Fronteers — vakvereniging voor front-end developers

On power & responsibility by Robert Jan Verkade


Most of the presentations at Fronteers, they are about our profession, and contain lots of examples of our daily work.

This presentation won't contain a word of HTML, not a curly brace of JavaScript, or a semicolon of CSS.

The next 50 minutes, we won't talk about markup.

I'm sorry.

But what we will be discussing is your role in a web project, and in web teams, and in particular, the responsive front-ender.

Like I said before, six years ago I was at the first Fronteers Conference.

I chaired a panel of clients who used web standards in their projects.

At that time, there was a very rare situation, clients who expected or even demanded templates that complied with web standards.

A project briefed that explicitly asked for things like accessibility, HTML, and CSS.

That was a rare beast indeed.

The discipline of front-end development, itself, was still in its infancy, but with an agency at the clients' side.

About 80 people attended the first Frontier's conference.

And now, only six years later, about seven times as many people are here.

And that's a great thing.

A lot has happened since its first conference.

Front-end became a respected profession.

And what we deliver has become more professional and more standardized.

And the money is good.

Well, there's nothing to worry about, right? In the recent years, I have step-by-step drifted further and further away from front-ending.

I've lost my appetite for building templates, and partly because I developed an almost physical resistance against fixing templates for buggy browsers.

But also partly because I was really, really fed up with the front-end world.

Judging other people and their works seemed to be playing a larger and larger role in our profession.

And I don't like to be told what to do.

I have my own motivations, my own sense of professional honor.

You don't have to tell me what to do.

Woody Allen says, showing up is 80% of life.

He means that if you want to do something, you should actually do it.

You should actually get to work.

Showing up is one thing, but taking pride in your work, that's another.

You should aim to deliver quality work.

And to achieve that quality, you need principles to guide you to.

Good professional principles are the mark of a true professional, not rules and regulations that some official body has come up to and made mandatory.

A true professional keeps up to date on her developments in her field, uses her knowledge and skills to deliver the best product possible under the circumstances.

And a true professional delivers her work within the agreed time and budget.

One of the principles true professionals should stick to is no moaning.

No bitching, no public complaining, please.

Almost everybody in this room has enough work, good work, under good circumstances, in which you get to use your intelligence and skills, which pays the bills nicely.

I notice, though, that are still a lot of moaning in our profession, both online and offline.

Of course, I'm not talking about all the smart and exceedingly handsome people over here in this room, but all the others, they complain a lot, especially when they're talking about back-enders, project managers, or well, those are quite really silly people, clients.

Those people are always behind times.

They have actually no clue what the million possibilities are.

They waste money.

They come up with ridiculous deadlines.

Well, does that sound familiar to you? I do think so.

However, the people you can really not work with, according to some very vocal front-enders-- yes, I'm talking to you, Vasilis-- are visual designers, the internet decorators.

Boy, oh, boy, those guys don't understand the internet at all.

They jump straight from designing brochures to doing web design.

They come up with some pretty pictures in Photoshop, send them over to the client, and the client, oh, he just loves them.

And you, you are just expected to make it all happen.

Why don't those designers understand you? Aren't they interested in what you want to tell them? Or do they not just understand what you're talking about? As soon as you talk to them, about web performance, or tell them about usefulness of working in the command line, the eyes' of the designer goes all black and glossy.

But be honest, you may have the same reaction as when an accountant tells you what his interesting job is, and how you should you do your job to make his job possible.

And you can't blame an accountant for being enthusiastic about his work.

Probably that's an excellent thing.

I think it's likely that there are conferences, like this one, for accountants.

With a party the night before, a party the night after, and lots and lots of discussions during the conference.

And that's really exciting, but only if you're an accountant.

Accountants form a group with its own language and their own manners.

Front-enders, they do the same thing.

They have their own language and manners too, their own culture.

And there's nothing wrong with that, that is until the point where that own culture becomes a closed culture, a closed group.

Closed groups have been around for ages, all around the world.

And the people in such closed groups often don't even notice that the group they belong to is a closed group.

Often they think that their group is very open and very welcoming.

For instance, don't we share lots of information in the front-end world? As soon as someone has come up with some nifty new technique, it's shared with everybody.

But is the front-end really as open as you think? Let's take a look at how the group of the people we know here has started.

I think that at media conference in 2005 was very important for the European front-end scene.

2005, that was the age of Jeffrey Zeldman, Douglas Bowman, Patrick Griffith, and lots of others.

That group was at the forefront of development, like wording according web standards.

A relatively small group of people, who considered front-end work a serious profession.

It would be fair to say then that group was an elite.

And the word elite often has a negative taste for people.

They think elite means a group that keep other people out.

That's not what I consider to be an elite.

An elite to me is the people who are at the forefront, a small group.

And looking at it historically, an influential group.

A group that makes its mark.

In order to belong to an elite, you have to be very good at something.

You have to be a front runner, someone who excels at his or her chosen field.

If you are part of the elite, that's nothing to be ashamed of.

You have probably worked very, very hard to get to that point.

A healthy elite is the avant garde in society, when talking about art, culture, and economics.

A healthy elite is also aware, as they say it in English, noblesse oblige.

If you are a part of the elite, you have a respon-- Elite will effectively stay ahead of the pack.

With a little luck, you also take care of the people right behind you.

You need those people.

Their existence is the reason you, the elite, exist.

In a world of front-ending, getting a place in the elite isn't actually that hard.

HTML is a simple language.

CSS is easy.

And even JavaScript-- I'm not mentioning the presentation before-- isn't that hard to learn.

If you apply yourself, you can reach a ninja or rock star status quite quickly, or at least you can call yourself a ninja or a rock star.

And all of that has a very inhibiting effect.

[LAUGHTER] I'm sorry, she's a great thinker of our time.

Staying within your own circle of people is a normal thing to do.

That's where people know you.

That's where you're influential, even if you're not a part of the elite.

Your own group is a safe place to be.

A place that they will speak your language.

And the people wear clothes you recognize.

And you share the same customs as all the other people around you.

If you look at it this way, it seems logical that organized front-enders hide in their own group, safe and warm.

And you know what to expect from each other.

You know that you will get the recognition for the work you do and the way you do it.

But this does lead into the danger that a group will turn into a clique.

And a clique is an entire beast and an elite.

An elite holds onto noblesse oblige.

You hold the advanced position, which gives you the responsibility to use knowledge and your network to help others.

But a clique turns away from the masses.

It focuses on its internal workings, in which turn leads to the danger of tunnel vision.

For instance, the group you are in now has too little diversity, I think.

Most of the people here they are white.

They are male.

They had a BA or an MBA education, and probably aged between 25 and 35.

If there are any front-enders here above that age, like me, they probably didn't get a formal education for this profession.

A homogeneous group, in which it's safe to voice an opinion that's the same as the leader's opinion.

We should open that group up, invite other disciplines and professionals.

The front-end world could really use a lot more diversity.

This would lead into new opinions and more creativity.

By letting more influences and opinions in our group, you'll get a better, more rounded view of the real problems you're dealing with.

Influences from the outside of your own group are exactly the thing that keeps you sharp.

Outside influences force you to reexamine your opinions.

They make you reevaluate your positions.

They make you explain your assumptions, and also readjust your opinions.

You have to keep explaining what you do and why.

And at the moment, you are living in a pretty close, non-diverse group.

And that may be the exact reason why your manager, your designer, your customer, or colleague doesn't understand you.

They probably do not understand the customs front-enders have in their group, the language you speak among themselves.

Discussions about tabs versus spaces, ampersands that cause your HTML not to validate, peer-to-peer networking.

Also the professionals you work with and your team see the pictures of conferences you attend.

Probably conferences your manager has paid for.

They see you live and work in a world that's totally different from their own.

In a world that's sometimes hard to take seriously.

And at the same time, they get the impression that your attention is somewhere else when they're talking about business goals for your customer or for your own company.

This means the gap between your world and their world is getting bigger and bigger.

And meanwhile, you see that the people take the wrong decisions in your projects, sites are getting heavier, more and more HTTP requests, separate mobile websites instead of responsive sites.

But if you talk to your clients about the evil of HTTP request, well you get that glossy look again.

You're speaking a foreign language.

If you want to see fewer HTTP requests, you will have to explain why that's important, and what the value and the results will be.

Your message will probably be more effective if you show your clients some numbers about costs and benefits, just like your manager does when she wants to get a project off the ground.

Everybody wants to know what the results will be from doing something.

Explain costs and benefits to your coworkers and clients, but stay away from the technical talk.

Use a good old-fashioned PowerPoint deck, preferably with a chart or something like that.

And talk like a manager.

Marry yourself to that manager.

You have to take the initiative to start explaining stuff to people.

Don't wait for them to come to you for an explanation.

Show up.

Go out there and talk to people.

That's what Woody Allen meant when he said showing up is 80% of life.

It's not just about what story you tell to people, it's also about how you tell the story.

When you have something important to say, that t-shirt and that badly fitting pair of jeans should stay in the closet.

Earlier on, we were talking about accountants.

They wear ties.

They get taken seriously by the management.

And I will certainly not force you to wear a tie.

But I do think that's it's a good idea to consider what signal your clothes give.

Mark Zuckerberg.

Whoa, he's very big.

He can get away with a closet filled with 20, 40, or who knows how many identical gray t-shirts and hoodies.

But there's only one Mark Zuckerberg.

And the moment I walked onto this stage, you made an assessment of who I am.

In one second, you created an image of who I am in your head, based on how I look, before I even said a word.

And mind you, I'm not here to tell you that the clothes are the only difference between an amateur and a professional.

My point is only that a real conversation is a lot easier if you don't start out with a disadvantage.

You make life a lot easier for yourself when you adapt to your surroundings.

Back to Zuckerberg, in the movie, The Social Network, about the early days of Facebook, one of the main roles was played by Justin Timberlake.

If we look at him, we see that he knows to adapt to the part he plays, the story he wants to tell at that moment, both as an actor and as an entertainer.

Timberlake doesn't shy away from putting on some weird outfits for a video, if that's what he wants to achieve.

But he also knows that it is not the outfit he should wear when he wants to be taken seriously.

He's a chameleon, but also uniquely himself.

Your role as a front-ender is a unique role, itself.

You are the bridge, the bridge between the back-end and your site's visitor.

You are the bridge between the design and site's visitor.

You are the bridge between the business and the site's visitor.

Clearly, you are at the center of everything.

You are the axis everything revolves around.

Each link in the side project needs you.

But if you don't speak the language of the people you work with, and if you're hard to talk to, and a complainer, you will not be a part of the meetings where the real decisions get taken.

Something has to change in your role as a front-ender.

And you may not feel the urgency yet, since almost all of you have work and a paycheck.

But if you don't end up there, there's a real danger that you're going to end up your life like a dodo.

In his book Metaskills, Marty Neumeier describes the life cycle of any craft or profession, the robot curve.

And it goes like this.

At the top, there is creative work.

And I have to tell you, I'm a little bit of the old side.

I'm from the age of Zeldman, Eric Meyer, and those guys.

It was the time of lots of experiments.

Front-end work was a unique skill in those days.

And if you were a customer who wanted to work with the giants of front-ending, not me, Zeldman and Meyer, you probably had to pay a large fee.

Unique work by unique people has high value.

Slightly on the creative work there's skilled work.

A large part of your work today is in the segment.

And we have standards.

And we have best practices.

We need well-trained professionals who know their standards and best practices and can apply them to projects.

This is a perfect place to be.

There will always be an appeal on your creativity and lots of knowledge will be shared.

Try to stay in this segment, and you won't become obsolete.

When skilled work gets standardize further, you need less intellectual power to be able to do the work.

In the field of desktop browsers, you can see this at work this moment.

The icky browsers are disappearing, even if it's slowly.

And everybody can learn those easy languages, like HTML and CSS.

And this means that this type of work can also be done in low wage countries or by people with a lot less training or education than you've got.

We may have been seeing the beginning of a problem here.

Once rote work crystallizes into patterns it can be-- Oh, I stepped on the-- [APPLAUSE] Thank you, thank you very much.

Questions? Now I have to ask for a technician to help me out.

Now you've seen all the slides.

Could somebody get up to stage and do a little dance for the meantime? Sorry.

Come on.


[LAUGHTER] Hang on.


[APPLAUSE] It was a new technique I'm trying.

There goes your Q and A.

[APPLAUSE] Well, we're at the end of the robot curve.

And it's called once rote work crystallizes into patterns it can be performed by robots or software.

And look at the automobile industry, for instance.

It used to employ lots and lots of workers at the conveyor belt.

But now, a car factory is mostly an army of robot arms that do the job with great speed and great precision.

Now think of your own work, think of how lucky you are that Macromedia, and later on, Adobe we're not able to develop good software that would have made your job redundant.

They've tried, but have never, never really succeeded.

Now comes the part-- I'm clicking deploy.

OK, it's going great.

So what else does robot curve mean to you and for your work? The answer is simple.

You want to stay in the skilled segment, because the lower you are on the curve, the more dependent you are on what's happening higher up.

If you are in a low part of the curve and the market demands change, you'll be the first to be thrown out.

And most of clients and employers don't want to work with robots at this moment.

And they don't even really want to a quick cheap resources.

They've tried.

And they've noticed that working with people in India or the Ukraine, in many cases, means that they will have to do a lot more work themselves.

The clients notice they have to document the hell out of projects, and explain every single little thing that needs to happen.

And clients don't want to work with people who think, people who use their intelligence and creativity to solve problems.

They need people who can work well in a team, who can and will adapt to the ever-changing circumstances.

And so, OK, I think the problem is clear now.

Now it's time to start working on the solution to this problem.

How will we do this? How can we get more influence in a project? How will you achieve that people around you see your role correctly? See you as that link between engineering, design, business goals, the customer, and the customer's customer? How will you stay away from becoming the project dodo? And how will you stay at the top of the robot curve? And it all comes down to three things, collaboration, creativity, and communication.

And I guess there are a number of people here in this room who really hate the word, but I really would like to congratulate you, you are a designer.

Yes, you.

A front-ender users creativity to analyze a problem, find a good solution for that problem, and then implement the solution.

And that's exactly what a designer does, analyze a problem, develop a good solution for it, and it works well in the real world.

If you'd rather see yourselves a craftsman than as a designer, well be my guest.

Any good craftsmen is capable of getting the best results for each assignment he's given.

And creativity is key to all of this.

While a plumber can often get his job done by himself, we can't do that in our profession.

Creativity is not enough.

You have to know how to collaborate.

The web designer searches for the right solution for a problem together with the rest of the team or the client.

And that's exactly what you should do to stay away from the bottom end of the robot curve.

This means you should communicate well.

You have to know how to listen, how to get a good overview of what the real problem really is.

And you have to select the best solution, assess it, and then iterate on it.

This means you do not only need skills like knowing the latest info on HTML5 elements.

It goes much further than that.

You need softer skills, like being a good listener and having empathy.

Oh, my God, soft skills.

Yeah, I know.

You are an analytical.

You are a problem solver.

But I think your work will get better if you use more empathy.

Your solutions will become better if you understand the problem more deeply.

Your client has to reach a target.

She may have promised her manager that the project will decrease the organization's cost, which means that her project will increase the profits for your organization.

And it's probable that she has agreed on numbers for those decreased costs.

And she will be held accountable for it.

Your client has received a goal from her manager on the project, and had determined a deadline and formed a project team.

That team will have to get things done.

The agreed upon target must be reached.

This shows you that your clients have their own interests in the project.

You really should pay attention to this.

And you have to have empathy for your clients goals, because if you don't, you're an obstacle in the project.

You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.

And it's a great thing that you have such an excellent set of analytical skills, but they aren't worth very much if you don't emphasize with other people's needs.

Like I said before, I noticed it seems very, very fashionable to whine about visual designers.

But I'd like to come out in support of this group of very important professionals.

You could learn a lot from good designers.

Graphic designers have a long tradition in which they are thought to find the best solution for the client's question.

They have been trained to listen to the client's wishes and needs, and in finding the best solution for the client's real problem, which is often not stated in the briefing.

Designers often have very good persuasive powers, the skill to explain to the customer why this solution is the right one and why the client should choose it.

And this is a great accomplishment.

Graphic designers make visual stuff, something anyone can see.

This means anyone can have an opinion of what they have made.

And I use the word opinion, but any designers here know that I what I really mean is detailed criticism and instructions.

Designers often get designs back from their clients with a little drawing on it or even Photoshop documents, in which the design has been improved.

Have you ever, ever run into that anything like this in your work as a front-ender? So you, front-ender, you may think that designers don't get you, but the reality may be a little me a bit more complicated than that.

Maybe the client's expectations weren't managed very well in the project.

Maybe your corporate culture is such that designers are only allowed to be the human colored pencils in the project workflow.

Maybe there are two floors and three hallways between the designers and the front-enders.

And maybe you've given them hardly the opportunity to try and understand you.

Maybe you are the one that keeps being Mr. Know-It-All in every

single little conversation, and keeps harping about all the things that are impossible on the web.

Now I want to go back for a bit to the beginning of my talk.

I am pretty allergic to people telling me what to do and how to do my job.

But what I do want to know is what principles we will stick to.

Designers, they are professionals too.

Have you ever, ever wondered why they are able to keep all sorts of details in there heads about paper types, weight, size, and of finishes, and appear not to understand anything about web? Well probably it's your organization, or your company's policy that keeps them away from this knowledge, or maybe it's even you.

If your designer still doesn't get it, maybe she hasn't been told about the right way.

Maybe you expect too much from a visually inclined person when you showed them a CSS file.

I'm from the age of the Commodore 64.

When I was in school, one hour of very intensive programming in basic yield a little picture of a house of about 11 lines on the screen.

This didn't make me feel computers where a step forward.

I was pretty capable of drawing a house with a pencil and a piece of paper.

And it only took about three seconds.

This meant that I have to wait for something like Microsoft paint.

I had to wait for people who developed a piece of software for me before I could really, really use the computer.

And when I did, I didn't think for one second of how hard or how easy it was for those programmers to make Microsoft Paint.

The stuff worked.

And that's all it interested me.

In that project of Microsoft Paint, that was someone who was able to empathize with another human being, someone who did the hard work of programming to make it easy for someone else, and that's me, who really wanted to do what he really want to do, draw something on a computer.

And that's the same power you, as a front-ender, have.

You can make stuff happen.

You can make it so that things just work, and just work the way people wanted them to work.

You are the center of each project.

You are the access between all the different folks involved, from manager to designer, from back-ender to site's visitor.

But what if you don't get the opportunity to use that creativity of yours? Maybe your manager or client doesn't allow you to make responsive websites.

Maybe your whole process is still focusing on designing stuff for desktop.

If you really find yourself in that situation, it's your responsibility as a professional front-ender to show your client and your boss how much they are missing out on, how many visitors they are not getting because of these decisions, how much money they are leaving on the table.

And as soon as you mention money, most all your clients will perk up and pay attention.

If your employer stands in the way of your professional development, that means you will drift further and further towards the bottom end of the robot curve.

And that's not a good plan.

Time to go somewhere else, I think.

And don't talk to me about the economy being bad and how you can't find a job elsewhere.

You have not been sold into slave labor.

There's always a way out.

You hold the ultimate responsibility for your life and your career.

Five years ago, we didn't do any work for mobile, and most certainly no work for tablets at all.

None of us has any idea what we will be doing over five years.

The field is still developing really, really quickly.

And the only thing you can do is be prepared for the fact that everything will change, and mentally preparing for the uncertainty of not knowing how stuff will change.

None of us knows what will happen.

We're all doing the best job we can.

We lean on strong shoulders and place our trust in sensible people.

You have to do your job to the best of your abilities, according to your professional principles.

And your job is more than building that front-end and dragging your browser window around to check whether stuff is working very well.

The real challenges are bigger than that.

We have to help our clients in a better way, and especially have to help their clients, the visitors to the sites we make.

We have to do our utmost to make stuff we design and build exactly what is expected, and preferably just a little bit more.

And you are the one who makes the possible.

And I have no idea what your job will look like in five years' time.

Maybe everybody has gone to the waterfall Agile-Lean circuit by then, all the Agile studios may have gone back to total waterfall process.

And maybe we're all fed up with mobile too.

I really don't know.

But I do know that it's not enough to be only aware of the things in your own profession, if you want to be a true professional.

If you choose a sharp focus in your work-- as we've seen the presentation before-- a subject in the front-end you really get into, then you can quickly get ahead of the pack in that subject.

You'll be above average in that way.

And I think that would be a great thing to do.

If you're ahead of the pack already, excellent, excellent.

Keep it up.

Stay ahead.

Stay curious about the latest developments.

Keep learning.

And if you develop a broad interest in other related professions, you'll be the welcome addition to any team.

Being above average is a great thing.

Being able to collaborate is another great thing.

Showing an interest in other people's work helps you with becoming more creative, more communicative, and a better collaborate.

Have you ever read a business book? Have you attended a UX conference? Have you schooled yourself in the art of project management? Or taken a course in drawing? If you listen to your project manager and his project manager reasoning, your clients' wishes, your designers' needs, and your back-enders questions, and you also keep in mind that real people who will be using your websites, then you will facilitate awesome projects.

And you'll certainly be above average.

And because you keep up-to-date with your profession, adjust you opinion when presented with a good argument, and always put quality over quantity, you will always stay above average.

Don't just built adaptive and response, be adaptive and responsive.

You are the axis any project turns on.

You have known this in your bones for a long time.

And I'm here today to tell you that with this great power must also comes great responsibility.

So grab those responsibilities from now on.

And please act and live like a real professional in all circumstances.

To end up, I hope there were some points in this talk you agreed with.

And I expect there are some points you didn't.

But in any case, thanks everybody for your attention.

[APPLAUSE] Yes, that was great.

Thank you very much.


All right.

And now I'm out of water.

Yeah, please do.

I need one.

OK, some great discussion happening-- OK, that's OK.

---during that.

It was fantastic.

I didn't see anything of that.

So one question that got raised is do you feel like potentially front-enders might want to remain elitist, and not allow others into understand the culture? One way I see this is that a lot of times using jargon, using language that other people don't understand, you feel smarter, right? Yep.

And you feel empowered because you own this thing.

How do we mitigate that? Actually, I don't know.

I think you have to really be prepared to talk to other people.

And you talk to them in a non-technical way.

When you arrive at a conference, as this one, you will get a lot of chances to talk very technical.

And this is not the way some conference like this is the way to invite other people from other disciplines.

Because a graphic designer, he or she, wouldn't understand very much of the last presentation.

And 50 minutes, hmm, what am I doing here? So you can get your technical stuff in your own group.

But you have to open up, I think.

One question I was thinking about, you talked a lot about soft skills, language, clothes, things that we need to add to our skill set and things that we maintain.

And I look at those and I think of them, and many of them they take a time investment to really make happen.

And I kind of think about what needs to give.

What can we swap out that we're currently doing? So do you see anything that front-enders spend time on now that isn't as valuable? Something that they could drop their focus on? Moaning.

[LAUGHTER] Actually, the moaning stuff, you have to get out very quickly.

Stop it.

Please, stop it.

Is it just a matter of like accepting the pain that you have to deal with? Yeah.

It's actually the First World problems.

You have a good job.


[LAUGHTER] Come on.

You're not thrown down in a dungeon, and well work, work.

No, you have a very nice job.

So act like you have a very nice job.


[APPLAUSE] I like it.

I was wondering, are there any-- actually, the collaboration between designers and developers.

In like the classic role, the hand-off between the two, is like here's my PSD, here's the mock.

And that was like the classic kind of hand off.

What is the ideal sort of collaboration between designer and developer? You should stay next to each other.

You should sit-- you're the designer, I'm the developer.

We sit next to each other and we work along.

And that's OK, because it's very hard for a designer who is not in web design a very long time and know that the size you're working with aren't very flexible.

And that's a hard thing to get.

And you have some wishes about grits and somethings like that.

So understand those designers needs, as well as your own for your own profession, I think.

I'm curious like what-- because basically you're saying that proximity has a lot to do with things.

Being next to each other you learn a lot, much better collaboration.

I'm curious what like the ideal kind of layout across designers, developers, PM, what that agency would look like.

I think nowadays we had some waterfall process.

And everybody's trying to do some Agile stuff.

And now we are working with Agile stuff, and we know, oh, that's not going very well, actually, because the designers are always one step behind, or they have to do their job at the same time the front-end and the back-end development is going on.

That's impossible so we have to get a new workflow for that.

And I think Stephen Hay had made a good book for it.

Yeah, absolutely.

Yeah, Stephen Hay's book on this is fantastic.

OK, well this has been great.

And you've given everyone a lot think about.


It's been fantastic.

So thank you very much.

Have a nice lunch.


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