By the Code
Sara Souеidan, named Developer of the Year at the 2015 net awards, is not only building websites, but also writing about it in articles and speaking about it at conferences. When she is not traveling for work, she lives in Lebanon — the country she was born in.
Tell us more about yourself — where do you come from, where did you study?
I come from Lebanon. I spent almost one third of my life (childhood part) in Germany, and then my family moved back to Lebanon, where I currently live. I went to school and university here and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Sciences from the Faculty of Sciences of the Lebanese University in Beirut.
When did you first start coding and what inspired you to get into front-end development?
I took my first class in HTML in eighth grade. It wasn’t a full curriculum, just a few hours our teacher taught us about the basics of HTML for building Web pages. That was when I built my first three pages, laid out using old <table>s and <iframe>s. I fell in love with HTML from the first 10 minutes I learned it, and so I dug deeper into it even outside of school and created a couple of personal side projects. After that, I stopped for my entire high school where I didn’t take any computer classes, so I kind of forgot about HTML altogether during that time.
When it was time to choose a college major, CS was *not* my first choice. In fact, I wanted to study architecture. I draw quite well, and used to love mathematics and design in general, so architecture felt like the natural path to take. However, studying architecture wasn’t particularly cheap, and my parents weren’t particularly rich, so I was limited to a few other options instead. I chose CS reluctantly—only because I didn’t want any of the other options.
Even though I took a few web development courses in college, I never attended the front-end development classes. A year and a half after I graduated, I was feeling unsure about my career path and didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. That’s when my best friend, who knew about my past love for HTML and who was also a designer and developer, suggested that I dip my toes into the world of web development. I thought it might be interesting, so I started learning all the things I should have learned in college, and more. As soon as I got into CSS, I got hooked. I started learning more, coding and experimenting, and then a few months after that, I started writing articles. And less than a year after that, I got my first front-end development work inquiry, which kickstarted my freelance career. Now, I couldn’t be more thankful for the path God had chosen for me, even when I didn’t see the good in it at first.
Do you think that nowadays it is necessary for developers to pursue a university degree, or is development something that can be self-taught through online resources?
It’s definitely something that can be self-taught. I believe that it’s your work and experience that matter the most.
That said, it also depends on the career path you’re dreaming of. For example, some larger companies would only hire developers if they have at least a BS degree in CS. I know quite a few very talented developers who don’t have a university degree, and who have been turned down by companies like Google simply because of that. Which is a shame, really.
How would you explain what you do to the non-familiar?
That’s never easy! When I need to explain what I do to non-tech people, I always end up saying “I build websites.” Sometimes they assume I am a web designer (which seems to be a title they hear about, but are not really familiar with, hence the assumption), so I reply by saying that I take the web designer’s static designs and turn them into the functional, usable websites that you know. They’re almost always impressed.
Is it in any way different for women working in this field or are we already beyond this?
I think it still is. I know a lot of women who have been, and still are, under the effect of discrimination and inequality simply because of their gender. I also once got a shocking reaction from a man when he learned that I work as a web developer. He actually told me that he had never seen a female developer before—let alone a veiled, Muslim female developer. I can only imagine what his work environment looks like.
You run workshops all around the world. Is there any place that surprised you or where the experience was just different?
I’ve only given workshops in two countries so far, and both have been lovely. The second one, in Oxford, UK, was particularly wonderful for many reasons: not only is the city lovely, but the audience, attendees, and overall conference were truly inspiring. Of course, the second time is almost always better than the first. You have more experience, you coordinate your work and materials more, etc., and it only gets better as you go, I believe.
New York City might be my favorite city in the world, but if I had to choose a country that is “just different”, I would choose Italy. It’s one of my favorite countries. Every city has its own kind of charm that never ceases to amaze me. I hope I get a chance to explore more of it in the future.
How do you keep up with the latest techniques/ trends in front-end development?
How do you see the future of web development?
Twitter. I follow people on Twitter, who play a role either in advancing the technology itself or who speak, write and share information about it. From what I can tell,
What do you think about teaching coding to kids?
I am reminded of Steve Jobs’ quote: “I think everybody in this country should learn how to get program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”
and so I think it’s definitely a positive thing.
But, I am not the biggest fan of fully technological lives and futures. All the tech-controlled Sci-Fi movies make me more worried about the future than anything else. I’m already seeing new generations spending too much time in front of screens, and less time on playgrounds. Their overall health and physical strength are not as good as that of my generation or my parents’ generation.
Of course, this is all about leading a healthy lifestyle. So I do think teaching kids how to code is a good thing, as long as it comes with teaching them how to use those skills for doing good, while also maintaining and leading a healthy personal lifestyle.
Which are some of your favorite projects?
I’ve not had the chance to work on any big personal projects yet, but I admire a lot of other people’s works. Perhaps my favorite side project is one which won the Best Side Project of the Year Award in the 2015 Net Awards: the Species in Pieces project. It is not only brilliantly crafted from a technological viewpoint, but also visually appealing, and has a fantastic moral behind it — raising awareness about endangered animal species. It’s just beautiful.
How did you get to be part of Smashing Book 5 and how long did it take you to work on your chapter?
Vitaly contacted me with the idea shortly after I gave a talk about SVG at a couple of conferences and then published a transcript of that talk on Smashing Magazine. I instantly said yes, because I had a lot to say about SVG and because I knew I would also learn a lot in the process — not only about SVG but about professional writing as well. I also got to have my work published in an actual book, which was a big step forward for me back then. I loved working on the chapter. It ended up being 80 pages long, and it took me two weeks to finish the first draft, and then a couple of days to make revisions for the second and final drafts.
We know that as a kid you liked to draw a lot. Do you also do any design work on the projects you are involved with, and have you ever considered becoming a designer in addition to being a developer?
Yes, I used to draw. I stopped drawing (not permanently, though) when I started working on the Web.
Some people use ‘designer’ and ‘front-end developer’ interchangeably, and some have come up with ‘front-end designer’ as a title that covers both aspects. I think I could call myself a designer because I love designing functions and experiences, but I do not have the creativity (I think) to create styles, which is really a web designer’s work. So I stick to ‘developer’. I do wish I could get into design more. I hope I get to work closely with a design team someday, learn from it, and maybe start getting into it more in the future.
Programming, drawing, tea, birds, what else?
Photography! I’m no professional, but I do love taking photos. I currently do it with my phone and post some of my photos on my Instagram, but that’s the current extent of it.
Client work, workshopping, speaking, and side projects—in that order. I am still on the fence when it comes to writing a book, which used to be one of my concrete future plans last year.
This makes me feel a bit anxious. I prefer writing where I can keep constantly updating. That’s why I’ve currently decided to focus more on speaking and giving workshops, which can always be kept up-to-date with new tricks, features, and techniques. What else comes in the future, is and remains currently unknown.