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Responsive Web Design


Episode 134: Spotlight: Thalida Noel

This week the spotlight is on Thalida Noel, whose path to becoming a front-end engineer includes robotics, NASA, OkCupid, and now Etsy.

I try to make every site responsive and fluid because there’s so many different devices and screen sizes out now. My thing is I always love my sites to be accessible, no matter where the user is visiting from.

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This Week’s Guest

Thalida Noel

Senior Front-end Engineer

Thalida Noel is a Trinidadian-American front-end engineer who is interested in creating beautifully responsive accessible sites for all. She volunteers for organizations focused on creating inclusive intersectional environments in tech for underrepresented groups. She participated in the WOCinTechChat stock photoshoots, with a goal of showcasing that women of color are already in tech, and are here to stay. Outside of her day job and activism, she works on numerous other projects including Ciphers & Codes, an educational tool about types of encryptions.


Episode Transcript

Karen:

Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Karen McGrane.

Ethan:

And I’m your other host, Ethan Marcotte.

Karen:

And this week, I am thrilled beyond compare. We are joined by Thalida Noel, who is a front-end engineer. Thalida, thank you so much for joining us.

Thalida:

Hi, thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here.

Karen:

We are super excited that you are here.

Ethan:

But before we dive in, I’d like to say a few brief words about our sponsor.

Now, Karen and I use FreshBooks extensively here at our little podcasting media empire, and we’re thrilled to have them as a sponsor. And we’re even more thrilled because they’ve launched an all-new version of their popular cloud accounting software! It’s really easy to use, and is a simple way to be more productive, organized, and—most importantly—get paid quickly.

This new Freshbooks has a ton of great, intuitive features. A few favorites: it lets you create and send professional-looking invoices in less than 30 seconds; you can use Freshbooks to set up online payments, which can get you paid faster; and many more.

Sound tempting to you? Well, FreshBooks is offering a 30-day, unrestricted free trial to listeners of the Responsive Web Design Podcast. To claim that trial, just go to freshbooks.com/RWD and enter RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGN in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section.

Once again, thanks so much to Freshbooks for sponsoring our little podcast.

Karen:

So, just to kick this off, just as a reminder to anyone who might be tuning in, we’re mixing things up a little bit here, and instead of doing interviews with companies that have gone responsive, we’re doing interviews with people whose work we admire, who we think we’d like to hear a little bit more about who they are and what they’re working on. So, Thalida is here to talk a little bit about her work.

Maybe you could start out, just introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your background, a little bit about how you came to be a front-end engineer.

Thalida:

I’ve been doing front-end engineering for about six years now. I actually got my start in robotics in high school. My school had a robotics team and I joined as a developer. Before then, I’d actually been essentially selling MySpace themes, if people can remember those days. So, I would customize my friends’ MySpace pages and other online accounts and they would pay me in food and/or cheap money, so like ten dollars for a page.

Ethan:

That is fantastic.

Karen:

[laughs] I hope things are going better for you now.

Ethan:

[laughs]

Thalida:

[laughs] Yeah.

Ethan:

That is officially the coolest origin story I’ve heard in a while, though.

Karen:

So, I’d love to hear a little it, just as a nod to the theme of our program here, about your work with responsive web design and maybe how that might factor into how you approach your work or how you think about the sites that you’re coding.

Thalida:

I try to make every site responsive and fluid because there’s so many different devices and screen sizes out now. My thing is I always love my sites to be accessible, no matter where the user is visiting from. Everything I build, I just try to make it so that it’s functional and they’re able to do the things that they need to do as quickly and easily as possible.

Ethan:

I’d love to hear a little bit more about—it’s not often I hear the phrase, “Started in robotics and then moved into responsive design” as kind of an introduction on this show. But one of the things that I hear quite frequently from folks that I meet either in my work or at conferences is everyone feels overwhelmed with the state of the web. I’d be curious to know how you actually transitioned into front-end development. How did you start getting your hands dirty?

Thalida:

So for my team, as the person who did the programming for the robot, people just kind of expected I would know how to do the programming for any websites or blogs or releases that our team did. So as a result, I got more invested into the web development world. At the time, I actually didn’t think I would go into doing front-end engineering; I thought I would do electrical or mechanical engineering as a result of the robotics experience. But I was able to translate some of that knowledge of making the code for our robot fluid and flexible so that any other engineers could use it, and then realizing that, “Hey, I can make it fluid and flexible so that they can interact with it, or code, or work with it easily.” And that transition of just making things simple and easy to use really applied to the web and still applies now.

Ethan:

That is great to hear. And maybe this is a good point to transition to something else I wanted to ask you about. Because as a front-end engineer, I think you also have a really beautiful website, thalida.com. First of all, great domain name.

Thalida:

The best birthday gift.

Ethan:

Yeah, tell me about that! How did you get that domain?

Thalida:

My mother bought it for me for my sixteenth birthday. Instead of, like, the usual as-seen-on-TV brand new car in the driveway, she was like, “Here is a domain name,” and I was so pleased. She bought it for me with like two years on it, and it was the best gift. No one yet has topped it.

Ethan:

That’s incredible. Officially the coolest mom ever. But I guess, because you have such a beautiful site, I’d be curious to hear how you, as a front-end engineer, like to interact with other designers. Can you tell me a little bit about how you partner with designers, even at Kinnek or some of your side projects? How do you like to work?

Thalida:

I love being able to talk with designers from the beginning and just pick their brain on what they’d like the interactions on their site to be like, what the visual aesthetic they’re going for. Every designer has their own little way of working and their own little quirks and their own little things that they love and notice on sites, and I love being able to find out what’s that thing that makes them really happy to work on, and to work on that with them. So, I love being able to work in Sketch with a designer. I remember the Photoshop days and I don’t know how I survived, because using Sketch seems so much simpler when working with a designer and being able to pass things back and forth and bounce ideas off them and see the flow. I love being able to see their mood boards and their inspiration and be able to get a feel of the direction they’re going with and then we can learn from each other. So, I learn new design practices from them, they learn new emerging technologies that are coming on the front-end, which nowadays almost every day there’s something new that’s happening.

Karen:

One thing that I note of interest in your work history is that you’ve worked for both NASA and OKCupid, which are like basically the same company, I think? Probably very, very similar cultures, work product…

Thalida:

[laughs]

Karen:

Could you maybe talk about your experience in communicating your work or describing the value of your work, or even just partnering with other people, collaborating with other people, when you work in different organizations or different types of companies?

Thalida:

I think NASA was interesting. Government work is this whole other beast and whole other world. It was interesting, that field, though because a lot of people I worked with aren’t too interested or invested in tech/ Even though it’s NASA, they’re slightly old school, they don’t really use some of the newer technologies. So, trying to introduce new things was interesting. I found that I became very good at giving analogies and trying to describe processes in ways that they would understand. I think one of my favorites was describing the product flow as a constructor trying to build a door, and all the steps that go into just making an entryway. So, that was one of my weirder analogies that kind of worked the best when I was at NASA.

Ethan:

That’s awesome. Thalida, the other thing I was kind of struck by when we were sort of reaching out to you was just the sheer number of projects you’ve got listed on your home page. As somebody who kind of struggles to do maybe one thing a day, I’m in deep awe of anybody who’s got such a prolific back catalog of side projects. So I’d love to hear, how do you actually come up with ideas for some of these things, and how do you make time for side work?

Thalida:

A lot of it comes from I’ll somehow stumble across a site on the internet that has great functionality, the end result that I get out of it is wonderful, but the process of getting to that end result was so torturous that I’m like, there has to be a better way of doing this. So, that’s where most of my side projects come out of. I believe one of my most recent ones is one to learn about ciphers and different encoding systems, and all of the educational tools that I had seen on it at the time to do that were very difficult to use and weren’t things I could use on my phone or on the go easily. So I was like I’m going to build something to do this. What’s interesting though with my projects is that a lot of them are very long-running. I’ll do a design first and I’ll show my friends and get their feedback, I’ll post it on Dribbble or Behance or something; I’ll share them. And then over maybe a year and a half I’ll build and I’ll chip away at it, and I’ll change and add technologies as the front-end world evolves.

Ethan:

Thalida, since you mentioned devices, I’d love to hear a little bit more, as a front-end engineer who has to design and build these multi-device experiences, one thing that comes up frequently in our podcast are topics like performance and device-testing. Are these things you have to deal with at all in your daily work? And if so, do you have any good strategies or tips you’d like to share with us?

Thalida:

Yes, this is something I deal with a lot. It’s a constant struggle, actually. So, one of my favorite tools right now is the built-in Google Chrome DevTools. They have their new responsive section where you can change the screen size and go to different screen sizes, and being able to throttle your network so that you can test what it’s like for someone who’s on 3G or 2G without having to break out a device or fake the connection that way has been wonderful. Just using that built-in DevTools, they’ve made it so much easier and a lot better over the years, and it’s my favorite way of doing device testing outside of actually having ten devices in the office that we run to and test quickly on if we want to test what our site looks like on a Windows font, for example.

Karen:

Thalida, what are you excited to work on next, or do next? Like, what’s going on on the web that you’re looking forward to getting to try out?

Thalida:

I’m excited for progressive web apps; I’m excited for being able to allow people to access and use websites while offline or on a low connection. I travel a lot and I have family in all parts of the world, and it’s interesting for me, whenever I go back home to Trinidad or to visit my family who live in this small town in Canada, and trying to access websites and trying to get just even something as big as Netflix or Hulu is always a process and a hassle. So, I’m just excited for being able to make things faster and smoother for people who aren’t in the big cities who always have the latest and greatest in technology.

Ethan:

Well Thalida, this has been a fantastic chat. We can’t thank you enough for spending a few minutes with us. But before we let you go, I would love to hear if you happen to have any advice for me, for Karen, but more importantly for our listeners who might be checking into this podcast as they’re about to start their own responsive project. Do you have one or two things you’d like to share with them that they should keep in mind in their work?

Thalida:

I think to always, always test on slower speeds. It’s something I’ve noticed, that I’ll go on a site on a 3G connection and it takes a very long time to just even see the first page load. So in addition to making sure your sites and your apps work across different screen sizes, making sure that they work at different data levels and that they don’t use up too much of the user’s data is something to keep in mind and to try to balance.

Karen:

I think that is excellent advice, and coming from somebody who has a lot of great ideas. Thalida, thank you so much for taking some time to come on the show today. It’s really a pleasure getting to talk to you.

Thalida:

Thank you for having me. It was so wonderful to be here.

Ethan:

Thanks to everyone for listening to this episode of a Responsive Web Design Podcast. Thanks also to our sponsor, Freshbooks. Go to Freshbooks.com/RWD and enter RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGN in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section for a 30-day free trial.

If your company wants to go responsive but you need help getting started, Karen and I offer a two-day onsite workshop to help you make it happen. Visit responsivewebdesign.com/workshop to find out more, and let us know if your company is interested.

If you want even more from us, you can sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to this podcast, and read full transcripts of every podcast episode at responsivewebdesign.com.

Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you back here next week.


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