Interview Of

Christian Heilmann

Principal Developer Evangelist of the Mozilla Developer Network.

The Work Questionnaire.

What made you go the way you chose to go?

Interest. I was always fascinated by broadcasting and publishing. If we share what we know and spread it as far as possible we can retain a lot of knowledge. The Internet allows us to do that without having to spend a lot of money or follow a lot of rules. This makes it less of a trustworthy resource but also the most up-to-date, immediate and creative one. I came from radio journalism and used my fascination with computers and programming to make it my job to publish things on the Internet. The web gives a lot of people a voice they would not have in traditional media.

What’s the greatest difficulty you had to overcome to do what you’re doing now?

Moving far away from my hometown as there were no jobs there back then in any area related to what I do now. There was also no affordable or stable Internet connection to allow me to work from home. In retrospect, this was a great move and I found that being mobile and happy to try out different places to live opens many doors for you.

What’s the greatest difficulty you face on a daily basis to keep on doing what you’re doing?

Ridiculous demands and exposure. When I started in web development, it was very much a niche market and hardly anybody believed that it would catch on. Now almost everything is connected and we get new web-enabled devices on a yearly basis as our main communication channels. With the mobile web and web apps, all of a sudden everybody wants a slice of the pie and people with incredibly diverse backgrounds all try to sell their approach to development and design as the only real and true one. We have incredible tools and technology but we spend most of our time complaining. In most cases we complain about people not doing things the way we think they should be done. We should celebrate the fact that it is very easy to be part of the web and start making things. There is no definitive right or wrong, but a lot of messaging tries to give that impression as companies and individuals want to be seen as “the most innovative” and “the mover and shaker of the web” rather than actually being a part of it.

When did you find yourself thinking, “Well, this is it. I’m really doing what I want now”?

When I started my current job. I have a team, I have a budget, I make my own schedule, work with incredibly talented people all over the world in a not-for-profit organisation and agree about our goals and challenges with them. I have all the benefits of being an entrepreneur without the pressures and paperwork or having to deal with the demands of profit-obsessed stakeholders. I also can work with everybody out there without being a threat or seeing them as competition. It is incredibly liberating. Although I don’t make millions, I get up in the morning with the feeling that nothing can stop me from doing the job I love rather than feeling dragged into doing something I don’t really like.

How did you set your activity up? What was the process that led you to do what you’re doing?

My current role as Developer Evangelist was my own making. I found that I had delivered enough as a Lead Developer and wanted instead to create better training materials and show examples of how new developers can hit the ground running without having to go through the same pains I had to go through. I also wanted to play with leading edge technology without the fear of disappointing users of web products. Innovation in running systems is hard and you hardly ever get the chance to really start projects from scratch inside a company. So I proposed the role of Developer Evangelist to my company, wrote the handbook and it worked out. Sometimes you just have to try and be blunt about it – all that can happen is that you get a “No” and that can be dealt with.

How do you imagine the future?

Connected and creative. The very flexible and simple technologies we use now allow us to build a lot of great things, and even fail fast and early and start again from scratch. We are obsessed with technologies at the moment and think they are the only way to innovate, but I am quite sure that our users are the ones that will find ways to interact with the products we create that we never thought of. There is an incredible essay on this available called “We, The Web Kids“.

What would you consider to be the main quality in order to survive in your field?

Being adaptive and open to change. Our job should be to learn from our mistakes and move on to better solutions. Everybody I met in my career that concentrated on a single technology and approach either left the market completely or is unhappily stuck in a certain role now. Always stay hungry, always give things the benefit of the doubt. And communicate as much as you can. When you share the things you know, you can learn from feedback and you can take time off. If you are the expert and hoard your knowledge, it will get stale and you will feel outdated very soon.

And what is the indispensable flaw that someone should have in order to get into your business?

An inability to deal with the status quo. Great people of the web question things constantly and try to find solutions by attacking problems from various angles. This can make us appear hard to work with and unable to blend into existing hierarchies, but the results we produce are worth it.