Flex your creative muscles with side projects

An illustration representing CSS art showing overlapping strands of red, yellow and navy that spell out the word CSS.

Cassidy Williams’ career path is a great example of the importance of learning how to network and the opportunities that can come your way if you put yourself out there and create a personal brand. It’s an especially inspiring story for young women wanting to get into the tech world, a community that Williams is very active in supporting. 

Read on to discover how Cassidy Williams came to work at both Amazon and CodePen, why she loves side projects, and how you can discover more about her CSS art.

If your side project involves a website, you'll need a website builder and the perfect web hosting service for you. And having the best cloud storage will always serve you well, too.

An enviable career path

Straight after graduating from Iowa State University, Williams joined a New York startup as a software engineer and developer evangelist and was featured as one of ‘35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry’ in Glamour magazine. Two years later, she moved to the West Coast and, this February, Amazon approached her to head up its developer voice programs. 

“I’m basically the person between the third-party developers and the Amazon product teams,” she explains. “For example, I request feedback from the developers, give them surveys, show them demos, pass on their comments and suggest how the product teams should alter their roadmap.”

An image of Cassidy Williams speaking at a conference. She's stood at a podium, smiling and speaking to the audience downstage.

Williams is also one of the first people to try new features as they’re being built at Amazon. She creates an application or Alexa skill with them and feeds back on her experience. “They refer to me as ‘developer zero’,” she laughs. “Once I’ve worked on those projects, I give them back to the product teams, they refine them and then we pass them to the developers.”

The cutting edge of voice design

Amazon’s user experience team establishes best practices for voice design and defines the rules for voice-first applications. Every Alexa skill, for example, should pass the one-breath test. If you can say the response out loud without taking a breath, the response is probably the right length. If you need to take a breath, the user might get overwhelmed, so think about how you could shorten your response or break it into chunks as the user progresses through the flow of your skill. 

“Designing and defining a conversation is very unique,” Williams admits. “Whenever I build a skill, I write out a script of how I expect it to go. So the user and Alexa are talking back and forth and it all makes sense when I type it, but when I actually build the skill, all of a sudden it’ll come off completely differently. I’ll have to rework it to sound more natural.”

Love of side projects

Williams co-hosted a video show, C+C Hacking Factory, with her sister Cami on Twitch and – over the course of eight episodes – they built an Alexa skill from the ground up. Although they loved doing the show, a second season is currently up in the air because, when we catch up with her, Williams has just decided to leave Amazon and move to front end developer playground CodePen.

“One of the reasons I’m leaving is because I’ve really learned I like small companies,” she reveals. “I’m joining CodePen as a senior software engineer and will be their eighth employee. I’m really excited about going back to my web roots, building a lot of cool tools for developers and being able to work on some fun side projects on the site.”

An image of Cassidy Williams smiling and holding up her Scrabble keyboard side project.

It also ties in with Williams’ upcoming Generate London talk on creating art with CSS. “A few years ago I decided I was going to practise my web skills by making cool things with HTML and CSS. I made as much as I could on CodePen and dabbled with new CSS features like Flexbox and Grid that stretch the imagination of what people realise you can do with these tools. Honestly, a lot of people just think that they’re easy and not real programming languages, but when you make very cool stuff with them, it blows their mind.”

Williams has so many side projects on the go that it’s difficult to keep up. Apart from creating CSS art, she is in a couple of bands in Seattle, has put together a Udemy course on JavaScript and React for developers  and designed, licensed and launched the official Scrabble mechanical keyboard 

Another side project is a to-do list with a progress bar called todometer. “I built that application purely because I needed more than just a calendar to make sure I get everything done and maintain my schedule,” she explains. 

“These projects are very time-consuming and can be exhausting at times but they keep me learning and excited about everything that I’m doing. All the projects flex different muscles in my brain that I wouldn’t usually get to play with. It expands my knowledge in different areas and helps me focus at work because I’m able to apply things that I’ve learned outside of work and bring them to the office.”

This article was originally published in issue 311 of net, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers. Buy issue 311 or subscribe to net.

Want to learn more from Cassidy Williams on creating captivating CSS art?

Cassidy Williams' talk 'Creating Art with CSS' will be appearing at Generate London 19 - 21 September 2018.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can make striking CSS art, make sure you've picked up your ticket for Generate London from 19-21 September 2018.

Senior software engineer making the web work at CodePen, Cassidy Williams will be delivering her talk – Creating Art with CSS – in which she will explore how creating art with CSS can strengthen your CSS skills, speed up your workflow and help you understand how designs are structured.

Generate London takes place from 19-21 September 2018. Get your ticket now.

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Oliver Lindberg

Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant and founder of Pixel Pioneers. Formerly the editor of net magazine, he has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is passionate about content, user experience, accessibility and designing for social good.