Web Careers and Pushing Technology to Its Limits, with Alex Walker

By M. David Green , Tim Evko
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In this episode of the Versioning Show, Tim and David are joined by Alex Walker, SitePoint’s Design & UX editor and manager of design and front-end development. They discuss writing popular articles, pushing web technologies to the limit, tips for designers looking for a web career … and cicadas, talking clocks, and TV shows.

Show Notes

Alex Walker joins the Versioning Show

Transcript

Tim:

Hey, what’s up everybody, this is Tim Evko …

David:

… and this is M. David Green …

Tim:

… and you’re listening to episode number three of the Versioning Podcast. This is a place where we sit down every two weeks to discuss the industry of the web from development to design — with some of the people making it happen today and planning where it’s headed in the next version.

David:

In this episode, we’re going to be talking with Alex Walker, who is a designer and site manager for SitePoint — and, according to his bio, he’s been doing cruel and unusual things to CSS since 2001.

Tim:

On the heels of that, we have a question that we try to ask all of our guests, which is, In your current career, what version are you, and why?

Alex:

I am probably 3.0, I think. Well, actually, if you talk about my entire career, I actually go back to printing. I was in the print trade. So if you wanted to build those in, I would probably be more like 4.0. But in terms of the internet and technology kind of stuff, I think the first part was, I was webmaster at Sausage. So that was when people used to have — I actually still miss that email address, webmaster@sausage … my first serious email address. So I’d like to have that one back if I could, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

But that was a real learning experience. I spent a long time dealing with code for the first time, after being more from a design background.

So, that was a jump up. And then, the start of SitePoint was a lot of dealing with clients and that kind of stuff, going to client meetings, also building the site itself. And I think version three as being — I’m more of an editor and a writer these days.

I write a new piece every week, and I deal with the work of other people for the site, where we edit and set up and negotiate content. So, I guess I’m 3.0 at the moment.

David [2:13]:

I can see you’re a very prolific writer for the site as well. And you’ve been writing from the very beginning of SitePoint, haven’t you?

Alex:

I think my first article is 2002 or 2003. Not quite from the beginning. Kevin Yank was one of the really early writers for us; we’ve still got some of his books on the site. And early on, I was [writing] maybe an article every six months, and then there was a period from around 2004 through to about 2010 where I did a monthly newsletter.

And I remember getting a bit panicky every month thinking, O no, I've got to think up 12 ideas to write about this year. How will I ever do it? And for the last two years, I’ve been writing a piece every week that sort of sits on the top of the Design newsletter.

And it’s strange. I’ve heard people say it before — that it’s easier to write often than it is to write occasionally, and that definitely is the case. I remember thinking, I’m gonna be out of ideas completely in six months, and I’ve still got a pretty good backlog of things that I can write about.

And it’s amazing: even when I’ve got things lined up, something happens during the week or something pops up that we’re doing. Or someone writes about something that spurs … or even I might just be watching the History Channel or Antiques Roadshow or something like that, and there’ll be something on there that I’ll relate to what we do.

And it will spur me off in a direction, and there you go. It’s been easier than I thought, but hopefully that won’t stop. I still always feel like there’s gotta be a month out there where I just kind of hit a wall, and it’s like, I’ve got no words left to say.

David:

Given the way that you write, and the creative approaches that you take, it doesn’t feel like you’re ever going to run out of ideas. Because you always have a different twist on things. I’m curious: you started writing mostly technical articles, and then you switched into more design-oriented articles.

Alex [4:03]:

I think for the newsletter that I used to do five or ten years ago, I was definitely more interested in CSS, and I think I did some pretty interesting stuff. But it requires a lot of research, and a lot of testing, and reading specs. And to do one of those a month isn’t too hard, but the work that goes on behind that — I don’t think you can do it every week, particularly something like CSS. You can reiterate things you’ve done before. But to come up with new ideas, and to speak about something interesting from a different angle, I’ve found it’s been much easier just to sit there, read stuff.

I’ve got a Trello board that I can pull up on my phone. And I’ll be watching TV, and someone will say something and I’ll go, O my God!

My partner will turn around to me and just nod at me sometimes and go, Newsletter?

And I’ll go, Yep, newsletter. Because we’ll just see something on the TV at that moment. And she knows that — I don’t know whether there’s a light globe that appears over my head. But maybe I sit forward or stand up a bit straighter or something.

As I mentioned before, there’s a show called Antiques Roadshow, which is an English show that talks about antiques and those kind of things. But I’ve had articles that I’ve written that I’ve pulled off there on things like the talking clock that you ring up.

There was a guy that invented a copying machine in 1780. This was like a walnut table with a roller, and he (a businessman) would write all his stuff out, and he had a wetting agent, and other paper, and he could roll the letter through and it would make a copy out the other side.

So, copying is one of the key things that our industry is built around. So many issues revolve around digital rights management and intellectual property, and you think, where does that start? We’re talking about the 1780s, and that’s the first time we’ve got the idea of being able to copy something so accurately.

David [6:13]:

What of the things you’ve written really stands out for you?

Alex:

I think the article The Cicada Principle and Why It Matters to Web Designers was one of those ones that blew up and got picked up on Hacker News and a few of the big sources — Slashdot. It was probably my ultimate article, because I always like to blend science and history with the design stuff — that’s kind of my thing. I was always the geeky one of my arty friends, and the arty one of my geeky friends, so it’s that kind of blend — I think that’s what I’m good at in particular. I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things, but the blend is something that I can do.

I wrote The Cicada Principle article about four years ago, that had been rolling around in my head. I think I saw a History Channel show on Cicadas — the way that they tunnel into the ground for a long time, and then come up and breed, overwhelm the environment with the amount of cicadas that come out simultaneously, and then disappear again.

And the weird thing is, with some of these species, it was 13 years and 17 years. They were prime numbers, and no one could figure out what the reason for this really strange number was. They would just emerge at this 13 year — right within an hour of each other — emerge from the ground. And they eventually figured out that it was because the things that eat cicadas — things like lizards and snakes — these things tend to be on boom-and-bust cycles of maybe four years or six years. And if you try to line up six-year boom-and-bust cycles — say with a snake or a bird or something like that — it takes a long time for that pattern to line up on a 17-year crossover.

So, this idea of these numbers being really good for breaking patterns, I remember thinking that means something. I don’t know what it is, but it means something. Eventually I was working with multi-layered patterns with tiling backgrounds at one stage. And this idea of things not lining up is exactly what you want in a background that you don’t want to repeat.

So, using that idea of overlapping prime numbers on the actual widths of the tiles, you start to get these really crazy things happening. So you can get thousands of pixels going sideways with these multi-layered tiles that don’t ever repeat — or they do actually repeat, but you get amazing math happening when you start to get these numbers interacting with each other.

So, that was something there when I wrote it, and I kind of started working through it and doing the math. And when it started to emerge in front of me, I was checking with people, and saying, Wow, am I wrong, or is this pretty amazing? And people were sort of standing back from their chairs and going, No, no, that can’t be right.

But, yeah, that went amazingly well. It just took off all over the internet. It had been something that had been possible for a long time, and no one had really quite noticed that it was something you could do. So, yeah, it kind of still stands out in my mind, for sure.

Tim [9:36]:

That’s a really cool breakthrough to have, especially in one’s career — when you know there’s something there, and you’re the one to just look and say, Hey, wait a second, if we just put this thing with this thing …

Alex:

Sometimes things like SVG come along, and these are new things, so there’s lots of new directions. But yeah, to find something inside the stuff we’ve been using for a long time that was useful was kind of a nice moment.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. So you mentioned earlier that you transitioned from the print industry into the web industry. Do you want to speak to how you made that transition, and the technical skills you acquired to be able to work in that different space?

Alex:

Yeah. I actually was an apprentice at 17 in a business area — or an apprenticeship area — called graphic reproduction. It was part of the magazine production process. It was also part of the newspaper business as well.

And when I started, this was all film based. We used paint brushes, and Rubylith, with this peelable sort of masking substance that we used — which is pretty much like the Quick Mask you use in Photoshop — this kind of red, peelable thing is kind of an analogy to what they do in Photoshop today even. And we were constructing magazine covers by overlapping and exposing film on top of other film.

Over the years (this was back in the ’80s), Macintoshes started coming into the whole thing, so I started to get trained up on that. The scanners that we used at that stage were the size of cars. So those things spun, and they had a drum, and you had to oil down these clear drums. It’s amazing what we can do now just with a stupid little thing on a desk [chuckles] … and we spent hours doing this kind of stuff.

I was in that for about ten years, and it started off as a pretty interesting job, but it gradually became more and more automated, and it wasn’t as useful and as motivating as it was when I started.

So I got a little payout, because they were reducing the numbers in the company. So that actually gave me the time to go back to school for two years. And I was basically studying what was called Electronic Design, and at that stage (we’re talking about ’97, ’98), almost everyone in my class at that stage was studying to design for Macromedia Director.

Everyone was just, We don’t want to learn — … what was that code? It was some kind of code — ExtendScript or some kind of crazy thing. Everyone wanted to make CD-ROMs, and I didn’t really think that was the future. I remember there was me and one other girl that were pretty interested in doing internet stuff, and most of the other people were pretty much like, Ew, code, don’t show me code!

[Chuckling]

So I started to just get into HTML, and I think I made a good decision early on. I started using a little text editor called Arachnophilia, which was just a really simple text editor for laying out the code. And everyone in the class was told to use Adobe PageMill, and — ugh! — that thing was just horrendous. The code it wrote! And it put the code behind a screen like the Wizard of Oz. You really didn’t know what it was doing. It was like using Word, and you really didn’t learn much using it.

So I started playing around with the code from that early time, and I think that set me up well for when CSS started to become a thing. I was immediately playing with it, and it was certainly a big thing in the early days of SitePoint. We were pushing things like moving away from table-based design. I think we were one of the earliest sites to jump onto that — at a time when the technology didn’t really support it all that well.

It’s hard to remember how hard it was in those days to get very simple things to happen with just floats.

David [13:47]:

Were you building all of that yourself by hand?

Alex:

Yeah. We had a PHP backend that we built from scratch, and myself and Julian designed, and it wasn’t responsive in the way that we talk about now. But it worked on smaller devices, and we were pretty ahead of the curve I think for where we were at the time.

David:

It’s interesting you’ve gone from really being hands on, doing all of the nitty-gritty coding on the site, to being in more of a hands-off position right now — where I assume there are other people who are doing the hands-on coding for the site.

Alex:

Yeah, we’ve got a team, and I tend to contribute more components that I’ll come up with. At the moment, we may not see it on the site, but in my spare time I’m working on an idea with SVG and the golden ratio. I’ve got basically a grid of reusable icons that I want to generate a new piece of art for every article, in SVG, and I’m using the title of the article and the author’s name and the date to create a random number, and that gets fed into this little drawing, and it creates a new layout based on a bunch of rules that’ll generate a palette.

And I’m looking at the words, and if there’s a word like make or PHP or something that actually means something that I can attach to one of the 40 icons that I’ve got, it’ll use that. But otherwise, I’ve been looking at Bauhaus artists, and getting inspiration. They’re some of my favorite designers and artists.

So I’m trying to bring that through and use that really geometric kind of idea that a lot of those guys — Kandinsky and those kind of guys — used; trying to tease out the layout rules that they used, and see if I can reinter them back into a single graphic that keeps regenerating itself — I guess for each article.

So, if you give it the same information, you’ll get the same drawing every time.

David [16:08]:

I am looking forward to reading the article that you are definitely going to write about that.

Alex

Yeah, it’s coming along slowly. You don’t want to make it too complicated, or else no one will be able to understand what you’re doing, and it’s really hard to explain.

So, I think actually it’s a really useful thing when you’re writing — and when you’re designing things that you’re going to write about, because you know you’re going to have to explain it — you have to try to make it simple when you build it, so you can explain it!

It’s almost like a factor that pulls things back to a reasonable level, which is actually useful for the design, I think.

David:

Has that approach — the fact you have to think about how you’re going to explain these things — changed the way you develop?

Alex:

Yeah, definitely, and it’s something that I’m pushing on to when I edit and I work with the authors.

A lot of the time, people will even just explain things in a way that’s got lots of detail and is correct, but sometimes there’s five things that might be in that particular sentence, and they’re all correct, but there’s only two that are really useful — and the others are just getting in the way, and cluttering up the sentence.

So that whole idea is actually something that writing has done. I think that Hemingway talks about robust writing and vigorous writing and simplifying. I think he said something like, You have to know all the parts of a story before you start writing it. You have to know all the details. You can’t skim and pretend that stuff doesn’t matter, but you can’t put all of that into the story. You have to know it before you start, but you have to choose the parts of the story and leave the other stuff almost below the water for that to work. And neither of those approaches — either missing stuff or trying to jam it all in — actually works for good writing. So I think that actually works for coding and for all sorts of other things.

So, it’s definitely a principle that I think writing has taught me, and I bring it into design and even the coding stuff that I do. There’s a lot that Hemingway can teach you, I think, about things other than writing.

David [18:15]:

I think that there was a JavaScript book published a couple of years back, by Angus Croll, called If Hemingway Wrote JavaScript — about the way the different authors would approach the writing of their code.

Alex:

I’ve seen that book, yeah. Adam has it here, so I had a flick through it. And yeah, I believe it’s got Shakespeare and some other authors in it as well.

David:

One of the things I like about your articles is you don’t limit yourself to the classical technical design problems or even code design problems. You have articles about how to write, how to deal with copyright issues.

Alex:

Yeah, absolutely. As I said, I think when I was limiting myself to the kinds of topics that were directly related to CSS, I was getting panicky about finding things to write about.

So, if it’s just something that I would read, and I would think, Wow, that’s really interesting, or That’s something that’s useful for me, or That’s something that I’ve learned this week, and I didn’t know it and it’s made my life a bit better, then I’m usually sure that there’s someone out there that’s going to find that useful.

So, if I can just put the ruler over it and say That’s worthwhile, I’ll write an article about it. I’m willing to be told off if someone writes me and says, That’s not about design! [Laughs] That’s fine.

Tim:

So, I would imagine you’ve seen the web continually taking on new challenges and being able to accomplish new tasks. Do you see the scope of what the web can handle reaching its peak, or do you think that we’re going to continue to find new things that the web can do that we’ve never even imagined before?

Alex [19:55]:

I think we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of how far we can push things.

Part of me longs for the early 2000s, where, as a sort of designer/coder, you could almost design and do everything yourself. You were the coder, you were the back-end guy. I used to write PHP in amongst that, and some JavaScript. And being across everything was kind of cool, and now things have become so complicated and powerful that we’ve got UX people just handling small parts, and designers that hand off to front-end people.

And I miss that a little bit. But I think the really cool thing about where we are right now is that a hell of a lot of the articles that we wrote during the mid 2000s, and even the good articles that weren’t ours — the Tantek Çeliks, the Inmans and the Davidsons (Mike Davidson) — these sort of guys were writing, and girls were writing, articles to fill holes. They were basically needing to be geniuses to get the spec to work. And everyone was thinking, Ah, this thing is broken. How can we work incredible magic to jam Flash into a text field to give us the ability to make that a font that we want to use?

I mean, it’s a pretty ridiculously simple thing — I want this particular font on this page, why can’t I do it? And the hacks that we were doing with JavaScript — sticking Flash — they were mad genius sort of stuff, but they were war crimes in other way!

So, we were sending our best brains to solve really stupid problems that we had to solve, unfortunately. 2010 was probably where browsers and the web got to a stage where we’d solved most of the stupid problems, and the browsers had solved them anyway, and IE disappeared. And now we’ve got our best brains solving all the great … Look at responsive design: the media query thing had been in the spec for a fair while, but it was probably around 2009–10 that it became a reality. You could use JavaScript before that; I remember people in the mid 2000s writing stuff that checked the page width, but no one really did it.

But the development we’ve seen in the way that we use responsive design and so many other areas, now that we don’t have to worry about plugging holes and filling in some of the crazy inadequacies of web browsers. I think we’ve still got at least another five years of really just pushing the current technology to see how far it can go, and I’m sure we’re going to get a lot more technology in that five years.

So, I think we’ve still got quite a lot of runway in front of us.

David [22:56]:

I don’t think there’s any doubt of that.

So, if you were starting off in your web career today, or for people out there who are, where would you put your focus, knowing all the things you know now?

Alex:

Ooooh, that’s a tough one. I think JavaScript … If you’re a designer that knows how to use JavaScript, I think that would be an incredible thing, because it’s such a wide area, and there’s so much stuff going on in that area.

And most of the people that are writing JavaScript are obviously not from a design background. So, I’d like to see people with design thinking that could actually it apply it a little bit better in an area like JavaScript — because it starts in-server, and goes all the way through to the front, and you can even take it outside of the browser. And at least when I go to conferences, that’s the area that people are hanging indoors to watch the talks on, and that kind of thing.

And I guess UX is the area that was nothing five years ago, and it’s an area that people are advertising a lot of those positions. And it’s something that has an element of social and an element of design. You’ve really got to think about the way that people think, and talk, and use things. So, I think there’s a lot of people that may have not necessarily been great designers in terms of drawing; they mightn’t have had pen skills, but they’ve got a lot of social skills that actually I think travel into the the UX area really well.

So, I think there’s certainly work in that area. It’s pretty interesting, and pays pretty well I think, too. So, I think JavaScript and UX would be probably the two areas.

David [24:39]:

That makes a lot of sense. So how can our listeners find you online?

Alex:

You can certainly sign up to the SitePoint Design newsletter. Probably three out of four things that I write for the newsletter end up on the site. So if you’re around on a Thursday or a Friday, you’ll probably see the piece that I wrote the night before (Wednesday night) that went out in the newsletter. (Well, that would be Wednesday morning for most people!)

I’m @alexmwalker on Twitter. If you are a designer, or you’ve got ideas, certainly drop me a line, because we’re always looking for new content.

David:

Okay. Alex, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a real treat.

Alex:

Thank you very much, David and Tim. It’s been a lot of fun.


David [25:32]:

So, wow. I’m amazed. I didn’t realize: we were talking with Alex Walker, and his career goes back almost as far as my career in web development.

Tim:

What I found most inspiring about his career and the way he approaches the web is just the multitude of areas he pulls inspiration from. And I think whether you work in design, or UX, or you strictly write bash scripts for servers, you can pull inspiration from so many places other than just the web. And I think that’s something that I know personally I need to take with me whenever I’m working on the web: just to remind myself I can pull inspiration from absolutely everywhere.

David:

Absolutely. And he also came into his career from a print publishing background, and brought it into the web. So he saw that transition happen. And I love how he talked about the way everybody in the late 1990s wanted to write those CD-ROMs in Shockwave Flash — or in Macromedia Director I guess at that time.

Tim:

Yeah. And it’s funny, because you can’t fault those people who are in that stage, and they’re like, All right, I am forced to switch careers. Let me pick what seems to be the thing that’s gonna be next … — which I’m sure everybody thought, All right, CD-ROMs is next. We’ve gone from print, now it’s programming these CDs.

But Alex was fortunate enough to see through that, and say, I think doing stuff for the web is the next big thing. And that’s an interesting and tough situation to be in, when you are forced to transition careers, and you have to predict the future.

David [27:21]:

That was one of the reasons I was interested in his answer to the question about what people will be focused on now, if they were starting their careers. And I like the direction he took that in — the whole UX design with a coding perspective.

Tim:

Yeah, I see the importance of that — especially since, at my company, we have a UX director, and there are a lot of times that we’ll work on a project that we think is sound and really good, and he’ll come in and say, Here’s a case wherein we have a user, and they’re thinking about this one thing, and they’re using your application, and those two things can clash. And it’s always this set of events we’ve never thought about, because it’s not from a pure code perspective.

It’s also considering the attitude and the mindset of the person using your product — which is a thing that I, as just someone who writes code, very often forget.

David:

It also feels like something that has a timeless quality about it. Because, unlike the flavor of the month — CD-ROMs, whatever that happens to be — that’s the sort of thing that you can focus on, and it’s always going to have a relevance.

Tim:

O yeah, definitely.

David:

In fact, it makes me think right now about all of the things people are focusing on in terms of the languages and the frameworks that people use, and how much volatility there is around that. A couple of years ago it was Backbone, and then it was Angular, and now it’s React. Where do you put your attention?

Tim:

Yeah, it was very interesting. I noticed when Angular first started to become this is now how you write code: you use Angular, I would see a lot of people putting hashtag #AngularDeveloper in their Twitter bios. And it always seemed a little bit weird to me, because it’s not the web. It’s a subset of a subset of a language that you use to write for the web. And, basing your career around Angular, which was the CD-ROM of JavaScript frameworks at the time —

David:

[Laughing] The Angular folks are not going to like that analogy!

Tim [29:24]:

And I’m very sorry, and if you have #AngularDeveloper in your Twitter bio, that’s nothing against you. I’m sure you’re great. I don’t even know how to use Angular. I looked at it at one point.

But anyways, the point being, it’s about the web and learning language fundamentals — for me, at least.

And I’ve always felt that if you learn the languages and the fundamentals themselves, as deeply and as thoroughly as possible, the tools and the frameworks will come a lot easier.

David:

I think that those are also the most interesting articles when I read about them. I was looking back at some of Alex’s writings, and he’s got writings on SitePoint that go back to 2005, 2006. And there are things like this is how you get around this IE7 bug. [Chuckling] And right now, it’s not particularly relevant to know how you get around an IE7 bug. But in later years, most of his articles have a much more timeless quality, and they apply to things that we’re going to be doing for decades — in terms of how we write and how we present our information.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. That reminds me of an article I was reading today about the upcoming service worker specification, and how you have this very low-level API. And the author was saying it’s too low level, and it’s like, I want to do this one simple thing, and it’s like using a sledgehammer to crack open a walnut.

And, while it seems at the current point in time that you only want to do x, y, z with this thing — that makes sense that it should be simpler. But thinking about that same idea, but from a long-term perspective, you want the tools and the platforms that you used to build for the web to be very low level, and very deep, and very rich. Because then they can be applied to more than what you just have planned for, right now.

David [31:28]:

I think that’s an excellent point. And it ties right back into what Alex was talking about too — about how, now when he creates something, he’s always thinking about how he’s going to write to present it, and it forces him to think in that much more broad frame.

Tim:

Yeah, that was refreshing to hear. I’ve noticed myself doing that a lot too. For developers that are on my team, when I’m writing a piece of code, I will often pause and think, I have one too many ternary operators here, or, I could just break this out and add just one comment. And while it doesn’t look as cool and edgy — like, O, you used two lines on this super complicated algorithm — it’s more about people. Because the code that you write, someone else is going to have to look at. And if they can’t understand it, they’re going to do exactly what I would do in the same situation — just tear it all down and spend the day fixing it. Where I could have just looked up some documentation, or just looked at the code that was not terse and well commented, and saved money and time while improving the lifecycle of the project that I’m working on.

David:

Now let the choir sing amen! to that.

[Laughter]

Although I will say, I do love my ternary operators, and I like people who can read those.

Tim:

Me too. They’re one of my favorite things.

[Laughter]

Those and short circuits — with the double ampersands.

[Laughter]

David [32:55]:

All right, I think we’re getting to the end of this show then. I think this was a really great episode.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. I learned a lot, and I’m excited to apply a lot of these concepts to my daily development.


Well, thank you so much for listening, everybody. We always enjoy getting to talk technology with all of you.

David:

We would also like to thank SitePoint.com, and our producers, Adam Roberts and Ophelie Lechat. Please feel free to send us your comments on Twitter — @versioningshow — and give us a rating on iTunes.

Let us know how we’re doing.

Tim:

We’ll see you next time, and we hope you enjoyed this version.

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