This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by Jeremy Keith to talk about his uncanny ability to predict the trends that really matter in the digital field.
- More on The Digital Project Manager School.
- More on Pactly.
- More on Clearleft.
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- Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug.
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Links to great writing about the internet and culture.
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- The Most Dangerous Writing App.
Paul Boag: This week on the Boag World show, we're joined by Jeremy Keith to talk about his uncanny ability to predict the trends that really matter in the digital field. This week's show is sponsored by Pactly and the Digital Project Manager school.
Hello and welcome to the Boag World show, the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name's Paul Boag, joining me on this week's show is Marcus Lillington, just about. Scraped in.
Marcus Lillington : Yeah just got it there in the last minute.
Paul Boag: Yeah we thought we'd have to do it without you. But I'm sure that wouldn't have been a problem because this week we've got Jeremy Keith on the show, and he knows as many-
Jeremy Keith: Hello Paul, hello Marcus.
Paul Boag: Hello. He knows as many dad jokes as you do Marcus so it'd be fine.
Marcus Lillington : Yes indeed.
Paul Boag: We were talking crosstalk 00:01:05
Jeremy Keith: We can have like a rap battle but it'll be in dad jokes.
Paul Boag: Yeah absolutely. Who could tell the worst dad joke. We were talking just before the show kicked off, saying about I remember when my son was really young we were at a conference with Jeremy down in Cornwall, at the Eden project and about how enamored my son was with Jeremy and it all came down to the fact that Jeremy had encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars and knew how to tell a good dad joke, so that's the key to success with kids. Full stop.
Marcus Lillington : Never grow up.
Paul Boag: Never grow up absolutely. I was thinking about this, when I first met you … When I say met you, you didn't meet me, I saw you. Which was speaking at …
Jeremy Keith: That makes you sound so dodgy.
Marcus Lillington : I was following you.
Jeremy Keith: Through my window.
Marcus Lillington : There you were.
Paul Boag: You were speaking at the Atmedia 2005 conference.
Marcus Lillington : You were.
Jeremy Keith: The first ever Atmedia conference.
Paul Boag: Yeah, first ever Atmedia. First UK conference really about web standards. Marcus was with me and we went along really to hear Jeffrey Zeldman because we'd read his book, we were all very on board with you know, semantics and web standards and all those kinds of things. And then for some reason, sandwiched in the middle of the day was this guy talking about java script-
Marcus Lillington : Dom scripting and things like that.
Paul Boag: Java script, which everybody knew sucked. Java script was what you used for pop ups. All the annoying things about the web were done with java script and not only that, it was just riddled through your code. Destroying any semantics, destroying anything that was good and it was like, what the hell is this gonna be? You had a tough crowd that day but yeah-
Jeremy Keith: Well. I was the token java script guy, definitely. But that was actually one of my favorite speaking experiences. Because when it began, so every talk's about CSS and then right in the middle there's this one talk about java script and it's me. And basically they're trying to win over a hostile crowd because you're right, everybody thought java script's this bloated buggy thing. And if you tried it in the 90s it was DHTML it was even worse right? But I had the pleasure of seeing a room full of people come round and I could almost see light bulbs going off over their heads, and that was a great feeling. I never quite had that feeling in a conference talk since really.
What's funny is now when I speak at conferences, I'm probably gonna tell people lay off the java script. Come completely from, hey, you should use java script, it's great. To, enough with the java script already.
Paul Boag: It's interesting isn't it, how times change and how things move on but yeah I was one of the people in that room that had light bulb moment, I wouldn't have touched java script with a barge pole until you came in. And it's like, as you're speaking about java script, so Marcus drops out of the conversation. I don't know whether that's because there is buggy java script on this site or just that you bored his-
Jeremy Keith: Probably java script.
Paul Boag: Bored him senseless and he abandoned you, one or the other. It could have gone either way. But I'm gonna just carry on without him anyway. So Jeremy, back in those days, what were you doing at that time? Because you hadn't founded Clearleft at that point so what were you up to?
Jeremy Keith: I think it just started about yes, because Atmedia was what, June 2005?
Paul Boag: Yeah.
Jeremy Keith: That was I think the same month that technically Clearleft was formed or registered at, businesses house.
Paul Boag: Okay.
Jeremy Keith: But up until that point … And even technically for the first inaudible 00:05:20 I was a freelancer. I'd been freelancing since starting the whole web thing, first in Germany and then moved to England in 2000. So I'd been living in Brighton freelancing for five years before we started up Clearleft, so doing a bit of everything because when you're a freelancer you have to be able to do kind of whatever it takes kind of thing. So yeah, bit of this, bit of that. Design development.
Paul Boag: Yeah. That pretty much sums up most of us back then, doesn't it? That's the difference. So I mean, how do you describe your job these days?
Jeremy Keith: With great difficulty. Because it's sorted of in flux but then it always kind of feels like it's in flux. If I'm talking to someone who isn't in the web industry and say, oh, what do you do? I would say something like, oh I make websites. Because in the broadest sense that's sort of true. But even like, what's that even mean, to make a website these days?
Paul Boag: Don't go all meta on us.
Jeremy Keith: But you know the truth is actually at work, I would very rarely be hands on producing code on client projects. And yet I still consider myself to be involved in the making of websites I suppose. Clearleft is very much a design agency, right, we do development as well but it's user experience design is what we as a company do and everything's kind of in service to that. So we're not a technology led company. But that said, we've always had very strong ideals and opinions about what's best for the user and how certain technologies are better or worse for the user, depending on how you use them. And I think we've always been associated with web development as well as design, even though primarily like I say it's a design agency.
But yeah, my title at Clearleft is technical director and I don't know what that means. Because it's different to lead developer, my colleague Danielle, she's the lead developer at Clearleft and lead developer is like, same when you have a creative leader, design leader where like people report to her and she makes the technical decisions on a project like we're going to use react and we're going to use webpac and all this stuff. And in terms of like, I don't have knowledge or experience or anything in those kind of things. So I've kind of passed that all onto her. I still feel very immersed in the world of what's in the web browser so HTML, CSS, java script, leaving aside frameworks and tools and all that stuff but just what web browsers allow you to do. And so, I don't know, it seems like half my job is just keeping up tot date with what web browsers can do and trying stuff out and yeah, being aware of that stuff.
I mean sometimes … Like, to a casual outside observer, it might look as though I spend most of my day goofing off on the internet. But don't be fooled. I am actually researching and it does pay off sometimes, there'll be a meeting or something, oh actually I read something about this recently or oh, I was trying this out on a side project and this could be useful for us and that kind of stuff. But no, if we're being honest I spend most of my time goofing off on the internet.
Paul Boag: But then, especially as a company like Clearleft grows and when it reaches a certain size, you need somebody doing that. You need somebody that is insuring the organization is keeping up, is aware of the latest things that are developing. That it's challenging the kind of existing working practices within an organization. There's nothing wrong with a bit of goofing off.
Jeremy Keith: Sometimes I consider myself the research and development wing of web dev at Clearleft. Who knows when the stuff will pay off.
Paul Boag: Exactly, and you don't do you? Sometimes it doesn't, you go down a rabbit hole and all of the rest of it. But you know sometimes it does. And that's the interesting thing, that's the heart of what I want to try and get at with you today is, is that that whole process of predicting the next big thing and you know, going where innovation is? Because that's the … Well, let's go back to that Atmedia 2005 talk. You were in a place no one else was. Right, even if we then jump ahead and you know, you were very early into inaudible 00:10:26 as well before a lot of other people. And even with micro formats which in some ways you could argue became a bit of a dead end but in other ways it led to schemer and structured data and all those kind of things which have become the back bone of a lot that we're seeing online.
So again it kind of happened there, so I'm kind of fascinated as to that entire process and a play in that kind of role. Because it's an interesting role, isn't it?
Jeremy Keith: Well there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's basically down to just subjective, oh, I'm excited about this thing. Why aren't more people excited about this thing? This thing's really cool. That was the feeling I had, I had it with CSS in the 90s and I was totally on the whole web standards train trying to convince people, you should use CSS. Couple of years later I'm tired of talking about that just when it's starting to peak and people are finally starting to re design big websites and CSS, like, yeah, CSS whatever. But have you seen java script? And to a certain extent there's even this underdog mentality I guess, it's like everyone else is talking about CSS but why is no one talking about this other thing that I think is call? Like I said, java script was the underdog which is hard to believe now, right?
Paul Boag: Yeah, no, weird.
Jeremy Keith: Having java script ton your skill set would have been like, oh, don't know if we can use your skills. Hard to believe these days. And to a certain extent maybe there's an element of that, like I tend to gravitate towards things that are inaudible 00:12:01 but mostly it's just stuff that excites me or interests me. And often it is me going like, why isn't somebody talking about this? Why isn't somebody writing a book about this and then going, oh, yeah, it's probably going to have to be me. If nobody else is doing it and I'm complaining that nobody is doing, I suppose the obvious answer there is that I guess I should do it. So I don't try and second guess it that much, and I do worry sometimes so like, one day I'll just be like, nothing will interest me anymore.
Because I see people get excited about other stuff that I'm not interested in, and I worry like, oh, is it me? Is the problem me? People get excited about frameworks for bill tools or, things that are rightfully … People get excited about tools you know. Tools that help them work faster. That's brilliant but that side of things has never really got me going. But then I'll get really into esoteric mark up patterns or some obscure browser API that not many people know about and stuff like that. So it's kind of just an instinct thing and I tend to just follow it. Most recently it was service workers coming across this and thinking, wow, this is actually a real game changer and why aren't more people using this? And sure enough it led to me writing another book.
Paul Boag: Yeah. So, have you ever got it horribly wrong? Have you ever sunk a load of time into a technology and then it really has died a death?
Jeremy Keith: Well you could make the argument that XHTML was a bit of a dead end. But it's not quite as straight cut as that because … So XHTML two was definitely a dead end because with XHTML two it was all about having the rigid error handling of XML applied to the web. So if there's one single error in your file, the browser refuses to render anything.
Paul Boag: Yeah.
Jeremy Keith: And obviously that was a dead end because that seems crazy. That would be like making your entire application rely on java script or something which is crazy. But the formatting of XML being applied to HTML which was, you know, well we'll make all the tags lowercase and we'll quote all our attributes and we'll use slashes for open elements because that's the way things are done in XML. That turned out to be almost like a mark of quality or a mark of professionalism and we still do it to this day. Most people I know write their HTML lower case and quote all their attributes. And it turns out you don't need to do that, HTML doesn't care. But XHTML did. And so you could say that that was kind of a dead end.
Or its inly influence is at a very stylistic kind of level. It didn't actually change much else.
Paul Boag: Yeah. I mean it's so hard to know isn't it? It's hard to know when to step back from the bit of technology and go, this is not going in the direction that perhaps it should or this isn't gonna make progress. Especially the more you invest in it the more committed you are to it, I always think back at the days of flash or even something like confusion. Do you remember that, confusion from Adobe?
Jeremy Keith: I do. Yeah.
Paul Boag: All those technologies and you have so much time in it and it's like, no, this isn't really gonna go anywhere now. You know, it's difficult.
Jeremy Keith: I mean that can be a real shame when you kind of bet the farm on something that turns out to be a dead end. That's why I think it's nice to be able to swap things out, like oh, I'm gonna swap out my code from confusion to PHP or I'm gonna swap out from flash to something else. But the nice thing about the web is that generally, if you just stick to the core technologies, HTML, CSS and java script are pretty long lasting things and once something lands in a browser it's not going anywhere. What that means is it's entirely additive process, there's always new stuff. There's always stuff coming out. And there is sometimes stuff you have to try and throw out of your brain. Like I used to pride myself on being able to keep in my head three levels of nested tables, because that's how we were laying things out in the 90s. That was a valuable skill, that was like, I know kung fu, right?
But obviously that's just a waste of space in my brain, I'm glad that I don't know how to do that now right? But there's other technologies that they seem like, oh well they're gone now but often it's not that they're gone but they became so successful that we don't talk about them. They're like air, so you mentioned Ajax was something I got really into 2007. 2006, 2007. And nobody talks about Ajax these days.
Paul Boag: No.
Jeremy Keith: But that's not because Ajax's gone away, it's just every bit of java script is Ajax these days. Updating the current page with stuff from the server, like why did we even have a name for that? That just seems like so normal these days. So it's not necessarily just because nobody talks about a particular technology doesn't mean the technology was a dead end. Sometimes it means the technology was so successful, its evaporated into everything.
Paul Boag: Absolutely.
Let's take a little break and talk about our first sponsor and then I'll get into talking with Jeremy really about his career and how he got to where he is, etcetera which is after all the topic of season. I want to talk about the Digital Project Managers school. In Digital there is so many different ways of working and you can spend so much of your time researching and understanding all these different approaches and it can be overwhelming and again, almost like with technology you can jump on some bandwagon that goes no where. But no matter what your work environment, we still need to deal with stakeholders and users and we need to have discussions about how we're gonna go about moving through projects. So it's not something you can avoid.
And this is why I've come to feature Digital Project Manager on this podcast, because I just think it is such a universal tool that's really helpful for everybody. So it's basically a training course that has a website, a podcast, an online community, an online school with tons of resources for project managers. Or basically anyone who has to run teams either formally or informally. So it was launched last year, they launched a course called mastering digital project management and they've received some amazing feedback from it. Pioneering and all those kinds of fancy words you expect to hear. It's led by Ben Aston who is a PM with over a decade of experience as a project manager across an extraordinary number of different verticals and sectors and all those kinds of things and he's been running digital project teams for donkey's years. And now he's created this course around it. So it's completely online, it runs over about seven weeks, so it's a seven week curriculum. Covers everything from broader topics like project methodology and leadership skills and techniques for doing daily stat stuff. Handling budgets, writing briefs, dealing with unexpected challenges. All of those kinds of thing.
So if your organization is looking to improve the way that it runs projects and moves those projects down the pipeline, then maybe you can hassle them to actually cough up some money to pay for this course. You can find out more about it by going to theprojectmanager.com/boagworld. Alright, so Marcus is back. Hello Marcus.
Marcus Lillington : Hello.
Paul Boag: After your problems.
Marcus Lillington : I had to re boot my router. I thought, I better go and see what kind of speed I'm getting and I was getting 1.5 megabits per second.
Paul Boag: Wow.
Marcus Lillington : Which is probably why it chucked me out. Anyway I'm back now.
Paul Boag: Good. So it wasn't java script that was to blame after all that?
Marcus Lillington : We can blame java script.
Paul Boag: Yeah makes me happy to do that. Right, okay, so Jeremy. You've given us a bit of a potted history into your career path. So you were a freelancer before you founded an agency called Clearleft back in 2005. But how did you get into this field in the first place? Because you are of the age where the web didn't exist when you trained. So how did you stumble into this world?
Jeremy Keith: Well in the mid 90s I was living in Germany selling bread in a bakery. And then I got into the web. Obvious progression there. I was selling bread in a bakery but I was also playing in a band at the time and we decided we should have one of these websites that everyone's talking about and my girlfriend, now wife, Jessica, was a student in Germany and she had a computer. Internet connected. So I said, I'll try and find out how you make websites and I made a website for the band and that was my first website. Yep. And people said, oh, can you make a website for my band too and we'll pay you money to make it. And I started to moonlight as a web designer slash developer until I was able to literally give up the day job and start doing this web thing, freelancing full time. So I was freelancing at an agency in Freiburg in Germany where I lived. And then we moved to England 2000 and kept on the freelancing. So through music is the short answer, through music.
Paul Boag: There you go, that sounds very poetic and artistic saying that you discovered it through music. What I love is the fact that you didn't have an internet enabled computer, you had to borrow your girlfriend's one. That amuses me no end. I can't imagine Jeremy without a computer.
Jeremy Keith: Growing up I remember having a ZX81. You know, named for the year it came out. So that's me showing my age. And I had fun on that, 1K ram. Till we got the 16K ram pack. And we had an Amstrad 00:22:35 464 after that. So I was exposed to moving my fingers up and down on computer keyboard, but obviously there was no … There's no internet connection, there was none of this networked stuff and actually so, Jessica was way more familiar with the web before I was.
Paul Boag: Right.
Jeremy Keith: We met in Germany, she was studying on a year abroad and she went back to America for a while. And that's when kind of the web was taking off and of course universities were the first place to have the internet and the web. And so she was exposed to it before me, you know, text only browsing and stuff and then she was using graphical browsers, Netscape three, internet explorer three before I was and I distinctly remember sitting in an internet café in Germany with the old imax, the old translucent imax. And she's showing me the world wide web now and how it's all, images and stuff. And me not really getting it, not understanding a lot of the concepts too. I couldn't tell the difference between a search engine and a browser. So to me it was like, okay, ultavista, yahoo, Netscape navigator, internet explorer. They're all the same sort of thing and you type into this box what you want. And she's trying to explain, no look, this is a browser that's a search engine. Oh look, we'll open up Netscape and she opens up Netscape and of course there's a home page when you open up the browser.
And the home page is netscape.com which has a great big search bar in the middle. So I'm just now completely confused, I'm not getting this at all. So I like to remember that you know, to think-
Paul Boag: I was about to say the same thing, it's really important to try and remember that kind of stuff. How you felt … I remember when I first used a mouse and how that confused me. You know, so-
Jeremy Keith: I remember I had a later apple iMac, ruby G3 iMac. And when it was getting a bit long inaudible 00:24:31 for me, I passed it onto my mother in Ireland. And I had in my had that she'd at least used typewriters or something, electronic typewriters before but no, nothing. So when we were over there, we were setting it up for her and having to show her everything and I'm explaining at that pointer on the screen, you control it with this thing called a mouse. And I said, move the mouse up.
Paul Boag: Lifted it up.
Jeremy Keith: And she lifted the mouse up into the air. And I was like, no. And then I stopped and thought, I was like, oh wait a minute though. That is really confusing because we map left and right to left and right but we're mapping forward and back to a different plain which is up and down. But we've internalized that. We don't even think about that. It's actually quite complex.
Paul Boag: You still see that happening today in various ways, you know, of how we create this language that we expect people to grasp and they really struggle with it which is hardly surprising. Someone posted in the slack channel just this week someone getting confused over the difference between a browser and a search engine, and that's in 2019. You know, Michelle it was apparently. Still it's happening, it's incredible. So talk us through about Clearleft and when that came about. So that came about in 2005.
Jeremy Keith: Yeah.
Paul Boag: Why did it come about? How did it come about?
Jeremy Keith: Why?
Paul Boag: Why did you bother. Obviously hasn't worked so you know … But what caused that decision to pool resources?
Jeremy Keith: In a word, blogs. I would say. In that we were all doing our own thing, I was freelancing. Richard Rutter was working at multi map in London.
Marcus Lillington : Remember them.
Jeremy Keith: And Andy Bud was working at a small agency in Brighton called Message. He was the designer there. But all three of us were blogging, you know, web standard stuff. Web design, web development. The time of web standards. And so we kind of realized that if the three of us pooled together, we'd probably have a good reputation, based purely on our blogs. Because this is the kind of vicious cycle if you're trying to start an agency is you've got no clients, you've got no reputation to begin with. How do you establish a reputation? You have to get clients, right. So how do you break into that circle? And so sure enough we founded Clearleft and right from the start people were saying, oh yeah, Clearleft are good. We hadn't done any work yet but people said that we were good because we'd written books, we had our blogs, we had the reputation individually. But also, why form agency at all was that we saw … It's kind of like you know, talking about why write a book or give a talk about a particular topic, a particular technology. Well you know, I'm using you're kind of … Why isn't somebody doing this? Oh yeah I better do this.
And now we talk about digital design, maybe more broadly. Maybe it's not just about the web, it's about design, service design, everything. But it's always been about trying to nudge the state of design a bit more. And we thought we could do that by forming our own agency. Which probably sounds terribly narcissistic like we're really full of ourselves like, oh yeah, we'll change the face of design by forming an agency. But you know, at the very least we could be the change we wanted to see. Like, well we'll be an agency where design is valued. Where user centric design is going to inform everything. And that's pretty much what we did.
Paul Boag: Makes a lot of sense. So how did you work out how that was gonna work in those early days between the three of you? Because for a start, you weren't a shareholder in the business were you? You had a slightly different position in it-
Jeremy Keith: To this day I'm technically an employee, with being a shareholder you get all the-
Paul Boag: Crap.
Jeremy Keith: All the benefit but then all the risk as well, of like how the company goes. I'm like nah, I'll just be an employee. Even though I'm a director. I'm a director of the company and yet also employee. I don't know if that's dodgy, I don't know if that's legal. But that's the situation.
Paul Boag: It's not dodgy.
Jeremy Keith: But it's a good question because I don't think we had an actual discussion like, right, Andy, you're gonna do this. Richard, you do this and Jeremy you do it … It just kind of happened that pretty much on the day we founded Clearleft, I don't think Andy wrote a line of CSS since, and up till that point that's what he'd been doing right, was design CSS. And from that point, he was pounding the pavement. Getting business, working with clients. Richard was a practicing UX designer at the beginning of Clearleft's life. And I was web development and design at the beginning of Clearleft's life. And those have morphed over time but like I say, Andy was the one who made the biggest change right from the start to go right, I'm a business man now. This is what I do. Rather than making websites with CSS. It turns out, you know, so glad that was the situation because it's funny, I remember at the same time, 2005. Same time Clearleft formed out of a bunch of bloggers deciding to form an agency. The same thing happened in America do you remember Blue Flavor?
Paul Boag: Yes I do.
Jeremy Keith: Right it was like, Keith Robinson, Matt May, Brian Fling and they decided they'd form an agency. And then we had this weird parallel existence for a while like, we're like, okay we're buying an office and they're like, we're buying an office. We're hiring. Oh, that's funny, we're hiring too. And it was like this simultaneous growth on both sides of the Atlantic. But they ended up imploding and it no longer exists and I met up with Keith a few years later and I said, oh, whatever happened with Blue Flavor? And he said there was a lot of frustration because they were all designers. None of them were business people. And Keith was doing the business stuff but he wasn't happy about doing the business stuff, he kind of had to do that. And it was frustrating whereas Andy was quite happy, it seemed to me, from day one, like, okay, this is what I do now. If I had been thrust into that role I never would have lasted. To this day I avoid anything to do with business and management and that whole side of the business because it's like, not my scene at all.
So kind of good luck in some ways that we all sort of found the right grooves I guess, because it could have easily gone wrong.
Marcus Lillington : Interesting.
Paul Boag: We had very much the same thing, we just happened to compliment each other really well. That's more by luck than judgment I think really but it does make all the difference, doesn't it? Makes it very …
Jeremy Keith: You know I think maybe it sounded like … You know, getting together with people to form a band. Obviously you're going to have complimentary skills musically but you also kind of need to be on much the same page about what you're aiming for. I'm sure you could inaudible 00:32:39 but if you're in a band and one person in the band is like, yeah we're gonna make it big. We're gonna be on top of the pops. And another person is like, this is a fun thing we do on the weekends, right? Then inevitably-
Marcus Lillington : It's gonna be a clash there.
Jeremy Keith: It's not gonna work out because yeah, there's a misalignment. Yeah.
Marcus Lillington : The bands I'm in these days, nobody tends to think about being on top of the pops. Top of the pops isn't a thing anymore is it? It's not. But it's just we really are showing our age.
Jeremy Keith: I was using it as an illustration.
Marcus Lillington : I should be on top of the pops so I don't want to be on this ever again.
Marcus Lillington : Just going back to the point about being-
Jeremy Keith: No you're right, and sorry-
Marcus Lillington : Sorry I was going to say, the point about being a businessman. I've said that we were lucky that we had business people. Paul is as well, all three of us were happy to do the business side of it. And I think that … It's as simple as that, it was just lucky we had that. We were able to employee people who wanted to kind of like delve into code and spend all their day designing and that kind of thing. Because nobody really wants to do that, I found. As we get older, I'm thinking I wonder if there's somebody who would like to take over this role or get more involved in the business side. Nobody does. So it's … You were lucky, you were lucky to have Andy. You don't hear that every day do you?
Jeremy Keith: Yeah, very much.
Marcus Lillington : Bless him.
Jeremy Keith: It's true.
Marcus Lillington : Anyway sorry.
Paul Boag: You're entirely right, it's easier to employee designers, developers and people like that. Not that their skills are less, it's just that if you are the founder of a company, if you're creating a company, you have to lead that company. It's very hard not to. You only need to look at half the silicone valley start ups and how they all lose something when they lose their founder CEO. And so, you're the one that creates the heart of the company. And if that's not embracing the business side, I think that's quite a difficult thing to do.
Jeremy Keith: I'm starting to have to kind of realize that I guess, because if anything I feel just guilty that I'm kind of doing what I like at Clearleft, I'm goofing off on the internet, researching stuff and sharing interesting stuff I've found, writing a newsletter. Speaking at conferences, blogging. I'd be doing this stuff anyway, right? So I almost feel guilty. All these other people at Clearleft are actually doing work and they're like making websites for clients and stuff. But trying to one, see the value of that, what I do but also just seeing the value that I've been at Clearleft since day one and that in itself is a valuable thing for newcomers to Clearleft to have someone that they can talk to and observe to get that feeling of what is Clearleft, what's life like at Clearleft? You have this … The founders have a role … Well, you see, roles are interesting because you can be assigned a role or you can take a role right? My new role is in marketing, my new role is in development. But being a founder is like, well you are that thing and you can try and avoid it.
I think I've been trying to avoid the responsibilities but you can't. Like, look, you've been at Clearleft from day one. You founded Clearleft with two other people. You can't change that, you can't pass that onto someone else. It's a little scary to be honest.
Marcus Lillington : You're the father of the house Jeremy, that's what it is.
Jeremy Keith: Three.
Paul Boag: That's actually a really interesting one Jeremy, because this has come up a couple of times through this conversation. You obviously don't take naturally to that side of things. You weren't very keen to become a shareholder in the company, you kind of are reluctantly a founder. You try and avoid the kind of business-y side of things. What is it about that kind of stuff that makes you uncomfortable?
Jeremy Keith: It's high risk high reward right? It's a lot of responsibility which is a lot of stress. It also gives huge value and it's very fulfilling because when things work out it's fantastic. But I'm not willing to take the stress that goes with it. I'd rather have just a more steady state kind of level of responsibilities than have to have like the future of the company is resting on your shoulders. That kind of thing, that really scares me. And a lot of time I realize, I can't do anything about this. Now I've got all these responsibilities. But it's not like you can do something about it. I might just have to be worried about them all the time. I want someone else to be worried about that stuff.
Paul Boag: So you're much more lifestyle orientated in your career, you know, you want to be able to do what you want to be able to do and enjoy life and that kind of thing rather than necessary to build an amazing career. You've almost stumbled in to doing that bit haven't you really?
Jeremy Keith: I'm extremely unambitious. Extremely unambitious. Like, I'm just happy to make some websites every now and then. Learn some new things, play my mandolin. I'm happy right, writing my blog, fine, I don't have any great ambitions. And I'm okay with that.
Paul Boag: But it's interesting, I know you don't want to think about it but actually the role-
Marcus Lillington : But he's gonna make you.
Paul Boag: You have within … I feel like I'm gonna make you, yeah. The role that you have within the company is quite a crucial one in some ways. Because not only are you as you said early, you're like the unofficial RND department. You are a founder, but also you're probably one of the more significant elements of the marketing engine that is Clearleft. Because you're the one out there speaking the whole time. You're the one that's probably blogging the most regularly out of the three founders, so you're the … In some ways you've become more of the face of the company than Andy and Richard have, simply because they're involved in the day to day stuff. Is that a fair assessment?
Jeremy Keith: That's true. Andy does a lot of writing and speaking as well.
Paul Boag: Oh does he? Okay.
Jeremy Keith: But I would say I mean, but at the same time Andy is less involved with the day to day management now. Richard has taken on the managing director role, this is just in the last year.
Paul Boag: Oh I didn't know that.
Jeremy Keith: Because it is a high stress thing so it's you know, I think Andy's happier being able to hand it over. I think it's tough, it's a tough transition for everyone but it's going great. Richard is doing a fantastic job. But Andy, that does mean Andy is also able to speak at conferences. He was doing it anyway, he was burning the candle at both ends a bit I think before this. But he is also quite visible. But you're right, it's like out of a company of 20 something people maybe two, maybe three people speak at conferences. Right? And in an out weighed amount. I'll speak at a conference maybe on average once a month, and if someone else at Clearleft speaks at a conference it might be once a year, right. It's a lot less. So you're right. There is an extent where I'm the visible face of Clearleft, but again that's not because we're like, okay, here's the plan. We're gonna have one of us be the visible face and speak at lots of conferences more like, I found myself speaking at Atmedia 2005 and was like, I like this I want to do more of this.
And when I get excited about a thing I want to share it and then it's like, oh well. People will actually give me a platform to stand up in front of a room full of people and say what I think? Yes please. So again it wasn't like this strategic plan. It's just it worked out that way. Many of the things it just turns out that Clearleft is a happy home for me to be able to do the things I would be doing anyway or I like doing, this is why I feel so guilty all that time. It's like all these other people at Clearleft are working really hard doing real work and I'm just speaking at conferences and talking and blogging and stuff. And then other people have to remind me, you know, they would say, well if I had to speak at a conference I would consider that more hard work than what I'm doing now. Oh great, if other people just … What I'm doing is hard.
So I guess you always kind of underestimate the stuff that you'd take for granted and you think, yeah, but this is easy. What that other person does, that's really hard. But to other person it's like, no no, what I'm doing is easy. Anyone could do this, but what you're doing. That's really hard. And the marketing thing is interesting because you're right, that's what we tell ourselves, like, oh yeah, Jeremy's speaking at these conference and that's really good PR for Clearleft right? But I don't think we've ever got a piece of work as a direct result of any of us speaking at a conference.
Paul Boag: You don't get crowds of people at the end of your talk saying and can we hire you for this massive project?
Jeremy Keith: Come work. Yeah.
So I think there's a halo effect. I think there is like, something tickles the back of the head Clearleft … Oh yeah I saw that guy speak at that conference or, oh yeah, let's say we're in the running, we're up against three other agencies and it's like. Oh yeah but Jeremy Keith, he wrote that book or he spoke at that conference so maybe we'll go for them. Maybe that's the situation. I'm telling myself this, I have no evidence for this whatsoever. This is how I justify my existence, is that maybe there's this halo effect of marketing. Saying that, we put on conferences right? And again, that's because our whole ethos has been about pushing the practice of digital design forward and that's why we do it. Also, very greedily, we want to hear from these speakers so right we're gonna bring them over to England and put on a conference so we can hear them. And people say to us, oh that must be great for the business. Like you get all these people come to the conference and then they must want to hire Clearleft, right? I'm like, well, actually what happens is we get all these people come to the conference.
We put on this great line up of speakers and all the attendees go, oh yeah, I want to get that speaker working for my company, right. They don't think about hiring the conference organizers. They think about hiring the conference speakers I guess, right, so-
Paul Boag: But you've contradicted yourself there a little bit because on one hand you're saying you're not winning work as a speaker and then you're not winning work as an organizer. Can't be both cases. I mean-
Jeremy Keith: I can be a rubbish speaker.
Paul Boag: Yeah we know that's not true Jeremy. But actually I think you've kind of got a point, that certainly I don't think speaking at a conference is by far the most efficient way of marketing. Because at the end of the day you're only speaking to what, a few hundred people at most. Or you write a blog post and you might be speaking to thousands. But I think what it does, it's about reputation building isn't it? It's about being perceived as people that are you know, oh if he was given a speaking slot he must know what he's talking about. So therefore it has maybe a bit of a knock on effect there and I think the other thing is often times … Speaking and writing books and blogging and that kind of stuff it gets you in the room with opportunities.
Because what I often find that happens or has certainly happened at Headscape a lot is that you know, some organizations, say a university. Somebody in senior management has decided we need to re design the website. And the poor old guy in the digital team is going, well, if we're gonna get someone in to do this, at least it's going to be Paul and the Headscape team who we know. You know, so, it's-
Jeremy Keith: We even had a persona for that when we were re designing our website. No, the person we're aiming for is obviously the manager of the company, that's who the websites aimed at. But we had this persona, of, you know, this person who is already aware of our reputation as a peer, like another designer, another developer. And they don't make the decisions at this company but maybe they get to say something in the meeting or maybe if someone came to them and said who do you think is a good design agency, that our name would bubble up from this kind of type of person. So yeah, we identified exactly that. But like I said, it's not at all the main audience for the website or main audience for new business.
Paul Boag: No, but it does justify you going round the world speaking.
Marcus Lillington : Absolutely.
Paul Boag: So it's worth it from that point of view.
Marcus Lillington : You should do more blogging, more speaking, don't worry about any other project work at all. You don't even need to keep up with it Jeremy. Just head off into the sunset.
Jeremy Keith: Well good, because that's what I'm doing.
Paul Boag: Do you … I mean with that kind of structure, bearing in mind the somewhat eclectic mix of things that you're doing, do you have any kind of schedule in your working life? You know, or is it … I mean I imagine for example you getting involved with Clearleft at a project level is pretty much impossible to some degree because, you know, people can't rely on you being there so how does that work? Is there any kind of structure to it?
Jeremy Keith: No is the answer, there's no kind of structure, I should probably be sticking my nose into more projects actually because there are definitely opportunities where I could come in and workshop with clients for just a day and it would be valuable. And I have done that and it's been great. But yeah, no, being involved in a project from start, to discovery through to completion. Very, very, rare to be involved as one of the full time staff on a project. But yeah, dipping in and out. Yeah. Particularly if it's something, if there is a angle involved that it's something I know about. You know, if it's performance or an offline progressive web app stuff or an accessibility angle or stuff like that. Then I'm like, oh okay, I can contribute something here. But remember most of the work at Clearleft is very much design based so it's around things like, you know, research and all this and like, well, not really anything I can do here.
But there isn't that much of a structure. Let's see, should we take today as an example?
Paul Boag: Yeah go on, good idea.
Jeremy Keith: Okay. Alright so I woke up.
Marcus Lillington : At 11AM.
Jeremy Keith: No, actually I woke up a little early. I had my alarm set for 8AM which for me is quite early.
Paul Boag: That would be early for me.
Jeremy Keith: But actually woke up a little sooner.
Marcus Lillington : A lie in that is. Anyway yes carry on.
Jeremy Keith: I got up and opened up the computer, I'd love to say like I greeted the dawn with meditation. And I went to the gym and crushed and pumped iron. But no I sat in front of the computer and you know, what I did, I read. And this is another aspect, if you're going to write you need to read, and if you're going to speak you need to listen. And so I actually spent a lot of my time soaking stuff up. You know, absorbing stuff. So I started my day reading stuff. I don't think I had any tabs open in my browser from last night, I think it was like fresh stuff. I got a newsletter in my inbox from Peter Gaston, has a fantastic newsletter. I'm gonna recommend to everyone called the thoughtful net. And he posts quite long form stuff. So I was filling up my browser tabs with great stuff, reading.
And then I link to stuff. Let me take a look at my website from today this morning I linked to three different things. And the first one was CSS, it's a post about using CSS grid. And some really great advice in there, looking forward to taking some of that advice on board. The second post was Bruce Schneider talking about the block chain and how it's a load of crap and particularly from a security angle. So I linked to that, quoted some stuff. And the third one was an interview with Nick Harkaway, the author talking about science fiction, talking about technology. So that's a fairly representative mix of three links I would link to over the course of the morning.
And then I wrote a blog post which was two weeks ago I was in Seattle for the interaction conference. And my colleagues at Clearleft had posted a blog post on a Clearleft blog, saying it was great and here's all the great talks. But I was there as well, chatting with them and the general consensus was it wasn't that great. There were good talks but there's maybe one day of good talks in amongst three days. So I wrote a blog post on like, here's why the conference actually wasn't that great. Which I feel a bit bad about because it's kind of like, a bit negative. You know, you're supposed to praise in public, critique in private. They kind of messed things up with having … They sold more tickets than they had seats for which, yeah, I felt like I have to say something about that.
Anyway so at that point I've been reading, I linked to stuff, I blogged. Then I got dressed.
Paul Boag: I'm glad you've managed that by now if I'm honest.
Jeremy Keith: Yeah so it's about ten o'clock in the morning maybe at this point, and I put some clothes on and I went into the office. So walking into the office, it's about half an hour walk from my house. And that's my podcast listening time. You know, I listen to different episodes of different things. Things I've huff duffed on huffduffer. And arrive into the office about 11AM I think was when I showed up. And then the reason I wanted to get there by 11AM was because I did have an appointment at 11AM which was to have a one on one with Kassie. And Kassie is a junior developer at Clearleft. So even though I'm, you know, I've said Daniella's the lead developer at Clearleft, I'm coaching Kassie. Mentoring her and stuff. So actually that's where a lot of my focus is these days, and I love it. It really gives me a great sense of fulfillment.
In the past at Clearleft we never really hired junior people. You kind of have to be top of your game to start but that doesn't scale. So twice now we've kind of demonstrated by hiring a junior developer and taking good care of them you reap the benefits very quickly. So Kassie's just awesome, she's great and we had our one to one and then Kassie's been working on a re design of the UX London website. So we were going through the code and launching the site. It went live and it's fantastic, she's done amazing work. And then it was lunch time, was about one o'clock and I put into the calendar that I was gonna do a brown bag lunch, sort of, you know, people come to the room. Normally I buy them lunch, prepped sandwiches whatever. I didn't buy them lunch today. And you listen to someone talk about something. And I talked about what I did last week, was kind of like what I did on my summer holidays. Because last week I was at CERN. Involved in some amazing hack week.
Paul Boag: Oh yeah I saw your badge, yeah.
Jeremy Keith: So I gave a kind of potted history of that. And then it was back to look at the UX London code a bit and helping Kassie. Not that she needed much help. And then it was time for me to come home because I knew that it would be easier to do this podcast recording from home than at the office because you know what it's like with noise and conference rooms. So that brings me up to that, if I weren't recording this podcast, however, I would probably be procrastinating. About this conference talk I've got to get prepared because I'm gonna be speaking at an event inaudible 00:52:30 in like less than two weeks, and I've got a lot of the talk ready but it's not finished and it's not practiced yet and I really need to do that. And because that's urgent and I really need to do it. I probably wouldn't be doing that, I'd be finding something else to do.
Marcus Lillington : Exactly.
Jeremy Keith: That needs doing.
I am actually making a website, a very humble little website which is another conference website. In 2017 I put on an event called patternsday, one day event in Brighton all about design system, pattern libraries. Well here's a little exclusive for your listeners, is that patternsday is coming back.
Paul Boag: Excellent.
Jeremy Keith: So mark your calendars, June 28th. And anyway, I'm making a website to say, patternsday, it's back. And I'll probably launch that next week. So I've actually been writing HTML and CSS and java script which is-
Marcus Lillington : Which you say you never do.
Jeremy Keith: Which is a little bit unusual. So it's not true, sometimes I do.
So that was a day today. But you're right, if you'd asked me what was my day like last week it would have been completely different because like I was at CERN. And in two weeks time, it's like, well I'm gonna be at an event inaudible 00:53:35. So it's not a routine as such. But I would say that today was fairly representative.
Paul Boag: That sounds very familiar, you know, kind of flitting from thing to thing, making progress on lots of different fronts simultaneously.
Marcus Lillington : Oh yeah.
Jeremy Keith: Procrastinating a lot.
Paul Boag: Yeah. But do you have the same thing that I have which is that I've kind of now reached a point where that's almost the best way of me working. If I have to sit down and work on just say that presentation, and I'm not allowed to deviate, I just end up dribbling. I need to go off and do something else for a bit and then come back to it and then go off again and come back to it. Or do you like big blocks of time still?
Jeremy Keith: I have to trick myself, what I'll do is I'll have two things that you need to get done. And that way it was like, okay, I need to get this thing done, oh I really don't want to. Oh, I'll procrastinate by doing this other thing. Ha ha. That other thing also needed to get done, I've tricked you into doing other things all along. But what you're describing there is interesting because I remember Christopher Murphy talking about this, he coined it late binding. And he was talking about there's kind of good procrastinating and bad procrastinating. So bad procrastinating is where you literally leave everything till the last minute, right, the night before the presentation, like, oh I need to make that presentation and you do it all then. That's not good. That's never good. But the good procrastinating is when you start something, so you start it months ago and then you stop and you leave it to the side.
Because it turns out that once you've made that start, the gears are going in your head.
Paul Boag: Absolutely.
Jeremy Keith: You're in the shower, you're walking into work and something will pop on the radio or something, like, oh, that's a connection. There's something I can use there and you're kind of in more of a magpie mode now and you're able to soak up those connections.
Marcus Lillington : This is how I work.
Jeremy Keith: Whereas if you just leave it till the last minute, you know, you're denying yourself. So there is something to be said for starting something and then putting aside until the last minute and then you finish it at the last minute.
Marcus Lillington : I've always said that all I need to do is create, because I write lots of documents, that's what I do an awful lot of. I just need to create the document. It needs to exist. And that's it, and knowing that means that I can kind of slowly carry on finishing it off. I'm in panic mode crosstalk 00:55:54.
Jeremy Keith: Every writer is just like, what's the key to writing? It's like you move your fingers up and down on the keyboard. It doesn't actually matter what you're producing. And it's so true. Have you seen this app, it's called the most dangerouswritingapp.com?
Paul Boag: Oh is this one of the ones that deletes, if you stop typing it deletes everything you've written?
Jeremy Keith: Yes. It's great, you set a timer like say five minutes and you have to keep typing during those five minutes and if you pause the work starts to fade and if you pause too long you've lost it. It's gone. If you get over that five minute threshold, it's saved and you can keep writing. And usually that's enough to get the … You're just typing like, I'm just typing I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just writing rubbish and then I'm trying to say this and what I really want to say is that and then before you know it, you're saying the thing you wanted to say. And it's just that act of-
Paul Boag: I'm always shocked when I re read what I've written like that is never as bad as I thought it was, you know?
Jeremy Keith: Right so it turns out there's absolutely no correlation between the amount of time you spend sweating over something and the quality of the thing at the end. And I've certainly seen this with you know, blog posts for example it's like suddenly you'd spend ages researching and crafting and finding, it's like, I'm going to unveil this to the world. And crickets, right, tumbleweeds. Nothing. And then the thing you write when you get in late from the pub, drunk, and you just bash this half formed thought out, it's like you're on the front page of hacker new or whatever. That's the one that everyone links to, it's like, really? The thing … there's no correlation between the amount of effort you put into something and the attention it receives.
Paul Boag: I think we ought to end with that profound piece of wisdom. Because I think that's a brilliant thing to end on.
And I do just want to talk about the second sponsor we've got today, it's a new sponsor and one that will appeal to those that resonate with Jeremy's dislike of business stuff. Because if you're a freelancer or you own a small business or a start up or anything like that, you're responsible for all of those business contracts that you've got to sign and it's, I don't know, I don't know whether I should sign this or not. And there is this great tool called Pactly which is the first easily accessible contract review tool. So it's got some artificial intelligence stuff behind it that's it's aimed at people like us, freelancers, small business owners to understand the contracts that they're about to sign without the need to go to a lawyer which I just think is wonderful.
So basically what you do is upload your contract and pretty much instantly you'll receive a report back of any risky or unusual clauses in the contract which it just, wonderful, I just love it. You can get two reviews done per month for free which for a lot of people is enough if you're doing part time freelancing. And you can sign up to get a contract reviewed in a matter of seconds, it's really … We've just had someone come in and interrupt our podcast. Hello.
Speaker 4: This is Jude. Jude. He's got a big cough going on there.
Paul Boag: Have a good cough down the microphone Jude.
Speaker 4: He's just wondered in bless him.
Paul Boag: So you didn't do like on that BBC presenter who tried to shoo his little kids out of the room. Yeah that was just brilliant I loved. Alright well Jude can listen to the rest of this, just to wrap it up, so Pactly is … You can set it up in a matter of seconds, you could try it out for yourself. You can find out more by going to P A C . S G / Boagworld. And if you decide that you want to use one of their paid accounts you can 30% off the lifetime of that paid account by using the coupon code Boagworld. So try it out, try it out with something like an NDA. If you're asked to sign an NDA, run it through this and you'll be impressed at how it can help.
Right Marcus. Has Jude got a joke for us?
Marcus Lillington : Yeah Jude's got a little joke. No, Lyle shared a Tim Vine joke in the joke channel this morning which as always made me titter and it's quick so here we go, what do you think about this one? I'd like to start with some chimney jokes. I've got a stack of them.
Paul Boag: Oh dear.
Marcus Lillington : The first one is on the house.
Paul Boag: Oh no. I love the double punch line there. It's quality.
Marcus Lillington : Yeah come on, it's excellent. Yeah but you got grand son, how about that? That's cool isn't it.
Paul Boag: Yeah.
Marcus Lillington : That's much better.
Paul Boag: It's a shame that the majority of people who listen to this as an audio podcast because you're not seeing the cuteness.
Marcus Lillington : He made nice cute noises though. Like that, see.
Paul Boag: Yeah. There we go, that's what you want on the podcast. Jeremy thank you so much for joining us, it's always so nice to have you on the show and to catch up. It would be nice to do it in person before too long. But thank you very much.
Jeremy Keith: My pleasure.
Paul Boag: Next time we have Kyle who is the founder of inaudible 01:01:25 joining us on the show. And may be due for making another appearance, who knows, but until next week, good bye.
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