The Most Common Questions Asked on ShopTalk

Avatar of Chris Coyier
Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

As I type this, Dave Rupert and I have recorded 137 episodes of ShopTalk. ShopTalk is primarily a question-and-answer style show. Dave’s early idea was to have it be loosely modeled after the most popular NPR show of all time, Car Talk, which is mostly Q&A. We have guests, and we talk a bit about the guest so people have a sense of who they are, but it’s not exactly an interview show.

We solicit people’s questions on ShopTalk. Again as I type this, we’re closing in on 2,000 questions people have sent in. I’ve read every single one of them and there are definitely some repeating themes. I think it’s an interesting look at the vibe of the industry.

The “Should I go to college?” Question

Sometimes this comes from high school age people who are curious if it’s “worth it” to go to college, or that worry that college won’t teach them current technology. Like this one from Ledian Morales:

I work as web developer at a well known web company. I have learned a lot from the people here. They hired me straight out of high school, so I was never able to go to a college or a university. They taught me everything I know. I make good money. But I want to go bigger. I want to learn more.

Should I go to a university?

Based on the research I have been doing, a lot of people are saying it is not worth it. The information they teach is outdated. You can learn more with Google Search. Is it worth it?

Or from people already in the workforce interested in a career shift. Like this one from Marc Levine:

I am 39 years old. My wife and I have two young children. I am a corporate trainer. I want to change my career and become a web developer. On nights and weekends for the last 6+ months, I have been learning HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery and Ruby through Codeacademy, CSS-Tricks,, and other sites. I have learned a lot, but I still feel like a beginner.

I have been accepted to a graduate certificate program in Web Design & Development at a local university. It is the only program in the area that caters to working adults. After learning more about the program, I am skeptical, because it seems like it is going to be covering somewhat older content, maybe not as much hands on, paper writing, traditional academia, etc.

Is it feasible that I can learn everything on my own, basically through internet resources? If yes, how would I do that? What are some specific things that you all would recommend? I need to position myself so that I am a viable and hirable job applicant. Time is of the essence – I’m not getting any younger.

I think this is such a common question because it’s a huge life decision (lots of time, lots of money) and the results are unclear. College isn’t a car wash. When you go through a car wash, your car is clean at the end. When you go through college, you are ???? at the end. Smarter? More employable? Maybe. Broke? Probably. Because so many people do it and the results are all over the place, it’s a tough call.

Based on my personal experience: go. Learning what a for-loop is isn’t what you get out of college. Hopefully, a huge well-rounded chunk of knowledge and experience is what you get that benefits you forever is what you get out of college.

Andy Budd wrote my favorite article on this subject.

Should they continue their studies or jump straight into the labour market? I usually tell them that ability trumps education and I don’t put much faith on the current raft of tech degrees. So I’d prefer to see three years of experience than three years of study.

That being said, I’ll also point out that University is about much more than just acquiring a skill. It’s a formative experience that will shape your attitudes for the rest of your life. It’s also a huge amount of fun, or at least it was in my day.

The “fun” thing might not be an important factor when you’re decided to go back later in life with more at stake. Not to be overlooked is the rise of the “Code School” – shorter, more focused, but also expensive and often un-accredited schools that offer to blast you with knowledge and get you changing careers in a hurry. I’ve seen success happen through them, but surely the results vary.

We’ve talked about this subject on the show several times. To hear more, check these TimeJump links:

The “WordPress Local and Live Databases” Question

The tide of front end development moved lots and lots of front end developers toward developing locally over the last several years. Technologies like preprocessors and version control require that, and front end developers are firmly on-board with that. But WordPress is huge, and WordPress is a back-end technology that requires back-end things to work. MySQL, PHP, Apache, a local domain. All the sudden tooling is a big part of the front end developer job, and the shoe fits.

But the tooling for MySQL hasn’t quite caught up. It still hasn’t, if you ask me. It’s reasonable to want to work on near-exact replica of a live site on local, then push up changes. And so much of what WordPress does and shows is in that database.

Version control doesn’t help with the database. Connecting a local site to a live database is risky. Exporting/importing tools directly in WordPress aren’t great. Manually dumping the database from the command line, downloading it, and running the SQL locally is tedious and inefficient. No wonder it was such a hot topic.

The answer is essentially, use WP Migrate DB Pro. Full disclosure: they have sponsored the show. But it’s the only option out there that I’ve found that actually does the job. It costs money (good, because that means they run a business on keeping it working well).

I think enough people are becoming aware of this that we don’t get the question nearly as much as we have in the past.

The “How do you make a podcast” Question

We have a podcast. Lots of people want to start a podcast, like Nick Santini:

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you about the recording process for your podcasts and how you incorporate it into the site?

Dave and I aren’t in the same room (or even state) usually, so we need to talk to each other. Plus the guest could be anywhere in the world. Even though neither of us, nor our typical guest, is a big Skype user, everyone tends to have an account, know how to use it, and it generally works. We start up a call there, get everyone on the same call, and chat for a while as we set up.

Skype can be choppy sometimes though, so even if everyone follows all our advice the call might have some rough spots that wouldn’t make for a good recorded podcast. For that reason, we have each guest record their audio locally. It’s really easy (on a Mac, at least, which is all I know), because you can do it directly through Quicktime Player. Everybody records their own audio locally, which will be of good quality without rough spots.

We have a podcast editor, Aaron Dowd, who stitches them all together and makes the final MP3 file that goes out.

On the ShopTalk website, we use the podPress plugin to generate the iTunes compatible feed and all that. For CodePen radio, I use the Blubrry one. On CSS-Tricks, I hand-created (and later used WordPress templating) to generate the RSS feed that iTunes uses. It’s just a special format.

You’ll need to host the MP3 file somewhere. I use Amazon S3 on CSS-Tricks and CodePen, which can be fine for that. Using your own web hosting probably isn’t a great idea as it isn’t really priced for media hosting bandwidth. On ShopTalk we use BuzzSprout, which gives us analytics, which is great.

For the LIVE part of ShopTalk, I’m afraid I’m not the expert. Maybe someday Dave will post a thing on how he manages it all. I know that he brings in a second computer (“The Intern”) into the Skype call. Then somehow that computer passes the audio from the combined call over to (Wavestreaming? SHOUTcast?) which then (I think?) gives us a URL that Dave plugins into an MP3 player baked into our Live page. Somehow an iPad is plugged into the call too, which pipes in the sound effects.

It’s a fairly complicated little setup over in Dave’s shed!

The “What should I learn next?” Question

This is always the classic case for our ShopTalk Mantra!

Here’s an example from Derrick Showers:

As a developer, what on earth do I learn next?

There is literally so much ‘stuff’ to learn in this industry, it’s often overwhelming! Do I push my knowledge of JavaScript and learn the ins-and-outs of different design patterns? Do I learn something new like Swift? Do I learn how to animate element on a page with canvas and CSS3 animations? Do I go learn Node.js and its associated frameworks?

When we’re feeling in a direct-answer mood, the answer is usually: learn JavaScript. It really seems like that’s a solid bet for a good long-lasting career right now. Not to mention the programming fundamentals that will stay with you forever.

But really: just build websites. There is nothing more motivational, practical, and applicable to real work than actually building actual websites. The the site you are working on guide what you learn next. Because you need it. Because it will enable the site to do something, or do it faster, or better. Learning from a book or course or classroom is great, but no substitute for the real thing, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The “Should I change jobs?” Question

This is a little bit like the university question in that it involves a huge life choice where the outcome is uncertain. Will you make more money? How much does that money matter? Isn’t happiness more important? How do you even know if you’ll be happy at a new job? How does your family life factor in? Thats just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s an example from Daniel Grigorov:

I recently started working in a small web design company. I am doing the websites design and the coding as well. I really like doing both these things, but maybe after a couple of years I would like to move out and find a job at a bigger company.

Is it possible to find job into a big web design company and do both the web designer’s and web front end’s jobs simultaneously or should I pick one of those jobs only and put all my efforts into mastering it?

There is always stuff written between the lines. “A bigger company” I feel likely implies that he wants to make more money. Rarely do people say “I wish I worked in a cubicle with more middle management where I had less influence on the company!”

Or perhaps he is thinking of a higher level of prestige at some “tech giant” and worries that the jack-of-all-trades situation he has going on now will limit his ability to land a job like that. It might, sadly. If you put in all your time into design, you’d certainly be a better (and more impressive) designer. Likewise if you spent all your time in JavaScript, you’d be able to ace technical interviews easier. I don’t hear about companies hiring generalists very often (which I personally think is sad).

But most importantly, it’s clear Daniel is passionate about this work and does the work. That alone makes me pretty darn sure he’ll do great.

We’ll have to do this again sometime when new questions emerge that signal a tide shift in the front end world. I hope to someday be pondering “Should I go to Mars to learn SpaceNode? Or should should I stay here on Earth and focus on my CSS6 skills?”