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A Q&A WITH WEB DEVELOPMENT CONSULTANT, HARRY ROBERTS

Friday 24th November 2017
Tags: guest blog, Q&A

In this Q&A we hear from Leeds based Web Development Consultant, Harry Roberts. Here he tells us more about his career journey, being a Google Developer Expert and provides some insightful advice to young developers. Read more below...

Hey, I’m Harry. I’m a Consultant Front-end Architect and Performance Engineer from Leeds. It’s a bit of an obscure job title, but primarily I work with large organisations to help them, and their teams, write and manage large-scale websites. My focus in on scalability and performance, ensuring that front-end development projects can grow at a sustainable rate, while also remaining as fast as possible for the end user.
 
Although my clients are very much international, Leeds is where I’m based. I’ve been here for just over nine years now and show no sign of leaving anytime soon; when I’m not travelling for work, I can be found booting around West Yorkshire on either of my bikes or eating and drinking everything that this beautiful city can offer me.

 
What initially sparked your interest in pursuing a career in technology?

You know, it was a complete accident. I’m not from a very technological family at all—the opposite, in fact! I didn’t get internet access at home until I was 15 (2005) and my family all shared the one computer. I started off wanting to be a graphic designer and spent a lot of the time from 15 to 16, along with my then-best friend, Sam, working on logos and flyers and business cards for local businesses. After a good run at that, I decided that we needed a portfolio site to showcase our skills (we had no skills—looking back on it, the work was pretty weak), and volunteered myself to learn how to write HTML and CSS to build it.

 
Not long after starting that, I realised that not only did I much prefer coding, I was much, much better at it. A series of self-initiated projects later, and I was pretty convinced that this was what I wanted to do full-time. At 17, I began applying for front-end development jobs in Leeds and was picked up by Tony Jacobs, the Creative Director at now-defunct Sense Internet. It’s all gone on from there.
 
You have worked with a number of leading tech organisations. What attracts you to a company?

It’s a complete mixture of things, but I’ll be brutally honest and admit that one of them is vanity: as a self-employed developer, having prominent companies on my client list is a real boon.
 
But, of course, there are plenty of much better reasons. My background is in large-scale product environments—I spent around three years as a Senior Developer at Sky, in Leeds—so I have a skill-set that these companies value. I guess I’m just a little more naturally inclined to that kind of environment.
 
Also, the problems that these companies face—famous or otherwise—present a fascinating challenge for me. The proposition, the pressure, and the obstacles posed are a great chance to tackle something new.
 
Finally, I guess that if you’re working for a well-known company, your work is likely to impact a far higher number of people. It’s quite cool to see an advert for Trainline and knowing that I was the person responsible for making that site faster.

 
You’re a Google Developer Expert. Can you tell us more about what it means to be a Google Developer Expert and how you got to that level?
 
I am! It’s a great honour.
 
A Google Developer Expert is an invited, non-Google developer who Google deem to be outstanding in their field. As well as technical abilities, they look for people who are good ambassadors within the tech community, who share and evangelise.
 
Technically, anyone can get there. If you’re a great advocate and work hard to share knowledge in your field (mine is Technology, but the others are Marketing and Product Design), then a Google employee can invite you onto the program. Once they have made the invite, you then have to go through an interview process; first with an external Expert from the relevant area, and later an interview with a member Google staff.
 
If you pass those, then you’re in! You’re a GDE.



  
You were also named Young Developer of the Year by Net Magazine. That’s quite an achievement! What work were you doing at this time to be awarded such recognition?
 
Hah! I was. That was a few years ago now, but it’s true.
 
At the time, a lot of things had been happening in my career—I was beginning to speak at conferences with increasing frequency, I was writing a lot more articles, I was contributing to the open source space, and I’d just started working for myself. It was a busy period for me, and I think that gave me prominence.

 
What would be your advice to young developers hoping to make an impact in the technology sector?

I tweeted something recently which seems to have resonated with a lot of people—entering tech now seems a lot more intimidating than it was for me a decade ago!
 
My honest advice would be pace yourself, learn the fundamentals, and focus on integrity and resilience. There are lots and lots of new, shiny, exciting tools available, and more and more are appearing each week. While this does add an element of excitement, it also brings a lot a lot of fickleness, and what I see more and more is an entire generation of developers who’re focusing on tools but neglecting the basics. Tooling, languages, and frameworks can be learned relatively quickly, but the fundamentals will never change; optimise for a stable baseline of understanding and then complement that with the specifics as and when you need them. That’s a recipe for a much more robust and long-lasting career in tech, in my opinion.

You have a large following on social media. How important do you think it is for technology professionals these days to be active on social media and why?

For me it’s vital—it’s a great form of direct marketing, meaning I can get my message directly in front of those most likely to hire me. It’s an essential business tool. I think that a decent command of social media is going to be crucial for anyone wanting to make their way in tech; the social proof alone helps to build trust and credibility. Though not a deal-breaker, I’d be hesitant to hire someone for a tech role if they don’t show at least some engagement with the tech community.
  
Your focus has mainly been on CSS over the years, but recently your focus has slightly shifted, can you tell us more about this, please?

CSS is a creative, fun, yet very imperfect language. It grants a lot of creative freedom but also is hard to tame at scale. It’s this very fact that allowed me to specialise so heavily in CSS—I worked on defining and pioneering a lot of the approaches that people across the world use to manage CSS in large applications today. After doing that so intently for so long, I just got ready for a bit of change.
 
Toward the beginning of 2017, I decided to shift my focus more toward performance engineering—making websites fast! Performance work is something I’ve been involved in for the last five years and was always a vital addition to the front-end development work I’d been doing, but I want to make it much more front-and-centre. It’s work I find fascinating, rewarding, and newly challenging: you can always produce a faster website; the question is how?
 
It’s also a great way to add lots of value and make plenty of positive impact. Fast websites keep users happier, and they cost companies less to run; they cost users less to visit, and they also earn companies much more money. It’s a scenario in which everybody wins.
 
A large sub-focus of this has been on the ethical and moral aspects of performance: users in poor-connectivity areas, or regions where data is costly, will genuinely struggle to visit a poorly optimised website. I want to focus on making the same information as accessible to those in rural India as it is in the centre of Leeds.
 
(Fun fact: my website takes 1.3 seconds to load from Dublin. In Nepal, it takes closer to a minute. The same site is over 45× slower just because of the fact someone is based in a low-connectivity region.)
 

You have been based in Leeds for over nine years now! Can you tell us how the technology landscape of the city has changed since you first became a Leeds resident?

I have! I adore this city! Particularly within the last five years, it’s become such a bustling and vibrant place to be, tech or otherwise.
The tech landscape has changed quite drastically, and fast. When I first moved here, it was a scene dominated by many small agencies, all competing for the same work. The upshot of this was that most companies began competing on price—‘we can do it faster, cheaper!’—which in turn led to developers working long hours to fulfil promises made to clients by their managers. This overworking and underpaying (because tech jobs were not very competitive at all here until recently) then led to what I perceived as being quite a deflated and unenthusiastic tech scene: a city of developers who didn’t want to go to meetups after a 12-hour day but just wanted to go home.
 
After my stint in agency-world, I then worked for a tech VC firm around 2009. Weirdly, it was a complete flop. I mean it, nobody came asking for investment! That company was about three years too early for Leeds, which I still feel is a real shame. The entrepreneurial spirit hit Leeds much later than London. If that company had opened its doors in 2012 there’d have been people queuing for a shot at funding for their startup.
 
In the last three-to-five years, the influx and rise of product-based companies in Leeds (Sky being the most obvious example) have led to much more attractive salaries, far more enthusiastic and engaged developers, much more exciting project and prospects, and has finally made Leeds a real tech hub as opposed to a client-services city.
 
Most of the agencies I encountered at the beginning of my time here haven’t managed to weather the storm: slowness to respond to changes in the market, reluctance to compensate developers equitably, and sometimes even just lousy management has made way for a much more thriving and active scene. While I do find it sad to an extent, I think the developers in the city have won in the long run.

 
How do you think the tech scene in Leeds compares to other tech hubs in The North?
I think the North’s main problem is that our cities are always playing second fiddle to London, and therefore don’t often compare ourselves to each other, but to the capital. I reckon we could do a lot more to band together and learn from each other, but all too often we’re looking South. I do wish I knew more about other cities in the North, but I do know that Newcastle has a fantastic startup and incubator scene, the likes of which we don’t currently foster. Manchester has some big players, but I feel like perhaps their focus is more on creative than on tech.
 
Maybe that’s something I should focus on in future: exploring tech in the North as opposed to much further afield…?
 


2018 is just around the corner. What tech trends would you like to see take off in the next year?
Honestly, I’d like to see less of a focus on zeroes and ones, and more of a focus on ethics, the impact of our work, and the hidden moral obligations we have as designers and developers. I’d like to see people pushing back on requests to build software that can be used for harmful purposes. I’d like to see teams taking a more proactive stance on things like accessibility and performance, to ensure that the products we’re building can be accessed and used by people in different and adverse conditions.
 
Tech is incredibly exciting, but while it’s only serving the most affluent and fortunate members of society, it’s all for nothing. I’d rather see websites that work beautifully on the older phones prevalent in emerging economies than see another £1,000 phone only available to the global top 5% of earners.

 
What is your favourite tech innovation and why?
Haha, this is going to be a disappointing answer, but I’m not that into gadgets and the ‘new cool’. I spend as much time as possible away from tech and gadgets as possible—I’d much rather spend a day with my mountain bike than with my laptop. That said, I did pick up an Echo recently which is quite neat. But then I circle round to my previous answer about ethics: the Echo isn’t there to make my life easier; it’s there to mine my data and sell things back to me. It’s actually quite creepy really.
 
Do you have any new projects planned for 2018? If so, can you tell us more?
Nothing specific. I have some exciting client engagements lined up, and I do have some ideas for a couple of side projects I’d like to (finally!) make a start on, but other than that I just want more of the same. I want to help people understand how they can better serve their users, wherever they may be.
 
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