Chris Coyier has had an illustrious career on the web, building popular sites like CSSTricks.com, cofounding applications like Code Pen, and cohosting of the popular Shop Talk podcast. This week, we talk to Chris about his background in the industry and what he's learned about managing his career.
- Hey there. This is Ray Villalobos, and this week we are talking to Chris Coyier. Chris is a designer and developer who runs a few of the web's best sites for learning, like CSS Tricks. He is also the co-founder of CodePen, which is a code playground where designers and developers can share, experiment, and even teach code. And finally, he's the co-host of Shop Talk, a podcast and show about building sites. So thanks for taking the time to come talk today, Chris. - Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me. - Awesome, so tell me a little bit about how you got started in the industry, what sort of education you came with, and what do you think helped you get those first few jobs? - Sure, so if we scope it just to the industry, it's kind of like, what was my first web job? It was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I wanted it so bad.
I knew that I wanted to work on websites, which, who knows why, looking back. (laughs) I just kind of, it would be hard to guess, I guess. But I knew that that's what I was gunning for, was a job building websites or having something to do with the web. I was in the printing industry before that, and there was nothing wrong with that, and I liked that, and I knew that I had no ill will towards that industry. But it seemed a little dying, and it seemed like maybe not the best use of my skills, seemed like I could probably make more money in the web.
And it's just like I was playing around with web stuff in my free time anyway, so how cool would it be to get paid for that same work? And clearly, people need it. There's plenty of bad websites out there. Like, why don't you hire me, and I'll try to do a good job on the website. Anyway, (laughs) my educational background was a BA in Art, so it's not like I went to a college that trained me how to be a web developer and then went to companies and said, "hey, look at my piece of paper "that says I've been trained to be a web developer.
"Hire me." I didn't have that, so I had none experience, really. I'd walk into a web job and be like, "hey, I'm from the print industry, "and my work experience nor my school experience "qualifies me for that." I didn't even try. Maybe I should have, but it seemed like that was going to be a no-brainer that they wouldn't pick me. I would have no experience or schooling. It's not great. What I did have was side projects.
I said, "look at this. "This is my personal site that I built "from absolute scratch." It's not a one-pager; it's a whole blog. And it's a whole portfolio of other little projects I've worked on, nothing super professional, but it included the website for my band and whatever. It just so lucked out that there was a web job became available that my mom let me know about. So thanks, mom. But they really needed somebody really fast. It was a small little agency, and they weren't exactly hiring somebody for, I think I got paid like 20-some thousand dollars for it, that long ago.
It was a very not-great job. Nothing against it. It was a junior job, it was a very small agency, and that's who they were looking for. So I don't think they could be super picky. So I roll in there, super excited, please, I want this job so bad. Look at these websites I've built. They were like, "cool, let's do it." - That's really interesting, cause I also came from the print industry. And I actually have found a lot of sort of web developers who are sort of career switchers and kind of came from that same place.
And for me what really helped was, I was even I think worse than you. I had less stuff to show. I had a few things that I had done, but I had a good design portfolio, and they were able to look at that and say, "okay, well, this person's really willing to learn." At the time, the web wasn't as big as it is today, so you didn't have to be as specialized with knowledge. But it was good to network, know people that had the opportunities available because if I would have read the job description for that job, I don't think I ever would have applied for it cause they wanted this, that, and the other.
So that's pretty interesting. So you said your mom got you your first job. That's pretty awesome. (laughs) How did she find out about it? I mean, how was it? - Well, she's in the printing industry. - Oh, okay, so a lot of network in there. - She's works in like, yeah. But she sells printing. Our whole family is like, my stepdad has a screen printing business in Madison, Wisconsin and has been in printing industry his whole life. My mom worked there in the early days, then bounced around in Madison, Wisconsin, to a whole bunch of other printing companies, and ultimately landed on selling printing, salesperson.
She still is to this day. And when you're in sales, it's kind of your job to know folks all over town. She would waltz into an agency, like "hey, "what are you working on? "Does it need to hit paper at any point? "Here's what we do at this printing company. "Let us know if we can ever help you with anything." So she's super knowledgeable about not only the entire printing process and all that is printing but also the sales. So she just knows everybody in the somewhat small town of Madison, Wisconsin.
So she just was aware of this agency and was aware that they needed somebody. It was just a who's who kind of thing. - No, that's so important. I think that, the first job that I got in the web industry was pretty similar. It was somebody that was working for Tribune, the newsprint company. And they just had seen me do a couple of things. And so that aspect of sort of networking, people that know somebody, they're able to kind of overcome maybe some of the lack of experience, at least for me at that time.
So that's great. So you obviously have come a long way from there. So can you share sort of what happened with your career, how you navigated things, and what drove you to maybe then go from working from somebody to starting your own projects? - Sure, I should mention, I'd like to mention as part of the story that there's a heaping helping teaspoon of privilege that happens with this. Like, my mom helped me out with the job. Not everybody has that opportunity or it doesn't work out that cleanly in their life.
And I went to a high school which was a really nice high school, had a really nice computer program. So that was a privilege to me, too. I didn't ask for that. I just landed there through no work of my own. And everybody was encouraging to me at every step and turn of the way through my entire life. And now that I look back on that kind of thing, I'm like, "I was really lucky to have that." And it was not me who drummed that up for myself. It was absolutely random circumstance. And I think of that now, thanks to the hard work of others to help educate me as a privilege, as I was just lucky to have that.
And so some of the success that I've had is, certainly I've worked hard and whatnot. It's not like I absolutely sat on my butt to have what I have today. But to some degree it was handed to me. To some degree it was just luck of the draw in getting what I have. - You know, but I like something of what you said, that whenever you went to apply for the job, you had already done a bunch of stuff. So I feel like opportunity is out there, and it comes to people who are sort of ready. So when you went to apply for that job, you already had a little portfolio of things that you had done.
You could sort of prove to them that you could do the work. So even though you got somebody to help you, you were also readying yourself and were ready to sort of come in and show them that you could do the job immediately. - Right, and I did. My personality was to, instead of going out on some weekends, I just enjoyed staying in and hanging out by myself in my room, working on websites because I derived some pleasure out of that, like as I was working on stuff and I knew that in my life I would like to get a job in this stuff.
And I was doing the work. And so there's that, but not to disagree with you, but how did I have that amount of free time, was another element of privilege. How did I have a computer that handled it? How did I afford the internet and all the things around me that enabled me to spend those weekends in? It's just another element of privilege. And I only mention it just because, yeah, there's just a lot to this. And I hate to always be interviewed and be like, "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps "and did absolutely everything, "and I deserve every penny I've ever made," kind of thing.
It's not a totally true part of the story. I was just a middle class kid and had a lucky upbringing. A lot of this stuff came along for the ride. Not that, you know. - Yeah, I mean, I think of it the same way for me. My father grew up with nothing. I mean, he was super poor. There wasn't a dad in the house, and so he grew up sometimes just getting up and not having anything to eat that day just because they couldn't afford it. And I'm really thankful about all those opportunities.
And I feel like, man, I couldn't be where I'm at today if it wasn't for everything that he did to get me to a point where I could skip some of those hardships. But at the same time I remember one time I was teaching a class at a local school, and one of the students told me that, it was an internet class, and they didn't have any web access. And I thought, this poor person is doomed. There's no way you can go through this entire course without access to the internet. Like, how are they going to do the- - They can only learn stuff, for the most part, right there, right in that classroom.
But it's great that they have that. - But well she ended up being my best student in the class, ever. - [Chris] Wow, look at that! - Amazing, she went to the library. She would come to school early, stay late. She would stay til the end of the class. Most people, when you're done with your lecture, people just take off and leave. Like, "I'm done, I want to get home." She would stay there, ask questions. So she ended up being, just out of hard work, it really does do a lot. And sometimes it's not the hard work that you've done. It's the hard work that maybe your parents have done that have been able to sort of provide some things for you.
So what about the jobs that you had, say, okay, that was your first job. Say, before you started kind of doing things on your own like CSS Tricks, you probably kind of did that while you were in jobs. But how did that come about, and how was that process of sort of getting up through your career, through these different jobs? - Sure, so CSS Tricks started while I was at that very first web job. And then it was good in that, more than that job did, writing about the web on CSS Tricks, as awful as it was back then, was door-opening for me.
I was maybe not exactly perfectly, it wasn't my idea to do that, necessarily. I wasn't trying to be somebody in web design, really. But I was, the very early idea of CSS Tricks was just to make a little advertising. It's never been entirely altruistic, the project. But anyway, I was writing a lot about web design. I was trying to make money from the thing, which was good because that means that I could keep doing it, that I had some motivation to keep writing and writing and writing, to have it be entrepreneurial in some regard.
So anyway, there was a lot of writing on it, and there still is to this day. And because it existed, I did start to have a little bit of a name for myself. And I remember getting invited to my first ever web conference. That was in Florida, actually, at the Front End Web Design Conference. And that continued to open more doors for me, and I met, in fact I even met the gang that was then the founding team of Wufoo.com there in Florida, who then offered me what ended up being my second job in web.
And I jumped on it. I was like, I love Wufoo. I love this company. It seems like more fun to work on a product to me than work on the day-to-day grind of working on client work, which is fine. I just felt like maybe product work was more in line with my way of thinking. Anyway, so that all just, basically CSS Tricks opened the door to conferences, which opened the door to all kinds of stuff. Any door that's ever been opened for me started with CSS Tricks, which is cool.
And then Wufoo sold to SurveyMonkey. I went to SurveyMonkey for a little while. And that was my last job (laughs) in web design. I've only really ever had three jobs. And I did interview for Wufoo, so that was an experience. And I had to work on a project with them, and I had to visit, and I had to just hang out with them. And they asked me lots of questions. It was a pretty traditional interview process. But I didn't interview for SurveyMonkey. We just all came along for the ride.
- So when did you make the decision to go from working for somebody? Was it CSS Tricks that kind of maybe got big enough and you thought, "well, this will be fantastic "for me to just sort of build it as its own thing"? Or was it something else like CodePen? When did you make that decision to kind of transition? - It was at the end of SurveryMonkey, which was a really nice place to work. And they're still absolutely killing it over there. But it was like, I don't know. I have enough other stuff going on, and I would like to get back to working from home again.
That wasn't a possibility there, that I was just looking to have my own destiny, I guess. At that time I left SurveyMonkey and then just kind of doubled down on CSS Tricks and was trying to do good there. But I had friends that I had made along the way that had worked with me both at Wufoo and at SurveyMonkey who, you know, we lived together and were just really good friends and that were also interested in being a bit more entrepreneurial with their lives. And the three of us got together. It was Tim Sabat, Alex Vazquez, and I, and we made CodePen.
And right about at that same time, it was only about five years ago now, so this isn't like ancient history, really. And we fired up CodePen, which is a story all to itself. But so my job these days is pretty much just CodePen and CSS Tricks. It hasn't changed all that much. I also have a podcast that's very, much more of a side project. - So I think that's really interesting. When I talked to you about doing this video, you mentioned that you've hired a few people but that you didn't interview them.
So how did you end up with sort of the team that you have, and what do you think was sort of, I mean, you mentioned that you, did you work with everybody? I know you maybe have some newer people that you didn't work with at those previous jobs. So how did you manage to sort of get people who you didn't have to interview? - (laughs) Yeah, it is a funny story in that you're doing this course on hiring, and I feel extremely under-qualified. I've literally never interviewed anybody.
When I was at Wufoo, we hired some people. But I had nothing to do with that. At SurveyMonkey, a lot of developers interviewed people. I never did. I literally never, ever, ever interviewed anybody, including people who are now my employees, which is funny. And I don't know, maybe that's irresponsible or anything. - No, no, no, I've actually heard that in the industry that that happens a lot. Somebody knows somebody, and they just say, "listen, I really want to work with this person." Yeah, I totally have heard that before. And it's like they kind of skip through the regular procedure for getting hired.
I mean, that's what happened to me in my first job. If I would have gone through the regular sort of application procedure, I don't think I'd have ever gotten in. (laughs) - There's lots of good stories like that, of like obviously competent developers who then try to apply at Dropbox or something. There's a good story of that. And then don't even make it through the early processes cause they just suck at the whiteboarding kind of stuff. That's a whole other topic. You know, but obviously they'd be good there because they're obviously a talented developer.
So, you know, there's some irony there or something. But that's basically what it is. There's some people on this world that you can know well enough that it's just like, you don't need to prove to me that you're a good developer. You're obviously a good developer. I know enough about you. I know where you've worked. I've known what you shipped. Your skill level is not in question. And then you hang out with them, and you're like, "you're a fit here." We're aligned mentally.
I hate to use the word culture fit cause that can be used in a negative way sometimes. But clearly we'd work together well. We're friends, we're hitting it off here, our thinking is aligned, and stuff. That was the case with all of our employees. I had Marie, is one that we hired at CodePen to help with us to produce the podcast and to run support and to do community management and social media. She does all kinds of stuff for CodePen.
I had already worked with her at CSS Tricks for years, so she was just a good fit naturally. I already knew what she could do. So she was a natural fit. I had been friends with Tim Holman, is somebody that we hired at CodePen who came from Tumblr and had good lineage before that, and I've seen a lot of his work. And not only, I know they do the work because CodePen is a place where you can put your work, and he was already kind of CodePen famous. So and Rachel Smith was the same way. And Jake Albaugh, we met in person in Chicago, who presented incredible work.
They didn't need to prove to me that they were good developers. I already knew that they were. So it was just a matter of talking to them and making sure that they're cool with this and that what we need them to do is, for example, some Rails work, so like, "I know we saw your CodePen work, "but are you cool with being a Rails developer? "Yes, you are? "Well, here's the salary number. "Are you cool with that? "Yes? "Okay, let's get started." And we don't need to drag this out. You don't need to bubble sort something on a whiteboard for me. (laughing) - I think that's a big point, that I think a lot of developers kind of get into this industry because they're really good by themselves.
So they're good developers. They know how to code. They know maybe, like you said, how to do the bubble sorts and everything. And they're very maybe introverted, and they don't sort of go out there and show people what they can do. So I feel like in this industry, showing what you can do is a little more important, and that's why something like CodePen can be really helpful because it shows whether or not you can handle sort of real samples. And something like GitHub, for example, showing the code that you do, people can just sort of read your code and see if you'd be compatible.
But then also you mentioned that just, you call it the culture fit, I think that's also really important because at the very end of the day, you want to work with people that are going to sort of click together and are going to be excited about the same kind of things. That's important. - Yeah, it is. And I mentioned it in the context of, try to be a little careful with that, though, because if you say, "I only want people "that are a good culture fit at this company," you might hire a bunch of people that are exactly like you.
And that can be dangerous as well. So I think it's, make sure that their thinking is aligned with yours in that they want to build something cool that's like your company. But they can be very different from you. And please do that, you know? - (laughs) Yeah, definitely. That's definitely important, especially these days. So one of the features that you actually have in CodePen and that you started recently was a job board. So how did that happen, and what do you think are things that people are really interested in finding in terms of employers wanting to hire people that they're advertising for? - Yeah, we spent some time building our own custom job board at CodePen, that's true.
It was kind of a response to, this seems like the right business move for a community like CodePen. And we could see that because other companies have made that same choice well before we ever have. Like it's fairly public knowledge that Dribbble has one. And Dribbble is similar to CodePen in that it's a community of designers, where we're kind of like a community of front-end developers, in a way. There's just a lot of similarities between CodePen and Dribbble.
Dribbble kills it on their job board. So we're like, and we're younger than Dribbble, and we're trying to figure out CodePen as a business still to this day. We're doing okay, we're a profitable company, but we're not amazing, you know? We haven't cracked business in this way that's hockey stick growth and we can't possibly hire all the people we need, explosive everything. That's not CodePen. We're still figuring that out. So at the time, job board was like, maybe this is a smart business move for us, charge good money for basically access to our community of front-end designers and developers.
We'll have this job board be really scoped, niche. And our thinking was that, and I know from my experience in the industry, which I know that I've only worked at a couple of different places, which is true, but I actually just because of CSS Tricks and all these doors that have opened for me, I talk to tons of companies. And I go on tons of podcasts. And I go speak at those companies, to talk to people. And I have this podcast. I've talked to a zillion people in this industry. So despite my own work experience being pretty scoped to just a few jobs, I do have a pretty good understanding of the industry as a whole.
Not perfect, but I talk to a lot of people. It's pretty ubiquitous that they say the front-end engineers, really good ones, are pretty hard to hire. They're among the hardest people there are to hire, for whatever reason, harder to hire than back-end. - Yeah, I've heard that even internally, inside our company, LinkedIn, that that's the case, too. They're very difficult to find. And it seems to people I think that it wouldn't be something difficult to find. So what do you think it is about, you know? - I know, it seems like, doesn't everybody know a little HTML, CSS? Like, what's so hard about this? And I think maybe they do but they don't, not to the scale that these companies want them at.
They want really good ones. And plus it's a little bit nebulous what a front-end designer really is these days. And I don't know, that seems like a big question to dig into, but let's just say that front-end developers, really good ones, are a bit hard to hire. Wow, doesn't CodePen job board really make sense, then? If we have so many of them, and CodePen is already an app that's really targeted at those people, that that's a match made in heaven, you know? It turned out to be a little bit true and a little bit not true. We're nowhere near the success of Dribbble's job board or whatever.
It was worth doing for us, as a company, and I want to put more time into it, and we will at some point. It's a perfectly good job board. And it works, people are finding jobs on it. Companies are using it to hire. But it's not blowing up. It's not like the number-one place to go for front, you know what I mean? It's somewhere in the middle of that. And maybe we'll grow up. Maybe these things just take years to get into or whatever. So it's a scoped job board, and I find it's not terribly surprising what people are looking for. They're looking for people that are not only good at, in fact, they don't even generally put in there like, knowledge of HTML and CSS.
It doesn't mean that I wouldn't be good at your company. So I think really good ones are like, "hey, I'm mentioning Angular here, "but it's not like we wouldn't consider you "just cause you don't have Angular experience." Although they don't always say that in the job posting. But I find that's generally true. If you're really good at React and you're looking for a new job, where the new job happens to be Angular, definitely still apply for that job. They're not that different. I don't know, just good, general knowledge is going to get you in. In my limited experience and talking with, and you've probably talked to more than I have, these days, but people that hire lots of developers largely say, kind of if you're good, you're good.
If you have good fundamentals and obviously ship good projects, you're going to be good to go. - Yeah, definitely. I think the two things that I tell people are focus on your work, make sure that it's good, make sure that you're excited about it, and then make sure that you get to know people. Build a little network of people that can know who you are and can get you opportunities. So the last question I have for you, and this is sort of a big one, I'm interested to see how you respond to this, if you were getting started today, how would you approach it in terms of education? Do you think you would go through maybe a traditional school, a bootcamp, learn on your own, or some sort of thing in between? - That's fascinating.
So it's hard to turn your own mind back to day one, kind of thing, and everybody's got an opinion about this. But all the people that have an opinion have already gone through their journey, too, so you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt on how you would do it. I would say that I guess at least in the United States, how it feels to me, you come out of high school very much a kid still. And I think most graduating high school students, in my opinion, probably aren't super ready to just waltz into a design and development job.
That's not true of all human beings. Certainly there are some high school students who graduate that just love the web, and they know that they like design and development stuff, and they're just going to do it. Fine, but I don't think most humans that are 18 years old or whatever probably need a little bit more time to figure out that stuff. - [Ray] I had no idea, so I can relate to this. - Sure, so like go do something else. And a lot of times that's college. And that was the path I chose, and I don't necessarily disagree with that. And it could be anything, right, just choose something.
- What I really appreciate from college was all of the English I had to take. - [Chris] Oh, yeah? - Like, English is a second language for me, and I don't even know how this happened, but my BA's in Journalism. And I remember hating every single writing class that I had to take. And I appreciate them so much now because so much of what I do is communicating and writing that I feel like if I didn't go through that, I wouldn't be able to do the work that I can do today.
So sometimes- - That's great, and so that's directly what you got out of college. But maybe in addition to that you got a little time to make up your mind, and you got a little life experience. You got a chance to get a little screwing around out of your system, perhaps. I don't know what it all is, but I feel like maybe later, then when you're in your mid-20s, you're a little bit more ready to, I don't know. - It's definitely a good place to experiment. I mean, even the fact that you have different courses makes you go, hey, I took a film class. And it was a fantastic class for me and something that I would have never gone for.
But you need electives sometimes, and so you take this crazy class that you don't think is going to be important, and later on you kind of really sort of grow to appreciate that. For me, a lot of the writing classes, a lot of copyright classes, I did a lot of, I did do some layout and advertising. The web wasn't that big at that time, but just being able to not know what I want to do but then experiment by taking these different classes I think was pretty cool.
- The danger then being, let's say you're at the end of that and you're like, "now I want a web job, "but I'm not ready for it." That's still okay. I mean, you've grown so much as a person that I think that now it's a little easier to take those next steps. You're like, "okay, well, I've learned how to learn, "in a sense, so now I can maybe take online courses. "Maybe I will go do a bootcamp or something. "Maybe I'll take some more classes while I'm still here "in college to get me going down that path." I think there's just, becomes a little easier to think about.
- Yeah, and doing some research about bootcamps, one of the most interesting things that I found was that most people who go to a bootcamp already have some sort of college degree. So it's sort of like a secondary way to finish off and kind of focus on, "this is really what I want to do." Just like you said, school then becomes more of a "what do I want to do? "I'm not sure, I just came out of high school," and then a bootcamp can be something where you go, "okay, I know this is what I want to do." And in this case, I feel like bootcamps are great for people who have that time to focus.
I can take 10 weeks. You know, say you were, for me, where I came from a different career, it'd be harder for me to say, "you know, I got to feed my family, "but I want to take 10 weeks off "to just kind of focus on this thing." So for you, I think you obviously did a lot of learning on your own, which is the same thing that happened to me. So I feel like learning on my own, learning on your own is something you're always going to have to do. In this industry, you can't stay still. And I think the other two things, for me, are tools.
Can you handle a focused, 10 to 14 week period of time where you can focus on something and not have to worry about how you're going to get fed and stuff. Or is it something that you need to do more slowly. So perhaps, when I did my Master's, it was something that I did while I had a job. So that was easier for me cause I could take one or two classes a semester and then have it be a longer period of time. So I feel like all those things are just tools, and you need to figure out what's the right tool to get you to where you want to go? - You probably won't even figure it out, is the truth to it.
It seems like to say, well, you better figure this out cause if you do it wrong, you're screwed, or whatever, nobody's got it figured out. There's all these tools. There's learning on your own, there's building stuff for other people, there's building stuff for yourself, there's going to college, there's online classes, there's free ones, there's paid ones, there's in person stuff, there's brick and mortar places you can go. Oh, conferences, good point. Everybody's actual path forward is some muddy mess of all of that stuff. It's just like the classic metaphor of learning guitar or something.
People are obsessed with this idea of, are you self-taught? And you can be like, "yeah, I guess. "But self-taught meaning, it's not like I locked myself "in my room and music just burst forth from my fingers. "I watched YouTube videos. "I bought books, I talked to my friends. "I went to a jam, I watch people's hands at concerts." The learning comes from this muddy mess of all kinds of different input. And it's just no different. Every way you learn is that. - And plus there's a lot of different styles.
I know I've learned so much from your podcasts and other podcasts as well. That's really great for when I'm maybe exercising or when I'm driving to work. So there's also different modes of learning. So that's pretty awesome. It's sort of like you said, kind of a big mess of, you don't learn a specific way. There's a lot of different ways of doing it. And you never stop, so it's not like we know that the next thing for me to do is just do online learning.
It's always like a combination, like you said. So that's great. That's everything I have, Chris, for you. So thanks a lot for your time. I'll go ahead and add some links to your sites and contact information cause I normally say if you have a question that you've been asked or you have asked somebody at a job interview that you'd like to share, you can get ahold of me through LinkedIn or almost any other social media network at PlanetoftheWeb. Thanks, Chris. - [Chris] Thank you.
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