From little things big things grow

It’s nearly the end of 2014 — time for a little bit of (perhaps clichéd) reflection on the year that was. Sometimes you look back on a sequence of events in your life and can trace them back to a single catalyst. This particular story starts with a tweet:

This strikes a chord with ideas I’d been vaguely mulling over, and a quick conversation ensues:

And so begins an unexpected journey.

Little things

I put together a talk proposal for CSSConfAU about better browser devtools, especially support for CSS3 features such as transforms and animations. I didn’t expect it to be accepted, having fully admitted it was ideas and prototypes, not finished features. I also submitted a talk proposal for JSConfAU, just to hedge my bets.

I started a little bit of work on a single prototype devtools extension, but didn’t take it very far. Then I got notified that my proposal was into the second round of proposals. Although I don’t like it, I’m fully aware that I’m at my most prolific and productive when there’s a looming deadline involved. I had one month to complete something that could be presented. PANIC!

A couple of weeks later I was notified on consecutive days that I wouldn’t be presenting at CSSConfAU, but I would be presenting at JSConfAU. Now it was panic of a different kind as I switched contexts completely and worked on a presentation in Keynote. The end result of JSConfAU is a story for another post, but I find it interesting how neatly my GitHub activity log sums up the preparation work.


Scratch an itch

After the dust had settled from JSConfAU and I’d taken a short break from doing anything related to coding (as shown in the picture above), I felt like continuing what I’d started with the devtools prototypes. A bit of playing around with ideas led to not much output, so a switch in tactics was called for.

It has been scientifically studied that writing or talking about an idea stimulates different neurons in the brain. This creates connections and reaches conclusions that might not have been reached had you just stuck with abstract thinking. (This is also why ”Rubber duck debugging” works so often.)

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was something I found not quite right about how browser devtools worked, but I couldn’t pick exactly what it was. So I wrote words, not code. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and while writing I hit the proverbial nail on the head. A bigger theory had been found.

In the end I kept the Dr. Seuss analogy* because it worked so well. *Incidentally, after enquiring with the legal team at Random House, I now know the attribution required when writing a blog post that quotes a Dr. Seuss book. Chalk up another item on the list of “Things I unexpectedly learned by being a web developer.” I worked on it, cleaned it up, edited some more and was finally happy with it.

Time to go back to coding, but this time I had a vision and something to aim for. Thanks to writing a draft blog, I had rich descriptions of what the ideas should look like, so all that was left was to build things as quickly as possible. After that came the almost endless preparation of screenshots, YouTube videos and animated GIFs, as well as creating a heap of feature requests for Chrome and Firefox, but finally I was ready to publish and promote.

Big things

Putting a heap of effort into something like The Sneetches and other DevTools wasn’t worth it if if never reached the people actually responsible for building browser devtools. Over the course of a few days I sent the link to a few key people on Twitter, who worked on either Chrome or Firefox devtools in some capacity.

The response was better than I’d hoped for.

I’ve had brief conversations online with various people involved in Chrome and Firefox devtools and got a bit of traction on some feature requests.

Just recently, I was invited to Google Sydney’s office to get a preview of what’s planned for animation support in Chrome’s devtools, and give feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Soon I’ll be meeting someone working on WebKit devtools to discuss ideas in a similar manner.

Regardless of how accurate it may be, I feel like I’ve had at least a small impact on the future of browser devtools, which is pretty damn surprising. If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be in this situation today, frankly I’d have wondered how I’d become trapped in such a trite cliché of retrospective story telling, but I’d be amazed nonetheless.

And it all started with a random Twitter conversation. Thanks, Ben! By coincidence, the Call for Proposals for the next CSSConfAU has just opened up this week…

So here’s to 2015. I have absolutely no clue where it’s going to take me, I’m just going to continue to make it up as I go along and see what happens.


No blog post with this title from an Australian could possibly be complete without including the following song. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s required by an Australian law somewhere. Honest.