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Q&A with Jen Kramer

Web design and development instructor

Hi, I’m Jen Kramer. I’m a full-time web design and development instructor. I teach for a number of different academic and commercial environments, including Harvard Extension School (where I teach in person and online), National University (where I teach online), and (where I create video training titles).

How did you get started in web design / development?

In the late 90s, I was working as a product manager at a company that makes filters for microscopes. I was tired of the website being constantly out of date. After all, scientists lead the way in the creation of the web, and they would typically look there first for information about products, rather than looking at paper catalogs. I went to talk with our PC help desk/networking/web guy, and he told me he was busy, so why didn’t I do it? He showed me how to view the source for the web page and make changes to it.

I was hooked immediately, and my best days became those that I was editing the HTML for the website. In early 2000, I quit my job and decided that I’d do something with marketing and the web. The bottom fell out of the stock market 6 weeks later, and I went to get a master’s in Internet Strategy Management at Marlboro College Graduate School that fall.

I tutored many of my fellow classmates through the program. The Community College of Vermont signed me up to teach two courses (one on Microsoft Office, the other on HTML) for the summer before I graduated. I loved running the classes. It was great to be able to teach on the side.

I graduated in August 2001 with an awesome network of friends and colleagues. I was getting ready to be a freelance web designer. My first client was all lined up. We had our first meeting on September 10, 2001.

It was not the easiest start in the web world, and my timing was awful.  But I survived, and eventually, I thrived.

In 2012, I realized that I would rather just teach. Whiny students are more fun than whiny clients. So I sold my house, sold my web firm to my partner, and moved to Boston, where there are over 100 colleges and universities. Someone would hire me eventually, I figured. I did not guess in a zillion years that would be Harvard, but here I am.

What hardware and software do you use?

Teaching is very different than regular web development work. For a good tool for teaching, I need to pick something that’s free, runs on Mac and PC, and is relatively easy to download, configure, and use. I am currently teaching HTML, CSS, jQuery, Sass, and more, using SublimeText. We compile Sass files with PrePros. I’ve used the same products with some of my courses.

As far as hardware goes, I was a PC gal for 20+ years. They’re cheaper. I bought Dell laptops forever. Unfortunately, the last laptop I bought from Dell in 2012 was a disaster. The heating vents were located on the bottom of the laptop, and the fan ran constantly, like a jet engine. I had every part of that laptop swapped out until finally someone found the thermal paste that goes between the processor and the heat sink had burned away. They replaced that for me, but the fan was just awful. I traveled with a huge portable fan to fit under the laptop. Finally, I’d just had enough.

So in May 2014, I decided to replace this laptop. My choices were Windows 8, which I knew I hated from working with it at, and Mac, so I knew I was going to have to learn a new operating system with all of the associated awkwardness. I really wanted a laptop without a noisy fan. I knew Mac laptops were quiet all the time, plus they were lightweight.  It was significantly more expensive than a PC laptop, but ultimately I bought the MacBook Pro 13” with retina display, because I knew it would be quiet. I hooked it up to my external monitor, PC keyboard, and PC mouse. It was not that hard to adjust to, except for the copy-paste keyboard shortcuts. It took me a month to stop reaching for the control key and start reaching for the apple key (which is the Windows key on my PC keyboard), but I got it eventually.

What is your ideal work environment?

Home. Hands down. I have worked at home for 15 years and I love it. It takes some discipline to get used to it, but being bothered constantly at work is not fun. Occasionally I’ll also go the library. I find that useful when I need to concentrate, but I’m having a hard time getting myself to start a project. Sometimes a change of venue helps.

Top-3 your favorite books about web development

Books? What about training videos? :-D Seriously, does a fabulous job teaching web development. Yeah, I know, I record there, but if I didn’t, I’d still use their service. I use them in my courses, and I have learned a ton from my fellow authors.

I also think there are only 2 books you need to read about web development to get a foundation for what you’re doing. One is Jesse James Garrett, “The Elements of User Experience”. He explains exactly how to plan a website. His process is scalable to any website size. He makes the steps easy to remember. It’s a brilliant book.

The other book is “Don’t Make Me Think!” by Steve Krug. If you read the version that came out in 2001, it’s still relevant today. His principles are easy to understand and easy to apply to new technologies. This book is now in its 3rd edition, and it does address mobile devices. Every developer should read this book, if only to learn how to get tuned into the voice inside your head that “talks” while you view web pages. You’ll learn that bad design is not your fault, that happy talk must die, and that you’ll learn a ton by testing your “perfect” website design with just a few people.

Who are the developers you admire most?

I admire those developers who work in anonymity every day, working to provide great service and value to their clients, working to keep up with the latest tools and techniques, and working to keep food on the table.