On fetishizing frameworks and everything old becoming new again with CSS Wizardry’s Harry Roberts

Anastasija Uspenski

Everything old is new again, and we’ve already seen some of the largest and most prominent frameworks return to the ideas and solutions of yesteryear.

CSS Wizardry’s Consultant Performance Engineer, Harry Roberts, has been a professional developer for 14 years and says he finds it funny how old trends in technology have become new again. He comments on developers’ tendency to get distracted by new frameworks again and again, and tend to fetishize frameworks. Oh, and he does not love the fact that everything is going JavaScript and into the browser.

As a Consultant Performance Engineer at CSS Wizardry, Harry also helps companies improve website speed and optimize front-end development.

Roberts has worked with some of the most prominent and respected global companies and organizations, including Google, the BBC, the Financial Times, and the United Nations. His meticulous and analytical approach has made him a go-to expert in the field, and he regularly speaks at conferences worldwide to share his knowledge with the technical community.

We’ll also share Harry’s insights, including his perspective on choosing the right tools for you and your team and whether the market needs so many tools. So if you’ve ever wondered whether you need all those developer tools, keep reading – we’ve got you covered.

On working at big companies and impact

Harry: Honestly? Some of the most meaningful work I’ve done has been with much smaller companies where you can affect way more significant change. It’s probably not a very “rock and roll” and exciting answer, but some of the most impactful work happens on smaller teams. Because it’s a small environment, your impact is way more significant.

But working for BBC before the Olympics, was inspiring. It was stressful but exciting, and working with the UN – you know you’re doing something good.

On website speed issues impacting business in the millions of dollars

Harry: It varies dramatically for some companies.

Companies leave hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table yearly because they’re getting site speed wrong.

Harry Roberts, CSS Wizardry

Most companies aren’t aware of how serious it is. The way I try to describe it is – if the roof blows off the top of your house, you notice it immediately, and you fix it immediately.

However, if the insulation in your roof isn’t perfect, someone might tell you you can save 500 euros per year on your heating bill if you put in insulation, but for you, it kinda works well enough for now. So for companies, it’s that kind of thing. Their roof blows off, and they fix it immediately, but it’s harder to notice slowdowns that might happen for 12 months.

So I’ve worked this before, where a simple 300 ms speed up would have made them an extra 8 million pounds a year, and I’ve worked with a client this year where a 500 ms speed up would make them an extra 11,5 million euros a year. These numbers are enormous, but it’s all because of lost sales. It’s not like someone took 11,5 million euros out of a bank.

It’s a simple case of them earning that much extra. It’s not as urgent if you’re missing out. It’s critical if you’re losing money. So many clients don’t panic until they hear those numbers and see how big they can be.

On developer tools making life easier or more complicated

Harry: I don’t think it makes it more complicated, no. Most developers can pick the subset of tools that suits them and their day-to-day work, safely ignoring anything superfluous. The more significant fear is the obsession with frameworks rather than developer tools.

On favorite developer dools

WebPageTest, one of the tools Harry couldn’t live without.

Harry: 100% DevTools, in whatever browsers you’re working and testing in. Beyond that, a good command of whatever text editor you use and any useful plugins. For more peripheral development work (i.e., not actively writing code), solid foundational command line knowledge is constructive: Git, basic Bash/Zsh, etc. As a Performance Engineer, I also have tools like WebPageTest (a wrapper around DevTools anyway) that I couldn’t live without.

On developers being fascinated by every new framework and tool?

Harry: Firstly, don’t be! We fetishize frameworks, and they often get implemented on projects before they’ve stood the test of time elsewhere.

Everything old is new again, and we’ve already seen some of the largest and most prominent frameworks return to the ideas and solutions of yesteryear.

Some frameworks’ most significant initial selling points are now almost universally regarded as anti-patterns.

Harry Roberts, CSS Wizardry

U-turns at the scale are pretty terrifying. Instead, look at the problems you must solve and choose the most straightforward available tool. Focus on the fundamentals, and the rest will follow.

(Harry is not the only one highlighting the focus on the fundamentals, Kelsey Hightower said exactly the same in his interview for ShiftMag!)

On [disappointement that] everything is going into JavaScript

Harry: It used to be that a user visited a URL, their browser requested a page, and the server built the page and sent it back. It was the norm, and it worked very, very well. Folk decided to improve this for many reasons by shifting the workload to make it more like a user visiting a URL, requesting a near-empty page, receiving it from the server, asking for potential megabytes of JavaScript, running the JavaScript, and then building the page in the browser.

I mean, on what planet is that going to be faster?! (Note: not Earth, as we’ve learned.)

Developers made this a lot worse when they forgot that HTML exists and went to extraordinary lengths to rebuild native, accessible, fast browser features in woefully subpar JavaScript.

Harry Roberts, CSS Wizardry

That’s a lot of work (and code) to do a much worse job than we were five to 10 years ago! Thankfully, people have started to notice that this new way it’s better, and more considered solutions are slowly coming to the fore. That is reassuring!

On predicting tech trends

Harry: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trends move fast. And my career has always been based on something other than trends. In a way, I’m dull. Certain things are just fundamental to how the web works. So I’ve always bet on soft.

I’ve always gone with the reliable way things work. And I’ve felt like some miserable old man in the last five years.

Harry Roberts, CSS Wizardry

Everything’s really going JavaScript and into the browser, and I’ve always felt uneasy about that. But it turns out that the new trend is going along with the old ways but in a better way. I find it interesting that everything old is new again. And I’ve been a developer professionally for 14 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes and trends. They progressed fast, but they’re sometimes the right thing to do.

So over the next 12 months, we’ll see a bit of a return to, well, not necessarily basics, but more advanced ways of doing the old things. Developers have gotten more insightful and more mature. What I’m going to be focusing on, I have yet to learn! I need to start thinking about where I want to position myself in the next 12 months. But the industry is beginning to mature, so we won’t need to move as fast. Indeed, from a site speed perspective, the industry is moving as fast as ever, and I can’t comment on anything beyond my field.

On Shift conference

Harry Roberts is a long-time supporter of the Infobip Shift conference, and he participated in it as one of the speakers in Zadar a few years ago. Shift’s first conference in the USA will be equally great.

Shift stands out as a rare gem in a world of cookie-cutter tech conferences.

Listening to insightful talks from the brightest minds of today’s tech scene while surrounded by the enchanting history of a town built nearly two millennia ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more inspiring blend of past and future.
Oh, and it’s the most fun you’ll have all year!

Harry Roberts, 2019
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