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Interview with CSS wizard Harry Roberts

Hey Harry, I know a little bit about you from your blog and twitter, but if you had to introduce yourself with three sentences, what would you say?

Hey! I’m 21, from the UK, a designer, developer, writer and speaker. I am a Senior UI Developer at BSkyB where I specialise in elegant, scalable solutions for massive front-ends. When I’m not coding I’m usually flying round on one of my bikes.

Great! When and how did you start diving into web development and design?

I was about 16, I think. My friend Sam and I were dead set on being graphic designers and we were making loads of different things—both paid and un-paid—just to have fun. After a while I decided that we needed a portfolio site to host our stuff so I started looking at building websites.

It was then that I realised that I’m a terrible designer and a far better developer so that became my thing; I used to just tinker with code on loads of throw-away projects just for the hell of it. I kept on and on and eventually landed a full time role at a great, aaward-winning agency in the UK when I was 17.

I’ve not looked back since, but there are a lot of people on the way I’m very grateful to.

It seems you got very good at a fairly young age. Did you attend any conventional design/development school or are you completely self-taught?

Cheers! I am entirely self taught, yeah. I found I loved building websites so much that I decided that I could teach myself enough not to bother with university. As a result my knowledge is a lot narrower than most (I don’t know JS, for example) but a lot lot more honed; a lot more detailed.

My style of learning keeps adapting, too. I learn things in context which gives a greater understanding than being taught it second hand by someone in a lecture room.

Yeah, I like that way of learning. I think it speaks for our industry that you were able to land a pretty good job without a formal education. Did you like working at a big agency?

It’s because—as an industry—we love to share! There’s stuff out there that people write for free that beats formal, paid education into the ground.

Sense wasn’t necessarily that big—about 40 or so people—but it was a hell of a lot of fun. I absolutely loved working there. There was a massive variety of clients, project sizes and a lot of fun to be had. It was the best first-proper-job I could have wished for. It gave me chance to grow on the job and gain a lot of experience in working with people, as a team.

So why did you leave?

It’s a very long story but the company wound itself down over a period of months. It didn’t go bust, but they saw that it was time to make the move to close down operations before things got that far. It was during the really bad economic downturn a couple of years ago and Sense was always super-committed to ethical operations so they closed the doors while there was plenty of cash left to keep everyone happy. A very, very sad day but they acted incredibly responsibly. Everyone from there still keeps in touch, In fact, I just met an old ex-Sense colleague for lunch only an hour ago.

That’s sad, but I experienced something similar and also am still in touch with my ex-colleagues.
Now you work at BSkyB, so I imagine you are part of an in-house team? How did you end up there and what’s it like working for one “client” only instead of working at an agency?

It is sad, but the fact we’re both in touch with our colleagues speaks volumes for the people involved.

Yeah, it’s a fairly massive team as well! I ended up there after they advertised a Senior UI Developer role. I went in for a chat to ‘sound them out’—I was really apprehensive about a large corporate; worried that they’d have to support IE6 and that they’d want round corners in all browsers etc. They’re really clued up though and they said right away that they want to take a real progressive approach. I was impressed so, at 20, I decided bite the bullet and try to apply for my first senior role!

Working here is really different to working on lots of clients. I work on a number of projects so there is variety and there’s no such thing as a rush-job. All projects are agreed in-house so there are no ridiculous deadlines, you can really get stuck into a project and see it through. There’s more incentive to do a better job because once you’ve built the site you can’t just forget about it. I’ve learned more in my year at Sky than all three years previously.

That sounds really good.
So you don’t have to support IE6, phew. What about IE7 or IE8? We at QUOTE.fm decided to support IE8, but stopped looking at the site in IE7. But I could imagine that’s a little bit harder to do when you work for a big company?

Nope, no IE6 at all which is a massive help. IE7 and IE8 we had to support on the last project we rolled out. I was the sole front-end dev on SkyBet.com and that took about a year or so; I managed to get it done with no IE stylesheets—as I said before, we’re given more than enough time to make sure we do our work properly so there’s often very little need to hack front-ends together. At an agency, where you typically have much less time, cross-browser support is often more of a pain than at a big in-house team.

Let’s talk about your work setup. Which hardware and software do you use for your everyday developing needs?

At work I run a dual-screen Windows PC with Notepad++, Git, Photoshop, Chrome and Spotify as my main tools of choice. I also have a 17″ MacBook Pro.

At home I run a MacBook Air with the same software as above but TextMate as my text editor.

(I much prefer Mac to PC, obviously…)

That’s pretty simple and straight forward, but no external display at home? I am sorry you’ve to work on Windows all day. I had the pleasure for two and a half years at one of my old jobs. Luckily I can work all day with my own MacBook Pro since nearly one and a half years now.
Ever used a CSS preprocessor and languages like LESS and SASS? What do you think about them?

Yeah, I do also have an external display at home for my Air but I tend not to use it (I do most of my coding away from the desk, if I can). The Windows thing was my own choice, but I became a Mac convert about a month after starting here at Sky (having opted for a Windows desktop). My own fault!

Pre-processors aren’t really my thing. I installed Sass at the weekend and it’s cool, but the way I write my CSS means that a pre-processor won’t actually help me all that much.

I’ve spent the last year or so really honing and refining an OOCSS approach in vanilla CSS and this largely negates the need for a pre-processor entirely. Where I imagine they may be useful is variables and vendor prefixes but mixins and nesting et al can often be circumvented entirely by just architecting your CSS properly.

I use LESS and am very happy with it but one has do be very careful not to fall in some traps with preprocessors. But I will take a closer look at Object Oriented CSS, thanks.
How many hours a week/day do you invest in doing personal work in the evenings?

I think they’re good, but need to be used properly. To say pre-processors are bad would be like saying knives are bad; it’s not the tool, it’s the person who’s wielding it! I’m looking forward to trying to roll some Sass into my workflow, if I can.

Oh a lot. I couldn’t give an exact number but it’s high. Most of my time lately has been spent preparing for a talk I gave at Front-Trends in Poland and also working on faavorite, so not as much writing as I usually do.

I’m hoping with talks out of the way I can redesign my site (it really needs it!) and get writing more.

Speaking of Front-Trends. I read your write-up and am very excited and want to be there next year. What was it like to be on a stage that big and do you plan on speaking a lot more at conferences in the future?

It was absolutely terrifying. The most people I’d ever spoken to before was about 50 in a small room in Barnsley; a tiny little town in the north of England. Front-Trends was 470 and I was so nervous.

That said though, the entire Front-Trends experience was the best thing I have ever done in my life. I’ve never had so much fun! Despite my nerves my talk went well (or so people have told me; it was all a blur for me) and I’m definitely up for doing more.

Cool! Do you know if the talks were recorded and will be up on YouTube or the Front-Trends site?

Yeah they were, I’m not sure when they’ll be up though—there were ten hours of talks! I’m not looking forward to seeing mine too much; I imagine the nerves will show.

Let’s talk about your newest project: faavorite.com. What is it about, how did the idea come up and who do you build it with?

faavorite is the result of two developers’ frustration with the way Twitter handles (or rather, doesn’t handle) their favorites feature. We basically built an app that lets you search, organise, tag, discover, read (and more) your (and other peoples’) Twitter favorites. It’s pretty awesome…

It’s a project by me and Nick Payne. It’s been really fun working on such an involved and massive project with someone who is first and foremost a friend, I’ve loved it. faavorite is still well in its infancy at the moment, there’s lots more to come.

QUOTE.fm also started out as a side project with two friends and now we able to do it full time and hired an iOS developer. So good luck with faavorite!
How long did the development take until now and if you have to name one or two things, what did you learn?

That’s awesome, good work! We need a plan for faavorite; it’s so much fun and so much more than just a hobby project!

faavorite went from idea to live in about three months. It was such a massive project, particularly from Nick’s point of view. He’s done a lot of seriously impressive stuff. I jokingly refer to myself as Chief Float-Clearer on faavorite because that’s honestly about as important as I feel at the side of Nick…

I learned a fair bit but the biggest single thing I learned is don’t be too critical if you don’t have context.

By this I mean that by just looking at someone’s source code you shouldn’t judge their development decisions. I used to be terrible for this, saying stuff like ‘I could do that in three less elements’. True—maybe you can—but that means that so can the developer who did it, so why didn’t they? Looking at the source code of faavorite I have absolutely no doubt that people will be like ‘WTF?! How many divs?!’ but each line of code in that build is accounted for. Everything has its own job, everything has its own purpose.

I learned that pretty code is second to powerful code. It’s better to write ‘uglier’ code that never breaks than it is to avoid using three more elements and have something really fragile and flaky.

In short, I learned that you can’t critique because you don’t have the context.

Thank you! Three months is pretty awesome. You two did a good job! I think what you just said is so true and I’ve experienced the same here with QUOTE.fm.
Maybe you can uncover some future features of faavorite?

Thanks, it was pretty full on at points; I was working all day here at Sky then getting to work on an evening too. Nick’s still done most of the work, though!

Yeah exactly, you find it more and more with complex apps. I’d much rather use an extra div and know that nothing will break than not use it and keep having to change code!

I wish I could but we don’t even know ourselves! We have some pretty awesome ideas around weekly faavorite summaries, and community curated stuff, but it’s all up in the air at the moment; what we need to do is beef up our capacity ready to get promoting the app fully!

That sounds pretty good. Looking forward to your development.
With a lot of personal work in the evenings I know I tend to sit in front of the screen all day until I go to bed. What do you do when you need some time away from coding and the screen?

Cheers, me too!
Well I never watch TV (I’ve not turned my TV on since 2011) so it’s unusual I’m not at my computer in the evenings. I listen to a lot of music and, although I’m far from a chef, I do love cooking. I spend at least a good hour or so an evening cooking/eating. When I’m not doing that I love to get out on one of my bikes. I currently have a trials bike and a single-speed roadie which are two bikes just designed for pure fun!

Can you do any tricks on the trials bike?

I can do some (link for outside the US/UK), but I’m not great. Due to work things I don’t get to ride half as much as I’d want to—I’ve just had a year off, too.

Wow, I think that’s pretty cool. So let’s wrap this thing up.
The last one: What question would you like to answer, that I didn’t ask?

How about… ‘What next?’

So. Now really the last one. What next, Harry?

I’m not 100% sure myself really. I know that I’ll be here at Sky for a while yet. Nick and I met (properly) at Sky and we were saying just the other day that we could probably never go back to agency life.

Agencies don’t face the problems massive in-house (and very technical) teams do. With an agency you don’t have great ownership of a project; you build it and get shut of it. There’s no incentive to architect anything or think about 6, 12, 24 months down the line in quite the same way there is in-house.

Other stuff, faavorite needs a plan; we need to work out a strategy for the product and what we want from it.

I was considering taking a week off work and rewriting inuit.css to be super OO—make it an incredibly powerful but design-free CSS framework, but that’s undecided yet.
I think I’d also like to speak at another conference or two.
I have loads of ideas but nothing really certain—I guess I’ll cross each bridge as I come to it.

Sounds great. I wish you all the best for your future. Thank you very much for your time, Harry. Maybe our ways will cross some day on a conference or so.

You can find Harry on Twitter, github and of course on his widely popular blog csswizardry.com.

Martin Wolf

Hi, I’m Martin Wolf, a Freelance Web Developer from Germany.
I believe in hard work and sharing what I know.

Contact me

Interested in working with me? Fantastic! The best way to get in touch is by email (hello@martinwolf.org). I’m looking forward to hearing from you.