5 Reasons Front-End Developers’ Lives Are Shorter

Photo Credit: Chris Fleming

The greater the applied stress range, the shorter the life. –somewhere on wikipedia

Maybe it isn’t a proven scientific fact, but it is common knowledge that front-end developers deals with way more stress than back-end devs do.  These people, working with CSS, HTML, JavaScript and all that is contained in a web page are becoming increasingly jealous of their back-end counterparts’ quality of life.  Here are the top 5 reasons why:

Compile time (or lack of)

This an outstanding source of stress.  When you burst out a big chunk of code, you guys hit F5 and see the result, right?  Not working? Get back to work.  Now.

Back-end developers can always rely on compile time (or more contemporarily, build time) to relax a bit.  They can soothingly peek at their EVE online character skill training queue, answer a couple of tweets, or practice their vi kung fu.

Source code management

In my experience, front-end devs aren’t at ease with SCM (subversion, Git, etc).  That means when there’s a fire, a hard drive failure or a giant dinosaur spits fire on your laptop, you lose everything.  Sure, there’s a copy on the server, but that’s not how you do things (and what if the dinosaur also ate the server?).  Lots of time lost here, lots of stress.

Web standards

Web standards are a good thing.  But web standards, as they are advertised right now, are a real joke: you still rely on browser maker’s willingness on implementing them.  You still have a lot of tweaks, hacks, and duplicated code to craft.

Standards for back-end programming (JEE, SOAP, SQL, to name a few) are well defined, and mandatory.  The developer can lean on them and blame the product company which failed to implement them correctly (and get congratulated for it because you earned your company free support time).

Have you ever tried calling Microsoft, and open a support ticket for that unsupported CSS thing in IE?

The look

Even the worst snippet of C++ code, if it works, isn’t judged by anyone.  Why?  Nobody understands it. Nobody gets to see the actual code, it’s all 1s and 0s.

On the other hand, you front-end guys have to deal with the judging eyes of everyone in the company.  You have to take all the “Meh. I still don’t like that turquoise” … even if it ‘s the best darn piece of code you ever wrote!  You literarily get stripped of all your intrinsic self-worth.

View source

What if you were in a crowd (a big one, think Tahrir square), and someone removed all your clothes.  Nobody would like that, unless you’re sexually deviant.  That’s what happens when some guy does a right-click -> view source on your code.  Guilt, doubt, fear.

Conclusion

I fear for you guys.  Really.  I could suggest a couple of COBOL books, or Java certification classes, but if you already have a couple of years of experience behind you, I guess it’s a little bit too late.  What might help is if you try yoga, tai-chi, or as a last resort you could try the essential works of Yanni.

Cheers,

JS.
Back-end developer.

The Trends Of Yesteryear And The Trends Of Today

Photo Credit: Ernest

As web developers, we live in a constantly changing world and have to keep up with the latest technologies. Recently we’ve been challenged to adapt to HTML5 and mobile, among other things. Sometimes I find this maddening, but most of the time I welcome it. It means there’s always new stuff to learn, and most importantly that I’m unlikely to get bored.

Along with ephemeral technologies themselves, there’s also ephemeral trends. Though not as fickle and ever-changing as the fashion world, us web developers have our peculiar trends that come and go.

Do you remember graphical visitor counters, web rings, guestbooks, and animated construction worker icons? When I started messing around making websites on the 2MB given to me on my AOL account around 1997, these were all the rage. Most pages in the “Geocities” era of the web had at least one of these components. If they were hip, that is.

Graphical visitor counters are still around in some shape or form, I think most prominently on sites such as eBay. But where there still exist page counters of some sort, it seems they’ve been mostly superseded by text counters (“This entry has been viewed X times.”).

Web rings were kind of like free advertising for your site. You submitted a banner advertisement of your website to be shown on other sites related to yours. The only catch was that you yourself had to embed the web ring on your site to shows ads for other sites. This is closely related to the idea of a “link exchange”.

A guestbook was simply a place where visitors could write a simple “hello, I enjoyed your page” type of message, just like a real-life guestbook. These have mostly been superseded by more sophisticated commenting systems that allow users to comment on specific articles.

I also remember frames being all the rage. When I started to learn HTML, my father also started to pick it up, and he seemed to learn the frames syntax pretty well, but it was something I never quite understood, mostly because I was afraid of the syntax and was convinced there were simpler ways to build a page. You can guess that I’ve been happy that frames are now deprecated (iframes still exist, but those are a bit different).

And who could forget animated construction workers! Before Geocities shut down for good, someone amassed a collection of these guys and entombed them in a sort of virtual mausoleum. (Ok, apologies for the overdramatic language).

Those were the trends of yesteryear, and it’s easy (and fun!) to mock them, but at one time they were taken seriously. So what are the things we’re doing today that will likely be looked back upon as passing trends?

The now fading “Web 2.0” era of the web seemed to feature sites full of rounded corners and shiny gradients. As a result we now have these built into CSS3, which is quite handy actually. We’ll certainly still see plenty of rounded corners and gradients, but but it seems to me we’re slowly getting away from the paradigm where we think of these as being the thing that makes pages “cool”.

Another relic of Web 2.0 seems to be the “tag cloud”. While it’s a cool visualization of tags and their relative importance highlighted by the text size, it seems to be a passing trend. But it still definitely exist as a buzzword.

Social media buttons have been around for a while, and personally I’ve never liked these. I guess this is my main reason for hoping this will be a passing trend. Like everything else, these can be overdone, and they have been overdone all over the web. It’s not uncommon to see an array of icons alongside an article, but it’s unclear to me why it would be easier to hunt the icon of my favorite service (Reddit, Digg, etc.) and submit it through there. Far easier, it seems, to simply copy and paste the URL.

Facebook “Like” buttons. These are now all over the web, and sometimes they’re proudly displayed next to my Facebook picture. It still shocks me while browsing CNN or any other site and seeing my mugshot appear at the bottom of the page. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t like this. This is another thing I hope is a passing trend.

Give it a few years, but whatever turns out to be the passing trends will be clear in hindsight. And it will simply remind us once again that most everything is short-lived, no matter how popular it seemed at the time. Jump on the bandwagon while it lasts, but don’t overstay your welcome, and get ready to jump off the bandwagon when the time comes!

Getting Started with Illustration

Photo Credit: Chris Metcalf

Last year I shared a page in my sketchbook on how to be a good illustrator. It took me a few years away from drawing professionally to really see the forest for the trees, so I’m sharing some high level wisdom here, expanding on that page, I think will benefit both aspiring illustrators and casual doodlers.

Fledgling artists frequently focus on style, but style won’t mask awkward anatomy or poor perspective. The art you like will certainly influence your own, but that influence should appear organically, not be applied heavy handed. Ray Frenden, an illustrator I respect tremendously, has some wisdom about style on his blog: “Style wise, try not to think about it. If you’re drawing all the time, that will come naturally. You will make the marks that feel right to you. The ones your muscle memory has absorbed and saved and cataloged are the ones that add up to a style.”

Since my time in art school a decade ago, the most meaningful thing I’ve learned about illustration is that successful illustrators are not always the best artists, they are the most consistent. The best thing you can do to improve is to draw as much as possible. Forget being shy, you’re going to throw away a lot of drawings before you get a few you love. Practice can be casual or serious, I recommend a healthy blend of the two to keep things from becoming a chore.

Try checking out some figure drawing classes. Start with classes offering short poses. You’ll find figure drawing at your local college, art school or sometimes even community center or area art studio. It seems like most towns these days have a Dr. Sketchy’s once a month. If you’re a parent who can’t get out of the house, draw your kid stumbling around the living room, they won’t hold a pose for longer than 10-30 seconds so it’s not all that terribly different. Instead of trying to draw everything you see, start with some basic lines and shapes approximating the skeleton. (Spending a little time reading about anatomy will go a long way here.) You can also people watch at the park / mall / subway and draw. After the first few drawings your lines are more fluid and confident, so it’s always a good idea to start any drawing session with a few warm up drawings.

You’ll burn yourself out if you don’t include some fun. Try practicing by doing some stream of consciousness doodles in your sketchbook. Carry a sketchbook everywhere you go! Draw the first things that come to mind, and don’t spend more than a few minutes on each doodle. Draw your dog, your breakfast, your favorite book, a funny outfit someone wore. Fill up a page. You can make it a game and have a friend name random things for you to doodle. Grab a few magazines lying around the house and draw what you see inside. Old National Geographics are great for this! Try to do it without erasing any lines. Do some drawings where you never pick your pencil or pen up from the paper. Get some grey paper and experiment with using the paper as your middle tone, while drawing shadows with a dark pencil and highlights with a white one.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with technique. Maybe you don’t like markers, but you like pencil. Try colored pencil, charcoal, watercolor, pens and different types of paper. Try using a combination, maybe something that makes soft lines and something else that makes hard lines. Don’t avoid a medium just because it’s difficult, I hated gouache the first few times I used it, but once I got the swing I found it to be the most versatile paint for my color work. Try different textured papers.

Scott McCloud said “Do you know that WHAT you put in your panels is potentially far more interesting than how well you DRAW it?”

Drawing and illustration are not the same. An illustration tells a story. Picture two drawings, a baby in its crib, and a baby in its crib with a spider dangling above. These are almost the same image, but change one element and you tell a very different story. Color can change a story too, imagine a family portrait bathed in blue light. Now imagine the same portrait bathed in red light, the feeling and tone of the story changes. Try telling stories with some of your practice drawings, you can draw stories you observe when you’re people watching, or stories you already know.

Lastly, absorb as much illustration as possible! Maybe you like comics, I enjoy anthologies because they offer a wide range of styles and storytelling by artists I may not have seen before. Visit your local comic shop and tell the proprietor what you’re into, they will likely appreciate your enthusiasm and recommend all kinds of relevant books. Start reading some web comics. Illustration Magazine can teach you about the golden age of illustration. Check out some propaganda posters online. Follow some illustrators on Flickr or Dribbble. You can see how different artists solve problems, and get some ideas about line and color.