Video: In Conversation with Sara Soueidan

As with Karen McGrane, Ethan Marcotte, and a number of other speakers at our recent Respond Conference whom we’ll feature in coming weeks, I had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with Sara Soueidan while she was here. We talked about how she became a speaker (great advice for anyone looking to start sharing their experience and expertise on stage), SVG (of course), and much more.

We also recently published our interview with Sara, which first appeared in our Scroll Magazine, if you’d like to know more about her.

And if reading’s more your thing, there’s a full transcript below.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Like to watch and read more like this? Be the first to score invitations to our events? Then jump on our once a week mailing list where we round up the week’s best reading and watching on all things Web. And you’ll get a complimentary digital copy of our brand new magazine, Scroll.


Further reading and ideas

Transcript

John

So, Rachel Andrew, who writes a column in A List Apart recently, talked about the challenge of, basically, free. And how a lot of the time, people who have a profile in our industry, and often people who don’t, are kinda asked and even expected to do lots of things for free. Speaking at conferences, sharing their thoughts online. I think that it also connects with the open-source ethos and philosophy where a lot of people are devoting an enormous amount of time and rarely being particularly well recompensed. But, by the same token, I think it’s something very special and important about our industry is that we’ve collectively developed our expertise and our skills and shared that. Most people, I know, including myself, have learned a great deal from other experts who have learned something and shared it. So what are your thoughts around that dilemma? You know there are obviously benefits of giving your time, raising your profile with the opportunity, then, to perhaps publish a book or gain a client.

Sara

Exactly.

John

What are your feelings around that whole issue?

Sara

I don’t have anything particularly against it, if you get to do it on your own account. For example, if I have some time and I feel like writing, I write. If, like, you know, recently I read this article by Daniel Mall, where he talks about the difference between being busy and between setting priorities. So, instead of saying, “Okay, I’m too busy to do this,” you shift your mindset and you think, “This is not a priority.” So, when you don’t have a lot of work to do, which is what I used to be like the first year when I started out. I spent a lot of my time learning and I loved writing and I loved teaching so I spent a big part of my time writing as well. So, whenever I learned something, I shared it, I wrote an article. People liked the way I write my stuff and sort of related with it, so I kept doing it for awhile. And there’s this beautiful sense of satisfaction when someone comes, for example, sends you a Tweet or email and says, “Thank you, your article gave me this ah-ha moment and I finally understood the concept that I couldn’t understand before.” This is very satisfactory and sometimes this is enough for me to do what I do. But, in the last, like, few months actually, it only started maybe in September last year, I started setting priorities like Daniel said and ever since then, I’ve been writing less. I’ve also been speaking for free less. I used to speak, I spent my entire first year, probably, speaking for free. But then, I also used to make the mistake of making a new talk for every single conference.

John

Yes, that’s a good habit to break.

Sara

Yeah, I definitely broke that. So, there are definitely disadvantages to that. But if you have the time, and it helps you build your profile, it helps you get connected to people, then definitely I don’t have anything against that. But, people on the other side, people who are receiving your stuff, they shouldn’t set expectations that you might not be able to meet. Like, I see a lot of, for example, I’m one of the people, I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be some criticisms to me saying that, I don’t wear open-source as a badge. Like, hey I’m a proud open-sourcer. I do have some things on GitHub. My activity is, I’m not really that active on GitHub, but I’ve seen a lot of people who are and who get a lot of nasty comments from people who are like, “You have to fix this.” I used to get those via email. Before I started writing tutorials on how to or how to explain things, I used to write tutorials on how to create certain demos and then after a few months when browser support changed and some demos broke, I used to get a lot of emails from people asking me to fix it for them. And some developers even used to send me emails asking me to fix their projects for them and without even offering anything. I was like, okay, there’s a limit to the amount of things, or the kinds of things that you can do for free. And people just need to understand that. Behind the web, there are people, and people tend to forget that there are people on the other side of the screen.

John

It’s really interesting, so I started on the web, actually pre-web days even, and one of our primary mechanisms of connecting with people were news groups. That’s how I met, for example, Eric Meyer many, many years ago. And what was really, what was always very interesting to observe in news groups is that people would behave towards someone, and if people aren’t familiar with news groups, I guess the closest analog these days is Slack, a bit like Twitter, in a sense as well. But typically, the difference between a news group is that they were relatively small communities on the whole. There also anybody could largely join in. And what you would find is that people just weren’t capable of imagining they were in a room having a conversation with someone and, therefore, they would, I remember one person when I made a suggestion on something he says, “Literally made me sick.” Like your suggestion, I was like yeah, seriously? You know, if you’re in my house and we’re having a beer or a cup of tea or whatever, would you say that?

Sara

You wouldn’t say that.

John

And I think that’s a really good analogy that we’ve sort of somewhat lost. It’s almost like we have to keep learning over and over again the same analogies. I guess my feeling, to some extent, around the whole free thing is, you have, sort of, two consumers or, you’ve obviously got the producer of the presentation, the writing, often the software, the code. You have the audience who will use it as part of their project or learn something from it and grow from it. But then you have either the people who employ those people or you have the companies who gain tremendous advantage from that code base or they may be publishers, they might be a conference company. And I think the balance is tricky. And I think it, probably, I mean one of things, one of our guiding principles with when we ask people to speak, that we want people to leave better for it and often financially is a part of that, right And I do, somewhat, sometimes feel that, particularly amongst those commercial entities that are benefiting really significantly from that work, there is this kind of expectation that, well, it’s all open-source or it’s all free and it’s all part of the giving community and what have you. I think that’s probably, we’re gonna burn out, I think, a lot of people this way. And I really, if I had a call to any activity around this, would be, to the people who really have the resources, to contribute those resources back to ensuring that this is, what I use the term, sustainable. I don’t think right now sometimes that it’s a sustainable ecosystem because we really do, really take for granted a lot of the excess, you know, surplus intellectual property people put into it.

Sara

I’ve only recently setting limitations and saying no more to conference invitations because, like half or more than half of the invitations that I got for this year, I got more than 30 invitations.

John

Right, wow.

Sara

And I said no to most of them because, it’s not mainly because of the money, but it was a big part of it. Like a lot of conferences would ask me to travel for, there was this conference that asked me to travel all the way to San Francisco, to the other side of the world. They would only pay for two nights to stay there. That’s not enough to even get over my jet lag.

John

Right, yeah.

Sara

And to give a 15-minute keynote for free.

John

Yeah, and I’m not gonna necessarily ask who the names are but I’ve found that actually some well-established, successful, large companies have that expectation.

Sara

Exactly.

John

And, you know, to me, I think that’s unsustainable, really.

John

Not these people.

John

There are people who definitely wanna do the right thing. And it makes it very hard to, essentially, in one sense, compete when other people aren’t necessarily wearing the costs that you are and going to the efforts that you are. Anyway, as I said, I don’t wanna make it about us, thanks for those sorts and I guess the broader point is, and I think as an industry, we really do have to value probably more, the contributions that a relatively small number of people are making. Often, not necessarily the most well-known. I think, in open-source, the very high-profile founders of a project will get recognition, rightly so, and maybe well employed or maybe start a company around what they’re doing. But there are plenty of other people who will make contributions that don’t necessarily do nearly as well out of that, right?

Sara

Don’t get recognition.

John

And I’m not sheeting that responsibility home to the people who started that project, by any means. But I think definitely, if your company does well out of other people’s work, you should be compensating them for that is my broad philosophy in life.

Sara

Definitely.

John

Anyway. So, you’re, I guess, most well-known, in many respects, for scalable vector graphics for SVG. So, how did you come to have a particular passion for, interest in, expertise around SVG?

Sara

It’s actually weird because I spent an entire year focusing on CSS only and nobody even sometimes remembers that. Even though I–

John

I guess there were lots of people who did that. You know, that was a field that was pretty saturated even ten years ago in a way.

Sara

I got into SVG–

John

Lea Verou pretty much cornered that market I think.

Sara

The way I got into SVG was totally unplanned. I gave my first talk a couple of years ago at CSSconf in Miami, so, I was supposed to give a talk about textured text and certain effects and I lost my inspiration for the talk a few weeks before the talk and so I wanted something new. I always like to challenge myself and I always like to put myself under pressure before I give a talk, otherwise, I’m not gonna come up with something creative. So, I had been reading about SVG for a couple of months before that here and there. There were only like a few articles, including one from Chris Coyier. So, everyone’s talking about this new image format and I don’t really

John

When you say new, were you talking about 12 years ago?

Sara

Yeah, yeah (laughs)

John

When did you, when was it you, what year are we talking about here?

Sara

That was two years ago.

John

All right.

Sara

Yeah.

John

It’s very interesting to me that SVG has been supported since IE9 I think.

Sara

Yeah.

John

So kinda many years before. We’ll get on to, perhaps, why it’s taken so long. But anyway, this reasonably, moderately new technology in 2014

Sara

So, the new technology called SVG, I didn’t know anything about it. I don’t like not knowing anything about something.

John

So, you’d heard of it, it was like (mumbles)

Sara

Yeah, just articles here and there.

John

Right, right.

Sara

It has something to do with resolution independence and responsive design is really the big thing today so, I was like, okay. I started reading an article, reading a little more about it and then, this is how it starts with me all the time. Like, I start reading about something, I start taking notes for myself, and then these notes pile up, and then they turn into an article. But with that instance, they turned into a talk. So, I talked to Nicole Sullivan at that time and I said that I’m not really feeling inspired by the textured text talk and I’m thinking about changing it to styling and animating SVGs with CSS. And I didn’t even know that was going to be popular. Like, it was just a new topic, and I didn’t see a lot of people talk about it, so I thought I’d do it. I did and the feedback was amazing. Right now when I think about the slides I feel incredibly proud about them, because there weren’t really that amount of information about SVG gathered in one place like that. Okay, so because of the excitement that I got, and Kristina Schneider, she asked me to give the same talk at CSSconf EU and I wanted it to be updated for that conference, so I started digging more. And that’s when, whenever, if I don’t understand something from the inside out, I can’t really work with it. So I started looking into the viewbox attribute and that was like a black box. It didn’t get, it started changing the values and the image changed in ways that I didn’t even anticipate or expect. I had no idea how it worked and that drove me crazy. So, I spent two weeks, researching, reading. I didn’t find any good articles to make me understand it well.

John

So you had to go back to the spec.

Sara

The spec had, like, nothing about the viewbox. So, the only way I knew that I could understand it is to visualize it and that’s exactly what I did. I started, I created an instructive demo. I then, after awhile, I refined it and made it public, but at first I started with, for me. So, I started changing the values of the viewbox and seeing how it changed until one day it clicked and I was able to make the comparison between how the viewbox works, the positioning and the scaling, in how the positioning and scaling of background images works in CSS. They are very similar in that aspect. And that’s when I got the ah-ha moment and ever since then, I always say the same thing, if you understand the viewbox, your SVG codes are taken to a totally new level. And I started falling in love with it, especially the viewbox. Everyone knows how much I love the viewbox. A lot, like in every, I would have mentioned it tomorrow, but there’s nothing really to talk, it’s not really related to the content of my talk tomorrow. Yeah, so I got hooked and I started learning more. And the idea of having an image and being able to control the content of that image. When I used to be a kid, I used to draw a lot. And I used to draw cartoons a lot. And I used to dream about traveling to Japan some day, maybe, and working as an anime, you know, animator, basically. So, you have these images and you get to animate them. And, I didn’t get to do that, so I found SVG where I have an image, and I literally get to animate it using code and that was enough to get me hooked. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And I’m still learning. There’s so much more that I’m lagging behind.

John

So, I think there’s two things I wanna say about that. The first thing is, if you’re interested in becoming a presenter and doing presentations at conferences, I think that path is a really good example of how to do it. We ask lots of people to speak. We’re constantly looking for new speakers. We do speaker workshops and really, one of our missions is to help people become speakers. And time and again people will say, “I don’t know if I’ve got something to say. “I’m not sure what I’ve got to say is really interesting.” But I think a lot of people also think, “Oh, I have to be the world expert in something “in order to come to speak about it.”

Sara

No.

John

The fact of the matter is, there are so many undiscovered aspects, even in something like SVG which has been incredibly widely supported since IE9. IE9 was the last holdout. That’s 2009, I think, that we’ve had and I’ve been promoting SVG since long before that and continuing to bang my head against the table as to why people are not adopting, but I guess the point is, here’s a technology that’s been around a long time, incredibly powerful, incredibly exciting and capable, and yet, you’ve found aspects of it that will be valuable to people. No one else could teach you that. You had to work that and then you shared that with other people. I think that’s a really great example of the sort of thing people who are interested in presenting should look at but not think of themselves as having spent 10 years becoming a master.

Sara

They don’t have to know everything.

John

You can learn by teaching it to people.

Sara

By teaching it. Exactly, like when you’re learning, you start getting these moments and you start seeing things from a very different perspective that even experts don’t see them that way. So, you’re able to simplify things because the way you would get them is by simplifying them and, for example, if I or if some experts. I had this teacher back in college. He was a genius. He was incredibly smart. He got the highest not grades, average in college. Yeah, he was incredibly smart but he was the worst teacher. He was the worst at explaining things. So, what I’m trying to say is you don’t have to be really, really an expert in something and know it inside out to talk about it. When I started with SVG, like I said, I learned it two weeks before my talk. And the amount of information that I gave during the talk was all I knew about SVG back then. So, definitely don’t wait to become an expert. And I don’t really think the word expert, people sometimes call me an SVG expert and I’m like, no, I’m not an expert. It’s very hard to define yourself or to define other people as an expert so, if you’re gonna wait for yourself to become one, especially if you have the impostor syndrome, you’re never gonna speak. Because you’re never gonna think of yourself as an expert.

John

Yeah, absolutely. I studied mathematics and I found that I had dozens of professors over a three-year period and I’m terribly sorry to say that one of them was a good teacher. The rest were, literally, terrible teachers. Because they knew how to do mathematics and so they usually stand there and do it on the blackboard and walk away.

Sara

Exactly.

John

Whereas I’ve always, I probably had a similar journey compared with you nearly 20 years ago with CSS, where I had that ah-ha moment and I thought this is brilliant technology. It was only a matter of months old. And when you were telling the story, I felt like, that’s so similar in many respects to the story I had. Although I didn’t necessarily, there weren’t conferences back then. So the way people communicated were very much, there weren’t even blogs back then. You would write articles and you’d post them, often in news groups like that’s what you did. But, it was the fact that I was struggling myself with an idea and had to find a way of understanding and coming at it as you’ve done with the viewbox. So, I guess why I’ve labored on this a little bit is to try and really get people interested in speaking. So, as you say, don’t wait. Don’t think you have to be an expert. In fact, your journey of, not necessarily your personal journey, but your journey of learning about the technology or the practice is actually probably similar to what other people are kinda wanna go through. And so telling that will be very valuable to them.

Sara

Yes, especially like, I also, there’s another thing that I had, one of the speakers, SmashingConf a couple of weeks ago, he was talking about a topic he wanted to talk about and then he said that someone else was talking about the same topic. So, that made him not talk about it anymore. And I was like, why? Don’t, a lot of, a lot of people on Twitter say I wanted to write this article about that something but then I realized there are a million articles about that so I decided not to do it. That’s so wrong. Everyone has their different aspect, different perspective, I mean, and the way you explain things, as they say, it’s all about style. So, everyone has their own style. And some people can relate to that person’s style and other people will be able to relate to yours not that person’s. So, definitely don’t let that stand in the way.

John

And in three months I will have inevitably forgotten that article (laughs)

Sara

Exactly.

John

We have a very short memory on the web a lot of the time. So, shifting things a little bit. I guess at the moment what we’re seeing is an increasing complexity of what we do on the front end. We were using pre-processors, we’re using lots of libraries and frameworks and they’re doing more and more of the heavy lifting. Are you a person who tends to go toward those layers of abstraction, or you tend to stay with the core foundational technologies?

Sara

I stay with the core. I’ve always liked staying with the core. Even in college, we had this assembly course, assembly language and then we had the C and C++ courses. Assembly is like the lower level and C is not. I was super comfortable dealing with assembly and really not comfortable with C and I’m still like that with CSS Javascript. I don’t know Angular. I don’t know React. I know Javascript. I know CSS. I only use a pre-processor. I used Less for a while. It didn’t really feel like it was for me. So, I tried Sass. It was simpler, sort of. I do use it these days, but I only use it for variables and nesting which hopefully will come to CSS some day.

John

Variables is they’ve landed a WebKit now. So, WebKit had an implementation at Con a decade ago of variables.

Sara

So, the only reason I use Sass is for variables and nesting.

John

I suspect that’s probably 99% of the use cases with them.

Sara

Yeah.

John

And I tend to like to keep my workflow as simple as possible, and probably pay a bit more of a high cost at the other side. Like I do miss, the variables and nesting are probably the two things that I would hanker after. But still not enough to actually go and actually use a pre-processor.

Sara

No, I do think they are worth it because they’re time savers and especially when it comes to organizing things. I do like to use them. But frameworks, I’ve never used Bootstrap. I’ve never used, I don’t even know a lot of CSS frameworks actually.

John

Well, there tend to be less emphasis on them now than there was certainly, I think, three, two, three, four years ago. I think, now why it is because everyone just uses Bootstrap, I don’t know. Or maybe they’ve, sort of, come and they’ve somewhat gone again. Because we were talking a little bit before we were on camera around whether or not in the Arabic world is web design very similar or different? So, I made the observation that, in my experience, certainly some years ago Japanese web design was quite different from what you might call western web design. Amongst my Japanese friends, we’d just discuss why that be different. But you sort of suggested the Arabic way of designing isn’t really too distinct.

Sara

It’s not really that different, no. And I still get a lot of requests from people, Arabic and non-Arabic, who ask me to build a web site, and one of their requirements is always use Bootstrap. And that’s actually one of the reasons I don’t do it. I don’t wanna be forced to use a framework. I prefer to write my CSS from scratch, from knowing exactly what everything is for, paying attention to progressive enhancement accessibility and all of that stuff without having to worry about being restricted by what Bootstrap has to offer. If you want me to build a web site, I’ll build it the way you want it, but I can do it from scratch. I don’t wanna be restricted by some CSS framework. CSS is simple enough to be written from scratch. Plus there’s a lot of accessibility problems with frameworks and spending time fixing those frameworks is a lot more than doing things from scratch.

John

Well, I was having a similar conversation with Russ Weekly yesterday. And Russ I’ve known for many years and has been a passionate advocate for accessibility in all that time. And we talked about how it’s kind of ironic, now that we have in the front end things like React, and somebody said Angular, Bootstrap, we’re actually getting worse accessibility rather than better, in some respects. Even though, in a sense, if these tools implemented accessibility well, then it’d almost completely come for free. There wouldn’t be, and yet people seem to find ways of using these technologies in ways that are less accessible, not more. And it’s almost like we don’t care about accessibility as much as we might have ten years ago.

Sara

Yeah, I hear this. I do hear this from certain developers.

John

I think old people. Because our eyes are getting worse, right (laughs).

Sara

Well, so are mine.

John

That’s what happens, I used to joke and now it’s not a joke anymore that, if you’re lucky you will become disabled, because you will get older and you will become less mobile and you will be, and when you’re, I probably first said that when I was 29 and now I’m 49 and I think it’s hard to, it’s harder to empathize broadly when you’re young and able-bodied and fit, and your eyes work well. I think it can be a bit more challenging. We can understand theoretically the challenges of accessibility, but I think we need to be, empathy can often come with personal experience or maybe going in, as Russ talked about yesterday, going and watching people use your web site and being humiliated by how you’ve made someone’s life more difficult than it should have been.

Sara

Yes, you know, I think it gets dangerous when certain developers, which happened yesterday, one of them said, “I don’t care about that one person out of 1300.” And that’s when I personally, where I personally draw the line. I mean, why wouldn’t you care? Maybe you’re that person. Maybe you’re the one having that problem. So, how would you feel if someone treated you the same way?

Sara

Yeah, I certainly think we all lose sight of the fact that the w-w bit of world wide web is worldwide and Tim Berners-Lee, so I sort of have this idea that Tim Berners-Lee gave the world an enormous gift. And it came with, and we’ve got this enormous privilege of being involved with it and helping make it happen and it’s rewarded us individually as professionals, enormously.

Sara

True.

John

And the kind of reciprocal responsibility is that always should, we should listen to and try to embody it’s values. And there are a set of values that Tim Berners-Lee has expressly enunciated about the web. And they are about inclusiveness and the very name, worldwide, access regardless of disability, to information. I think those are really important things. So, my blood does, literally, boil, well it doesn’t literally, figuratively boils (laughs) when I hear things like that. Because we’ve been hearing that for 20 years. And it’s a shame, here we go, we have to start all over again. And where do I, how do I, what? You know, maybe we just have to do that. It’s part of our responsibility is to educate newer generations.

Sara

Exactly, we need more speakers speaking about accessibility at conferences, because I don’t see those a lot.

John

It went away, right? It used to be a big thing and it’s gone away. We’ve got a bit of it coming up in this conference and the one we’ve got later in the year. But, one of the reasons why we didn’t really have as much in our conferences for a long time, we’re sort of like, that’s all done, people have got it now. People get it. It’s a set of practices. And to me, the challenge is less the practices, that’s part, it’s actually the belief that it is fundamentally important.

Sara

Sure.

John

I feel it’s no different to when we started our first conference in 2004. We’ve almost gotta go back and start again. But, maybe that’s just, as I said, the price, that we pay for for our place in the industry. I’ll finish by looking to the future. So, how long would you consider yourself as being professionally doing web things? How long?

Sara

Two years.

John

Two years? Only two years?

Sara

Maybe three, two and a half, or something.

John

Okay, so, and you’ve been using the web, so when was the first time the web became really a significant part of your day-to-day life?

Sara

Three years ago.

John

Really, so before that you really weren’t much of a web user or?

Sara

I’m not that into tech.

John

All right.

Sara

Yeah, so it’s kinda ironic how I ended up as a geek.

John

Yeah?

Sara

Yes, so but I like it. I love it, actually.

John

You say that, this is the woman who said, “Yeah, I prefer assembly over C.” That is a pretty geeky thing to say. I think the geek kind of genes were deeply in you there. I don’t think it happened, the web just came along and found you. But you were ready for it.

Sara

Absolutely. The first time I ever touched HTML was in eighth grade and it felt like a natural language. My teacher started talking, putting the P paragraph tags and as soon as I saw them, I was like, wow, I can use these few lines and I have a web page in front of me. So, I did that and I ended up making the best project in school and I did a couple of side projects at home. I got a book from college, from a friend of mine was in college, that was all about HTML and I started reading and reading and reading, and I made, you know the holy grail layout? You have main, sidebar, and header?

John

I think I have a whole chapter in one of my books on it.

Sara

I did that using iframes and I felt so proud.

John

With iframe?

Sara

Yes.

John

Right, okay.

Sara

Yeah, so I fell in love but then the next year, we didn’t take a computer course, so for like four, five years after that I didn’t touch any HTML. I didn’t do anything. And then in college, I didn’t have a lot of options to choose from because we weren’t the richest people in Lebanon, so, there were only a few colleges that I could go to. And so only a few options for majors. Computer science was the least bad, like, I didn’t like the others, so it was like, okay. I’ll just take computer science. I almost switched majors to architecture, to physics, halfway through but then things happened that led me to this path and I’m more than thankful to be here.

John

All right, so looking forward then those two to three years, so that’s like looking forward the same period of time as looking back, what do you see yourself doing? What do you imagine?

Sara

What I see myself doing? I don’t know.

John

Will it still be SVG a big part of that? Or other aspects of web interesting you right now?

Sara

I’m already shifting away from SVG a little bit. I was talking to a friend of mine awhile back and I was talking about, I used to focus a lot on SVG itself in the last couple of years, and now I’m just focusing at SVG as being part of the bigger tool set, as how it can be used alongside other tools to help us solve bigger design problems and development problems. I’m very much, very much excited about progressive web apps. It’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see it, with the manifest, with HTML5 manifest, the service workers, and just the ability to have that an icon on your home screen that opens the web site that looks exactly like an application that works off-line. That’s incredibly exciting. So, I’m excited about that. I see myself working on side projects more, less speaking. I was actually supposed to not speak a lot this year. I ended up with more than ten speaking engagements. So, maybe next year, I’ll speak less. I wanna focus more on client projects. They are my priority now. That’s why I’ve been writing less recently because I’m setting priorities. I can write if I want, but I don’t wanna sacrifice time from my personal life or from other activities. I’ve given those a priority and writing slightly less. So, I will be writing not as frequently, but I like to focus on new topics. I need to find something to inspire me and progressive web apps is probably gonna be part of that.

John

Excellent, all right. Well thank you very much for coming all this way.

Sara

Thank you for having me.

Comments are closed.