Web Performance and Empathy for our Teammates: An Interview with Etsy's Lara Hogan

Lara Hogan is a senior engineering manager at Etsy, and the author of Designing for Performance (O'Reilly) and Building a Device Lab (Five Simple Steps). We caught up with Lara between publications to talk about some of her favorite tips, tools, and techniques, and to find out what attendees at An Event Apart Seattle and An Event Apart Boston can look forward to.

Hi, Lara. Thanks for making the time. So how'd you get started with this whole crazy web thing, anyway?

Like many other folks in tech, I have a fairly nonlinear career trajectory. I got started toying with HTML using Neopet's HTML tutorial back in the day. I'm self-taught, Googling most everything that I know today, and reading books and blogs. Throughout college I built websites for friends and internships. I hadn't taken it seriously as a career until my first job upon graduating; I was a project manager for a technology company, and realized that my front-end development skill set was helpful. I've job-hopped, growing in skill sets and experience—enjoying plenty of side projects along the way to let me have a sandbox to play with all the new tech that I can't quite apply at my day job.

What's it like working for Etsy?

I can't believe how lucky I am to have made it to Etsy; I've been here for nearly three years, which is by far the longest I've worked for any one company. I'm a senior engineering manager here, which means that I have other engineering managers reporting to me, and I help them coach their teams. Etsy is very supportive of me exploring other kinds of work; book writing and public speaking are the two that I feel incredibly fortunate to throw my heart into.

Of the many things that are great about Etsy, there are a few things that absolutely floor me. One is that all of the designers who work here are also extremely talented front-end developers. I've really loved working directly with them in the browser, developing living pattern libraries, and collaborating on the future of the full stack in which we work. Another is our Code as Craft culture. We encourage engineers to give a talk, write an article, or open source a project at least once a year.

What are some tools, tricks, and/or techniques you can't work without?

For the technical part of my days, WebPageTest.org is the most important tool I use. I don't think we could do performance engineering work without this tool. It's my number one recommendation to anyone looking to measure the speed of their site, or figuring out how to improve it.

For the other parts of my days, keeping a stack of notecards in my desk has been invaluable. I have a few thank-you notes, but all the rest are some variation of “WOW,” “YAY,” “!!!” or other congratulatory exclamations. Throughout my career, I've found it invaluable to be able to celebrate with people immediately when they do something spectacular. From celebrating performance wins to promotions, I think this is probably the number one technique that has made me a person with whom people enjoy working.

What would you say is the most overlooked aspect of our work?

I think that we, as web developers and designers, content managers and user experience researchers, and so many other functions, forget that communication and empathy are core parts not just of our work for our users, but of how we work with one another. I fear that the tone of Twitter conversations, blog comments, and backchannel is a big contribution to burnout among us. I want to see the industry veterans and other leaders become better role models for how to have healthy, productive discussions online and offline.

You're bringing your talk “Designing for Performance” to AEA in 2016. What will attendees take away from it?

They'll take away a better understanding of image formats and what levers we have to optimize each of them, as well as practical tips for handling fonts and other major performance issues. My favorite section of the talk, though, is about how to change the culture of your company or agency to begin to care about performance—it's arguably the most challenging aspect of keeping your site fast. My aim is to give folks practical tips for getting other people in their organization (both Very Important People, and fellow designers and developers) to care about performance so you can go and do amazing work on site speed.

What has you most excited these days?

I'm most excited about this brave new world of native app performance. We don't yet have a solid mental model of the Venn diagram between web performance and mobile performance; there are a lot of similar themes, but it's still really hard for us to wrap our heads around the overlap. We don't have great tools or user interfaces for us to talk about both native app and web performance at the same time. I'm eager for the industry to explore this more, so people who know a ton about web performance can learn about and start to work on native app performance as well.

Lara will bring “Designing for Performance” to An Event Apart Seattle and An Event Apart Boston. Don't miss out on this essential information—plus eleven other great presentations for people who make websites. Register today! Folks who register for any two- or three-day AEA event before January 1, 2016 can save $125 with discount code AEADEC15.