MJS 025: Helen V. Holmes

This episode features a My JavaScript story with Helen V. Holmes. Helen has never before been a guest on the show. She is both a designer and front-end programmer who previously worked for Mozilla. In January, she started her own freelancing business. Listen to Charles Max Wood and Helen discuss how she got into programming, what made her decide to open a freelance business, and more!

How did you get into programming?

Helen started by making themes for herself and friends in LiveJournal using other people's CSS themes. Once she got to college she realized that although this wasn't a career, it was an aspect of a career. She then majored in graphic design, going on to do internships in both front-end development and design. Since college, she has gone back and forth between front-end development and design work.

How long ago was that?

Helen graduated college in 2013.

Did you graduate in computer science?

Helen did not even minor in computer science. At the time, she was focused on making stuff. The computer science major was too heavily focused on theory. She did take a couple of classes in it, but the graphic design major was more focused on building prototypes. Her graphic design major didn't teach her how to do anything – she said that you're on your own, and you have to figure out how to show off your ideas. The major appealed to her at the time because of that reason. Now Helen thinks majoring in computer science would have been really helpful for her career.

Charles points out that you don't have to have a computer science degree to do this work. Helen agrees; it can be wasted on you if you don't have the right enthusiasm to learn everything. Both say that you can get the education you want through self-education. Helen explains that so much of successful programming is good communication – this can be learned in college, while the specifics of how to code can be learned later.

How do you get from a graphic design major to "serious programming?"

Helen doesn't know how serious the programming she does is now. Her first real job was at Capital One as a front-end developer on their design team. She was doing prototypes and communicating between the design and production/engineering teams. She realized that nobody knew how to write JavaScript when trying to communicate between the two teams, so she decided that she should learn. A lot of the engineers came to the same realization at the same time. She started to write React as she was leaving Capital One. Everyone was trying to improve his or her JavaScript chops at the same time.

Did you get into Angular or React at Capital One?

When she first started at Capital One everyone was writing Angular. She wrote a lot of Angular in the beginning of her work. Most of the prototypes could be solved with React. Near the end of her time, she started using a lot of React.

What do you see is the difference between Angular and React?

Angular solves a lot more problems than React. It brings logic to the client side. React is only about solving visual problems. That's why it appealed to Helen. The design team she worked with was all about solving visual problems.

Why did you choose the front end?

Helen mainly chose it because she was a graphic design major. She believes that because the web is so accessible that it is the easiest thing. She also thinks the front end is fun.

How'd you wind up at Mozilla?

She met James Long through a mutual friend. Once they met, he thought she'd be a good addition to their team. He told her why it'd be a good switch for her – they were doing React work and they were looking for someone to understand problems that engineers go through.

What do they use React on?

She was on the browser team. The front-end of the developer tools was a JavaScript application that wasn't Angular. They were working on moving it to become a more documented framework. They wanted to use Redux and React. The team was converting it panel by panel.

What made you decide you were going to go freelance?

Helen had been missing things that she had done in college such as branding and illustration work. She had done some illustration work while at Firefox. She ultimately wanted to do a variety of different things instead of just product work. What gave her courage to go into freelance work was that James Long was also going freelance at the same time, so she thought that she was in good company. She also is related to a lawyer, so it wasn't as scary filing the paperwork because she had someone to ask for help during the process.

What contributions do you feel like you've made to the JavaScript community?

Helen believes that the highest impact work she has done has been on the Firefox browser. She didn't write a lot of code, but feels like what she did write is being used by a lot of people. She is most proud of the CSS grid because she says that it is exciting for people who do layout stuff on the web.

What are you working on now?

Helen started her own business at the beginning of the year. She is figuring out how she wants her skills to grow and with what kind of clients she wants to work. She has a lot of side projects, one being what she calls an art project. She is translating JPEG to Pixel art. She is taking NeoPixels, which are little programmable LEDs, and taking a matrix of values and displaying them on a sight board.

With everything that's out there in JavaScript, how do you keep current?

Helen answers that she doesn't. She tries to stay current with the tools she is using, which is React. She doesn’t try to be good at everything because she is also a designer, so she says that she has to pick and choose what she stays current on. Charles says that is what he tells people to do. There is so much out there that there is no way that anyone is going to stay current on everything. He says to keep current on what you are doing specifically.