Rachel Andrew for Barcelona Code School

Today we are posting an interview with Rachel Andrew, a web developer, speaker and author. Rachel is world renown CSS expert and a co-founder of CMS Perch. Beside that, Rachel has her own online CSS course which we highly recommend for everybody interested in learning it deeply. We, of course, we were really curious on how it all started for Rachel. Remember, everybody has been a beginner at some time.

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As BCS is focusing on teaching web development to beginners we are very much interested in how this all started for you? When have you decided to be a developer? And what was you path?

I became a developer pretty much by accident. I trained to be a dancer and intended to work in theatre, ultimately going to work backstage in the West End of London. However, when I became pregnant with my daughter in 1996 I realised that I couldn’t continue to work in theatre. I ended up with a computer because I could type and was considering taking in typing work — typing up essays and so on. I went into the shop for a Word Processor, and was sold a 486 Computer with a 640x480 screen.

The computer meant I could get online and as I wanted to be able to share photos and so on, I built a website. That made me the person who knew about websites and very quickly people were paying me to do this for them. It really just went from there, before I knew it I had taught myself Perl, was pretty decent at installing and configuring Linux and Apache, and I just continued to teach myself things from there.

We know you mostly as being CSS expert and advocate, however you are also a server-side developer with many years of experience. How do you feel about combining these two parts which are often seen as something completely opposite and hard to find in one person? Is CSS your true love vs back-end?

All of these things are just what we use to solve problems. It seems an unnecessary distinction and barrier that people put between front and back-end. I like to solve problems in the best place for them to be solved. It’s worth at least having an understanding of the “other side” because you can then work better with other developers and understand what you can do to help them do their job in a better way, and what to ask for in order for you to do yours.

Speaking of gender inequality in tech, have you ever felt and experienced that yourself? Is it still there or are we passed it? Just recently one of our students mentioned that here in Spain it’s common to ask female job candidates if they are planning to get pregnant or even have a partner to get pregnant with potentially! It sounds ridiculous indeed, do you have any similar horror stories from your life?

I believe that throughout the EU that question is illegal to ask in an interview so the company could find themselves in trouble if asking that.

I don’t feel I am qualified to speak for “women in tech”. Personally I try to help hold the door open for other women, by being a visible woman in the industry and by making myself available to chat to women who are entering the industry, or thinking about it.

When do you think is the right time to learn CSS in depth speaking of a beginner student journey into becoming a web developer? Do you suggest to focus in the beginning on the HTML->CSS->JS order or learn full-stack completely to a certain degree and when master CSS after figuring out the logic behind the apps building process?

If you want to become a web developer you start with HTML and CSS, and the basics of JavaScript. If you don’t have these skills then you are not going to understand how a framework works, and you’ll end up tweaking the rules of something that seems like a black box. Also, these core technologies are unlikely to go away — unlike the framework of the moment. Knowing your core skills means you can use other tools when required, make good decisions about whether you need them, and be happy to switch away when they no longer serve a purpose.

We would like to hear your opinion about using pure CSS vs libraries like Bootstrap, Foundation and such.

My opinion is that once you have learned HTML and CSS you should use the right thing for your project.

What do you think of CSS pre-processors? Is it worth for the beginner students to learn them or better to spend time on pure CSS and go as deep as they can with that?

You don’t need to use pre-processors until you have discovered problems solved by pre-processors. You are only going to get to that point once you know HTML and CSS so once again — learn those first.

Speaking of all the craziness and obsession with JavaScript — you know JavaScript and yet the Perch CMS is developed with PHP. What was the reason for that?

Webhosting. PHP & MySQL is what is available easily as a hosting environment. It would be very hard to have a commercial success in the market we target with anything else.

Let’s touch a painful matter — what is your favorite way to vertically center things with CSS?

That was only a painful matter in the past. Anyone who suggests it is a painful matter in 2017 needs to go and learn some CSS! The Box Alignment properties are implemented in Grid and Flexbox so you can use either of those, ultimately we should see them implemented on other layout methods, but at the moment usually the easiest thing to do is to make the container a flex container and do the alignment that way.

How do you see the direction of CSS evolvement? I know for sure that back in the 90s nobody could ever dream of CSS being capable to do animations for example. What is your vision for the CSS’s future?

I don’t really have an answer for that.

After meeting and talking to many web developers we have a strong sense that we haven’t seen a single person bold enough to claim they know CSS from A to Z. It seems that it’s never-ending learning story, do you agree with that? When can someone consider themselves a CSS expert?

You don’t need to be a walking encyclopedia to be an expert in a subject. CSS is pretty big these days and even on the Working Group most people have the areas they are most knowledgeable on — for me that’s layout. However part of being an expert in anything is knowing where to look and who to ask about the other areas. If I’m completely puzzled about some behaviour I go ask someone, showing them a clear example of the problem I am having. Sometimes being an expert is being able to identify where the limits of that expertise are!

Being a parent, what do you think about exposing children to the programming at the early age? Is your daughter interested in the web development? Have you tried to make her follow your path there or she is not into that?

My daughter is a professional dancer and singer. I never tried to make her follow any particular path, she should follow her own dreams and talents. The web didn’t exist when I was at school. I wasn’t interested in computers when I was at school, things change far too fast to shove children down one route or another. The important thing is that they know how to learn, how to solve problems, and have curiosity about the world.



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Barcelona Code School

We help people to learn web development and improve their lives by becoming a freelancer, finding a job or starting their own product. Just coding, no bullshit!