netmag

Daniel Ryan on getting a hug from Obama

Web developer and consultant Daniel Ryan talks about working on Obama’s 2012 campaign, staying creative and type tattoos

.net: Let’s start with an easy one: can you introduce yourself and your work?
DR:
My name is Daniel Ryan, but most people call me ‘Dryan’. I’ve been developing websites since the late 90s. Development became my full time career around 2006. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some great clients over the years, including Google and Microsoft. And the president. I do a bit of backend work, mostly in Python, but my focus is client-side development and UX.

.net: What was the highlight of your Obama year?
DR:
Election night is an obvious one, and it was amazing. There’s a long story that boils down to champagne spraying everywhere on a classic style trolley. But more than that, it was the chance to work with such amazing people. I managed a staff of two dozen, who pushed themselves every day to put out work worthy of the President. I’m both humbled and proud to have worked alongside them producing things like the first responsive presidential campaign website. We also had the best of the best on our design and tech teams. I can’t imagine working with better people. Getting a hug from the president was pretty cool too.

.net: What have you built recently for fun?
DR:
Tables turned! I’ve been updating some of my abandoned open source projects now that I have the time. I’m also about to launch a web service for deploying GitHub repos to S3 buckets for things like Jekyll sites. I’m really excited about that one. It’s one of those tools I find I need all the time.

.net: Designing and making between nine and five can be a grind. How do you stay creative?
DR:
You have to take breaks, both during the day and during your career. The first thing I did post-campaign was head to Florida to see my family. I didn’t do any work for almost three months. My brain had melted out of my ear that year. I needed time to get new ideas going. I can’t emphasise how important it is to have interests outside of development. For me, it’s my dog Lucy and photography. More recently, it’s become cycling. Nothing gets the oxygen flowing like good exercise. We developers live far too sedentary lives. I knew I definitely needed to start an exercise program. Since I have, my development output has been amazing.

.net: Should designers code and vice versa?
DR:
I tend to think of the two as left-brain and right-brain activities. People will tend to be better at one than the other and should embrace the side they’re good at. At the same time, you wouldn’t do very well taking a job in a country where you didn’t speak the language. It’s not required to know both sides of the field, but it makes everyone’s work process better when people do.

.net: What’s the difference between a user and person?
DR:
When we talk about ‘users’, we picture abstract things who do exactly what we intend for them to do. Talking in terms of “humans” instead makes us (hopefully) think about how our friends, total strangers and our grandma would use our products. I tell clients all the time that my goal isn’t to make them happy, it’s to make their visitors and, yes, users happy. Happy users use your product more; that should make you pretty happy as a company, too. I’m about to present a talk called ‘Human-first Web Design’ where I dive into this in-depth. It could make for a solid book after that.

.net: Looking into the future, what technologies/shifts are getting you most excited?
DR:
The emphasis that responsive web design has placed on good typography really excites me. For one, it is a return to content-driven design, which the web lacked for a while. Also, I’m just a type geek. I have an ampersand tattoo (720pt Baskerville Italic).

My favourite trend is people realising how great static files are. NPR did a great write up of how they built its election night app that leveraged Amazon’s S3 as the delivery mechanism. We did the same thing at the campaign for our live blog app. It was a simple Django app that pushed JSON over to S3. It never went down and cost us a few dollars to run. Our donation pages were done with Jekyll. It’s great to see so many people realise just how powerful a rendered file can be.

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