Web designInterview

Ross Penman on political Top Trumps and the Internet of Things

Ross Penman on developing for the open web

15-year-old developer Ross Penman was originally attracted to the iPhone, but now wants to make web apps that are accessible to everyone.

Ross Penman is one of 10 nominees for Emerging Talent of the Year in the 2014 net Awards. He has built a Top Trumps style game for members of parliament, a popular app that texted people when the Apple's Developer Center was back up after some down time, and is an active contributor to various community projects on GitHub. We quizzed him to find out more.

Tell us about your main areas of competency.

I'm a fan of anything I can do in my text editor - I like any kind of front-end or back-end development as long as I like the idea.

I'm not so great at visual design - I often struggle with things like choosing colours and typefaces, but I like to think that I'm getting better at that with time.

Are you currently working or studying?

I'm currently in S4 at secondary school, where I usually lean towards subjects that are science or technology related, due to my interests outside of school.

Give us a summary of your web work so far.

In Summer 2012, I teamed up with Matthew Ellis to create TruMPs - a Top Trumps-like game for UK members of parliament - for the Young Rewired State festival of code. TruMPs was received well and was a finalist for best in show.

The TruMPs game

Last summer, Apple's Developer Center suffered from an unprecendented amount of downtime, causing major problems for the people who rely on it. I noticed a lot of people becoming very frustrated as the days went by and nothing seemed to be changing, so a couple of days into the outage I created a simple web application in a few hours that would allow people to enter a phone number and recieve an SMS alert when the site came back up.

In the first 24 hours of the site being live, over 750 phone numbers had been signed up to receive alerts, and at its peak, almost 1000 people were using my app.

Sometimes I also like to make quick little apps that serve a need of mine at the time, like howmanytimeshaveitweetedtoday.com (does what it says on the tin).

I enjoy contributing to community projects too, and I'm pretty active on GitHub. I like to release most of my creations there as well in the hope that my solution to a problem might help somebody else solve the same problem in future.

At what age did you start learning to code, and how did your interest in the web get started?

I probably started learning to code when I was about 12, though I'd wanted to for a long time before that.

Since I started using the web when I was very young, I had wanted to make websites as well as just using them. I used to spend hours trying to create web pages with Microsoft Word's 'Save as Web Page' feature.

Then the iPhone came along, and what I really wanted to do was learn how to make iPhone apps, despite not actually owning one myself. I looked into iPhone app development and discovered that it was very complicated for somebody with no previous programming experience, so I began researching alternative solutions.

I came across a CSS framework for creating iOS-themed mobile websites called iWebKit. It was really helpful for a beginner because the getting started guide was basically a crash course in HTML with examples that you could copy and paste.

I spent a long time playing around with this framework, and I learned CSS by trying to adapt it to work with the iPad.

From there I fell in love with the web, and even though I do now have the skills to create iPhone apps, I've realised I'd rather spend my time creating apps that can be accessed by anybody, regardless of what hardware they own.

What was the first thing you built?

The first thing I built was a mobile website created with iWebKit for a haulage company that belonged to a friend of my dad. He didn't actually ask for it, but I needed a project to try out my skills with and figured this would be a good practical challenge.

A good bit into the project, I realised that it probably wasn't going to serve a great deal of use, and that, since I had now pretty much mastered the simple framework I had been using, the purpose of the project had been fulfilled.

My next project was ditching the framework and redoing my dad's friend's website - something that actually did get finished and used.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, things are really busy at school in the run-up to exams, so I'm not getting much time to work on cool stuff. I do still spend all of the free time I get programming, but it's more likely to be solving a Project Euler problem or making a quick GitHub contribution than working on anything I plan to release.

Are there any people whose work has been especially inspirational to you?

The work that Ben Nunney does with young coders (like myself!) was what inspired me to try to contribute to the community in the way I like to think I do now. Ben's help has been instrumental to my progress in the past year, and I'm really grateful for it.

The public voting phase of is the net Awards is now closed. Judges voting will begin on 31 March 2014.

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