Thanks for taking time to give us a little insight into your world and work as a developer, Tanner. I spend most of my day writing paragraphs and you spend a lot of yours writing lines of code, but I love how our writing works together to make something readable and outstanding for our clients. You’re always ready in meetings with great questions and the drive to find the best solution. From everyone on the team, thanks for all your work at North Star and happy workiversary! What kinds of things would you like to highlight from the last year?
Tanner: There have been two big things that stand out to me in the last year. One is that my wife and I moved into a townhome, and that was a huge change for us personally. And professionally, I took on the bulk of our front-end development work starting late last summer. That has involved establishing our processes for front-end work as a dev team and setting standards we can all work with.
Since I’m not a developer, help me understand, Tanner: what exactly is front-end development work? What does that include?
Tanner: The internet is made up of clients and servers. Clients would be things like your personal computer, iPad, iPhone — your devices, basically. Your device sends a request to a server, which has all the site files on it. And then the server sends back a formatted file — HTML and CSS —and your browser knows how to interpret that and display the webpage or whatever it is on your device. So, everything that is front-end deals with stuff displayed on the client; everything that is back-end is the server preparation side, getting it ready to send to the client.
How have you enjoyed learning about this side of development?
I love learning. I think it was my parents who instilled that in me. They taught me how to question everything, but not in a cynical way. It has always been more about curiosity — I want to figure out how things work.
Any other highlights from last year?
Tanner: Yes, I also want to mention that I was given the opportunity to serve as a guest member on the North Star leadership team, and that has been a gift. That whole team does an immense amount of collaboration and planning for the future — so much more than I realized.
Has that experience changed your perspective or ideas about leadership this year?
Tanner: One thing I’ve come to understand more deeply is how important it is to consider different perspectives as a leader. You have to look at a problem from your perspective but also be mindful of how other people might be seeing things, and why.
What kinds of things are on your plate now?
Tanner: Our recent shift to education has given things a new focus. At this point, I’m working on finding or developing tools that will help solve issues for many of our school clients. Calendars are good examples because they are things many schools need to figure out how to handle.
How do you approach dev projects?
Tanner: Well, what I was just saying about considering different perspectives plays into my approach quite a bit. I might meet with a client and they come to the table convinced they need “X” and they’re looking for a solution to that problem. I try and dig in a bit with them, though to get some clarity about why they need “X.” Sometimes, it turns out that “X” isn’t their real or root problem. Their parents, students, or end users might need something else in reality. Once we’re truly on the same page, then I start looking at solutions. Plug-ins are solid solutions to many problems, but sometimes you need some custom development.
In that case, I compile all the components, features, and everything it needs to do. Then we dial in the scope and sketch out a plan for building it. I would estimate that 40 to 50 percent of development is planning, thinking, and architecting — not necessarily building. You can go to Lowe’s, buy some 2x4s and start nailing a house together, but without a blueprint, it’s not going to be anything good! It’s the same in dev work. If you go at things like that, you’ll be foiled in every direction, adding this and adding that, building features that have no relationship to the problem. Half the work is planning and scoping and the other half is building what you planned.
What’s on the horizon for you between now and your next NSM workiversary? What are you hoping to work on?
Tanner: I would love to build a plug-in or tool that we resell or just maintain ourselves. We use a ton of tools that other people have built and I’d love to contribute to all the useful work that’s available out there. I’m also working on some object-oriented programming and expect to continue making some valuable contributions in that area.
Also, I would love to cultivate more technical writing skills. I want to get to a place where I can explain things like object-oriented programming in ways that everyone can understand. I read quite a bit from people I follow on Twitter or online forums. When you can connect the dots for someone who is stuck in a dev problem, it launches them forward until they get stuck again. Then someone else helps you make progress. I’ve been the recipient of a great deal of help, and, again, I want to give back to the communities and resources that have helped me and so many other developers.