How should you deal with people you meet in chat rooms, etc? A quick walk through some basics. Most seemed to have a decent awareness of what’s going, which was great to hear. Perhaps talking about social networks was a little advanced for their age but most of them had heard about Facebook and the like and agreed when we talked about trust and how little you might know about someone you talk to online. I hoped that talking about this kind of thing with them might at least sow seeds of some of the issues involved with some of the more social aspects of using the web.
What makes a website?
I gave a couple of really simple HTML examples to show the idea that you can wrap a tag around some text to tell the browser what it is. Not an easy concept, but we went to a website that had clear articles and showed how an
ptag works. Really broad strokes kind of stuff.
HTML — it’s not that scary
To wrap up, the teacher brought half of the class through to their computer suite for some kind of practical session. I’d no idea how much any of them had used computers before. We opened up Notepad on their PCs (mainly so there was little interface to be distracted by) and a browser. On the whiteboard I wrote the
bodytags, which they copied down.
bodymade sense once we’d added in the
titletag to the
headand some text in the
body. Not to push them too far, we added a heading and a link.
I was totally surprised by how fast some of them took this on and how some came back repeatedly asking for more to do! I dropped in a
styletag for some basic CSS for those that asked and got them to add crazy colours and explained font sizing. Others in the class were curious but didn’t quite get the concepts, or perhaps weren’t as familiar with computers. That’s to be expected and I certainly didn’t want them to feel pressured or overawed by the experience. I got the feeling those that didn’t run quite so fast still got something from the experience…at least I hope so!
I heard from the teacher afterwards that it seemed to go down well with the class and at least one of the kids made a website with their dad at home. My daughter seemed to think it was pretty cool…and not too embarrassing having her dad around.
I’m curious whether anyone else out there has tried to run a class or teach young kids of that age or younger about the web. What did you find worked for you? While teaching code can be valuable, I definitely feel from that experience that there’s a bit before it: what the web is, how we use it, how to stay safe and how it’s made. Even before we go into depth with any of this, we’re helping to demystify and give some broad understanding of something they’ll no doubt use day in day out through their lives. Maybe some of them will learn how to code, but the main thing to me is that they’re better informed.
It’s the beginning of a new year, so like many people I’m feeling a little reflective, and not just about this past year. The journeys we go through almost always have twists and turns that we didn’t see coming when we were younger and arguably more idealistic. Bear with me while I’m incredibly self indulgent and talk about myself for a bit.
At school I only knew I wanted to work with ‘media’ somehow. (This was pre-web.) Later, at college (the step between high school and university in the UK), I ended up studying film-making and audio recording. Both used analogue tech and seemed like the kinds of things I could do as a job, though the examples we had in both spheres seemed incredibly difficult and competitive professionally. We made short films, recorded & mixed bands and though I loved these things, I was still clueless what I wanted to do with my life.
Before the end of the course, the web hit the mainstream, so we ran up huge bills for the college on the dial-up connection we had. Seeing the web for the first time made something click: this could help bring the things I loved together in some way. I saw massive potential in what the web could be but I also missed a trick. I didn’t understand at that time that the web was always intended to be read/write and encouraged people to contribute to it. I felt I needed a degree or something to make a site. It didn’t take long to realise how painfully naive that was.
I went to university on a course called Media, which at interview sounded like what I was already doing at college with a load of computing knowledge thrown in. It sounded ideal but in reality, it was a computer science course and it wasn’t right for me at that time. I had no background with maths or programming (messing about with my old Amstrad CPC464 copying code out of magazines aside). I left after a term feeling even more clueless than before.
Through the ‘wilderness years’ spent working in a warehouse and attempting to find a direction, I found that making websites wasn’t what I thought it was; a little time with HTML and figure out the whole FTP thing then…boom! Website.
After dabbling with being a web designer for a while I felt like there was too much to know, too many languages and concepts. I wanted to design and make something that really served a purpose but knew only tiny fragments of code. Everything that required any complexity and I’d have to head to tutorials or use something open sourced that I didn’t fully understand. Eventually, I went to university as a mature student to fill in those gaps about what programming is and how to use it. I considered myself on the creative side of the equation but felt like this experience would open up the choices I had.
I felt like sharing this with you because I didn’t have a sense of direction, the web was young so there weren’t career paths for working on it laid out. If you’re at school or college yourself and don’t feel like you have a sense or direction when others around you do, don’t worry. Try and find out what drives you, what you want to explore more. It might take a while but that’s OK. Because of going to uni later in life, I appreciate the ability to change if we feel we really want to be doing something else with our lives.
What really helps to emphasise this is my brother, younger by two years who ended up working in the complaints department for a telecoms company. Not a fun job, I’m sure. While the job went well enough and he got promoted, it had no relation to what his passions were or using his talents. He’d always been great with art, music and writing, and hearing people shout down the phone day in, day out was demoralising to say the least.
Meeting people that ran an advertising course at his local university seemed to trigger that spark in him. Here was something that allowed some of those creative talents to be used. Pairing with a great creative partner, the course provided a foundation for some valuable internships. Through perseverance and talent, they’re now the main creative team at a great agency in London.
I couldn’t be more proud of the change he’s made in his life and what he’s achieved. It’s not been easy; there have been a lot of hard times, lack of money or place to live, but having something to believe in is important.
Recently I’ve seen a friend go freelance, have great success and try to push herself through public speaking & writing; another friend really step outside of her normal sphere of work to open a shop.
These examples hopefully show that if you’re frustrated with your situation, you can change it. If your job isn’t satisfying or using the skills you have, you can at least sow the seeds to make some kind of change — however small. Some changes might require retraining and for a period being worse off, but if we can cope with that, the payoff can be so worthwhile.
Working in the web industry, we can learn all the time and use our own projects to experiment. We can make changes to our lives if we want to and follow our passions, wherever they lead us. Think about that this year…where do your passions lie? What do you really want to be doing?