Interview by Thomas Peham
March 11, 2015
Photos by Stefan Baumgartner
Stefan Baumgartner, Front-End Consultant, Professor, Podcaster and a lot more.
Since the age of 16, Stefan is working on a broad variety of digital projects and products.
Besides his day-job, he teaches interactive design at University, organizes meetups and co-hosts an own tech podcast.
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Can you shortly describe yourself in 2 to 3 sentences?
My name is Stefan Baumgartner, I'm 33 years old and I'm working in web development since I'm 16 years old. It basically started when we got our first internet connection at home. It originally started as a hobby, and stayed this way even long after I graduated from university. I realised rather late that my long run into computer graphics and image processing wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. So I switched to web development professionally four years ago. I’m now a senior web developer and was up until recently the head of a front-end team at a local agency. But still, all the things that happen in the browser are my field where I work. Next to that, I organize some meet-ups here in Linz - the so called Technologieplauscherl - and I'm co-host of a German web development podcast called working draft.
Can you give us some insights on how a typical day in the life of Stefan Baumgartner looks like?
Waking up at about 7am. Getting up at about 8am. Going to work, having a coffee, having a chat. Then it's pretty much a 9-5-job from there on. The fun starts after 5pm, where I'm either writing on my book, doing skype calls with people in the opensource field, having the working draft podcasts running and trying to hold all threads together which originate from the several side projects that I have. At the moment, it's basically going home, booting up the laptop and writing on my book. That takes a lot of time.
You mentioned before that you're basically in web development since you're 16. How did you your childhood influence your career so far?
One memory that comes into my mind instantly is Leisure Suit Larry 3 which my cousin played on his commodore 64. I was stunned by the images of this old guy in a white leisure suit running towards women. I guess I was about 6 or 7 years old and that completely changed my life. Then it was pretty much the gaming stuff. I got a Nintendo entertainment system, a Game Boy, and became a PC gamer. When I was 16 years old and I found my niche of games started building gaming websites. One big portal was squarenet which was a Final Fantasy website, a fan site which had about 50,000 unique visitors per day. The interest was huge, especially if you consider that the site was exclusively in German. I guess we were the only news site with information directly coming from Japanese magazines out there.
There was one point where I found out I actually enjoyed doing websites more than playing games.
Was there any aha moment where you knew that web development was your thing?
The web development thing was some sort of hobby actually. My real aha moment for me was when Nintendo called and said "we like your site so much, don't you want to be some sort of ambassador with your site for this game series?" This was jaw dropping.
I was like "yeah? Me? The guy who’s from Steyr, Austria and doesn't want to work in his current field? Who just wants to make websites writing guides? Yeah of course!" I was in Frankfurt visiting Nintendo, getting a preview of the newest installment. I got a lot of inspiration there and we created this super-fancy website for the upcoming release. It was a total blast. Then I thought if people out there think I can do that, and guys are willing to pay me for that, why not quit my job and do that instead? That's when I switched from image processing to web development.
Could you name one thing you really love about your job as a front-end consultant?
One thing that I really enjoy is working with several fields which all are necessary to have a good web project. In the front-end you tie them altogether. Like the design and concept guys and girls who create those amazing visuals and have a really good sense of how your mind works UI wise. On the other side you have the deep technical stuff from our backend engineers. I love facing all those technical challenges and still keeping usability and design in mind. At the moment I'm actually more on the technical side, but those UI and UX stuff has a soft spot in my heart.
On the other hand what do you think are the biggest challenges when working in front end development?
What’s still one of the hardest things I guess is realizing that we need another process for making good websites and try to get everybody on board.
The typical workflow in web development doesn’t work anymore.
The traditional waterfall of developing a concept, making a design, implementing it in HTML and CSS and then going live. That doesn't work any more. You have to get every player on board from the beginning and everybody has to know which things he can bring into the process and where he should keep his mouth shut. That's hard, especially if you not only have to get people from your agency on track but also people from outside.
How do you handle this challenge in your agency?
A lot of talking with clients & team members and showing them results pretty early on. We also changed the design process itself. We showed the client how we design directly in the browser and how they are going to give feedback on designs. For them, this was a great experience, because in the end they got design results very fast and had a good understanding how the final result will be. One important part here was that we had to have a tool where we could visualize our process. He had to see something, some specific and concrete example for that. That is where Patternlab came into our game.
It's a tool kit where we could take different panels and modules and combine them to pages which had already a responsive view. Think of a construction kit combined with a HTML styleguide. The most important part was how we offered providing feedback. This was when we decided to include Usersnap as a visual bug tracking and feedback tool. With that setup we had an amazing speed in delivering templates. And there were fewer feedback cycles. We found out which things don't work pretty early, and we had the whole responsiveness done just on the go. For me, that's the way how we have to work in the future.
You just mentioned Patternlab and Usersnap as tools you use for your work. Can you name a few other tools you use on a daily basis?
I'm a pretty huge fan of Slack at the moment.
We were rather distributed, three people were at one table, the others were somewhere in Europe working on that project. It really helped having one place where we could chat, and have some sort of documentation. We underestimated the documentation part at first. By having those tools, like Usersnap, Patternlab and Slack, we simply made the documentation while working on the project - there hasn’t been a documentation phase at the end of the project. I'm a huge fan Trello. Trello is one of the best tools because you just can create everything with it. You can use it as a scrum board, or a kanban board or just a to-do list. We used it to plan our sprints and to keep track of our features.
Is there any tool or any technology you'd like to explore more?
Is there any advice you would give yourself as a 14 year old for example?
Let’s say 18, my 14 year old self should just behave the same way! Starting with 18 everybody said to me that I'll never get a job in web development, because that was the time when the dot-com bubble exploded. It took me 10 years to realize you still can do that. So I would say to my 18 year old, that he shouldn’t listen to them. In the end, it's not about the money. It's about what you love to do. It's great if you can combine those two things. Making actually a living out of the stuff you love is like the best foundation you could have for your life.
When I was 18 years old everybody said to me that I'll never get a job in web development.
Why do you do all that kind of different projects - from organising meetups, to working on your podcast, to giving classes at University? What's your passion behind all this?
That all started when I switched jobs. I was short of hobbies all of a sudden. So I needed new ones.
Organising the meetup group brought me back to a network I completely lost when I left university. And I get a lot of new insights from parts of my field which I usually don’t touch. That exchange with other developers is invaluable. The podcast is some sort of support group for me. We are 5-6 guys and every week we are going to talk about all the news in the web world. I get a lot of new insights and keep myself up to date with the web development world. Last, but not least, teaching web development on the university of applied sciences in Hagenberg is a way to see how young people accept those technologies. It’s actually the most fun one of those three. The students are incredibly creative minds, you should see their creations.
I found my passion in web development and I want to live it to the fullest.
What are the biggest pains in software testing from your point of view?
I guess one of the biggest challenges at the moment is end to end testing. Real E2E tests can be scripted by now, but not in the way that it's accessible for everybody. Writing a test with frameworks like Karma, protractor and stuff like that require a lot of basic setup.
There's one project out there which is called DalekJS which I really enjoy because it tries to implement the same thing that selenium does, but from a web standard perspective. It just seems to be not continued anymore.
I’ve been at a panel session at a conference recently where a woman in the audience asked “how do you test”? And I shouted "with the client". That got a few laughs and was obviously meant as a joke. Sad thing is that it’s closer to the truth as it should be.
We've talked a lot about passion. How would you describe your main passion for building software?
You know, I'm rather clumsy. I can't fix my car. I can't change tires. I can't hang a picture on the wall. I can't repair stuff with hammer and nails. Doing software is the only way I can create things. Software development is some way to express myself.
What do you think will be the major challenges in web development in the next let's say three years?
Websites should deliver their goods fast and provide a non disruptive user experience, but most of the times it’s still form over function. Performance is not considered UX, when it’s in fact nothing else than UX. With the rise of single page application frameworks we added a new complexity which we don’t really understand yet. We now have our new workflows set up and had our learnings considering the vast browser landscape, now it’s time to use them and create better and more robust websites and applications. We are on a good road, but we still have a long way ahead of us.
Can you share some influential blogs, books or videos with us?
In terms of videos, what you always can watch, are videos from the Breaking Development Conference which happens in the U.S.. And all the JS conf videos from Berlin.
Concerning podcasts, there is one German podcast next to ours which is called Donau Tech Radio. I also like Tim Kadlec’s recent endeavour with “Path to Performance”. A whole podcast dedicated to making websites faster. You can’t go wrong with that.
In terms of books, I'm not that much of a reader. But if I would recommend one it’s is Apps For All by Haydon Pickering. He gives a really good introduction with example of new accessibility techniques and should really be considered as a standard reference on that field. Go read that, it’ll change your mind.