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Monday Profile: Jen Simmons

jen simmonsThis week’s Monday profile is Jen Simmons: web designer, front-end developer, Designer Advocate at Mozilla and host of The Web Ahead podcast.

Jen spoke at our Respond Front End Design conference, and this profile appeared in our magazine, Scroll, which you can download right now.

You can follow Jen on Twitter, and find her at

Q Describe your family.

A I come from a long line of English folks, some of whom immigrated to Massachusetts in the days of the Mayflower, others who moved to Washington D.C. in the early 20th century, with a bunch in between.

While there’s a bit of Scottish and a bit of German in my ancestry, it’s mostly English, English and English. There must be something to the sense of where you are from, way back, as the U.K. is now one of my favourite places to be. It does seem familiar somehow. Comfortable.

Q What book has changed your life in some way?

A There have been several books that have changed my life: A Separate Peace; Designing with Web Standards; Bulletproof Web Design; anything by Judy Blume. But if I were to pick one, I’d say There is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self Hate by Cheri Huber. It’s a funny little book. Big hand-written-style text. Lots of drawings. It walks you through one particular idea–there’s a voice in your head that’s telling you crappy stuff all the time. And that voice is lying to you.

Cheri Huber is a meditation teacher in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. She’s written a pile of books, including The Fear Book and The Depression Book. The Fear Book is another that changed me. And The Depression Book is the best book on depression I’ve ever seen. I think I’ve bought There is Nothing Wrong with You a half dozen times. I keep giving away my copy and buying it again. Really all of Cheri Huber’s many books teach the same simple truth about life and who we are. But it’s a truth that’s both the hardest thing to
learn and the most helpful.

Q What formal qualifications do you have? How did you end up doing web work?

A I have a BA in Sociology with minors in Mathematics and Theatre from Gordon College. And an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University. In neither did I set out to study web design or computer science. I did computer science in junior high and high school (and did very well), but dropped out because of the culture of harassment.

I got into the web years later as a natural progression of living a career as an artist. I was designing lighting, sets and sound for theatre, producing events, teaching high school (and later college) students, and doing freelance graphic design. When the web came along, it was only natural that I also make the websites, so I taught myself HTML.

Eventually, I stopped doing print because I was bored with it. After I moved to New York in 2008, I focused on a full-time career as a designer and front-end developer, shifting to larger budget projects with teams. And I eventually evolved my role as a teacher into what I do today. I love being both creative and technical. I find being on the forefront of a medium very exciting.

Q Describe what you do. What’s your job? Is presenting at web conferences part of that job?

A I am a Designer Advocate for Mozilla–as a member of their Developer Relations team. So yes, it is part of my job to travel around and present at conferences. I was doing so long before I got this job at Mozilla. But it’s great now to have the backing of an institution to help make it possible.

It’s also my job to collect ideas and feedback from the web industry and take those requests back to Mozilla. The folks who make browsers usually don’t also make websites. It’s my job to research the field and bring my findings back, to advocate for designers and developers within Mozilla.

I’m also the host and executive producer of “The Web Ahead”, a podcast about new technology and the future of the web. I started the show in 2011, and have been thrilled to reach such a large audience, bringing many of the ideas and guests we see at web conferences to folks around the world.

Q Do you give much thought to the title you apply to yourself? Does it matter?

A I do think titles can matter. They carry power. At Mozilla we can chose our own titles, and I put a lot of thought into mine. The job opening for my position was titled “Technical Evangelist”, but I don’t believe this is really about the technology. It’s about people, and what people can do with technology–not the technology for its own sake.

Our department is called “Developer Relations” but I believe designers are just as important as developers–perhaps more so, since their work impacts the humans who use our sites and products more directly. Advocate is a great word, and more accurately reflects the responsibilities I have. So Designer Advocate it is. Or Designer and Developer Advocate on more wordy days.

Q Describe the first time you gave a presentation on a web topic.

A I think the first presentation I gave at a tech industry event was in 2006 at Vloggercon. I showed people how to customise their Blogger blog using CSS. I’d been on panels at conferences a few times before, but that was the first time I prepared a talk with slides, and gave it on my own. The conference was a gathering of the folks who invented the techniques for putting video on the web. It was a great community that I was honoured to be part of.

Of course I was incredibly nervous. I didn’t feel prepared. I’d taught college courses for three years by then, so I was used to lecturing, but somehow a conference presentation seems much higher stakes.

I think it went well. I likely left wanting to have done a much better job. I’ve been striving to get better and better ever since.

Q In The Graduate, Mr McGuire has just one word to say to aimless college graduate Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics”. What one word would you give to today’s prospective web professional?

A Layout.

If an aimless college grad wanted to break into the web industry today, and wanted to know what they should focus on to get ahead–I’d tell them “layout!”

There’s incredible opportunity coming to invent some truly new design patterns. Once CSS Grid Layout hits browsers, everything about layout will change. Anyone who knows what’s coming will have lots of work.

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Thoroughly enjoyed Web Directions — met some great people, heard some inspiring presenters and added a whole bunch of things to my to-do list.

Joel Roberts Web Developer