Having started as a personal blog at the age of 17, Harry Roberts now runs his own consultancy business and works with major companies around the world. Here he talks about how he turned CSS Wizardry into a success, why he left his full-time job and why more tech people need to move up North.
Tell us about your business.
CSS Wizardry is a few things. Firstly, it’s a really embarrassing name I picked when I was 17 and I’m kind of living with that decision. It started off as a blog to document what I was learning at the time, but then I moved into Leeds and, after a bit of time working with some of Leeds’ agencies, I started working for SkyBet in 2011.
CSS Wizardry evolved from being my personal blog to my company and I started doing consultancy work under the name in 2013. Mostly this involves working with big teams of developers and helping them to develop and manage CSS on a large scale, getting a system in place to last them a number of years so they don’t have to keep building it every six months or so.
CSS is a pretty terrible language, really, so a lot of my work is actually talking to people about how to make it work for them.
A portion of consultancy feeds into performance, and around 30% of my work is completely focused on performance engineering. It’s almost my guilty pleasure though, I’d really like to do more of it as I find it absolutely fascinating, and it has much more visible wins for the entire business.
Since CSS Wizardry took off, I’ve unfortunately not been a massive part of the tech scene in Leeds because so much of my work is international. I attend meetups here though and I’ve done consultancy work for Matalan, Sky, Parallax and a handful of other companies based here in Leeds.
My involvement is more of a casual friendship with Leeds’ tech scene than working heavily within the city. But there are already so many people here, and I like to keep them as friends rather than treading on their toes. The tech scene itself is really picking up, especially with Sky moving up here and it’s fun being able to work with them again on a consultancy basis. I’d like to be more involved with it, but the nature of my job means a lot of it is international.
What inspired you to start it up?
My blog got a lot of traction, it had really good readership with around 100,000+ readers a month. Off the back of that, people would ask me to speak at conferences, while I was working at SkyBet so I had to book time off to do it. Each year my holiday time was getting eaten up by speaking at events, but it got to the point where it was taking up so much of my time. So after seven years of working full-time, I decided to give freelancing a go, speaking at conferences and workshops.
It took a long time to decide to leave SkyBet, but the actual quitting process quite spontaneous. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the office the day I handed in my notice, but I scribbled it down on a piece of paper for my boss and said I’d give him the formal notification in the morning. It was a long time coming but the actual flick of the switch was very immediate.
I think I was just ready to have something that had taken up so much of my personal time become the thing I focused on – so I made it into a consultancy business.
Why does tech interest you / How did you get into tech in general?
I had a really weird introduction to tech. We didn’t get the internet at home until around 2005 and I didn’t have a computer until really late. We were never really a techy family, but my mum and dad run their company together and I always loved what their graphic designer did for them. I decided I wanted to do that, so I started making some really awful design stuff with a friend when we were teenagers; we were doing terrible logos and flyers for local companies, and getting paid!
I then decided that we needed a website so that’s when I taught myself the first bits of web development. So I never really had that romanticised programming-with-my-first-computer-at-a really-young-age thing that a lot of developers have had, but I got into it through necessity really. We needed a website and I volunteered to be the one who learnt how to do it, but I really enjoyed it and thought it was fascinating. I liked the problem solving, and I just fell down the rabbit hole.
Focusing on CSS is probably both a good and bad thing, because anyone who has a problem with CSS is going to hire me, which means I’ve got high demand from a fairly small market. But that also means I’m not widely employable as a lot of firms wouldn’t hire me because I focus on so much on CSS. They can’t really justify spending so much money on someone who only consults in one area.
I was always self-taught so I was never forced to learn anything else or diversify myself. I’m still not sure about whether that was the best choice or not. For now it clearly seems like the right thing to have done, that’s for sure.
What does Leeds have to offer, as a city, to tech businesses?
A lot. People have a really odd view of Leeds, they think of it how it was 20 years ago and it really upsets me. I was talking to someone at Google in London and they were confused about why I was still based in Leeds. They’d never been here but they had this really negative view of it, so I told them about what an awesome city it is.
Everyone has this view of Leeds as being some sort of backwards Northern city but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m very passionate about it but a lot of people don’t even realise it’s on the map. It’s the UK’s second city for finance and legal, and it just gets overlooked, but they are such a big pull for companies – tech or otherwise.
Leeds is such a promising city for UK business. It has access to a lot of wealth and there’s a lot of support here legally, for startups and new businesses, but there’s also infrastructure as well. Closer to the ground, there are hoards of developers and it’s very much and up and coming city. A lot of people are moving into tech and it’s getting to the point where you can’t go for a coffee without overhearing a developer talking about a new project.
There’s a lot of talent here and I think people would do well to base themselves in somewhere like Leeds, which has already happened with Sky. It’s more economical for businesses to be based in the North, and there is so much talent here.
What are you excited about for the tech and digital scene in Leeds?
What excites me is the move towards making tech a much more serious profession in Leeds. I’ve always had a bitter view of it because there were a lot of agencies all fighting for the same projects. It’s frightening because everyone was fighting to be the cheapest to try and get work. But the appearance of people like SkyBet and Matalan who aren’t just doing ten-a-penny websites and are instead running multi-million pound enterprises that are all fuelled by tech.
SkyBet, which has been valued at around £1 billion, is a fantastic thing to have in the city. It’s changing the view of tech and it’s really valuable because it’s becoming much more serious in Leeds and it’s pushing salaries up. A lot of developers in the city are underpaid, but all that’s changing now that people like Sky are getting involved. Individuals are a lot better off now that tech is being taken more seriously.
What advice would you give for people looking to start up a business in this sector?
Be diligent. Too many people go in all guns blazing, thinking they are going to do everything and be huge. Start off as small as you can, with small overheads and test the water. From a developer point of view, the consultancy model is a great way to get started in a place like Leeds. You don’t need to start with staff or permanent premises, but then you can always scale it up if you need to.
Also really look at what your company might have to offer its staff: you’ll be fighting for the talent here, so if you’re looking to hire you’ll want to think really hard about your company, and with developer salaries going up, you won’t be able to compete on price alone.
I’d also really like people to avoid the traditional tech culture. The whole attitude that you’re not a developer unless you spend 80+ hours a week doing it. Yorkshire’s a pretty laid back place and I’d like to keep it like that. We don’t want to go back to having underpaid and overworked developers, we want a good stable tech economy here, where people are happy to work. Everybody wins.
Favourite Yorkshire eatery/bar?
Oh wow! That’s almost impossible. There’s so much good food in Yorkshire; how do you pick?! At the moment, I’d say it’s a place called the Whippet Inn, in York. It’s a beautiful steak house, serves incredible gin and phenomenal meat. We go to York just to eat there, but Yorkshire has a fantastic food scene in general. We’re spoiled!
What tech do you use?
Oddly enough, I’m not a massive gadget person really. For work I use Apple everything, and the usual software one might expect from a web developer, but I don’t really surround myself with much in the way of tech at all. Having said that though, my friend bought me a Chromecast for my birthday and it’s absolutely amazing. I don’t really have a working, plugged in television (it’s basically just a screen) so I haven’t watched TV in years, but this £30 bit of kit has changed all that. Netflix on a proper TV instead of on my laptop is great. I can’t believe I didn’t get one sooner!
Top 3 films?
Ah… Another tricky one. My favourite film is an Italian one called ‘The Consequences of Love’, which sounds a bit soft and romantic, but it’s actually a great tale of intrigue, mafia, drugs, vengence and how that all unravels. I watched ‘What we did in the Shadows’ last week, and I’ve already rewatched it twice. One of the most genuinely funny films I’ve seen in a very long time. Third? Well I do have a real thing for mafia/mob kinda films, of which there are many, so… Goodfellas. Seems like a pretty obvious choice, but it is a great film.
What do you drive?
Actually, I don’t! I cycle, and most of my commutes involve a flight rather than a car journey, plus I live right in the centre of the city, so I don’t have a car. I’ve actually noticed a lot of web developers don’t drive. Not a majority, but a substantial minority of the developers I know don’t drive either. Odd.
Perfect Sunday Breakfast?
A really good American-style breakfast, and zero obligations! In LA, I had this amazing egg dish, it was eggs with creme fraiche, sriracha mayonnaise, onions and chives, melted cheese, all served in a brioche bun. It was just a breakfast egg sandwich but incredible. Gonna make that tonight!