Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson is a freelance front end developer who focuses on CSS, style guides, responsive, and accessibility; working with clients such as FiftyThree, Imprint, Cloud Four, and others. When not actually writing code, she can be found writing about a wide variety of topics on her own site and she has contributed to A List Apart. When not staring at a screen, she reads comics, cooks lots of yummy food, and enjoys her Portland neighborhood.

Published Thoughts

This past summer, a friend took a course to learn HTML and CSS. It was her first venture into the world of code, the web, and building something digital herself.

We are in a Slack together with other friends, so we set up a #codehelp channel to be able to answer questions. It brought up some interesting thoughts, as on many occasions as my friend was working through things, she would have moments of self doubt.

I still have moments of self doubt, over and over again, ten years into building things on the web. Every time I talk with a designer and get a new design that needs to be coded, my first thought is, "How am I ever going to build this?" And, honestly, that feeling is pretty normal for me now.

Sometimes it comes because the designer is challenging me in a good way, sometimes because I'm not feeling confident, and many times because the blank text editor screen in front of me is just as challenging as the blank screen or piece of paper can be for a writer or artist.

But here's the thing that also came out of helping my friend last summer, it reminded me that I do know things. I successfully explained several different HTML elements and how to best use them. When it came to CSS concepts, I could talk about those as well. It reminded me of how much the web has changed in ten years, how much building things for the web has changed, and how much I take for granted as I sit down to write code; how many things are just there, in my head, that I know.

And the best way out of my moments of self doubt? Sit down and write the code. Open up the editor, start with the things I know, write the basic markup, start adding styles. Every time, by just digging in and not avoiding it, I remind myself of the basics, and I push myself to learn the things I need to know.

No matter how long you've been doing what you've been doing, especially if you are in the web world, there will always be something to learn. But it's been good for me to be reminded that I know some things, I have experience, and I can do this, no matter how my self doubt tries to deter me.

This year, in particular, has been the Year of the Book for me. I'm reading more than I ever have and it's great. And, through getting into reading a lot more, I've also rediscovered one of my childhood loves: the library.

I lived in a very small town until I was ten; population around 600. When I was very small, the town didn't have its own library, there just weren't enough people in the surrounding area to support it. So instead, this fantastic RV-like vehicle would pull into town every few weeks. The bookmobile had arrived. And I would return the books I had borrowed and browse around looking for new books.

But I left the idea of book-borrowing behind as I got older. I don't really know why, but it happened. Sure, in university and graduate school I went back to the library, but never for pleasure reading, always for research purposes.

But last year, as I was getting more and more into comics and realizing how much money the habit could cost me, a friend suggested the library. And that's how it all began. Our library carries the trade volumes of comics, so I got a new library card and headed to their website to search for the comics and books I was interested in.

Then something else wonderful happened. I discovered the digital lending portion of the library. This meant I didn't always have to go to a branch to get books. I could download them to my Kindle and read away. It isn't the best interface, but it works and, best of all, the highlights from my kindle stay with me, even though Amazon would lead you to believe otherwise.

But I also go to the library quite often. A familiar refrain in chat to my coworkers is, "taking a break to go to the library and eat lunch." And I've read a lot of great comics series through the library; Planetary, Freakangels, Fables, Transmetropolitan, and more. And I have a lot of things on my wish list that I'll get to eventually.

One of the reasons I really love going to my local branch is that it's a Carnegie Library, which makes it an older building by Portland standards, and it's still doing the same thing all these years later. And it is my community there, kids excitedly looking for new books to read, people using computers, classes in the private room, it's great to see all the activity.

Even though I'm using a web site or an app on my iPad to access the library a lot of the time, I still have that same sense of wonder that I did as a small child climbing the stairs of the bookmobile. So many good things to read, so many ideas to think about, so much waiting there for me to discover. You can experience it too, find your local library.

I've been working remotely for several years now, either full-time for a company, or as a freelancer. I've worked remotely where there was an office, offices full of people, and fully distributed teams.

But, especially in the last few years, there have been arguments about remote work. Are remote workers as productive? Can teams produce great things when they are all scattered in their own homes and co-working spaces? It isn’t really about being in an office or not being in an office, it’s about finding the way you can produce great work, and communicating with your team, in order to make things together.

I like to think I've learned a few things about successful teams, not just successful remote work. Because as I’ve learned, the two go hand-in-hand. Remote work just brings to the surface things that are especially important, but I would argue these things are just as important for teams that are sitting in the same physical space.

Many articles have been written on this topic. One of my favorites is by Mandy Brown. She talked with a lot of people who were working remotely at the time. Each team and person worked very differently, so there is no right answer when it comes to how to make remote work work.

The tools we talk about a lot, Slack, Hipchat, Basecamp, Github, Trello, etc, are just that, tools. What matters more than the tools is that the team is functioning well, people are trusted to get their job done, and they are all committed to doing good work together.

There are three things that have become important to me in order to make remote work successful, but remember, this is what works for me and everyone is different. I have teammates who work very differently and do fantastic work.

First, I do what I can to make sure that when I'm working I can focus and get things done efficiently. This means working in a dedicated space in my house that is comfortable and ergonomic. Coffee shops tend to distract me and I usually get annoyed with people, so I tend to avoid them for work that needs a lot of focus.

Second, I take regular breaks and make sure I’m working a normal work day schedule. I've said this before other places, but I find the idea of you can work whenever actually just leads to me working a lot. Too much in fact. And since my partner works a 9 to 5 job, I tend to work a fairly standard work day. I also communicate when I step away for mini breaks, and for longer breaks, usually quit the chat program so my team has an easy signal that I’m not available.

Third, I communicate, a lot. If you think you are communicating too much then you are probably communicating the right amount. For me, this means that I send an email at the end of my day to my co-worker in England with an update on where things are. When he gets up, he has a ready reference. I’m also really involved in chat, I like the social aspect of it, and it’s a great way for me to feel part of the team. On my current team, Hangouts are done when needed for talking through things that work better with voices rather than typing.

But here’s the thing with all three of these: I think they make anyone a better team member whether you are in an office, working from a home office, or working in a coffee shop. Even if your team is usually in a physical space together, communicating is just as important.

I like the idea of companies taking the stance of remote by default. Especially for companies with multiple offices, with some remote workers, or people who may be partially remote. It is the most important thing that can be done. Because when you place value on asynchronous communication and documentation, everyone benefits.

By remembering that not everyone can always be “in the room” I believe a team becomes a better team. Trusting people to do their work well, instead of counting the number of hours they are in the office, is how we can do our best.

Two months ago on this site I wrote a bit about the way I think about work and life. This has been an ongoing evolution for me, pushed by a lot of what I've read on the subject of work life balance. There are two main sides to this debate: one says there is no work/life balance, it is all just life and the other insists the balance exists.

As I stated in my previous piece, I disagree with the "it's all just life" contingent. I believe there is a balance to be found. I say this, because I need time completely away from all obligations and if I mix it all up together and make it all life, well those obligations that I associate with work are always hanging over me.

But, just about the time that piece was published, I realized something else. Many of the people who advocate that it is all life don't have traditional jobs with a boss. By which I mean that many of them are running their own businesses, they are consultants, or maybe a partner in a small company. When you are in a position where you decide your schedule, you get to decide your hours, etc, it is easy to say it is all life.

But I've worked in many-a-job where I didn't have that freedom. I've had jobs where being able to be home to meet a plumber or furnace repair person was extremely difficult. There are others who have demanding bosses and don't get the breaks they need and desire from work. And sometimes, we can't make changes to those jobs when we'd like due to life circumstances.

We all desire to have a job where we are trusted, valued, and appreciated by the team we work with and the people we work for, but unfortunately that isn't always the case. And when someone who is lucky enough to have all that tells the person who doesn't that it is all just life, well, that may look fairly grim.

So I’m trying to be more careful and sensitive to the situations of others. Rather than being prescriptive with my advice, I’m trying very hard to state what works for me, thinking of them as ideas for others rather than the only way to do things.

Much as Eileen Webb said in a piece earlier this year,

Our experiences and lessons still have great value and are worth sharing, but we have to stop presenting them as law.

So many who wade into the work/life balance debate seem to present their perspective as law; as if their experience is everyone’s. And since each of our situations are different, maybe remembering to take them as the ideas they are is the best thing I can share.

I’ve spent the last several years thinking about work. It all began when I read The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne B. Ciulla. A book that still has me thinking about what it means to work in the current US culture, along with how work has changed over history. Since Ciulla traces work from hundreds of years ago to modern times, it’s a look at many different ways of thinking about work.

What I think about a lot is the relationship between employer and employee, especially how that has changed over the past 60 years. I’ve thought about the idea of loyalty and how that factors into a job. Fifty years ago many people started working for an employer out of high school, or college if they went, and they stayed with that employer their entire twenty- to thirty-year career.

Since moving into web development about 10 years ago, I’ve worked more as a contractor or freelancer than I have a full-time employee. There are a lot of reasons for this, the main one being that most of my full-time employers haven’t been able to keep me busy, but wanted me in the office for the full 40-hour work week. There was one exception to this, and it was, by far, my best full-time job ever. The one case where it was about getting the work done, not about the time you put in.

I still see employers who desire loyalty from their employees while they don’t offer it in return. It’s hard not to be cynical. At the same time, since I’ve tasted what it is to work a full-time job that is fantastic and fulfilling, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a job a good one.

This has led me to believe the following about paid work:

  • Do what you like. It may not be your passion, but hopefully you like it enough to enjoy the time you spend doing it. As Mandy Brown said on this very site, “Seek out the roles and skills that both suit you and are sufficiently rewarding in compensation to make your life work.” Because we all have obligations, bills, and need money. So, if it’s possible for you, find something you like that pays you, that’s the goal for me, not finding my passion.
  • Be realistic about the way companies work, especially those of us who work in Start-up Land. Things don’t always work out, or the company may change directions, so the job doesn’t last forever. Be prepared to be honest and make a change if you need to or be ready for the forced change that may come.
  • Sometimes what I think of as work, especially the joy of thinking and discovering, may have nothing to do with the thing I get paid to do every day and that’s ok (see the first point).
  • I’m so much more than what I get paid to do. When I meet people, I’m trying very hard to not have my first question be, “So, what do you do for a living?” Because that may have nothing to do with what the person loves. A great example of this? My partner discovered astronomy last summer. He’s become passionate about it. It’s not what he gets paid to do, but he’d rather talk about astronomy than his paid work.

What has stayed with me from The Working Life is the following quote and it’s my goal for work in my life (emphasis mine):

Is the life we have now worth what we are giving up for it? Meaningful work is rare, but is out there to be found either in a paid job or in our free time, if we really want it. Not everyone wants it, finds it, or considers the same things meaningful. A work-dominated life is fine if it is a conscious choice and makes one happy. But if it doesn’t, then we should start thinking of how to fit work into our lives instead of fitting our lives into our work.

I’m always on the hunt to make sure I have time for meaningful work, even if that means the non-paid variety, which means that I often want to fit work into my life and not the other way around.

This leads to my final point. I think work/life balance is a real thing—it isn’t all just life. There have to be times when I don’t feel obligated to a job, where I don’t have to check email, where I can forget about what day of the week, what the date is, or even what time of day it is. This is what recharges me and if work and life are all one, I find I don’t do that. I find I never truly disconnect or unplug. So while I like what I do for paid work, I also like taking a break from it to do other things.

2014 was a tumultuous year for me. What I was doing at the end of the year was nothing like what I expected when the year began.

At the beginning of the year, I was working for a small start up that I loved. I anticipated coding-away on the product and with that fantastic team for the foreseeable future.

Just one month into the year, I found out it was not to be. The company announced its shutdown by the second month of the year. I cried. I got angry. I immediately began missing my team. Most of all, I was sad to be losing a product I truly loved using, and working on, every day.

The third month of the year, I decided to go freelance. I was lucky to work on great projects with fantastic clients right out of the gate, but I also had to figure out the business side of it too. What should I charge? Estimated taxes, whoa! What types of projects do I really like and want to go after? How do I find that work?

Through the middle of the year, I continued to be busy. I figured out a rate that works. I hired a great accountant and a lawyer to help with all the details that I don't really understand, like estimated taxes and contracts.

In May, I was asked to speak at a conference set for December. My first experience with speaking in front of such a large crowd. Nervously I wrote, made slides, practiced, asked trusted colleagues for advice and feedback, and generally made sure I knew my talk backwards and forwards. And it went great.

I tell you this simply to say that sometimes, life is going to change. Change in ways you don't expect, nor ways you may want.

2014 started with some incredibly difficult changes (right on the heels of a very difficult ending to 2013). I’ve learned that freelancing is just one big roller-coaster ride as well, with days of working on an awesome project and other days of wondering if work will come in or not.

In addition, I’ve found support in places I didn’t expect. Referrals for projects, people giving me a push to try something new, the odd email from a colleague letting me know they’ve enjoyed something I’ve written or said. I’m grateful for this support as it has made the low points on the coaster more bearable and it’s always more fun to celebrate with friends.

The lesson for me in 2014 was to get much better at rolling with the coaster. In 2015, I have no idea where this coaster is going to take me. If you had told me then where I would be today, I would have laughed. Hopefully the same holds true a year from now because I've found the ride to be a fairly interesting adventure.