Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Burnout, Part 1: Labor

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Disclaimer: Once upon a time I worked for a web development company that no longer exists. Several years of my life and career involved that company. This comic, and some more to come, will involve parts of my life during that time, and as a result involves the actions of others that worked there. I want to state clearly: these are not meant to be posts about them. They aren’t attacks. They’re posts about me, and defining moments that impacted my life, which just happen to involve them. Humans are complex shades of grey, a mixture of good and bad decisions. I’m not trying to paint anyone as a villain. Please bear that in mind.

CSSquirrel #109: Burnout, Part 1: Labor

The reasons that CSSquirrel ground to a halt over the years are legion. Like everything in life, it came from a recipe with many ingredients. But the comic above describes the nexus of those reasons. The intentional exploitation and the lack of a *single* word of thanks, never mind remuneration, hurt. It hurt so much that I have tried and failed to write about it over a dozen times in the past two years, each time deleting it for fear of “causing drama”, while simultaneously trying to dig the burning embers out of my gut. It became a logjam, standing in the way between the part of my mind that was motivated to make comics and write blog posts, and the rest of the world.

Labor Day weekend, 2013, was the single worst experience I’d ever had as an employee. It was worse than working in a call center. It was worse than having a hamburger thrown at me by an angry customer when working in fast food. It was worse than arriving for my shift at the grocery store that was my first job only to learn that more than half of the store’s employees, including myself, were laid off without notice.

In old tweets at the time I referred to the incident as my own personal road to Damascus, and to Angular (which I first learned in that fateful project) as my personal Ananias. I wasn’t converted to the faith of a framework, mind you. This is a conversation for another time, but I’ve always had an uncomfortable tension with Angular, which seems to me to enjoy complexity for its own sake. Instead my eyes were opened onto financial conflicts of interest between myself and my employers involving my career trajectory. I was pushed into a 90 hour week for the sake of making a client project easier to sell while making a profit. Worst yet, they were hoping to have me do that for them more often.

It was the first time that I thought “Maybe these people don’t have my best interests at heart”.

That loss of faith, that loss of innocence, was never recovered. It was also the key moment where my hair literally went overnight from a largely brown mass with a few silver rogues to something strongly entering the “salt and pepper” category. And with that was lost a large portion of the joy that I experienced as a developer. The joy that comes from staring at a screen for hours as I wrote code that made cool interactions and fascinating experiences that non-coders equated to magic.

I’ve been programming since I was twelve. That’s over two decades of coding, as either a hobby, or a job, or both. Other people play Frisbee golf or carve bears out of trees with chainsaws to relieve the stress of life. I would make a video game or build a website.

And then that sense of fun was gone. It was just a job. And I had to fight for respect in that job. For my self-worth. Every moment of coding became solely an exercise in self-improvement and proving my right to be in this career.

There was no place for a comic about a squirrel, or humorous quips about browser standards, when I was in that place. I still deeply cared about web development. I cared about my career. But I didn’t have the luxury of having fun with it anymore. I’d go through the motions. Quips on Twitter. I would open Photoshop and move around shapes. I would make a note of a development in the field and say “I really need to make a comic about that.” And nothing came of it.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It’s a stupid saying. But it does heal some. The joy of coding, the sense of fun has rejuvenated as I’ve joined new teams, had new experiences, and even been lucky enough to travel internationally for conferences related to web development. There is a renewed sense of whimsy. And I can’t think of a better balm for this oft-harsh world than whimsy.

The truth is, I miss the squirrel. The little fuzzy guy is an avatar of excited energy that represented the frenetic, irrational excitement I have about being part of this community of developers and designers. The crazy things we can do, and the esoteric disagreements we can have trying to do them, and the amazing, life-changing people I’ve met here.

And, for reasons that never fail to amaze me, there’s others out there that seem to be missing the squirrel as well.

So, clearly when put to a vote, the answer is “A world with the squirrel is better than one without one.” Who am I to argue with that?

Six Minutes Later

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

In 2002 I finally followed through with an idea that had been festering for years and made a webcomic. Called Nervillsaga, it was a comedic take on fantasy adventures, especially of the type experienced by a stereotypical D&D party of adventurers. The name came from the primary character, Nervill, an accident-prone simpleton that had been gracing the margins of my notebooks through high school as the victim of traps and monsters that would plague him at every turn.

My art style at the time was even cruder than it is now, and I had no training on Photoshop on how to take hand-drawn art and cleanly scan and colorize the resulting images. It probably didn’t help that the comic was drawn with ballpoint pen on standard printer paper, and that for the most part I filled in color with the Paint tool.

But it was a webcomic. It was my webcomic. A little piece of something put out in the world for people to enjoy, scoff or pass by as they saw fit.

For six hundred and seventy seven strips, Nervill and his friends participated in one misadventure after the other. It was supposed to be a daily strip, but as I had only reached strip #677 after a whole six years, I obviously didn’t manage that.

One day the comic ground to a halt. I felt like I’d lost my sense of humor, real life stress was at a high point, and I was plagued with writer’s block and great deal of self doubt.

You know, typical starving artist stuff.

So I put the comic on “hiatus”. From a cartoonist, “hiatus” is almost always code for a silent death for the comic that was.

It would be another two years before the boredom and urge to create caused me to create CSSquirrel.

During that time, I had let the domain registration for Nervillsaga expire, taking with it all the strips I’d previously made.

Later I’d find my offline archive, and I put it back online  as an online archive that I’d hope to add to someday. Then I let that domain expire.

Much of 2011 and the first part of 2012 were pretty rough for me. Life had some serious hiccups, which did a good job of disrupting CSSquirrel’s patchy update schedule so that it too was more or less on a “hiatus”.

I was too busy. I had work to do. Sites to code. Friends to socialize with. Television to watch. Games to play. Arguments to get into.

“Important stuff.”

Then things changed. It’s a process that’s ongoing. I began to re-prioritize, and started putting aside time for created and productive hobbies again; putting more value into the concept of creating for its own sake. Putting stuff out there for the mere purpose of having it exist.

It’s started with CSSquirrel, which has begun to grind ahead again in a ambitious fashion. It’s going to take some time to get into the flow, but at least one comic a week (often two!) will appear along with my snide commentary on the “web design issue” of the week.

And it feels good. That’s addictive.

So this weekend I sat down and I looked at Nervillsaga again. I’m not happy with where it was. It hadn’t ended. There were a lot more stories to tell.

But I’ve also changed a tremendous amount since then. In many ways (I hope) I’ve grown. In others I’ve probably regressed. Some of what I found humorous before I’d find offensive, and plenty I used to find offensive I now think is hilarious.

So I’m going back to Nervill and his comic. It still won’t be five days a week. But it will exist. I fleshed out the main cast in vector art, having put down the ball-point pen a long time ago. I’ve created a larger sized version of the four-square frame it used. And with a tremendous amount of effort I put together strip #678.

I’m happy with it, but not satisfied. Writer’s block is a horrible logjam that gets worse and worse as time passes. It was six minutes for Nervill, and six years for me. The story never had an ending in mind, and now I needed to give it one before I moved Nervill and crew onto a new adventure, complete with changes that representing the kind of stories I have to tell in 2012.

And really, that’s the trick for any art, any skill, virtually anything. It was something that took six years for me to learn.

You have to keep moving forward.

Seriously, keep moving forward. It’s what I’ve learned in my career as a web developer. You can never stop learning. You can never stop growing. The second you do, you’re out of date, which is something rarely affordable in these fast-paced times.

So as with CSSquirrel, I’m going to keep Nervillsaga moving forward. Things will definitely change, and at the end of the current storyline some will be far bigger than the changes of the previous six-hunded strips.

Which is good and healthy. Garfield aside, who would want to write and draw the exact same thing forever?

Keep moving forward.


Monday, January 16th, 2012

It turned out that my site decided to go into the pharmaceutical business without my knowledge, helping pimp out Viagra and Cialis links and such instead of loading properly and dispensing comedic insight about the world of web design and development.

You know, no biggie.

Well, thanks to the help of Stefan Pause I’ve managed to kick that little infection in the posterior. Thanks, Stefan, you were a big help!

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

410, the Croatoan of the Internet

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011
CSSquirrel #87: '410', the Croatoan of the Internet

Last night Twitter was home to a small, short storm of activity around the disappearance of Mark Pilgrim. Which was downgraded to the disappearance of Mark Pilgrim’s websites. Today’s comic (which features Eric Meyer and a random Internet jerk) is not meant to directly relate to Pilgrim’s situation. I’ve certainly poked at Mark before from this site, but I doubt whatever situation made him decide to 410 his online world is a laughing matter. For that matter, it’s also not any of my business.

I was impressed with the speed of online responses to the situation. Tweets led to emails, which led to people scouring contact records, which led to calling the police to get them to check on him. It was a fast, modern response to what could have been a crisis situation, and it helped restore a bit of my faith in people.

At which point, the trolls rolled in.

Meyer made a post about Mark’s online disappearance, pleading for assistance in confirming if he was ok. What followed in his comment section were mostly people hoping for the best or brainstorming ways to contact him.

Then there was a handful of thoughtless comments like this.

I completely agree with Jeremy Keith when he rails at companies like Yahoo for permanently destroying massive corners of the Internet. The thousands of people that made sites (hideous or otherwise) there weren’t the parties responsible for the destruction of the content. In some (admittedly few) cases there were even people still using the aging “first city” of the Web. But there’s also no doubt that many who had made sites there, such as online picture books of their family history, expected their efforts to last forever. Only to have some jerks bulldoze their memories, destroying a huge part of the early Web’s history in one foul swoop.

But when a creator decides they’re done with their own work, let’s not get on our high horses and deny them the right to terminate their own creative endeavors. Is Mark obliged to pay monthly fees for his own websites if he tires of them just because others find them useful? Does a webcomic artist have the obligation to keep his scrawls online forever just in case fans come back to look at them years hence? Does a teenager need to keep all of their embarrassing Facebook posts about how they were crazy-in-love with some girl for 36 hours just so we can all gawk later?

God, I hope not.

Look, if others want to make archives of existing sites in case they go offline, then do so with my blessing. I think preserving our legacy of websites is far better than losing them. But to expect the creator of any work to preserve their own original copy of any piece seems a bit strange. To call them selfish for getting rid of it so is doubly absurd. Should I have preserved every crayon doodle I made in the first grade?

I’ve never seen the 410 status code before now. It’s a strange beast. “Site’s gone, not coming back, move along!” Despite the fact that the Internet’s many sites are so easily lost, we tend to think of them as cast in some sort of digital stone. The idea that a useful site would go away, permanently, on purpose even, is almost too much to accept. But they can go, whenever the authors want.

To me the idea of deliberately burning my own sites seems like it’d be a pity. I did put all the effort into them after all. But I think we all need to remember that there’s a big difference between Nero burning Rome and Mozart throwing away compositions he’s no longer pleased with.

Mark’s many contributions would be sorely missed if they were truly, completely gone. I understand the pain of losing a valued resource. But as others have said, we still have access to archives of them. As for his own sites, they’re his to burn. Here’s hoping he’s going to be ok.

Comic Update: Peahen Butter

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
CSSquirrel #85: Peahen Butter

Today’s comic features inanity, a rather eye-bleeding shade of green, and Dylan Wilbanks. It does not feature any snide commentary on web design or development, a joke at Apple’s expense, or even any squirrel-related humor.

It does however reference the mighty peahen.

Consider this comic something of a mental enema, loosening up the blockage that has been plaguing me throughout the summer.

Quite honestly, I’ve been feeling like something of an imposter over this past year, a lurker in the forum that is the web development/design world. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but it turns out the Internet is chock full of extremely talented website makers. Constant displays of their talent pour from my Twitter stream like Gideon’s moist wool, dripping all over the web with raw, unfiltered awesome. They’re not just rocking my face with their drool-inducing personal website redesigns. They’re not just filling Dribbble with jaw-dropping snapshots of amazing work. They’re drop-kicking monitors until they explode into fancy, limited-edition magazines that you put on the coffee table to impress both the lady you’re courting and your mother.

Look, I’m not saying that Elliot Jay Stocks is a curly-headed, 21st century typographic British Chuck Norris that groin-punched Comic Sans so hard that Bill Gates’ grandchildren will feel it. I’m also not saying that he isn’t.

It comes down to adequacy, and the occasional disheartening fear that you’re not up to snuff. With “you’re not” meaning “I am not”. In a world of Stocks and Santa Marias and Irishes, I’m aware that my design skills (which were never my selling point) are a combination of obsession with green and empty space and not much else, and that my Javascript skills, while far better, aren’t Olympic grade either. I don’t invent Javascript libraries, I just use them. I frequently feel like a Jimmy Olsen in a field crowded with Supermen.

The caveat is that ultimately I’m a commentator in the field, blending humor, a cartoon squirrel and occasionally a sense of outrage into bite-sized portions for people to chuckle at. Ultimately, I’m okay with that. All the way back in the first grade I accepted that my role in life was to serve as comic relief. But some days, which drag into some weeks or some months, I feel so irrelevant even in that role (perhaps without any good justification) that I can’t seem to muster the desire to put something out there.

Dylan, back in the end of June, wrote a piece that on the surface was discussing a spat between usability experts. Underneath that, it goes to the topic of feelings of adequacy as a designer, and a speaker, and even a participant in the always-on social stream of web development. His article got a bit of heat of its own due to perceived attacks on certain outstanding leaders in our field, which for the record I don’t think was his intent or point. But it also touched into a good conversation I had with him a month prior to that in a pizzeria in Seattle.

I’ve met Dylan approximately three times in the flesh, but I’d like to call him a friend. The most recent time was when I went to Web Directions Unplugged (which was an amazing event that I was honored to be invited to as a cartoonist-in-residence). On my first night there we met for pizza then started a small, two-man bar crawl while getting reacquainted and discussing our field. The topic went to the realm of conferences, and our mutual interest in participating in them as more than audience. He told me about his experience as a speaker in a higher education web conference and I mused about an interest in either speaking or even creating my own conference.

My main worry, as shared between pints of IPA, was a nagging concern that I had nothing to offer in a crowded web development conference world where the likes of Mr. Beep himself are there to blow your mind with cutting-edge techniques, Andy Clarke is ready to take an aggressive stance and make you angry, and Jared Spool is going to make you come dangerously close to experiencing a personal brownout in the pants region as you learn your personal limits on how much you can laugh in a single hour. Does the world need another thirty-something white guy who’s only moderately talented to take up a speaker slot in an industry that desperately needs to give more room to the packed crowd of web development superwomen that both we need to see more of and deserve the opportunity more than I do?

In the end, Dylan insisted I had something to offer, whether it be speaking in someone else’s conference or someday making a “Squirrelcon” of my own. Maybe he’s even right. That’s not relevant. But it meant a lot for a man of his experience to insist on my worth over pizza and beer mere blocks from offices packed with employees in Seattle’s various web-centric corporations. Whether he’s speaking to a crowd or just to me, I’ve found him profound.

I don’t need reassurances. I’m not seeking affirmation. I’m not wearing black eye shadow and reading Poe. I’m just getting something written down on this damn blog to get the gears rolling again, and I might as well share the insecurities that caused it to grind to a halt in the first place. Writing it, writing anything, is a vital step to contributing to the stream of awesome web designers that clogs your inbox every day.

Every time I make a prediction about when I’ll next post something, I’m usually wrong. So instead, I’ll say they you’ll hear from me again soon, and I may even be more on topic when you do.