AMA: Jen Simmons, Designer Advocate at Mozilla; Host of The Web Ahead

almost 8 years ago from , Host and Executive Producer of The Web Ahead podcast; Designer Advocate at Mozilla


I'm Jen Simmons. I'm the host and executive producer of The Web Ahead podcast. And I'm a Designer Advocate at Mozilla — which means I speak at conferences, write tutorials, and advocate for great work on the web.

For the past year and a half, I've been traveling around presenting about the coming revolution in page layout design. New CSS properties are landing in browsers now that will radically change what's possible in page design. It's time to start learning these new properties — Flexbox, Grid, Shapes, Viewport Units, Multicolumn, Rotation, and much more. Many of these properties can be used today. Others will start working in 2016. It's exciting! We just have to change the way we think about web page layout design.

("The Web Ahead") is a four year old podcast about web design and development. Each week I have a new guest, an expert on the topic of the week. We talk about technology, culture, design, all in the pursuit of the question what's next on the web? Where is this medium going?

I'm happy to answer questions about anything. Ask away starting Wed, Dec 16 @ 11:00EST


  • Max LindMax Lind, almost 8 years ago

    Hey Jen, thanks for joining us!

    • Often times we have stories on DN asking about the best way to find jobs and/or market yourself, what are your thoughts? Also, what was your path to become a Designer Advocate at Mozilla?
    • (Kudos to The Web Ahead for winning Net Awards Podcast of the Year!) -- 100+ episodes down, and likely many more ahead... how are you able to so consistently put together a solid product ? What's your take on the current podcast landscape? (especially those design related) Lastly, what podcasts do you like to follow?
    • Your life on the road speaking at conferences looks hectic, what tools do you use to keep on task with such a busy work schedule being on the road?
    1 point
    • , almost 8 years ago

      Three questions at once!

      I hope I'm not making a lot of typos, btw. That I am making sense. I'm not, however, proofing or rewriting my answers. I want to answer as many questions as possible, so these are fast and off the top of my head. Hope I make sense! Please forgive mistakes, everyone.

      Best ways to find job? 1) https://authenticjobs.com 2) http://codepen.io/jobs/ 3) Follow people who have careers you admire on Twitter, and pay attention when they post about jobs. 4) Pay attention to what companies seem awesome, and go to their "career" section (look in their footer for a link) to see what openings they have. Return often. And, in fact, apply anyway, even when they don't have an opening.

      I knew about Mozilla's job opening because it was all over Twitter. And I applied through the typical process. I was also up for a job at another (to remain nameless) company at the same time. Once I saw I had a shot at the Mozilla job, I pinged my connections at the second company and said "hey, I might be up for this job at Mozilla, do you want a shot at hiring me? Here's my résumé. Here's what I'm looking for. Wanna take a stab at grabbing me up?" (Well, of course, not in those words! But that was the gist of what I meant.) They were interested, and we had quite a few calls. It was great to have two companies considering me.

      There's a time when a company knows they need more help, but they haven't gotten it together yet to write up a job description or announce a formal opening. If you are a fan of a company, email them with your résumé. Or build a website about how cool they are and how you want to work there and send them the link! Show dedication. Show interesting in them. And if they are anywhere in the process of beginning to think about maybe adding more people to the team, they will consider you. And you won't have any competition! I've seen that work many times.

      1 point
    • , almost 8 years ago

      Thanks for your congrats on winning Net Magazine's Podcast of the Year. I was very excited to win. And thanks for your kind words.

      How do I put together the show over and over? Well, I love doing it. I honestly don't think I'm consistent enough — I'd like to be more consistent in how often the show comes out, and in what the audio quality sounds like... but I expect you mean in the show itself, the guests, the topics.

      I am constantly doing research for The Web Ahead. While traveling to many conferences makes it hard to record the show consistently, it makes it much easier for me to keep up with trends and find great new guests. The Web Ahead has been a great project for me because it fits well with my strengths and my interests. I was constantly keeping up with the new and who's who before I started the show. Doing the show gave me "an excuse" to put so much time into research — a way to share that work beyond a tiny circle of people.

      What's my take on the podcast landscape?

      Ah, the U.S.-public-radio-pros-start-believing-in-podcasts-so-now-podcasts-are-a-legit-thing question.

      In the last year or so, podcasting has gotten a big push in the mainstream media. I'm glad more people are figuring out how to listen to a podcast. That's great. I think the way the mainstream press has covered podcasts is ridiculous. Just because one slice of the world figures out something doesn't mean it's new. Or surging. Or different. All that press coverage is the result of some great P.R. companies at work, not the result of a changing reality.

      I love the podcast format. And I truly enjoy doing the show. It's been over four years, but feels like a much shorter time. I expect I'll be doing The Web Ahead for a long time.

      1 point
    • , almost 8 years ago

      Your life on the road speaking at conferences looks hectic, what tools do you use to keep on task with such a busy work schedule being on the road?

      Tools? Like productivity tools?

      Hm. I used to be much more concerned about having "the right" productivity tool than I am now. These days I use the heck out of iCal, Notes, email, Twitter. They all have flaws, but my productivity goes up by spending time on my work instead of time on finding "better" tools. Any week now I'll get back into OmniFocus. And setup a workflow for Evernote. (Right, any week now.)

      It's my goal this winter to detangle my email from Gmail. I want Google's tracking of my email out of my life. It's just non trivial to switch everything around. I always refused to use Google calendar, so thankfully I don't have to undo that.

      Having corporations watch everything we do and use that data for their own profit is awful. I don't like it. So to me, it's important to use tools where I don't become a product. I'd rather pay for software and service with money, not freedom. (more on this topic: http://thewebahead.net/107)

      0 points
  • Shawn Gregg, almost 8 years ago

    When it comes to design and the web what technology (available now or on the horizon) do you think has the most potential to drastically change the way we work on the web or interact with it (and why)?

    1 point
    • , almost 8 years ago

      There are too many to name one as The One.

      I'm especially excited about the new CSS Properties for layout. Grid, Flexbox, and Alignment will change how we do layout on every single website ever built in the future. Shapes, Multicolumn, Exclusions, Regions, Viewport Units, Round, Clip-path, Masks, and many more provide ways for us to shape the content on the page. We can finally start doing real editorial design, real art direction. Now we just have to wake up to the new technological possibilities and change our thinking.

      I'm also excited about service workers. After many years of trying, we finally have tools to let us make our websites work offline. This opens up a whole world of new ideas of what the web is and what websites can do.

      2 points
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, almost 8 years ago (edited almost 8 years ago )

    So this could be a potentially dangerous question, but I still wanna ask it because its important to me; I personally care very deeply about tolerance and gender equality in our society, as well as our industry. Now that women are getting more and more (slowly though) visibility in our industry, I have to admit that I cannot think of any LGBTI Person from our industry. As far as I am concerned, I am the only one I know. I am also not sure, if this topic does matter at all. Because I think it ultimately does not make a difference, but the same goes for gender in my opinion. People are people first and everything else comes after that. And I think we learn as a society more and more to let go of labels, which is good.

    So, do you think that visibility of LGBTI people in our industry is something that will be a topic in the future?

    (I feel like you might have an opinion on this topic, which is why I asked this question.)

    1 point
    • Yasen DimovYasen Dimov, almost 8 years ago

      Not sure where you are, but here in London, I've worked with a lot of LGBTI (or should we call tech queers LGBIT) people and it's always been good fun... given I worked right in the middle of Soho for 3 years :)

      But does it matter? No, for me it doesn't! We're all in tech, why would it matter who I ****?

      1 point
    • , almost 8 years ago

      2015 has been a great year for waking up to the insanity of how hard it is to be a woman in tech. It seems like the industry finally noticed. And amazingly has agreed: this is bad; we don't want this.

      We should not stop there. Racism in the tech industry is just as much of a problem. Or you could say, racism in our world, and the way it shows up in the tech industry, is an even bigger problem.

      I watched a fantastic presentation from Kronda Adair yesterday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40p-zqaKM54 and in it, she sites a number of 30%. If sexism, racism and more were not around, just 30% of our workforce would be straight, white, able-bodied men. So where is everyone else? Where are the 70%, the missing folks? We've driven them away.

      LGBTI — lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersectional — or, for short, queer folks are around. It's easier for many of us to be quiet, to blend in. You are not the only one. There are well-known famous leaders in the tech world, like Kara Swisher https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kara_Swisher or Tim Cook https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Cook (and sadly, I just named two white people). There are groups like Lesbians in Tech and Out in Tech. I know a lot of other queer folks in tech, many of whom are not white. I don't want to name them here though, because I'm not sure who's out and who's not… or also, I simply guess often, my gaydar goes off and I assume they are queer, but I don't have any info to back that up. I haven't actually asked them. So I can't name them. But we are here.

      Yes, I say we. I haven't (that I remember) publicly announced that I am queer — not in the tech world. But hell. I'll do it here. Guess what people? I identified as a lesbian for years. My longest relationship was with a woman. Now I consider myself bi. It's not that I changed, or my preferences shifted in the slightest. It's more that the cultural context in which I live shifted. It's weird, "coming out" — do I need to? Isn't it obvious? Or, er, if I wasn't single, I could talk about my partner. Well, if she were a she, talking about a girlfriend or wife would out me. Talking about a boyfriend or husband would give people the wrong impression.

      Doing this is dangerous. I'm much more nervous now about being out in tech, then I was when I worked for an arts non-profit that was getting death threats and having our building assaulted.

      I could care less if people don't want to work with me or talk to me because I'm queer. I could care less if they stop listening to my show or have less respect for me at a conference. That's on them. And most people don't think that way anymore. I am, however, afraid of hate mobs. I'm afraid of being doxxed. And that silences me more than anything. Really, that's about being a woman online. But also being queer just adds fuel to their fire. So… I am very private. Very quiet. I speak of nothing of my private life online. Well, except for today, apparently. I just hope that if I am ever threatened by assholes in tech again, there will be people there to have my back. (And pay for my hotel.)

      So hello Thomas! Count me as one. There are many others.

      The crew that puts on the Sass conference and makes many of the Sass tools, they are the most diverse group in tech I've seen. Race, gender, sexuality — it's a band of rainbow. If you like Sass and can swing the plane ticket, go to Sass Conf next year. And maybe any other gay/queer men reading this can announce themselves, so you won't feel so alone. Hello!

      5 points
  • Hui Jing Chen, almost 8 years ago

    I know that you have roots in theatre and design before focusing on the web (I'm not a stalker I just pay attention during your podcasts!). Although I have been using the web since the 90s, I only really started web development a little over 2 years ago. And I do still get the feeling that I'm under-qualified, with so many talented developers doing really cool stuff. Did you ever have a case of imposter syndrome before and how did you deal with it?

    0 points
    • , almost 8 years ago

      Oh, I still think I'm not qualified to be doing what I'm doing. Just this week I was overwhelmed by a sense of "oh my gosh, I don't know enough about these layout specifications! Who do I think I am trying to write tutorials about them?" So, uh, I didn't get the article I was writing done in time for the thing I was shooting for. Next time.

      I think that's normal when everything moves so fast. All any of us can do is wake up in the morning and learn more.

      I like to notice fear and break it down. What exactly am I afraid of? Can I face that fear, instead of trying to pretend it's not there? Is it true? How, exactly? Usually the FACTS the fear are telling me are not true, and staring fear right in the face, hard, reveals the lie. And if parts are true (like I really need to do more research for this article before I publish it), then I know what I need to do next. And can make a plan to do that. One step at a time.

      0 points
  • Oliver PattisonOliver Pattison, almost 8 years ago (edited almost 8 years ago )

    What were your first experiences of the web and what did you think of it at the time, in the context of its design and utility?

    A theme that often comes up in your show is that we can learn from the history of the web. How do you think your experiences of the web as it existed in its infancy have affected how you think about it now (or how it might inform our view of the web in the future)?

    0 points
    • , almost 8 years ago

      I first got online in 1995. I wanted to get online earlier, but services like CompuServe and Genie were far too expensive. My college wasn't online when I was there (at least not that I knew of), and, uh, the web hadn't been built yet. I think I actually got on AOL first (American Online), because setting up TCP/IP for a direct connection to the web was insanely hard. Especially without having internet to look up how to get to the internet.

      The web was rudimentary then, but services like AOL and eWorld were not. I think a lot of the original layouts we saw on the web (once we started using tables for layout) were heavily influenced by such worlds, and CD-ROMs.

      I thought the web was awesome. It was super handy.

      It wasn't until 2001, however, when I left Texas for a fourth-month trip that I saw people using the web in their everyday lives. Friends in Massachusetts had always-on connections, and would turn to the web instead of a newspaper to find movie showing times and such. Wow! You can use the web for IRL things?!

      It's funny how hard it is to remember what this technology used to mean to us. We think we've always thought about it the way we think about it now.

      I do bring up the past a lot when talking on The Web Ahead, or presenting on stage at conferences. I'm especially interested in the long arc of the web. What is this medium? I don't believe we can see that long arc when we are looking just at this year, this project, this moment. We need to look back, see the trends, see how things have already changed radically in order to begin to understand where we are going.

      I'm deeply aware that a zillion people are younger and have grown up with the web as part of their childhood. They weren't online in 1993 or 1996 or 2001. They don't know about the lessons we've already learned "the hard way", and are repeating some of the bad old days of the past, thinking what we thought back then — hey this is a good idea. It's important for everyone who teaching this stuff to never assume we al have the same reference points, or the same past experience. So I talk about the past intentionally for folks who weren't there. We used to mix content and styling. Turns out that's a bad idea. It took a decade to stop doing that. And now, here we are, with new folks advocating mixing content and styling. Nope! Let's not!

      It's also simply fun to look at all the old websites. And try to understand what we were doing then. How we do it now. How we got from there to here. I do think that helps in understanding where we are going.

      1 point
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, almost 8 years ago (edited almost 8 years ago )

    Lately you cannot pass a week without having yet another prototyping tool that does one thing different, then all the others - which is always animation. They market like it is so much better and different, but they are almost all the same. I can out of my head think of 5 tools that do exactly the same, with even similar interfaces. They often only differ visually or in their pricing. This ties a little bit into the question I asked before, where I raise the question of weather we as a industry concetrate too much on designing for our own kind. I see the same with email-clients. All email clients that claimed to "reinvent the way we do email" are the same old clients in different disguises, decorated differently. I believe most of those things work, because they are targeted towards designers. A designer will value very much, if an email client is flat, has ghost buttons and a tomato #ff6347 primary color. And I see designers repeating those mistakes on dribbble, behance, here and in slack channels. They don't design for solutions, they make something pretty to get attention from other designers. I personally do morning pages (Julia Cameron) every day and I meditate for at least 15 minutes a day, so I see very quickly, when people live according to their externally absorbed expectations (shoulds) instead of doing something authentic. And I see this in the industry happening. People could share their work, gather feedback and work together. Instead, they do all to impress their peers. Yesterday someone posted on dribbble a shot that had nothing on it but a text that said "I joined disney". I hope I get my point across.

    So now I'm trying to actually from a question here: Do you think that we are creating a culture that values the worth of a person in the amount of attention they get and thus creating and attracting a destructive kind of designer? Are we not teaching designers the right soft skills? Do you think, that nowadays as a designer you need to be comfortable with over-promoting everything you do, because without attention you might not get any job?

    0 points
    • , almost 8 years ago

      There are two questions here in a way. Well,

      I do see people making "duplicate" tools in what seems like an effort to get attention. I see people writing posts with link-baity headlines and causing a drama in a effort to get attention. I find these choices very selfish.

      In the early days of the web, and of sharing technology, this kind of behavior was rare. Or at least it seems that it was rare. People shared for the sake of sharing. Truly wanting to help each other and help the industry.

      Our culture as a whole has shifted. Now that anyone can publish (yay!), many of us do (yay!). People are pursuing "fame" for it's own sake, without regard to the affect their content is making. I first saw this in 2006, and it depressed me.

      It's not really new, though. It's human nature. Now with superpowers.

      We each have some power to shape this, however. We can choose not to promote link-baity posts. If someone is "writing" a post that's really just a copy of someone else's work, we can promote the original and ignore the copy cat. And we can each try to make work that is truly our own. That's really about making good work, teaching, sharing. And not about attention for it's own sake. And we can make work that we believe in, of course hoping it get traction, but then letting go of the result.

      (And btw, THE TIME FOR LAYOUT FRAMEWORKS IS OVER. No more layout frameworks! Flexbox and Grid give us the tools to each write our own CSS from scratch for the sites we are building. It's NOT a time to create "My SuperBetta Flexbox Framework!" NO! No! No. Stop. No.)

      2 points
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, almost 8 years ago (edited almost 8 years ago )

    So I am a huge fan of your podcast. I love the way you talk to your guests and how honest and direct you voice your opinions. I'm not sure if I even have a question for you, as I just wanna tell you that I think you are awesome :D

    People who read me on designernew.co know that I have a very hard time with selfpromotion and excessive self-advertising. When I started to learn webdesign, I just wanted to know very badly how to turn a photoshop document into an actual website and it took on from there on. I learned everything by myself and I got very soon sucked into this awesome community of sharing developers and designers. In the last 2-3 Years though, I observed an immense inward focus of industry insiders - meaning, that now almost all of people who have a name in the industry are not working for clients or solving problems for people outside of our industry. A lot of free learning ressources for webtechnology and methodologies are nowadays available. It seems like 50% of people who work in the webindustry are only creating products and solutions for people like themselves. So my first, really long question is:

    Do you think that we as a industry are becoming increasingly more focused on making tools for ourselves and selling to people from our industry, in stead of finding solutions for other groups of people? Do you think, we might be making the same mistakes as the idea of the academia did, where it was first about sharing knowledge and experience, but has over time turned into a closed system that nurtures itself and is not open to contributions and development from outside their academic bubble? If yes, what do you think we can do to prevent this?

    0 points
    • , almost 8 years ago

      Thank you for your kind words Thomas. And your great questions. I love the podcast format because the audio conveys tone of voice, and we can communicate all kinds of feelings between the words: hesitation, frustration, joy, excitement... it makes it easy to be honest. And to talk about things we aren't sure of. I like discovering what I think about a topic as I talk about it.

      Your question is an interesting one. I do think there's a thought bubble in San Francisco / Silicon Valley where a lot of the thinking about technology, products, innovation, what humans want and need is so closed in that yes — we see a lot of startups making products for other startups. A lot of sites / apps / tools that only work with fast computers and always-on, fast internet connections. It's crazy. But I don't think such shallow-thinking creates good results. A lot of those companies come and go. The good news is that if we look outside the Bay area, we see the rest of the world, one that isn't stuck in a closed bubble of thinking. Especially if we stop focusing the United States, there's amazing work, amazing innovation happening elsewhere.

      It is true that a lot of the people who teach web design, development, product, etc are focused personally on teaching, and not on client work. That's become increasingly true for me over the last two years. But it takes a lot of time and focus to be a great teacher. I think it's great when people find a way to make a living speaking at conferences, making podcasts, writing articles, publishing tutorials. We need such people. Of course, any teaching / sharing/ presenting needs to be rooted in real work, real client projects, real world needs. I hope we never become like some parts of the academy where the intellectual abstract debate becomes so separate from everyday experience that it becomes useless to practitioners. Many conferences and publications pay close attention to what their audiences respond to, and only keep presenting / publishing ideas that practitioners actually find helpful.

      It's a thought, though, to be careful and watch out that the discussions don't becomes too closed off.

      2 points