From CMS to CSS: An Interview With Rachel Andrew

Rachel Andrew is a true Renaissance woman: fluent in CSS and project management, front-end design and back-end programming, writing and editing, and so much more. We got a few minutes of her time to discuss theater, Perch CMS, and her upcoming presentation on new CSS grid layout specification.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

I had to leave my job working backstage in the theatre when I became pregnant with my daughter. There were precious few women working as crew, never mind pregnant ones. I realized then that I had no real skills other than for working in theatre, and it’s not a life compatible with being a mother.

I’m old enough to have learned to type at school. I intended to get a Word Processor, as I thought I could take in typing work. A pushy salesman at PC World convinced me to get a computer. So, in addition to being able to type, I also had access to the internet. I didn’t know anyone with a baby or who was pregnant, and so I discovered online parenting forums, and started chatting with people online. As all of this was pre-Facebook, -Flickr, and other easy ways to share photos and so on, we shared HTML tips along with parenting help, so we could build family websites.

By the time my daughter was a few months old, people started to ask me to make them websites. I was never much of a designer, but the technical side of things interested me. I really wanted to write my own “guestbook.” So I learned Perl, working through The Camel Book, typing one-handed while feeding a baby! Learning Perl for the web at the time meant studying web servers, Linux, and so on. I managed to cobble together enough knowledge that, by the time my daughter was three, I was able to get a job in a dot com company as a “webmaster,” really a kind of technical lead.

So that was it really; I just learned the stuff I needed to learn to do interesting things. I pretty much take the same approach today!

You have a theater background, something that comes up surprisingly often in the web community. Why do you think it’s so common?

Theater pays really badly! I also think that people who grow up wanting to work in theatre have a head start in terms of building a “portfolio career.” When you work as a theater professional, a musician, or an artist, you often have to do all kinds of different work to make ends meet. It isn’t surprising that we picked up web design or development as one of those ways to earn money—in particular because putting together a site for yourself might be useful to showcase your own work!

My daughter is now at a vocational dance college, and I see her taking the same approach, looking for the ways she can earn money to support what she loves.

Your primary work is a lightweight CMS called Perch, which has taken you through both ends of the development spectrum (front and back).  Which do you find more challenging, and why?

When we initially developed Perch, the aim was to leave all front-end markup completely in the hands of the designer of the website. Perch never outputs any HTML that isn’t in your control. That’s actually quite a challenge, getting the balance between giving the content editor flexibility, while allowing content to remain marked up semantically, and giving the site designer control over how things will look.

We’ve also tried to create a template syntax that is tag-based, friendly to non-developers, and allows powerful constructs—but that isn’t fragile. A mistake in a template should never blow up your entire page. The fact that both Drew and I have worked as front- and backend developers, together our web standards history, is important in terms of how we approached that.

What I’ve learned through Perch is the huge spread of knowledge and ability in people who are doing web design professionally. We don’t target the “do it yourself” market. Our target market is web designers, developers, and agencies. We still see font tags! We see table-based layouts. We see people who cannot understand why their footer is overlaying their positioned columns. They are in support asking us questions because they don’t understand which problems are caused by our product, and which come from their CSS.

Then we have people who have these modern, and often complex, toolchains they want to use our solution with. It’s an epic spread of needs and abilities, and it is incredibly hard to support both sides of that.

You’re giving a talk in Boston called “CSS Grid Layout.” We can guess what it’s about from the title, but what will attendees take away from it?

I’ve been very excited about the emerging Grid Layout module since I first saw the IE10 implementation. I’ve long wanted a proper grid system for the web—the existing layout tools we have are frustrating at best. The Grid Layout module specification looks a bit terrifying if you come to it cold, however the tools it gives us are actually really simple to use. I love showing developers how simply a layout can be built with just a few lines of CSS.

While it’s too early to use Grid in production just yet, it’s a fantastic prototyping tool. I’m also really keen to get designers interested in playing with it and feeding back their thoughts to the Working Group. So in my talk I’ll be showing the simplicity of the spec, and all the cool things it will let us do, and also explaining how to offer feedback.

What excites you most these days?

I’m really excited about how quickly we get our hands on new things these days. With browsers becoming evergreen, and with the process of putting things like Grid behind a flag as experimental features, we get to play with new stuff. I love that. I just have a geeky interest in what is new, even if it isn’t yet useful, and I’m glad after all these years I still do have that.

I’m also really enjoying this new aspect of my career that is speaking at conferences, traveling, and meeting new people. As I came into this industry as a new mother, and started my business when my daughter was only at school half-days, my career and the opportunities I’ve taken up have to some extent been dictated by her need to have me at home. She’s now a young adult away at college, and so that dynamic has changed. We love spending time together—later in the year she will be my “plus one” at a conference in Spain—but I’m now getting my chance to travel and be less tied to home. I’m learning so much from the people I meet at conferences, and the conversations I have. That’s a really great part of my life right now.

Rachel Andrew will present “CSS Grid Layout” at An Event Apart Boston 2015, May 11-13 along with eleven other brilliant speakers. Don’t miss your chance to learn from the best—register today!