Episode 167 – Find A Problem To Solve and Then Decide On The Technology To Solve It with Eric Meyer
Eric is also the technical lead for the non-profit organization Rebecca’s Gift and the co-founder of An Event Apart, an interactive conference targeted at designers, developers and front-end experts. He is also the author of several CSS books and the founder of the css-discuss mailing list, as well as a conference speaker.
(1.14) – The very first thing I wanted to ask you about really was the non-profit organization Rebecca’s gifs. Could you maybe give us some background about that organization and your involvement? Eric explains that his daughter, Rebecca, died from brain cancer, at the age of 6.
One of the things that helped him, his wife, and his surviving children to recover was to go on a special trip together. A few months after Rebecca’s death they took a trip that the kids had kind of planned. It helped them a great deal.
So, his wife decided to set up Rebecca’s Gift to help other families to do something similar. They help families, who have lost a child, to take their other children on a trip. It provides them with a chance to get away from everything and reconnect with each other.
Eric is the chief technical officer for the organization. His wife takes the lead and Eric looks after the website and the technical side of things.
(2.23) – Where can people find out about it? The website is http://rebeccasgift.org/. Eric goes on to explain that, currently, they are US-based. But, people can still go to the website, read about the organization and make a submission.
(3.07) – So in terms of your other activities, An Event Apart is something else you’re very much involved in. Could you maybe give us a bit of an insight into that? Around the turn of the millennium, he and Jeffrey Zaltzman were attending and speaking at a lot of conferences. Unfortunately, the content was not that great.
It did not really speak to people like Eric and Jeffrey. They were designers as well as developers who were not interested in simply slamming out websites. Instead, they wanted to create sites that were user-friendly, forward compatible and accessible. None of the conference speakers shared information that was truly relevant to the way they worked and what they produced.
So, they decided to remedy that situation. Eric and Jeffrey put together a one day show and took it around a few US cities. People liked it but often said that they wished it was for more than one day. Over time, they have been able to respond to that request and turn the An Event Apart into a 3-day interactive conference.
The show is designed to enable developers to explore and for designers to find out more about development. Plus, of course, for those who already do both. They cover the entire spectrum, including UX and information architecture. It is not just about the cool stuff. The essentials like CSS Grid and Flexbox are also covered.
(5.26) – How many cities do you expect to be arranging events for, this year? Eric says that by the end of the year they will have done the show in 6 cities. At the time of recording, the Seattle event was behind the team and the Boston event was next on the agenda. With Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco still to take place before the end of the year.
(6.18) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Eric explains that there really are no gatekeepers. There is nobody in IT that can make or break your career. Nobody has the power to shut you out of web development. The only person that can stop you is yourself.
(7.37) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Eric worked on the Y2K switch over. For a joke, he and another colleague decided to make the university webpage look like it was created in the 1900s when the clock struck midnight. They put together a page using typography from the era and included the message “as you can see the server thinks it is 1900.”
They thought it would be fun, but they did not tell anyone what they were planning to do. The page went live, the press got hold of the story and all hell broke loose.
This did not go down well with the administration. Eric’s boss was told to fire him. Worse his boss’ manager was told to fire him, as well. Fortunately, neither of those things happened. However, Eric still feels bad about inadvertently putting his boss’ job at risk.
(10.00) – What was your best career moment? Eric went to Case Western Reserve University. While he was there two of his professors asked him to put two encyclopaedias they had written online. It was a big project, which is really proud of managing. Now, anyone who is interested in the history of Cleveland, Ohio can access a huge body of material and do so for free.
(12.40) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Eric is really excited about the way CSS Cascading Style Sheets is changing things and the rate at which it is growing. That is what is exciting him about the sector of the IT industry he works in.
Looking at things more generally, the fact that people involved in the IT industry are starting to have a conversation about ethics is good to see. Mike Monterio has just published a book about design ethics in which he takes a strong stand.
We need to think about the impact doing X can have, outside of the purpose we have built it for. Developers need to ask themselves how what they are creating can be abused.
(15.25) – Do you think this will result in new roles within the IT industry? Eric hopes that one day we will see appointing a chief ethical officer becoming the norm.
Dumping a load of data into a recursive neural network and hoping nothing goes wrong may be OK in a closed environment, as a way of exploring the possibilities. But, it is not OK to deploy that stuff to the public. You need something in place to make you pause, think about what could go wrong and decide if you should still proceed.
(16.44) – What drew you to a career in IT? For Eric, initially, it was the fact that he could make good money. He had been using computers since he was 7, so getting into the IT industry was a natural progression.
(17.31) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? When Eric asked Jeff how he could get to be a conference speaker, he said: “write a book”. Eric did. After that landing speaking gigs was easy.
Even if you do not want to be a conference speaker, it is still a good idea to write about what you know. You do not have to write a book to do that. Running a blog is just as an effective way to put yourself out there and let people know what you are about. Eric has known people to be hired because someone liked a blog post they wrote.
(18.20) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? One of his managers, at the university, told him to “stop playing with that silly web stuff.” Fortunately, everyone ignored him and carried on learning and working with HTML.
(18.49) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Eric says he would go to code school or get a degree in computer science.
But the biggest thing he would do differently is to focus on finding work that really interested him. So, he could stay engaged enough to dive deep, truly understand things and share what he was learning.
When he finally started sharing what he knew, his career took off. Today, he would get involved in GitHub, Medium, and Stack Overflow far more quickly and deeply.
(20.42) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Being an effective communicator is Eric’s most important non-technical skill. He knows he is good at doing it in writing and he is working hard to become just as good face to face. For example, in training situations, when he can see from people’s faces that he has lost them a bit, he now doubles back and explains things differently.
(21.26) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Eric finds that rotating through a stable of things that need his attention keeps him engaged and motivated. If he starts feeling a bit burned out, he switches track for a while. Doing something different re-energizes him, enabling him to switch back and start moving forward again.
(22.13) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Eric enjoys carpentry. He started out doing what they call rough carpentry. For example, he built a coop for his chickens. Now he has some experience, he is getting into finer woodworking.
(23.10) – Phil asks Eric to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. When deciding what tech to learn next, think about what you want to do with it, not what you want to do in it.
Ask yourself what interests you. For example, would you like to make servers run faster? Or do you want to connect people? Asking yourself what differences you want to make to the world will naturally point you in the right direction. It will make it easy for you to identify what technologies you need to learn. That is how he and Jeff ended up putting together the An Event Apart conference. They saw an issue, wanted to solve it, so, went out and learned what they needed to know to run their own conferences. When deciding what tech you will learn next, you need to take a similar approach. Learning something with a purpose is always a far more effective and interesting way to learn.
(6.33) ERIC– “There’s nobody in IT who can make or break your career other than yourself,”
(14.35) ERIC– “When people create things, they need to ask themselves, how could this be abused?”
(18.26) ERIC– “I know people who have never written a book, but have been hired by somebody because of a blog post they wrote”
(21.46) ERIC– “Communication, which people call a soft skill, is one of the hardest to master. It takes practice.”
Rebecca’s Gift: http://rebeccasgift.org/