Lead developers from web giants share their insights at Tech4Africa conference

A Question and Answer session at Johannesburg’s first Tech4Africa conference featured developers from some of the world’s best known tech companies, and revealed insights on everything from startups vs corporations, San Francisco’s tech community, mobile/web development to making browser upgrades a global warming issue.

The panel was chaired by Andy Budd, UI guru and MD of Clearleft, who posed questions to Dustin Diaz, a Twitter user interface engineer, Joe Stump, the SimpleGEO founder and former Digg lead architect, John Resig, who created jQuery and Jonathan Snook, a lead prototyper for Yahoo!.

On the hardest challenge you’ve ever been faced with:

Stump: Finding people that I can bounce ideas off. When you work at a website as big as Digg, which at the time was maybe the 25th biggest website in the US, that means there are only 24 other companies you can chat with about the problems you’re having on the same scale.

Resig: Figuring out that the startup life was not for me. I tried for years to do businesses or partnerships because I wanted to create things and get people using them and I thought starting my own thing was the only way I could do that. But if you’re involved in open source development, you get to work within a larger community and still create things.

Snook: People challenges. It’s inevitable that everybody you work with wil have a different opinion – and everyone thinks they’re right.

Dustiz: Cancer.

On hiring:

Stump: The engineers I hire have to be smarter than me. At Digg we saw the move to manager as a demotion.

Budd: People don’t leave companies. They leave their managers.

On working at startups vs. larger corporations:

Snook: I’m lucky enough working for Yahoo! that I still get to work from home and do the work I want to do. But I also have a huge pool of resources at my disposal, so if there’s something I don’t understand, I can easily find someone who knows the answer.

Stump: I actively avoid large companies. As a developer you want to execute and deploy products, and if you’re held back at a large company, it can get frustrating.

On working at Twitter:

Diaz: Part of the problem is that Twitter is so simple. Previously, I worked on Gmail, where there were very defined sets of problems to solve. At Twitter, it’s more like trying to describe air, because the site means something completely different to everyone you ask. At the moment, we’re solving design problems so that the site scales to fit our new features. For example, where on the user interface do we fit in local trending topics and lists?

On mobile vs. web development:

Snook: The key is to get to the core of what you’re trying to do and then present that to the user. If you’re a blog, you want to display the article. If you’re an email program, you want to display messages.

Resig: I’m excited about the move to smaller devices, because I think people are realising how bad their sites are and so they’re going back and making them better.

Budd: People are finding that their iPhone apps are actually better than their websites – one reason is because company owners give developers free reign with an iPhone app since they’re not seen as being that important, and so the results are better. With a website, typically you have too many people trying to solve the problem.

Stump: When it comes to developing iPhone products, you have to pore over every pixel, which leads to a much more concise and direct user experience. I like consuming content on my iPhone more than on my desktop.

On whether the browser will replace the operating system:

Resig: I think it will. I spend the vast majority of my day in my browser. There’s so much software that I don’t use anymore – for example, I use Google Docs rather than a word processor program. So if we keep making browsers faster, better and containing more features, what’s the point of an operating system?

Stump: But people still want privacy. Until we solve the security concerns, that’s dangerous and so I don’t foresee it happening for a long time. But I could eat my words.

On the San Francisco tech community:

Stump: I find it amazingly receptive, and I have amazingly collaborative conversations with people from sites like Flickr and Reddit. It’s not closed off at all – and if you offer beer you can generally get access to almost anyone.

Budd: The value of communities like San Francisco is its network of people, which is a lesson that can extend to cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Be as open as you can be. Talk to your competitors.

On forcing browser upgrades:

Stump: Not if you want to make money. It doesn’t come down to a tech decision – it’s based on dollars and cents. At Digg, we made decisions about which browsers to support based on advertising revenue.

Diaz: But take the unleaded petrol issue – right now we’re given a choice but it could get to a point where the government takes away leaded petrol because of the environment. Maybe we need to make browsers into a global warming issue.



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