Interviewing for a Technical Position Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

Jacob Schatz (@jakecodes) is a staff engineer over at GitLab and was kind enough to share how he conducts job interviews for technical positions and his thinking process for them. Technical interviews are talked about often and can be a touchy subject for some, so it’s worth noting that this article expresses Jacob’s own opinions and are not necessarily shared by his employer.

Are you an interviewee who is terrified, exhausted, sad, or disappointed? I’d love to change that stigma.

I believe that people can have a great interview experience, and that I can simultaneously find the right candidate. Both things can happen at the same time! After your interview process is over, in a perfect world, regardless of outcome, you should feel good about yourself and the process. You might feel sad that you didn’t get the job or excited to start your new job, but you should understand why in either situation.

At GitLab, I was put in charge of hiring very early on, and as such, I’ve seen thousands of resumes. When I first joined, I was asked to hire and form a team of front-end developers. I was employee #29 (we now have 500+), and I was the first front-end developer, so there was no hiring process for our team. We gradually created a process.

This article is aimed at both the interviewee, and interviewer. For the interviewee, I want you to know what a perfect interview can be like. Interviewing should not be scary or intimidating. This is a guide you can follow to do your part in creating the perfect interview. If you are an interviewer, maybe you have perfected your process. This is my view on how interviews can go in a perfect world. There are all different types of interviews, and this article focuses on interviewing developers of all experience levels. Over the years, I’ve latched on to some great processes, and this article is a behind-the-scenes look at that process for both sides of the candidacy.

Before I begin, it’s important to remember that everyone is human and humans are not perfect. There are no perfect developers. Treat everyone like a regular human being. It’s OK to be amazed at what some people are doing, but not OK to worship others. Talent is both congenital and acquired and you can acquire it too. Your interviewer and you are both imperfect. Interviews should not be focused around perfection. Here’s what interviews should be.

Five things I look for in a candidate

The GitLab Values cover a lot of great points and you should read it. This is loosely based on those.

As an interviewer, I can only focus on so many things at once while being a productive, active listener. But I do have five specific things I am try to focus on:

  1. Does this person have a “good head on their shoulders”?
  2. Is this person technically where they need to be for this role?
  3. Is this person going to be self sufficient in this role?
  4. Does this person communicate well and will they communicate well with the team?
  5. Does this person handle positive and negative feedback well?

There are other things I’m looking for, of course, but these five things are enough to get you the job you want if you’re interviewing with me.

Forget nervousness. I won’t ever hold it against you. I know you may be nervous, and that’s totally fine. There is the rare occasion that nervousness becomes a debilitating factor, and in those cases, I just ask that you reschedule. Just don’t hang up on me!

Recognize there’s going to be bias

We have training on bias at GitLab. One thing I learned from the training is that everyone is biased, whether or not you think you are. At one point, I had the idea of doing blind interviews like they do for some orchestras. We never implemented it (and it would be tough) but that’s why I keep a list of questions and a summary of what I want to cover in each interview. Each interview has a script I can follow. Everything is as repeatable and similar as possible. As the interview progresses, I’ll be able to tell if I can hit the harder questions. Harder questions are not there to disqualify people, but to qualify people. If you get to my hard questions it means you have a ton of experience and knowledge under your belt. It’s really important to know that I must ask trivia questions in some form but I don’t qualify candidates based on trivia questions. It’s about figuring the depth of your JavaScript knowledge and programming in general.

That being said, there is still one trivia question no one has ever gotten right. I’ll just keep asking it, and I am sure some day, someone will get it. Trivia questions are fun, because I am a major JavaScript dork. I just love talking about all the ins and outs of JavaScript. I am looking for people that can be my coding buddy. Hiring people is about finding other people you can work with, not people that will work for you.

I want to know you’re technically sound

This may be people’s worst fear. The part of the interview where we ask questions like, “Why are manholes round?” The truth is that some companies may ask the medium-to-hard questions from LeetCode, and some may never ask any technical questions.

What I’m looking for in your skillset

Experience speaks louder than any technical interview question I can ask. For example, if I’m hiring for a front-end engineering role and someone tells me they built their own cool things that we can talk about, then that’s awesome. I still may need to throw some more questions their way after that, or maybe the demo answers all my questions (though unlikely, but possible). But if we can walk through the code of something that you are super proud of, that’s great.

It’s helpful if you can tell me about something that you built for another company where I can see your code, or you can explain it sufficiently enough. What were the challenges? How did you deal with 10,000 comments? How did you deal with mobile? What were some challenges? I’ll give you an example: You built the comment system for GitLab. For the comment system, an interesting challenge was dealing with loading users for the @ drop-down to mentioning other users. It turns out that the JSON payload for that drop-down can get quite large and loading it on page load makes the page load significantly slower. But loading that data on the first @ keypress is also slow because the payload can be more than 10 MB. We want the user to have a seamless experience and not realize the data needs time to load. So, a good way to talk about that experience would be to describe some of the approaches you considered, like:

  1. Load the data when the comment box first appears in the viewport.
  2. Load the data on the user’s first mouseover of the textarea.
  3. Load the data once the user starts scrolling with enough momentum.

That last one isn’t a boring solution, but is something I’ve heard someone say in an interview.

I might ask about algorithms and data structures

Hey interviewers, are you hiring someone for your marketing site? Don’t ask them the hardest algorithms and data structure questions. Yes, algorithms and data structures play a huge part in everything, but it’s more important that the candidate knows about responsive design, and maybe animations, and performance. Since we are talking about performance, they should know about Big O notation. They should know what causes re-paints. Look at Firefox Monitor and compare it to Salesforce. Everything about the Firefox site is much more snappy. Why is it more snappy? Why is the Salesforce site so chunky and slow? Resize them… oy vey! Big O would probably help you explain some parts, but being able to explain the whole picture is important.

Quick aside on Big O notation since I brought it up.

Big O is a way of describing the time your code will run in and/or the memory space your code will take up in a worst case scenario. I think it’s really great to learn, and helps out in every day programming. You can and should learn it, which might take about an hour. After one hour, done or not, you’ll more than likely be prepared for any legitimate Big O question that interviewers would ask.

Big O is not something you need to take a course on. Here are some articles that can explain it to you in under an hour:

OK, back to algorithms and data structures in interviews.

Since there’s a chance these types of questions will come up, it’s worth doing a little homework in advance. There are two typical gold standards when studying for interviews that ask about algorithms and data structures.

There are many other things that are recommended for algorithm and data structure, heavy coding interviews, but rather than memorizing every example in the world (which won’t solve any problems for you), it’s better to learn how to solve these problems.

As I said above, front-end engineers should learn Big O for their health, because it’s good for you, like eating your Wheaties. Interviewers should not ask extensive algorithms and data structure questions unless the job requires extensive knowledge of them. If I was designing a front-end framework, say like Vue, it would be important to optimize a DOM diffing algorithm or at least understand the implementation of the algorithm you are using. But does that mean I would ask seven extra hard questions from a CTCI? No. You are testing for understanding, not for memorization. When people work through these questions (when I ask them), I want to see that they thought through the problem and we worked it out together more than I want to see that they got the right answer. It’s all about figuring out what you will be able to do, as an engineer, when you get the job — not what you memorized yesterday. A person who has knowledge of algorithms is going to be better at implementing them than someone who has to learn them on the job.

Are you hiring someone to build a dependency management system? This person needs to know a lot about algorithms and data structures.

These are two extreme ends of the spectrum, but in my opinion, not everyone needs to know how to write a red-black tree from scratch — but everyone should understand Big O. However, it will dramatically improve your skills as a software developer to learn typical algorithms and data structures.

When I do ask algorithm and data structure questions here are a few I do ask:

  • What is a linked list and can you show me how to implement one with and without an array in JavaScript?
  • What is the difference between BFS and DFS and can you implement one of them?

Getting these wrong will not disqualify anyone. Remember, I don’t use trivia to qualify people.

Do you have a good head on your shoulders?

There are a lot of soft skills I’m looking for as well during the interview. It’s my way of determining whether you have a “good head on your shoulders.”

Pedantically speaking, that means you make good decisions, but it’s much more than that to me. People who have a good head on their shoulders make sound decisions. It’s good to have different opinions than me, but there is a standard of knowledge we should agree on. For example, we should all agree that laying out an entire blog with only absolute positioning is a bad idea. That is not a sound decision.

But I might create a scenario like this to check on those skills:

Let’s go into CodePen and create a static blog homepage. We’ll need a navigation menu, and we’ll need a place for the title and article, and then at the bottom let’s have some comments and a footer.

I’d then talk you through different ways you could create the navigation and the pros and cons to each. For a lot of the front-end developers I hire, I’d like to know that they know some core JavaScript so I might ask them add some small functionality using only vanilla JavaScript.

When a framework does everything for you, you don’t need to do things yourself. I want to know that you get the whole picture.

A “good head on you shoulders” is a fancy way of telling me that you have your crap together. This is not an exhaustive list, but are the types of things that catch my attention:

  • You take care of yourself
  • You speak professionally (this has more of an impact than most people know)
    • Leave out super personal details
    • Answer questions succinctly
    • Take time to think
    • Say, “I don’t know,” when you don’t know
    • Be confident, but not cocky, even if you aren’t
  • You finish what you start
  • You are honest
  • You are able to say no
  • You know what you want and you want to help others get what they want
  • You’ll disagree and even debate, but know when to let something go
  • You are able to effectively communicate in an interview
    • Is this conversation easy or exhausting?
    • Are you fluent in English? Accents are totally OK!
    • Do you grasp the concepts being discussed?
  • You’re a kind person.

On that last point: kindness doesn’t mean you are a pushover. Kindness is a major part of challenging others and giving feedback.

I want to see that you are self-sufficient

It seems obvious now, but I am convinced — after working at GitLab — that self-sufficiency is what interviewers should seek in everyone being hired. Self-sufficiency plays a big part in your role in the company.

For example, to go extreme, think about a GM, who may have the least amount of external direction of anyone on a team. Everyone has responsibilities, but a GM must often be good at many things, including (but not limited to) marketing, sales, and management. All this changes based on the size of the team. Their role may be the most vague. They are very self-sufficient. A senior developer (in my opinion) should be able to take on an entire large piece of functionality and implement it properly.

This is not to say a developer shouldn’t communicate during the process. They should ask questions, and pair with other people to find the best way forward.

Reviewing an interviewee’s code has the opportunity to be boring (in a good way) as we know what to expect from them. We are relying on them to mentor less experienced developers. Junior developers should be self sufficient too, but probably won’t take on large initiatives alone. Junior developers often work great in small chunks. For example, it might be a great thing for a junior developer to take on the smaller tasks that a senior developer has on a larger project. Senior developers can also mentor junior developers and nudge them in the right direction to help them become more self-sufficient, which is a great thing for both parties — and also a great thing for the manager, as they can delegate more work to a senior developer.

If you are a front-end developer and need hand-holding at this point in your career, that is totally 100% OK, and everyone has been there. Or, if you are applying to a lot of places and not getting anywhere, and are extremely frustrated: I suggest that you become a little more self-sufficient before you apply. One way I suggest to become more self-sufficient and nab that job you want: Forget code examples, little shopping cart apps, and their ilk, as they don’t fair well for job interviews. Build something full-fledged for someone and do it for cheap or free. Find a church, synagogue, homeless shelter or someone near you and offer to make them a website.

Just remember that free clients are often the worst clients. It will be worth it when you can say that you’ve done work for a few clients. For bonus points, document your work in a few blog posts. This stuff looks great on resumes and will make you stick out from the rest. I know that anyone can get an easy website through Wix or other site building platforms, but there’s nothing like a wonderful custom-designed website. I think I made around 10 or so websites before I had my first programming job. I could fill a book with crazy stories from those times.

Communication and feedback is key

This is another point that seems obvious, but is hard to do right. Communication is well documented in the GitLab Handbook so I won’t cover it, except to say that I follow GitLab’s values and we are looking for others who desire to follow those values as well. Positive and negative feedback is also well documented in the GitLab Handbooks, so I won’t cover it here.

How I go about the rest of the interview

Because we interview a lot of candidates at GitLab, we follow a common flow so we can repeat it easily. I won’t go into specifics about our interview process, because it’s constantly evolving. But, in general, this is the flow I follow.

Tell me about yourself

You’ll get asked the famous question that goes along the lines of “tell me about yourself,” “tell me what you’ve been doing,” or “tell me about your time at [Company Name].” When I ask this question, I am trying to find the connection between the job you applied for and the jobs you’ve had in the past. It’s good to find the common ground ahead of time.

Like, for example, as an employee of GitLab, if I were personally applying to a FAANG as a front-end engineer, I am sure both GitLab and that company are trying to get page load times to be faster. Maybe I noticed there were 26K event listeners on a page when I first joined GitLab and was able to reduce it down to 0, decrease the loading time by 50%, down to a speed of 200ms. I am sure this would be something relevant to the conversation.

So, as an interviewee, I might say something like this:

“Hi! I am a front-end engineer at GitLab, I’ve been here for 3.5 years and during my tenure I’ve made a ton of huge improvements, some of the areas I loved working on are performance, UX design implementation, and architectural design.

You don’t want to get into tons of details at this point, but it’s good to give the interviewer some facts to work with. It is frustrating when I ask this question and someone goes into a 10-minute detailed account of their entire career.

What made you apply to our company?

The interviewer might ask, “What made you decide to apply to our company?” Hopefully, you are excited to work at this company — otherwise, why bother applying for it?

For some reason or another, this question often sends a candidate into overdrive and they wind up mixing up the name our company. That’s perfectly normal behavior, especially if your company sounds like another company.

What I’m looking for at this point is to see whether you are just looking for a job or that you’re really excited to work with us. We want people who really want to work with us. This is when I can also see if a person knows anything about our company. For example, some people like our values, have read them and want to work at a company with these values. Some people want to solve big problems like the ones we are tackling. Some people have seen talks and read articles from our team and would love to work around smart people like them.

What are your five things?

Lastly, I like to ask if a candidate has any questions for me. This is an important part of the interview, and you should extensively think this through beforehand. Your goal is to make me respond with: “Oooohhh, great question!” On one hand, I am truly trying to answer any questions you have, so don’t be shy. On the other hand, I am also trying to gauge your interest in the job, so something like, “Uh, I dunno,” is usually a big bummer to hear because it signals that maybe you’ve tuned out, or the job is not interesting to you. that’s can leave an undesirable aftertaste.

Look up your interviewers and find out about them. Doing this in advance can be an eye-opening exercise. You might find out about their customer acquisition strategy which could lead to a ton of other interesting questions. If the company is a startup, do they plan on being acquired, or do they want to IPO? When you have a clear, well-thought question, it makes you sound professional, which again, is one of the things I listed as important.

If you can’t think of any questions to ask, then do you really want this job in the first place? If the interviewer has a personal website, go check it out, and if nothing else, you can ask them about the comic book they wrote and posted to their website.

But I’d advise:

  1. Ask the interview questions that you are generally interested about. Think about this before the interview because a really thoughtful question generally improves your candidacy quite a bit.
  2. What are you, the candidate, looking for in a company? What does this person, the interviewer, need to prove to you in order for you to take this job?
  3. Do these people have a good head on their shoulders like you do? It works both ways, you know.
  4. Does this look like a fun job? Do you even want a fun job?
  5. Who would you report to? Did you talk to them? Will you get a chance to during the interview process?
  6. Are you underrepresented? Like, are you replacing someone or filling a new role? How many others will be doing what you’re doing? What signs should other underrepresented people look out for? What signs would show you that this is a good environment for you?

Don’t ask about money or benefits at this point; those things can (and likely should) be covered with a recruiter introduction call before you get to a person like me.

Conclusion

Interviewing, unlike programming, is not an exact science. You’re trying to prove that you are excited about the prospect of working with a company. You want to prove this to the interviewer and yourself. Hopefully, you want a job that is interesting. This guide isn’t a script to follow, but more of a few loose ideas to help you get into the mindset of the interviewer, with a few tips for other interviewers strung in there as well. Maybe I pointed out things you might not have known before.

Just remember that, in theory, interviewing should not be a scary process, but more of a find-some-buddies-to-work-with process.

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Would You Watch a Documentary Walking Through Codebases?

This resonated pretty strongly with people:

I think I was watching some random Netflix documentary and daydreaming that the subject was actually something I was super interested in: a semi-high-quality video deep dive into different companies codebases, hearing directly from the developers that built and maintain them.

Horror stories might also be interesting. Particularly if they involve perfect storm scenarios that naturally take us on a tour of the codebase along the way, so we can see how the system failed. We get little glimpses of this sometimes.

Probably more interesting is a tour of codebases when everything is humming along as planned. I wanna see the bottling factory when it’s working efficiently so I can see the symphony of it more than I wanna see a heaping pile of broken glass on the floor.

Or! Maybe the filmmaker will get lucky and there will be some major problem with the site as they’re filming, and they can capture the detection, reaction, and fixing of the problem and everything that entails. And sure, this isn’t wildlife rescue; sometimes the process for fixing even the worst of fires is to stare at your screen and type in silence like you always do. But I’m sure there is some way to effectively show the drama of it.

I’m not sure anything like this exists yet, but I’d definitely watch it. Here’s a bunch of stuff that isn’t a million miles away from the general idea:

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Slow Websites

The web has grown bigger. Both in expansiveness and weight. Nick Heer’s “The Bullshit Web”:

The average internet connection in the United States is about six times as fast as it was just ten years ago, but instead of making it faster to browse the same types of websites, we’re simply occupying that extra bandwidth with more stuff.

Nick clearly explains what he means by bullshit, and one can see a connection to Brad Frost’s similarly framed argument. Nick talks about how each incremental interaction is a choice and connects the cruft of the web to the rise and adoption of frameworks like AMP.

Ethan Marcotte paints things in a different light by looking at business incentive:

…ultimately, the web’s performance problem is a problem of profitability. If we’re going to talk about bloated pages, we should do so in context: in the context of a web where digital advertising revenue is cratering for publishers, but is positively flourishing for Facebook and Google. We should look at the underlying structural issues that incentivize a company to include heavy advertising scripts and pesky overlays, or examine the market challenges that force a publisher to adopt something like AMP.

In other words, the way we talk about slow websites needs to be much, much broader. If we can do that, then we’ll have a sharper understanding of where—and how—the web can be faster.

It’s a systemic state of the industry problem that breeds slow websites. The cultural fight to fix it is perhaps just as important as the technical fights. Not that there isn’t a lot to learn and deal with on a technical level.

Addy Osamai wrote up a deep dive (a 20-minute read, according to Medium) that explores the cost of JavaScript to overall web performance. Everyone seems to agree JavaScript is the biggest problem area for slow websites. It’s not preachy but rather a set of well-explained principles to follow in this era where the use of JavaScript is trending up:

  • To stay fast, only load JavaScript needed for the current page.
  • Embrace performance budgets and learn to live within them.
  • Learn how to audit and trim your JavaScript bundles.
  • Every interaction is the start of a new ‘Time-to-Interactive’; consider optimizations in this context.
  • If client-side JavaScript isn’t benefiting the user experience, ask yourself if it’s really necessary.

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Complexity

Frank Chimero published a new talk-turned-essay, Everything Easy is Hard Again.

May we all be as wonderfully self-reflective and eloquent as Frank one day. There is a lot there, so please read it. Part of the theme is that web design and development has seemingly repetitive cycles that can kick even quite experienced people back down the ladder:

I don’t feel much better at making [websites] after 20 years. My knowledge and skills develop a bit, then things change, and half of what I know becomes dead weight. This hardly happens with any of the other work I do.

And complexity is to blame.

Complexity is one of those in the water topics right now. Kevin Ball wrote “we are in the midst of a massive and rapid period shift in complexity from the backend to the front.” Roneesh just celebrated untangling all this front end complexity in his own mind and shared his thoughts.

I’ve read a good number of responses to Frank’s article as well. I particularly liked our own Robin Rendle’s from the newsletter:

I believe the reason for all this complexity and nuance in the work is because we no longer expect the web to be a series of simple, hyperlinked documents.

Our expectations, as users of the web, have now completely changed.

Websites are machines in and of themselves; they have state, notifications, alerts and warnings, components that appear under certain circumstances, location-aware features and complexity beyond anything we were building fifteen years ago. There are more devices and viewport widths rendering our websites with increasingly difficult performance requirements.

That feels right to me. It’s just what I was feeling when I wrote What is the Future of Front End Web Development?

What websites are being asked to do is rising. Developers are being asked to build very complicated things very quickly and have them work very well and very fast.

Though, Frank points out that even layout, fonts, and images have ballooned in complexity. The cause there I’d argue is the rightful focus (and really, demand for) performance. But reactions to complexity are usually those things plus a dozen or two other things.

Perhaps things didn’t get complicated for no reason, and instead got complicated to compete. The web can do more, so we ask it to do more.

It’s tempting to think that the complexity comes entirely from that moreness. Embracing more of the potential of the web, playing catchup with native apps, and building more powerful tools for people. But I’m sure the whole story is more (ahem) complicated. Someone once told me the reason they think developer tooling has evolved and gotten more complicated is that developers generally aren’t asked to innovate on the business and product side. They build what they are told to, so they use their smarts to innovate on their own tools.

It depends though. A few personal examples.

I’ve been running CSS-Tricks for over a decade. It’s a garden variety WordPress site, and while it’s certainly evolved, it’s not all that much more complicated today as it was in the first few years. I’ve gotten better at working on it, in part because it’s changed so little that I’m more comfortable doing that work. I know just what all the spinning gears do and just where to put the oil, most of the time.

On the other hand, through CodePen, I’ve experienced a long product development which started fairly simple and has come to extreme complexity. We sometimes question if we’ve overdone the complexity, but for the most part, each step in that direction has been a response to make something else, ironically enough, less complicated. One example of that was the adding of React’n’Redux’n’Friends, which was a step up in the complexity of the development workflow, build, and deploy processes but, believe it or not, was a step down in a complexity of the codebase. These tools help us build faster, debug easier, stay well tested, and provide a performant experience, to name some of the benefits. We didn’t add tooling just for kicks; we added tooling because we had growing problems to address.

Not everyone has the same problems. The web is a big place is a phrase I see thrown around sometimes, and I like it. Over a billion websites, they say. A big place indeed.

Check out Dan Cederholm’s favorite website:

It’s not responsive. It’s not optimized for iPhone. It looks blurry on a Retina display. It doesn’t use the latest HTML5/CSS3 framework. It doesn’t have a thoughtful vertical rhythm. The fonts are nothing special. It is neither skeuomorphic nor flat. It doesn’t have its own favicon. It doesn’t have a native app or Twitter or Instagram. It doesn’t use AJAX or SCRUM or node.js or Sinatra. It doesn’t have an API or an RSS feed or VC funding. It hasn’t been featured on a prominent tech blog or won an award.

It tells me the soups of the day.

I suspect it doesn’t need any more complexity, and literally nobody is advocating it does. That’s why that the web is a big place sentiment is so useful. We talk about complexity, but it’s all opt-in. A wonderfully useful (and simple) website of a decade ago remains wonderfully useful and simple. Fortunately for all involved, the web, thus far, has taken compatibility quite seriously. Old websites don’t just break.

I’ll bet the bits in Frank’s essay about web layout will strike a chord to many readers of this site. Frank makes the connection between table layout and grid layout. It’s not a rare sentiment. For example:

I’m sure Frank understands the benefits of the new grid layout (e.g. try re-arranging a <table> at a media query breakpoint), but the sentiment was more about cycles than a deep technical dive.

I’d say a reasonable argument could be made that, with CSS in particular, things are easier these days. CSS of old had us biting our fingernails about cross-browser support, scattering vendor prefixes throughout our code, and (lol) saying a prayer to the box model. Eric Meyer, despite publishing a heavy tome of CSS knowledge lately, says:

CSS has a great deal more capabilities than ever before, it’s true. In the sense of “how much there potentially is to know”, yes, CSS is more of a challenge.

But the core principles and mechanisms are no more complicated than they were a decade or even two decades ago. If anything, they’re easier to grasp now, because we don’t have to clutter our minds with float behaviors or inline layout just to try to lay out a page.

Swinging it back to developers innovating on their own tools for a moment, another consideration is the impact of site builders on our industry. I’ll always recommend a site builder app in the right circumstances. Does your photography business need a portfolio site? Your bakery a homepage? Your custom scarf site a blog and eCommerce site? Assuming this is a sub-$10,000 job, I’d rather see you use a specialized site builder product than hire out the job to anyone who is going to build something entirely custom. I don’t wanna go too far down that rabbit hole, but suffice it to say, because I’m not alone in that thinking, the market for low-end custom design and development work is rather gone.

There are more developers these days working on in-house teams or agencies with big-ticket clients. That is, more and more developers on large-scope, long-scale, highly-complex jobs. So that’s where their minds are at. Big complicated problems with big complicated solutions. That’s what gets talked about. That’s what gets blogged about. That’s what gets argued about. That’s the topic at a lot of conferences I’ve been to.

While you certainly can make a soup-of-the-day website with an index.html file and FTP, blog posts about that are fewer and farther between and don’t get as many claps.


Shout out to Dave Rupert, my friend and ShopTalk Show co-host, who’s been pushing back against complexity in all its forms for as long as I’ve known him. I’m still trying to catch up.


Complexity is a post from CSS-Tricks

Careful Now

Tom Warren’s “Chrome is turning into the new Internet Explorer 6” for The Verge has a title that, to us front-end web developers, suggests that Chrome is turning into a browser far behind in technology and replete with tricky bugs. Aside from the occasional offhand generic, “Chrome is getting so bad lately,” comments you hear, we know that’s not true. Chrome often leads the pack for good web tech.

Instead, it’s about another equally concerning danger: developers building sites specifically for Chrome. In theory, that’s not really a thing, because if you build a website with web standards (of which there isn’t really much of an alternative) it’ll work in Chrome like any other modern web browser. But it is a thing if you build the site to somehow block other browsers and only allow Chrome. Warren:

Google has been at the center of a lot of “works best with Chrome” messages we’re starting to see appear on the web. Google Meet, Allo, YouTube TV, Google Earth, and YouTube Studio Beta all block Windows 10’s default browser, Microsoft Edge, from accessing them and they all point users to download Chrome instead. Google Meet, Google Earth, and YouTube TV are also not supported on Firefox with messages to download Chrome.

I wouldn’t call it an epidemic but it’s not a good trend. Best I can tell, it’s server-side UA sniffing that entirely blocks the sites:

Sheesh.

If anything, I’d think you’d just let people use the site and display a warning if you’re really worried some particular feature might not work. Or even better, fix it. I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge of why they made the choice to block certain browsers, but it’s hard to imagine a technical limitation that would force it. And if it is, I’d suggest letting it be very publicly known to incentivize the other browsers to support what is needed, assuming it’s an established standard.

Even more concerning than browser-specific websites is seeing browsers ship non-standardized features just because they want them, not behind any vendor prefix or flag. There was a time when web developers would have got out the pitchforks if a browser was doing this, but I sense some complacency seeping in.

These days, the vibe is more centered around complaining about other browsers lack of support for things. For example, one browser ships something, we see one green dot in caniuse, and we lambast the other browsers to catch up. Instead, we might ask, was it a good idea to ship that feature yet?

No modern browser is shipping vendor prefixes anymore since we all ultimately decided that was a bad idea. A side effect of that is that shipping a new feature in CSS or JavaScript is all the riskier. I would think shipping an unprefixed feature to a stable version of the browser would mean the feature is standardized and not going to significantly change. Yet, it’s been happening.

In CSS, Chrome shipped motion-* properties, but then that all changed to offset-*, and the old motion-* properties just stopped working. That’s more than just annoying, that kind of thing helps developers justify saying, “I just build this site for Chrome, if you wanna use it, use Chrome.” Fine for a demo, perhaps, but bad for the web industry as a whole. Again, I have no special insight into why this happens, I’m just a developer looking in from the outside.

Here’s another CSS one I just saw the other day. People are excited about text-decoration-skip: ink; because it looks great and helps people. They are using it a lot. But apparently, that’s not the correct name for it? It’s been changed to text-decoration-skip-ink: auto; and so Chrome 64 is canning text-decoration-skip: ink;. This stuff is hard to keep up with even while actively trying.

Chris Krycho had a take on it recently as well:

Over the past few years, I’ve increasingly seen articles with headlines that run something like, “New Feature Coming To the Web” — followed by content which described how Chrome had implemented an experimental new feature. “You’ll be able to use this soon!” has been the promise.

The reality is a bit more complicated. Sometimes, ideas the Chrome team pioneers make their way out to the rest of the browsers and become tools we can all use. Sometimes… they get shelved because none of the other browsers decide to implement them.

Many times, when this latter tack happens, developers grouse about the other browser makers who are “holding the web back.” But there is a fundamental problem in this way of looking at things: Chrome isn’t the standard. The fact that Chrome proposes something, and even the fact that a bunch of developers like it, does not a standard make. Nor does it impose an obligation to other browsers to prioritize it, or even to ship it.

This isn’t all to throw Chrome under the bus. I’m a Chrome fan. I’m sure there are examples from all the major vendors in the same vein. I’d just like my two cents to be careful now. The web is the best platform to build for and generally heading in a direction that makes that even truer. The easiest way to screw that up is not being careful with standards.


Careful Now is a post from CSS-Tricks