We Live in the Future

The Portrait Of Christian Heilmann At Shift Developer Conference 2017

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Shift Developer Conference is just around the corner, to be kicked off on June 1st in Split, Croatia, at the amazing and picturesque surrounding of the Croatian National Theatre (HNK). This proclaimed event traditionally attracts more than 1000 visitors from around the world, and one of the keynote speakers is the legendary Christian Heilmann.

Next week’s conference brings more content than ever before, including the new workshop track where attendees can learn some of the hottest modern development skills. The lineup guarantees world’s brightest minds to take the stage and I’m excited to introduce you to one of the star speakers.

Meet the legend of IT industry, Christian Heilmann, a charismatic developer, technology advocate, and journalist known for helping the web evolve through a fruitful career at Yahoo, Mozilla, and now Microsoft.

Chris Heilmann has been a web developer since 1997. “I never looked back thinking I wasted my life. The web has been good to me and I think working for it is a great bet to have fun in the future. Making people heard, allowing people to create is amazing.”, explains Heilmann.

He grew up in a working class family in a small, rural town. Even without a university diploma, Christian says he’s “still pinching myself every day disbelieving how I ended up working for Microsoft on today’s and tomorrow’s technologies”.

Christian is a superstar, but also a human. I’m thrilled to share some exciting and interesting discoveries about him and the industry he’s part of.

Tell us about embarrassing moments in your professional history?

I think my favorite so far was when I had a mishap on the way to the conference and spilled something on my shirt. I bought a new one at the airport and wore that, thinking I had solved the issue. I found out later that it still had a “reduced” and “size M slim” sticker on the side and the back.  I wore that all the way during my talk and there are many photos to prove it. Other classics aren’t suspending your notifications. That way you get on-screen popups of either your family or colleagues in the audience. Another time my parents called me while I was on stage complaining that I don’t call enough. Embarrassment and mistakes happen. The most important thing isn’t to try to hush them up, but admit and move on.

Do you consider yourself to be more of a creative or conservative type of person?

There isn’t much conservative about me. Then again, I lack a lot of patience to be really creative. Art follows craft and skill. Being crafty means having the drive to repeat doing a task until you’re good at it. And I’m not too good at doing that. I’m impatient in many things and I like to skim the surface and dive deep when I need to. I guess working on the web is a good trait as things move fast.

Can you share one thing that you’ve learned out of a failure?

I almost learned everything by trial and error. I think making mistakes is good as it annoys and hurts you. You’re less likely to forget a mistake as you’re to forget a success. Getting your first server hacked and hosting a viagra blog for a while without knowing it taught me to keep my software up-to-date. It also helped me not trust any data coming into my systems. Having to get my domains off the blacklist of Google was quite a task I don’t want to have to repeat. This was a WordPress instance I failed to keep up-to-date.

What makes you happy in your work environment?

People. I work from home or on the road. I’m much more creative working in a loud café than I would be at a desk in an office. I enjoy inspiring and helping. Seeing people I coached become successful is amazing. Introducing people who then create something good together is great. Helping someone overcome stage fright before their first talk is a wonderful experience. I love working on the web as with today’s technology I can work wherever and whenever. All I need is a laptop and a connection. How amazing is this? We do live in the future.

ScriptConf 2017 in Linz (Horst Gutmann)

What makes a conference attractive to you as a speaker?

I like to go to conferences that are choosy when it comes to their presenters. I’m not a fan of multi-day, ten track conferences with lots of topics at the same time. I’m also not too keen on focused, competitive conferences on one specific topic. A good organizer collects presentations that are a story arc in themselves. They also invite speakers who spend time getting to know the other presenters. Presenters who check how their contribution meshes with the others. On the organization side, I don’t need pampering or special treatment. I want it to be easy and safe for me to get to and from the conference. That way I can focus on presenting and mingling with the attendees. I’m there to entertain, educate and listen to them, after all.

What makes them attractive to you as an attendee?

Pretty much the same as a presenter. I don’t see much difference there. I think any attendee can sooner or later also become a presenter if they choose to go that route. Of course, you need to protect yourself from over-delivery. You need to take time out. I think a good conference gives everyone there the feeling that they can contribute. I like to go to conferences that aren’t the ones I’m likely to speak at to see what else I can do next. Any conference should offer plenty of time to network and mingle. This isn’t a lecture circuit, it’s an aid to create and instill a sense of community.

Do you think new generations are more or less inclined to learn programming than, say, 10 years ago?

That depends on what we define programming as. I think the tinkering aspect is on a downwards slope. Programming is a sought-after skill in the job market.  That’s why people are more likely to try to get a degree and land a job to have one and make money as soon as possible. Ten years ago our market was much less defined and people were more likely to aim for gaining experience in a role.

Interviewees these days demand lots of benefits and high salaries upfront. Then again, living in San Francisco or London was much more affordable ten years ago. We’re in a hype cycle of our market, there aren’t enough people to fill the vacancies. That drives a market into more formulaic and conservative ways.

Ten years ago a white-board interview asking to write algorithms was unheard of. As we’re now forced to hire a lot of people in a short amount of time they are pretty common. Developers these days also have a lot more ready-made solutions to choose from. Why force yourself to understand the basics when there are dozens of solutions promising you to achieve a lot in a short amount of time instead? Our market has become a time-concerned one. Our demand is to create more in a shorter amount of time. Not create something sturdy, well documented and understood by all involved. It’s a dangerous, wasteful way of working and it does burn people out.

What initiatives is Microsoft taking to move the web forward?

We’ve finally made Internet Explorer unnecessary. We released a brand new, standards compliant, evergreen browser (Edge). We’re available in the open for bug reports and improvement requests. Our release schedule is public. We share the data we found on what people do on the web instead of pretending that we could tell developers what to use. We’ve got more people in the W3C working groups than most other browser makers. We defined important new standards like payment and identity systems as well as pointer events.

The biggest move though is to be open and release more and more of our products as open source. Our JavaScript engine is open, we released TypeScript. Visual Studio Code is open and a great editor to learn how to write clean code. It tells you what you did wrong while you write it.  This is something only the commercial Visual Studio and other enterprise IDEs did beforehand.

My job is to a large degree to help the communication of the outside to the product teams and the other way around. I’m happy that we’re active on Slack/Twitter/GitHub/StackOverflow rather than trying to push people into our own communication channels. Microsoft learned the hard way that forcing your ideas onto others and not following standards isolates you. Now we start everything in the open and ensure that we’re compatible with other browser makers. This is about the web, nobody makes money with a browser.

Is it healthy for the community that big companies like Facebook are hiring so many influential open source developers?

That depends. If they hire them to give the projects they were on the corporate backing it needs to grow then this is a great thing. If it means they get hired to work on closed projects and having to leave the one they were hired for, less so. There is a misconception that open source is one person writing a cool thing and making it available.

A large part of a successful open source project is to nurture a community around it. One that frees the original developers to do other things. In the end, every original developer will move on. That’s the beauty of OSS – you hand over the code and you give up control. For a lot of new OSS developers, this is a tough step to take.

One other issue the scenario you describe here is that it sets a bad example. “If you release a successful OSS project, large companies will hire you” leads to a lot of projects getting started instead of others getting supported. Almost every large company in our market has open source projects. If your goal is to join these companies, in the long run, contributing there is much easier.

TedxThessaloniki - Nikos Pappas, Yannis Voutsalas, Vasilis Draganis (Flickr)

Fundamental problems with the web seem to never change: speed and usability.  Why do you think we’re still not getting these right?

Never. Moore’s law and marketing work against us there. There’s a small amount of lucky few people who have the best hardware and fastest connections. These are also likely to spend a lot of money upfront. Long term income is elsewhere, but we need to make money quick or our cool startup is a failure. That’s why we cater to the high end with our high fidelity interfaces.

Interfaces that are far too heavy to use, take too long to load and demand too much of the hardware they run on. We need to break this cycle. We need to test on terrible hardware under undefined network conditions. Then we can have speedy products for everyone. But we hardly ever get time to do that as it’s more important to build the next shiny.

With usability, we’re also in a tricky spot. We know what to do right. But instead of limiting ourselves to get the one thing right we have to innovate. We add new features to differentiate us from the competition. Another big stumbling block is laws. Releasing a product that sells something means you have to comply with old laws. These force you to build overly complex interfaces. To fix that issue, we’d need to take a look at changing those demands.

What does the world need more of: Diversity in browser vendors or predictable development target? In other words, is it healthy that one browser vendor hold a majority of the market and what can we do about it?

No, it will never be good to have only one browser. The reason is that browser makers are companies that have other needs and deliveries. Standardization takes time and effort. Various browser makers looking at implementing the same feature means we’re more likely to create something sturdy, documented and reusable. We went through this already. We had IE6 as the clear market leader. We’re still suffering horrible web products catered to this dead environment. This needs to stop.

As developers, we give browsers far too much street cred. End users don’t care which one they use. As long as it doesn’t bog down their machine and it gives them the features they want. Chrome succeeded because of Google’s amazing services that came bundled with it. Safari is still alive as it is the out-of-the-box browser on iOS. There is no way to run another, full, browser on it – you need to use their engine. Standards and browser diversity are things for us developers. So it’s up to us not to build interfaces that target only one of them.

How likely do you think it is that AI will replace developers?

Very likely. We’re not safe from automation. The more predictable our work is, the better machines are at doing it. We already have systems like DeepCoder. Web site generators like Wix use deep learning to create catered experiences. But I’m not worried. I see AI as a great opportunity to create the boring work we want to not have to think about.

With this thought, Heilmann gave us a great segue into his talk at Shift 2017 titled “The Soul in The Machine – Developing for Humans”. Make sure to come see Christian together with other stellar speakers live at Shift’s stage.