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May 09 2012

Velocity Profile: Nicole Sullivan

This is part of the Velocity Profiles series, which highlights the work and knowledge of web ops & performance experts.

Nicole SullivanNicole Sullivan

How did you get into web operations & performance?

Accidentally. Years back, I got hired into a company in France that was building a website for one of the major cell phone providers over there. They had some serious performance issues — the site was crashing in Internet Explorer (IE) pretty much any time you interacted with the page. It was a hunt to figure out what was going on because, at that time, there really wasn't a lot of published performance information out there. So, I ended up finding out that filters in the CSS file were causing IE to crash. That hunt to identify the problem and then the subsequent hunts to simplify the page so that other errors wouldn't have such a big impact was really fun. That's what got me into it.

What is your most memorable project?

Optimizing Facebook's CSS back in 2009 was a memorable project. They had 1.9 MB of CSS, which is just huge. That project is when I realized that most performance issues and most code issues are actually human issues. But you have to solve the human issues or the bad code will just keep popping up — sort of like performance Whac-A-Mole.

Another project that was cool was They had a lot of CSS, but more than the quantity, it was really tangled. They would have to rewrite things over and over again, just because everything was so context-dependent. That one was fun because it was neat to see the team end up being able to build things much faster once their front-end architecture issues were removed.

What's the toughest problem you've had to solve?

One of the toughest problems I have to solve, and I have to solve it all the time, is how to make performance and operations improvements work in a legacy world. We don't work in a world where we can just wipe the slate clean and do it right from the start. We work in a world where the website has to stay up and we have to make these changes while everything is running. The balance between keeping the legacy running and managing to do improvements, until the legacy can be removed, is probably the hardest problem. And it happens on almost every project.

What tools and techniques do you rely on most?

The work from the Chrome team has been making me really happy lately. They're pushing the boundaries in front-end code, JavaScript, CSS, and especially dev tools. I was on Firefox Dev Tools for a long time, but there was too much incompatibility between different versions of Firefox and the tools that I absolutely needed to do my job every day. So I swapped, reluctantly, over to Chrome and have actually found that the Chrome Developer Tools have made some substantial improvements in terms of usability and the kinds of information that you can get out of the tools. It's pretty cool stuff.

Who do you follow in the web operations & performance world?

Chris Coyier is constantly experimenting, throwing stuff out there, trying new techniques, trying out the browser stuff, and finding the rough edges where things don't work very well. Tab Atkins and Alex Russell are both involved in Chrome and standards at Google. They're amazing people to follow. Another person is Lea Verou. She really pushes the edge in tooling around CSS and taking the specs and bending them to do things they maybe weren't intended to do. I also follow people who are doing LESS and SASS because the preprocessing languages are an interesting development and have a whole different set of performance constraints.

What is your web operations & performance super power?

I think I do pretty well with CSS stuff. I've been doing it for more than a decade now. Friends will send me CSS issues that they're struggling with and I can jump in and pretty quickly identify why it isn't working. Somehow, I've internalized all of the different bits of the different browsers and just kind of know what to do or what not to do.

Velocity 2012: Web Operations & Performance — The smartest minds in web operations and performance are coming together for the Velocity Conference, being held June 25-27 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20


May 25 2011

Velocity grows with more tracks, more topics and ... bath products?

Velocity logoVelocity, O'Reilly's web performance and operations conference, is just a few weeks away. It takes place June 14-16 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Gearing up for this fourth Velocity conference, I'm struck by how much it has grown.

Jesse Robbins and I, the Velocity co-chairs, were there at the 2007 meeting with Tim O'Reilly and team to brainstorm the idea. Back then devops and frontend engineering were emerging disciplines in need of a gathering place. O'Reilly Media, the seeker and shepherd of alpha geeks, recognized the importance of this community and the need for a place to exchange and evangelize best practices. It was time to build a home where these tribes could gather.

Velocity started in 2008 as a two-day, two-track conference with 600 attendees. In 2009 we added a third day for workshops and reached 700 attendees. Velocity 2010 saw the addition of a third track dubbed "Velocity Culture" and was our biggest year with 1,200 attendees (double the audience from just two years earlier).

In 2010 we rolled out Velocity China which sold out. This was O'Reilly's first technology conference in China and the audience was incredibly enthusiastic.

How's Velocity 2011 look? One change is the new track on Mobile Performance, something everyone is thinking about. A fourth track, Products & Services, has been added. And we're on a path to surpass 2010's attendance records. (I love breaking benchmarks!)

Velocity soapsJust when I thought we had taken Velocity to the max, I received a package from John Allspaw and Mike Brittain over at Etsy containing these Velocity bath and body products (right). I was incredibly excited, but two issues jumped out at me immediately. First, would people be able to set aside the jokes about sysadmins and hygiene? Second, Velocity isn't just "for men" as the label indicates. In fact, this year we broke another record with more women speakers than ever before.

We'll keep our focus on delivering a high-quality Velocity conference and leave Velocity bath products to someone else. The furthest we'll stray is clothing — we've got another great Velocity t-shirt in store for attendees.

If you're not registered please do that now. Last year we exceeded capacity and had to close walkup registrations. Go to Velocity registration and use the code VEL11RAD to get a 20% discount. Join the rest of the performance and devops community in making this the biggest, best Velocity ever. Jesse and I look forward to seeing you there.

Velocity 2011, being held June 14-16 in Santa Clara, Calif., offers the skills and tools you need to master web performance and operations.

Save 20% on registration with the code VEL11RAD

Related Velocity coverage:

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