JS Party

Meet Rachel White

Panelist of JS Party

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In this show we meet Rachel White, front-end engineer, Tech Evangelist on the DX team at Microsoft, and panelist on this show — JS Party. Rachel shares her fun attitude, her backstory, topics she’s excited to discuss, and who she hopes listens to this show.


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Alright, we’re here with Rachel White. Rachel, I have told Jerod this a couple times… I was really, really impressed when I met you at Node Interactive. You’re just such a fun, fun person, and I love it.

Thank you!

I’ve never met anybody more fun than you. You have such a passion for what you do, and a care for inspiring people, and we need people like you in this world.

Thanks! I try and have fun and inspire people with all the stuff that I do, and I’m just lucky enough to be able to have the job where they pay me to do that, which is really great.

I can back up what Adam is saying, because he has practically nagged me with how fun you are. Every time your name comes up, he’s like “Yeah, Rachel, she’s so much fun!” I’m like, “Alright, I get it, man… I get it. She’s fun.” I listened to your Spotlight episode – by the way, for those interested… Spotlight is a show that we do at conferences; Adam met Rachel at Node Interactive, and you can listen to that conversation, which will probably have some overlap with this one… But fun things with Adam and Rachel, Spotlight episode #11. Ever since then I’ve been very excited to meet you, because you are really fun.

Thank you so much, I’m glad to hear that. I worry a lot that people think I’m mean…

Oh, really?

Yeah… I think that that is because of the way that I’m passionate about things; it’s kind of hard to get a gauge through Twitter interactions with 140 characters, so my passion can come off as aggression sometimes, I guess.

What kind of passion are we talking about? Where do you get yourself into most trouble?

Oh, god… Definitely politics, and feminism stuff, and diversity, and inclusivity… I’ll get very passionate and (I guess) aggressive about those subjects, and then people will be like, “I don’t wanna hear about this. Just talk about code”, and I don’t wanna just talk about code, because I’m a human being that has more interests other than just programming…

Sure. You’re not gonna offend people with how they should require modules, or why Service Workers is not implemented in Safari, or anything like that.

I mean, I might offend people if they – I mean, especially the fact that I don’t write production code and now all the code that I write is for myself… I don’t have to write tests if I don’t want to, I might not… So it depends.

I’m getting jealous over here.

I wish my code would just be for demos and funds… I would be a happy camper. I guess we should explain where you work. Tell us about your job, and then true/false “It’s the best job ever.”

I work at Microsoft as a tech evangelist. My focus is the audience, which is going to talk to other developers. Basically, I get to take all of the services that Microsoft has, so Azure, a lot of the things that live in the cloud, our cognitive services, which is just REST APIs for machine learning and really cool stuff, and then I just build fun things with them and talk about it, and try and get other people aware that Microsoft is doing these things. They’re not just making Windows and Xboxes and Edge and IE; there’s a bunch of other cool stuff that’s happening, and I get to make the cool stuff. And true, it is the best job ever.

[00:04:11.12\] It seems like it, to me.

Yeah. Before I was at Microsoft, I worked at IBM Watson as a software engineer, and before I began Watson, I worked at Adobe Behance, and that was my first full JavaScript job, and I actually moved back to New York for it, because when I finally graduate college in 2010 – I took a very long time to finish college… I couldn’t get a job anywhere on the East Coast, so I left; I moved to St. Louis and I worked at some small IT company that wanted to do some web design, and I did everything: I ran the server, I did the design, I did the website stuff…

From there I went to an ad agency where I was doing design and development. So whatever they needed me to do dev on - I would work with .NET sites, or every single CMS on the face of the planet. Then the last job I had in St. Louis was at a really amazing place called Spry Digital, and I did a lot of WordPress and Drupal stuff. I’d been working with WordPress since it came out, so that was really easy for me. Then I just stumbled upon the opportunity to work at Adobe, and came back to the East Coast. That was in 2014, so… So many exciting things have happened to me in the past three years!

Wow… It seems like you’re the kind of person to say yes to a lot of fun opportunities, and not feel like you - you said, “I’ve worked with .NET, I’ve worth with this”, or you didn’t say, “Well, I’m too good for that.” You sort of were like, “I’ll go anywhere and do whatever to enjoy what I’m doing.”

Well, that’s the thing… I have a talk that I’ve been doing lately called “Alt-Ctrl: Scream into this Arduino”, and it’s my intro to a JavaScript hardware talk, and I started off by saying, “I’m not a great developer, and I’m not great at hardware” and the last slide is “I’m a great problem solver”, because that is how I feel. Even if I’ve never seen a codebase, if you tell me the problem that you have and what needs to get solved, I can figure it out, even if it’s in a language that I don’t necessarily understand. It’s been that way ever since I’ve started programming.

I think it’s an advantage, but it’s not really an advantage for places that have quick deadlines and fast turnarounds, so that’s why I think that this tech evangelist position is great for me, because I can focus on things that I care about, do it the way that I want, try new things, learn new things, and also have some time to contribute to open source if I want.

So why this show for you? This background, this rich history of who you are… As I mentioned in the Node Interactive interview that Jerod was mentioning, from the Future of Node series, Mikeal had introduced me to you when we were kind of early on, putting together the panel (which is you, Alex Sexton and Mikeal Rogers) - I didn’t know who you were until then. Then I met you at Node Interactive and thought you were great, and now that you’re introduced to what we wanna do with this show and some of the ideas we have shared, why does this show matter to you?

I think it matters to me because I love Alex and Mikeal; they’re both super smart and they care a lot about the community, and I would like to think that I’m here to be like, “Hey guys, what are you talking about? Can you explain this in an alternate way for somebody that might not be familiar with whatever topic we’re dealing with?”

[00:08:00.01\] I think there’s some things that they talk about that I don’t know what they’re saying, just because I don’t have that super high level of understanding of Service Workers, or enhancements stuff. I’m excited to be their non-confrontational devil’s advocate that’s like a friendly devil’s advocate.

I also hope that we’ll be able to explore a little bit more of the creative coding aspect of JavaScript. There’s an awful lot of people that identify as technologists who aren’t necessarily programmers, but they use programming in their art, and I think that’s pretty cool, too.

Yeah, that’s a great angle into the show. As we’ve said on the other couple of “meet the host” episodes, we want this podcast to be a weekly celebration of JavaScript and the web platform and all the different things you can do with JavaScript, whether it’s you’re at Wal-Mart and you’re getting through Black Friday because of your JavaScript skills and platform, or you’re an artist and here’s how you add some animation to this thing that you’re trying to do, or you’re animating some robots… Whatever it is. That’s the beauty of it - it’s everywhere; the ubiquity of JavaScript… And because the browser’s on one side and Node is on the other side, there’s so many different things that are happening with it… It’s worth getting together and having debates, having conversations and learning things along the way, and celebrating all the different things that everybody’s doing.
I think that you are doing so many cool things… We should talk about your Robokitty, the RFID chip in your hand… Tell us about some of these fun things so we can just celebrate that for a few minutes.

Sure. My first Node and hardware project was in the summer of 2015; I had no idea what I was doing… It’s called Robokitty. I was like, “I wanna make an automated cat feeder, because I feel like that would be easy”, and I approached it the same way that I approach a project every time I start it - I got a piece of paper and I drew a storyboard essentially of the different steps that I thought I would need to achieve. It was pretty much just like a picture of a computer with a button on the screen, and then Wi-Fi waves, and then a food dispenser.

That was my project, and it took me two months to finish everything. I open sourced it, and luckily, a bunch of people helped me clean it up and refactor it. I didn’t even know how to do routing with Node, so somebody did that for me. No, I definitely know how to do all that, and I just thought it was a really fun intro for me to Node. I like telling people the story about how it was created, because I think a lot of times when you see people talking about stuff that they’ve made, it’s just purely technical and it’s not about the journey to how they got to the end result, and that’s the most interesting part to me.

I like hearing about thought process and mistakes that are made, and the things that they’ve learned throughout the process. I try and do that in everything that I do.

[00:11:50.11\] Let me see, what else… I have an RFID chip in my hand, because why not? I thought it would be funny. Right now all that it does is if you scan it with an RFID reader, it says, “Follow me on Twitter” and it has “@ohhoe” on it. It has a unique ID in it, so I can scan it with the RFID reader that I wired up to an Arduino, and then I have a simple little pseudo-console running in the browser that I styled to look like an old monitor with green text (glowy)…

…and when I scan the chip, it has a bunch of hacker text, like a computer movie scene hacker stuff that scrolls by really fast, and then there’s an ASCII skull that says “Access granted.” The problem is I got it implanted in my hand last summer, and I think it’s moving around…


Like up your wrist?

Just deeper into my hand. Every time that I give this demo it’s harder to do, because I have to pinch the web of my hand and try and find it, and it grosses some people out… So I might have to find a stronger RFID scanner, so I don’t have to do weird things with my body to get it to work.

Hopefully it doesn’t get lost in there.

You’re becoming a machine…

If it does, it’s fine…

It starts scanning different sections of your body, like your wrist, or the inside of your elbow, or something like that…

Well, I don’t think that it can go anywhere, like…

…too far.

I mean, who knows…?

We’ll see. Yeah, those are the weird things that I’m doing, and I’m actually learning React right now so that I can make a website that is like Japanese photo booths, if that makes sense to anyone… They basically just take four sequential pictures and then you get to overlay stickers on them, and make your eyes big and put make-up on your face. So I’m trying to learn about fancier ways to do things.

I just googled that, and I see what you mean.

Yeah, it’s called “purikura”. Obviously, since that kind of sounds like “purry”, I’m going to call it “Purry Booth”, because I can’t make anything not related to cats, apparently.

It’s your brand.

I know.

You gotta stay on brand.

I know, but also I feel like people are like, “Ugh, I hate cats, there’s that girl again.”

It’s the cat lady!

She did make it very clear in the Node Interactive interview talking about, Jerod. You said, “I’m a cat lady, but not in a weird way where I am buried in my cats at 80 years old…” - I don’t know what you said, but something to that effect. You were like, “I love cats, but not to that level.”

Um, that’s a lie… [laughter] It’s definitely not a healthy level… [laughter] I’m allergic, and I have two, so…

You’re allergic to cats, and yet you own two cats.

Well, after I was hospitalized for three days, the allergies got a little better, so… [laughs]

Coming back to this React learning - I’d love to go that direction; I’m really curious what you’re doing with it. So this purikura called Purry Photobooth - you’re doing this in React; what is this?

So I was like, “I’m really horrible at conferences, and I don’t watch a lot of talks because I have short attention span…” Once you start going to a lot of conferences, it’s a lot of the same thing over and over. I’ve been hearing nothing but React talks for the past year, and I guess I never paid attention to any of them, just because I was sick of hearing about React.

[00:16:03.08\] And then I was talking to a friend of mine who just so happens to work with me - Suze Hinton - and I was showing her the drawings of how I wanted this Purry Booth app to work, and she was like “Oh, that would be a really good React app.”

I told her I don’t know React… I kind of know what it does. And then Jen Schiffer was like “Wes has that React course that’s super affordable, and there’s 30 videos”. She recommended it to me and I bought it, and it’s great. I hope I don’t butcher his last name - Wes Bos?

Yes, I believe so.

Yeah. They’re so good! I think I’m at 15 out of 30 videos now. He went over states in React, and props and stuff, and I was like, “Holy shit, wait a second! Why didn’t anyone tell me React was this easy, instead of… Well, maybe they did and I wasn’t paying attention.” I don’t know, it’s my way of learning. I just have to get my hands in and make something myself, and have the right motivation to learn something.

Now that I’m going through these and I’m actually seeing how all the pieces are put together, I’m like “Wow, this is really helpful”, especially for cool, frontend type things, and I’m pumped. So maybe I should pay attention more at conferences.

There you go.

That’s one thing that I’m actually excited about being a part of this podcast, too - it’s going to force me to have to pay attention to what’s going on, more than just hearing about things offhand or hearing it when I walk past conference talks and not pay attention. Now I’ll force myself to stay on top of things and actually have discussions about why or why not they might be beneficial.

I think that’s one of the virtues of podcasts, whether you’re on the show or you’re in the live chat, or you listen much later… Even if it’s not something that you particularly are deep into.

We have another show that’s all about the Go programming language called GoTime. Our tagline for that is “If you’re a Go programmer or you aspire to, this is the show for you.” And I’m neither of those things. I’m not a Go developer, I don’t even aspire to, but I enjoy listening to that show because it just keeps you abreast of what’s going on over here, new ideas… You just pay attention kind of by osmosis because you’re there, listening to smart people talk about it.

From your perspective, Rachel, when you’re on the podcast yourself, you’re gonna have to be more on point, because you have Mikeal and Alex right there talking to you.

But it’s such a great thing… That’s why we love to bring conversations together around technologies and the people that are using them, because it’s kind of one of these rising tides - we all have a shared conversation, we are all leveling up together as we discuss and argue and debate, so that’s really exciting.

Yeah, I’m hoping that I can be the one that asks questions that people might not otherwise necessarily ask, because of being worried that dumb question might be dumb, or something like that… Even though there are no dumb questions, but people are still afraid to ask things.

I guess now if you have a technical for Mikeal or Alex and you’re afraid to ask, my DMs are open.

I’m glad you mentioned that, because we actually have a soundboard now, and what we’re gonna do – we don’t have a formal way to do this yet, so if you’re listening to this, simply subscribe to the show or subscribe to our weekly email, Changelog Weekly… You can find that by going to changelog.com/weekly. But what we plan to do is actually have it where people can submit audio-based questions and we’ll play them live on the show. That’s one idea we have.

[00:20:19.18\] So if you’re taking Rachel’s advice and you DM her, you can simply just record it and share an audio URL and she’ll pass it along, or something like that. That’s something that we have found time for in the future. If we’re in the middle of the show and so-and-so has this question, we play their question and you all debate about the different nuances of it, or your different perspectives or angles. That could be fun.

Real quick, because we get towards the tail end of this conversation… We wanna hit up a few things. First of all, two sides of the same coin - I want you to tell us what’s your favorite thing about JavaScript and the web, and then on the other side of the coin, what’s your least favorite thing, or what do you not love?

I think that my favorite thing about JavaScript is how accessible and readily information is available to people that are getting started, especially self-learners. I feel like other than maybe Python or whatever else they teach in CS (I don’t know, I didn’t go to school for Computer Science), I hear a lot about people that are wanting to learn frontend and they’re excited because there’s so many places that you can learn… Wes has the free 30-day JavaScript course, there’s Node School, there’s StackOverflow if you go down that route…

There’s just so much research that’s already been done at your fingertips that it makes it really easy to learn. And I just think there’s so many different things that can be done with JavaScript, and now that browsers are implementing new things, like WebVR and some other web audio specs… It’s ridiculous how much you can do, and it’s exciting.

The thing that I dislike about JavaScript is probably the egos around people that maybe have a traditional CS background and write JavaScript and are just not nice to people when they ask questions. That can probably go for any language really, so… I guess that’s it.

I feel like JavaScript has changed so much, and it’s just changing faster and faster, the more web stuff gets better. It’s hard to keep up with, but I think that with all the changes, you get a lot of different viewpoints and a lot of different ways that people can tackle the same problem. When one way becomes better than the other way is when you get into the arguments that I’m not really a big fan of.

I think it’s interesting that if you abstract both of your answers, it’s people. The thing that you love the most is the resources and the teachings and the answers on StackOverflow, and all these resources that people create. On the other side, the thing that you dislike the most is also people, but on a different side of the spectrum. That’s interesting.

Yeah, actually there’s a new talk that I’m gonna be giving this year called, “Keep the internet weird.” It’s a community talk and it’s about when I was learning JavaScript in the early 2000s through making personal websites, and the community that was around other people that would have their domain names were so friendly! There wasn’t any ego to it; it was just like, “Oh, I really like this cheesy trail of stars behind your cursor. How did you do that?” And there would be websites that people made with code snippets on how to do arbitrary, non-important, meaningless, but just cool things, but everybody was so nice.

[00:24:17.03\] I feel like there’s communities that have been opening up recently, that are encouraging that kind of nice, collaborative way to make coding exciting again, and not just part of your job. Or if it is part of your job, a less aggressive way to help out. I think that places like Slack - closed communities where people can find other people that have similar interests, and inclusivity working groups…
I don’t know, I’m excited… I’m really excited for 2017 and to see what other groups pop up to help people do more cool stuff.

Well, on the note of community, one thing that you can do as a (future) listener of this show is go to changelog.com/community. One thing that makes this show different and unique is that it’s live, and that we also have a live Slack channel called JSParty inside of our community, that you can participate in. In the case of the things Rachel is saying here, you can find the people that have shared or similar ideas and listen live and participate. It’s supposed to be a fun environment, a celebration environment, as Jerod said before. That’s something that we certainly embrace around here the importance of community and supporting one another.

Let’s close with this, Rachel… I could ask this question one way, but I think I wanna ask it slightly different, which is rather than saying “Who should listen to this show?”, who do you HOPE listens to this show? Because it sounds like you’ve got a lot of perspective over your journey, your own experiences and the way you like to approach learning - being a developer being fun, and not just simply “I go to work, I do my stuff and I ship code” kind of thing. You make it whimsical and fun, really enjoyable to do. So who do you hope listens to this show?

I hope everyone listens to the show, obviously… But if I had to be more specific, I guess people that aren’t that just, you know, “I’m gonna come in and do my job and leave” - which obviously is important; there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s how you enjoy to work. But hopefully there’s people that love to program and love trying new, weird things out, people that have the privilege to be able to do things outside of their regular job, and wanna explore things other than just MVCs or CMS’s, and they just wanna get weird. [laughs] I mean, not too weird; a good, healthy amount of weird. I want people to listen that like to have fun with what they do.

[00:27:26.26\] Well, hopefully the music we’ve chosen to represent this show gets people in that mood. We’re hoping to play the theme song during the live show, so that it gets everyone in the mood. I don’t know if you’ve heard it yet, Rachel… Have you heard it yet?

I think so.

Yeah, there were a couple different versions, and I listened to it.

About three weeks ago I think it was, Jerod, that we finalized the final version of it, so I’m pretty sure we’ve shared it with everyone involved… So that’s pretty much it. We’re trying to make this fun, we’re trying to make it a celebration about JavaScript and the web platform, so we want nothing but positivity around and a lot of fun to encourage new developers and to encourage people who are already involved in the community. Thanks so much, Rachel, this was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.

Yay! Thank you.


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