I usually give my students and junior developers two pieces of advice: practice your skills and work on strong side projects. Practice is a given, but projects on your own time are a greatly underrated and often forgotten asset.
Strong projects challenge you in at least one way. If you’re focusing on development, maybe you’ll target a framework or an aspect of a programming language you haven’t used yet. If you’re a designer, it could be a new tool or workflow. Remember, the side project needs elements of the familiar to make regular progress so you do not get frustrated and give up, yet remain achievable over time.
Great side projects are a mix of what you can execute quickly but are also somewhat foreign and difficult. It’s a twist on your existing point of view, not one that’s completely coming from left field. One personal example: a refresh of this very site (familiar), but undertaken with a fresh set of responsive design tools and Sass underpinning the styling (foreign).
It’s not an accident I generated my latest project after work hours; the best side projects are almost always outside the day job. Because you’re free from work interference, it can and should move at your own pace. It’s ok to be disorganized too. You don’t even have to finish; the project can flounder and die days, weeks or months down line. As long as you grow from it, it’s still a success. And above all, side projects should be fun.
Shouldn’t a good job nullify the need for side projects? Not exactly. Even with the best jobs, your personal growth goals are never perfectly aligned with the company you work for. And some work, even with the best intentions, can get stuck in a boring, repetitive rut. A strong side project provides an opportunity to escape that.
At the very least, even a so-so side project teaches you something new on your own timetable. And at its best, side projects can establish your “niche” as a designer or developer, a critical way to stand out from your tech peers. They did for me; three years at Gucci, my first formalized web job, pushed me most of the way. However, it’s my Hacker News and Rdio browser extensions on my own time, along with some minimal Tumblr themes, that confirmed my interests as a web developer on the very front of front-end development that often drifts into UX and aesthetic design.
Good jobs push your career far. Good side projects push it further. Make time and a commitment to both.
The new minimal text editor Writer Pro is a worthwhile upgrade over its predecessor, iA Writer. It’s a very polished product with useful features like multiple writing modes that each have their own custom font. There’s also Syntax Control, a tool that highlights select parts of your document for easier revisions and edits.
Admittedly I didn’t expect to have such a positive experience; Writer Pro launched in a crowded field of already well made, minimal text editors. There’s Information Architects’ own iA Writer, which already shares the core Writer Pro feature set. And Byword is an editor with exceptional Markdown support, keyboard shortcuts and exporting options.
Yet Writer Pro distinguishes itself over the competition with subtle yet important design details:
- The program fades out the standard Mac toolbar at the document’s top when you begin to type. It’s a small touch that removes another distraction from your writing.
- You can enable Syntax Control to highlight just the sentence you’re on. When you scroll through your document, the fade out effect is lifted for easier navigation.
- Most competing text editors only enable line or paragraph focus. Line focus feels too constrained on longer sentences while paragraph focus is too loose. Writer Pro’s Syntax Control set to sentence mode is a happy compromise; it highlights the sentence you’re on, regardless of length.
- Writer Pro’s formats select Markdown symbols so paragraphs, list items and headlines line up vertically. It makes scanning through and organizing a larger document much easier.
- Writer Pro’s font mix of Nitti, Nitti Grotesk and Tiempos is arguably better optimized for writing than options available on competing editors (more on this below.)
Writer Pro doubles down on its existing design strengths with its new writing modes: Note, Write, Edit and Read. You can jump between modes at any time; switching from one writing mode to another changes the font and cursor color to optimize for the task at hand. Content remains unchanged.
Because content is static, Writer Pro’s mode switching can feel superfluous at first; negative reviews on the Mac App Store harp on this a lot. However, after switching between modes for several weeks, the feature has a positive effect on my writing. Note mode utilizes a thin, ultra clean sans serif that pairs well, to quote iA, with the “clean and pristine” nature that notes tend to have. The typography here pushed me in the direction of shorter bullet points over long, rambling sentences.
Write mode retains the monospaced Nitti font from iA Writer. It’s blockier and inherently easier to flow from sentence to sentence, better for uninterrupted writing. Edit and Read modes use Tiempos, a higher contrast serif. This font corrects one of my complaints about the original iA Writer; Nitti was awesome for actual writing, but for editing long form pieces, Nitti’s fluid structure wasn’t ideal (there’s a reason you rarely see idiosyncratic sans-serifs like Nitti used for long reads.) Tiempos is a far better reading and editing choice.
Just to make sure I wasn’t buying into empty typographic fluff, I used Writer Pro’s modes against their suggested intentions for several days. To the program’s credit, writing was more difficult: long form pieces in Note node were written decidedly slower than average. And editing paragraphs in Write node felt awkward with too much space between characters.
Writer Pro’s other significant new feature is Syntax Control. With a click or keyboard shortcut, most of the document fades out, highlighting only the sentence you’re on or just a document’s adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions or conjunctions. It’s effectively iA Writer’s “focus mode” on steroids.
Unlike writing modes that I use throughout the writing process, I only found Syntax Control useful for final edits and draft revisions on longer pieces. That slightly dulls this feature’s impact but it’s still useful to cut down on verbiage. Those who need absolute focus on what they are writing will likely appreciate Syntax Control on the current sentence (identical to iA Writer’s focus mode.) I rarely use Syntax Control this way but it’s helpful when you’re having trouble putting together a troublesome sentence.
While overall Writer Pro is impressive, there’s a few small issues that need work. The Markdown preview window has poor styling with a font size that’s too small and lines that stretch out as far as you resize the window; it feels like an afterthought feature. It’s also odd iA doesn’t automatically covert Markdown syntax (e.g. headlines, bold text, links) when you switch to Writer Pro’s Read mode. Given that iA already went far enough to make this the one mode with a change in functionality (you can’t edit, the cursor and misspelling highlights are removed) they should go all the way to maximize the reading experience. And, unfortunately, this lack of Markdown syntax conversion extends to PDF exports too. It makes PDF exports useless for Markdown writers; get a copy of Brett Terpstra’s excellent Marked 2 as a workaround for now. Additionally, as a writer who’s often typing away emails and blog posts late at night, Writer Pro could really use a “night mode” with light text on a dark background. It would violate Writer Pro’s general lack of customization, but adding the feature would enhance readability and lower eye strain in dark environments, two big wins.
I’m also seeing performance problems with Writer Pro every so often; the CPU usage suddenly spikes and you’re left with an unresponsive, sluggish program, usually after I have the program active for an extended period. It’s rare but annoying when it happens.
Over the past year I’ve written mostly in Byword on both on iOS and the Mac, with occasional forays into iA Writer when I’m in the right mood. Now, after weeks of heavy Writer Pro usage, it’s my main writing choice on the Mac going forward. That said, with its strict minimalism and higher cost, Writer Pro isn’t for everyone. If it’s your first look at a plain text writer, Byword is a more well rounded, cheaper alternative. Nonetheless, if Writer Pro’s visual mode changes and Syntax Control sound compelling, or if you’re a typographic geek like me, give Writer Pro a try.
After a week of hard work with lots of CSS editing and cross platform testing, version 2.0 of my personal site is now finished and launched. Welcome!
It’s been a long time coming. The last year has seen a dramatic experimentation on my part with blogging and social media with fairly uneven results. I’ve tried regularly flogging Twitter, cropping and posting shots up on Tumblr, even committing myself to a 700 word plus rant here on my personal site, yet nothing seemed to feel fully comfortable.
So for now at least I’m getting back to basics. Here you’ll find a mixture of Daring Fireball-esque link posts that I find interesting; tech, design and film stories predominate. I’ll also occasionally be posting more extended, traditional blog posts, though I’m aiming here more for a happy medium size, probably 500, 600 words tops.
Hopefully you enjoy the layout. It’s an HTML5 based WordPress theme written pretty much from the ground up. It’s simplistic, letting the typography (go FacitWeb!) shine with a lighter, milder color contrast than I’ve used before. It’s also fully responsive, built on a 24 column variant of the Skeleton grid system; that should make for comfortable reading on your iPhone, iPad, Android or other mobile device of choice.
Comments or questions are always appreciated. Enjoy.
Web development is constantly evolving, rewarding those that learn and adapt; developers that cling to older methods do so at their own risk. Yet the industry’s heavy workload and tight deadlines place many in a paradoxical situation: Due to their proven and familiar status, older techniques and programs often stay at the forefront of a developer’s workflow.
So how does a web developer learn and evolve while still making their deadlines? Having been in the industry for nine years, recently shifting into a position where I’ll be mentoring junior developers more often, I’ve been reflecting on that question a lot.
An interesting paradox became apparent months ago at the office: As I got better organized and more focused on my projects, breaks between the action became increasingly messy and unsatisfying. While I’ve always liked to stay abreast of the latest news from RSS and Twitter, given the sheer volume of content available combined with little free time during the work day, it’s rare I ended up digesting anything of substance.
Yet, more recently, I had a revelation: Given the distractions and tribulations of the modern workplace, why bother with the rush? I now file everything away in a simple yet organized manner, going back to the content later in the day when I have time to process it at a more relaxed pace. It’s led to less stress in the office and I’m able to better enjoy the various articles, videos and other assorted content I find.
Below, the details on my workflow that I’ve broken down into two sections, gathering and processing.
For anyone looking for a way to manage their time better and stay focused in the office, all it can take are a few simple rules, a timer and 25 minutes. That’s the idea behind The Pomodoro Technique, a dead simple concept that’s made a noticeable change for the better in my day to day workflow.
Distractions and productivity manifestos
Like many, my normal “plugged in” work environment is filled with distraction; Emails, instant messenger and questions from coworkers often compete with my attention on the task at hand. To stay focused I’ve tried many different productivity techniques with little success. Getting Things Done, one of the most popular productivity techniques among tech circles, never really clicked; the startup work and the perceived day to day complexity were a stumbling block. I struggled with how to fully organize my projects list, and clearing off my inbox of actionable items was a chore that took longer than I wanted.
Welcome to a much more refined version of nickschaden.com. What originally was little more than a simplified web based resume I’ve decided to grow into something significantly larger.