The One Who Writes Articles as She Learns

  • March 7, 2019

Sara Soueidan is an award-winning front-end developer, author, and speaker from Lebanon. She specializes in semantic markup, CSS, SVG, and responsive design, with a strong focus on accessibility and performance. In this interview, she talks about how she learnt to code and to freelance effectively. She also shares some tips on how to become a great developer and explains why writing articles can be a good way to sell your skills as a developer.

HTML and parseltongue

My first introduction to the web, and the coding language HTML in particular, was in 8th grade. We took a course at school. My teacher said he wanted to teach us HTML and he started writing HTML tags and p tags. And as soon as I saw them, they felt very familiar. I always say that it’s kind of like when Harry Potter knew that he could speak parseltongue. I got a book about HTML. I learnt all the basic tags and created 3 different websites. And then, a year and a half after college, I didn’t know what to do for a living. I didn’t want to become a teacher—most girls usually teach after school if they’re not sure what they want to do for a living, but I didn’t want to do that. One day, when I was talking to one of my best friends, who was also a designer and a developer, about how I was completely torn and didn’t know what to do, he was like, “Why don’t you build websites? You already know HTML and you’re very good at it, so just learn CSS, learn JavaScript, and then you can start building front-end websites.” So I started learning about new CSS properties and started creating demos on CodePen. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

First freelance mission

I had zero experience as a freelancer—I didn’t know how everybody else did it. So I took a job for a very small amount of money. I was building a kind of Facebook app and they paid me roughly $300 for two weeks. I would start working as soon as I woke up, before washing my face. I would jump out of bed, get straight on my laptop, and build until midnight. So that encouraged my client to have unrealistic expectations, because they thought I was constantly available for them. Every couple of days they would decide to change something about the design and then I would have to redo everything I’d built. I got red eyes, my nose started bleeding, my back was destroyed. Physically, I was a complete mess. And I didn’t make enough money out of it. So I had to quit—and I learnt not to undercharge. I had to learn how to ask for a fair rate. I had to learn to set my and my clients’ expectations at the right level, and restrict the number of hours I worked per day. So generally, everything I needed to know about freelancing, I learnt from that gig.

How to become a good developer

How do you become a good developer? The only answer is you have to build things. I was using Windows 8 back then, which has these 3D animations. At some point I looked at the animations and I was like, “I should be able to recreate this using CSS 3D animations.” So I decided to give it a go. I did it. And usually when I’m learning something new I research a lot, I read a lot, and then I make a lot of notes. I decided that I wanted to turn those notes into an article, so I created a blog. I didn’t have a blog before that, but I published that article and it got more than 20,000 views in 3 weeks. That was amazing. But the turning point for me, I think, was when I got interested in CSS Shapes. There was nobody else writing about CSS Shapes at that point—maybe a couple of articles on Adobe, because Adobe made CSS Shapes, but that was all. So I started getting interested. I introduced myself to a couple of people who work for Adobe. I started asking them questions and, again, I started making a lot of notes as I was learning. I remember getting an invitation from one of the organizers of Future of Web Design, a conference that has stopped running now. She asked me if I would be willing to give a talk about CSS Shapes in London. My first reaction was, “No, no way.” But then everyone I know was like, “Why? You don’t have anything to lose, right?” So a month later, I applied for the CFP (call for papers) for CSSconf in the US. I applied for 3 different presentation topics and they were all accepted. I always remember Paul Irish, one of my favorite people in the community, talking to me after my presentation, and he said that people would want me to speak more.

Writing to sell your skills

You never know how useful your articles are going to be. You literally never know. I know that a lot of people want to write but they feel intimidated and are always worried about doing it—like, “What if people like it, but what if they don’t?” My attitude was, “Don’t care about that, don’t think about that.” In my opinion, sharing your knowledge brings you customers, because how else are people going to know what you’re good at? And sharing your knowledge about a particular topic is essentially you telling them that you’re knowledgeable about that topic. You may not be an expert, but it shows you’re confident enough to share what you know.Their reaction might be, “Her knowledge will complement our team’s knowledge really well, so she could be a great fit for our team,” or maybe, “Our team is good but we need someone to lead us, someone who is a bit more knowledgeable about this than us.” I think that’s what has the best effect. Tell people what you’re good at—you’re literally selling your skills.

Learning tips

Don’t get influenced by what everybody else is doing. Just because React is famous, it doesn’t mean you should learn React. Just because everyone is learning or talking about Vue, it doesn’t mean you should learn Vue, too. Learn the fundamentals first—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, probably SVG as well, but you don’t need to dig deep into SVG, just whatever you need in order to use it for icons, for example. Learn the basics. Once you learn how JavaScript works, you can start picking whatever frameworks work for you. I only introduce new tools into my workflow if they bring value to what I am trying to do. If I don’t need a framework, I don’t learn it. And the best way to learn is to actually start building things. Maybe take note of a design you’ve seen on Dribbble or other websites, and try to recreate it by yourself. That’s how you learn.

Achievements

I’m proud of my speaking because it has hopefully helped me change the way people perceive Muslim women like myself. I am also proud of some of my client projects. If I work on a project that will ultimate help people live a healthier life, for example, or improve people’s lives in other ways, I’m proud of that.

This article is part of Behind the Code, the media for developers, by developers. Discover more articles and videos by visiting Behind the Code!

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Illustration by WTTJ

Anne-Laure Civeyrac

Tech Editor @ WTTJ

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