Blog Entry

Interview with James Britt

James is another Refresher and an expert with Ruby. He presented the Getting Ruby session at the Desert Code Camp and was the developer of the famous and extremely accurate Web 2.0 Validator. James also runs the Ruby-Doc.org website and works at Neurogami, LLC.

How did you get started as a web designer?
I’m more of a Web developer than a designer, but almost all Web work I’ve done had me doing design as well. (That was far less true while I was with 30 Second Rule, but back on my own I’m again doing design + development.)

I have the impression that most developers do not care to do graphic design. But I was a visual artist before I got interested in software, and I welcome it.

I started doing Web stuff sometime in the late ’90s, small Web sites for myself and friends. My first commercial site was for the Tudor Hotel in New York City. Sadly, the hotel was shortly then gobbled up by Holiday Inn, and the site was replaced.

How long have you been working as a web designer?
Full-time professional developer work started in the late ’90s.

What part of your job do you like the most?
The independence and variety. I’m done with Cube World and Dockers.

Success means no pants.

What was the first website you ever built?
Wow. Good question. I may have had a home page on panix.com (formerly The Big Electric Cat, a much cooler name) in the ’90s. I’m sure it made hideous use of garish animated GIFs and raised-border tables, with a mind-numbing tiled background. Paleoweb design.

Luckily, http://www.panix.com/~james is 404.

What’s the biggest mistake or hardest lesson you’ve learned as a web designer?
Don’t assume that assumptions are shared. I’ve been overworked, screwed out of money, and painfully embarrassed, all because I took things for granted.

At the end of the day, you have to be comfortable with asking many, many questions, questions that may very well make you seem an idiot, before you get too involved in a project. No one wants to look like a dope, but better now than later. As the Reverend Al Yankovic said, “Dare to be stupid.”

But it’s tricky. You have to learn to question the things you never think to question.

What’s the most helpful thing you’ve learned?
How to write. Learning to write well gives you critical skills that can be applied to a wide range of tasks. Writing well helps you speak well.

It makes you a better developer, makes you a better designer. A good writing program will make you ruthless about concision, meaning, and focus. You’ll learn, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, to “murder your darlings.”

Plus, it doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest person in the room if you cannot express your ideas. If you expect to stand out, to make a difference, you have to communicate well. People will, right or wrong, judge you by how you speak and write.

What is a typical work day like for you?
Get up around 6:30 AM. Power up a few computers. Make coffee.

Drink coffee, read assorted news and blog sites. Think about what needs to get done that day. Read E-mail, send a few back. Sit on a beanbag chair and code. During the day I’ll run errands, go for a walk, take a ride someplace, and juggle assorted distractions.

At some point I decide either I’ve got enough accomplished or that further work is counter-productive, and shift over to casual hacking.

What are some sites that you visit daily or regularly?
For general news, I go to Google News, BBC News, Drudge Report, and al Jazeera.

Otherwise, I generally read things through Bloglines.

Some of the more interesting feeds are from Reddit, Boing-boing, Metafilter, Lambda the Ultimate, Ubu Web, the Artima Ruby Buzz feed, Planet Lisp, and Steve Yegge’s blog. And, of course, assorted sites run by local Refreshers.

Any other words of advice for new web designers?
Ask questions. Try stuff out. If you’re not failing at things then you’re not trying hard enough.

To paraphrase Niels Bohr, an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes one can in a given field. So, if you want to be really good at something, get comfortable (but not *too* comfortable) with being really bad at it for a while.

If you can accept that your work may be poor, than you’ll be more objective in recognizing and fixing it.

Don’t have a thin skin; get opinions, and be able to defend your own.

And never forget: Fun counts big-time.

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