Self Developer - Developer Sara Soueidan
How do you go from having no idea of a career... to becoming Net Awards Developer of the Year?
In just a couple of years?!
For Lebanese freelancer Sara it's been a journey of self development as much as anything she's done for the web. Hear her story of learning, sharing, writing, speaking, teaching, creating... and then learning some more.
More from Sara
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Transcription of Being Freelance podcast interview - Sara Soueidan and Steve Folland
Steve Folland: Hey, how are you doing? I'm Steve Folland. Thanks for listening. This episode is supported by the Podcast Host. You know by now if you want to start a podcast, they're the people to talk to first. And if you already have one, they can help you grow it too. Details are at beingfreelance.com.\
Steve Folland: Right now though, let's find out what it's like being freelance for developer Sara Soueidan.
Sara Soueidan: Email can sometimes be a real curse and unless you manage it really well, it can get in the way of everything. Of your work, of your creativity, of your workflow and everything.
Sara Soueidan: I used to turn my computer on, start working before anything else. Before washing my face, before eating breakfast, before anything. I would start at 8:00 and stop at 12:00 am. So that's 16 hours of work every day for two weeks. I just physically couldn't do it anymore. I had to quit.
Sara Soueidan: I was chosen to get the Developer of the Year award. It does give you this self confidence boost but not too much though because I'm always myself's worst critic and I still think that I'm an imposter most of the time. And I have to work on that.
Steve Folland: Yes, there's Sara. We are going to Lebanon today to talk to her very soon indeed. Let me just remind you, of course, beingfreelance.com is our website. You can sign up to the newsletter there. And you can also find us on Twitter @beingfreelance. And thank you so much, by the way, if you are one of the people who have left a lovely review on iTunes. God bless you.
Steve Folland: It's very nice, not just because it makes you feel good but it also helps us get found. So if you do enjoy this podcast, please do leave a review on iTunes or wherever you may find us because it really can help. Share the love and get us out there. And of course, if you know somebody who's freelance or you go to a freelance meetup or whatever, then maybe tell them about us so that they can listen to this too. That would be grand.
Steve Folland: Right now though, let's go to Sara Soueidan who is in ... Well, are you in Lebanon or are you somewhere else?
Sara Soueidan: No, I am in Lebanon.
Steve Folland: You are? We've got a better signal than when I talk to people down the road. Let's go with this. So, Sara is a front-end web developer and ... Well, in fact, if I read from your website, you're an award-winning freelance front-end web developer, author and speaker.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah.
Steve Folland: With clients across the globe. So clearly, there's lot's to talk about. But let's start by finding out how you got started being freelance.
Sara Soueidan: Okay, so, do you want the long story or the short version of it?
Steve Folland: Well, a bit of both, to be honest, yeah. The long.
Sara Soueidan: Well, I never actually expected to be doing what I'm doing today. I never thought I would have anything to do with computers. I was never a tech girl, which is totally weird, so to speak, because of doing what I do. I remember we had our first computer when I was six or seven years old. I lived in Germany back then. And I genuinely don't even remember using it because that's how very little I used it.
Sara Soueidan: I'm lucky to have grown up in the computer and iPhone-less generation where kids used to actually go outside and play and have a real life instead of just a virtual one. So, I spent most of my teenage-hood between school and home and 99% of my time at home, I spent drawing. So I was literally the opposite of a geek.
Sara Soueidan: That said, I took my first computer class when I was in eighth grade. The teacher introduced us to HTML in one of the sessions and I fell in love with it instantaneously. Seeing those tags and writing the code felt so natural and it was like I had been speaking that language my entire life without knowing it. Sort of like when Harry Potter knew he could speak Parseltongue. It's kind of the same.
Sara Soueidan: Our computer sessions were actually ... well, they were really short. We didn't get too much in-depth with it. But I was extremely curious to learn more so I ended up borrowing an HTML course book from someone in college and reading through the material after getting back home from school every day. So, I got so comfortable with HTML back then that my teacher literally gave me an A plus on the test without letting me even take the test, which I'm pretty proud of.
Sara Soueidan: As much as I enjoyed doing this, I eventually had to stop because as soon as I got to ninth grade, I had to start focusing a lot more on my studies and I didn't have enough time to work on something else. And the computer sessions were basically done by then so we didn't really do any HTML at that point at all.
Sara Soueidan: I stopped for a few years but during that time I used to miss HTML. And I used to even write fancy emails to my friends as web pages. I used to write the emails as HTML with a fixed background [inaudible 00:04:39] effect and then I would attach those to an actual email. That's how much I loved writing HTML.
Sara Soueidan: Now, during my last school year, I wasn't truly sure what to study in college. What I wanted to do was architecture, but back then my best option to study that was to get into a private university, which we couldn't afford at that time. So, I had to choose between available courses in the Lebanese university, which is the only public university in Lebanon. Computer science sounded like the least boring of all so I took it.
Sara Soueidan: After graduation, I wasn't sure what to do for a living. Many people I know here recommended teaching as a job. So, for 18 months ... a year and a half ... I was basically lost not knowing what to do. I took a teaching job at a school. I quit after 90 minutes. Yeah, because I just couldn't do it. I can't reason with small kids. I mean, they're all like first and second and third graders and how am I supposed to teach them computer? They spend all the time just like, "Teacher, that guy hit me. He took my pencils." So I felt more like a judge than a teacher. It killed me.
Sara Soueidan: He actually taught me how to write CSS. We had like 10 lessons and each lesson he would design a very simple web page. It got more complex with the fifth lesson or 10th lesson. I loved it, I liked it. I got moments where I almost cried when he showed me properties and values that I'd never heard of. And I got headaches because I couldn't know how to do something, which always kills me.
Sara Soueidan: I started Googling. I found CSS-Tricks, I found Codrops, I started learning more. I got more comfortable writing CSS. I started experimenting with the stuff that I learned. So, I started a CodePen account. This is slowly getting to the moment where I literally started freelancing and getting jobs out of it. So, I started a CodePen, I started experimenting. My first CodePen was, I think, creating a 3D button effect using CSS Shadows and box-shadows. That was amazing.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, I just continued doing that. Whenever I felt like I wanted to create something, I didn't know how to do it so I would research the properties that I needed to learn in order to do it. And I would learn them and I then I would experiment. I started getting some of my Pens picked. I still remember the feeling that I got after one of my Pens got picked. That was amazing.
Steve Folland: Okay. I do know we should explain what CodePen is then very briefly for people who don't know.
Sara Soueidan: It can be seen publicly. Or if you are a pro member, you can choose to have your Pens be private, which is a fantastic feature if you're doing personal experiments and stuff that you don't want to share yet. So, yeah, and my Pens were at first, I didn't have a Pro account. There weren't even pro accounts at that time so my Pens were public. And the CodePen team usually picks a few Pens from the public ... How do you call that? So, basically there's a lot of Pens and they pick a few of them and then they display them on the home page of CodePen.
Sara Soueidan: And picking Pen is like you get your work exposed in a way. It was fantastic. And the community has grown a lot on CodePen ever since. So you do get some exposure there with other developers and stuff like that.
Sara Soueidan: After doing that, I wrote an article about how I did that and I showed the demo. I put it on CodePen as well as on my website and then I wrote the article. That was the thing that got me out there. My article got so many views. It got shared by Smashing magazine, by everyone on Twitter and on Facebook. I never expected that.
Sara Soueidan: The Windows 8 Code Pen is what got me my first job offer from an American client via CodePen. So, I got my first job offer via CodePen literally. They have this email so someone can basically email you if you want them to. I had my messages open, I got an email and that was my first gig.
Steve Folland: Wow. So, for your very first blog post on your website just went massively viral and let to your first freelance gig?
Sara Soueidan: Yes.
Steve Folland: How often does that happen? And it's funny, because I've looked at that. I've seen that very first blog post and the Windows 8 animations. So, it was because you saw something and you decided to basically break under the hood, see how it works and then you documented that for everybody to see.
Sara Soueidan: Exactly. I love teaching. I love helping people understand concepts. And the more complex the concept is ... I'm not saying that CSS 3D was complex at that time. I sort of have a talent for doing that. I just love writing. I was able to code and then take it further and use my writing skills and write about the stuff that I coded and I still do it and I very much enjoy it. People, thankfully, are able to relate to my writing style and that also helped a lot. So I started getting more requests for writing more articles on other magazines such as A List Apart, and CSS-Tricks, and Codrops, which eventually led to writing the Codrops CSS Reference.
Steve Folland: So, this is incredible really. So, your very first blog post leads to demands for more blog posts so you write more. And then that leads to requests for you to write for really high profile online magazines within your industry, which means more people within that industry find you and then start to hire you ...
Sara Soueidan: Exactly.
Steve Folland: ... more and more. So, I'm going to take a guess here, but it might not be the case. Have you ever actually had to apply for jobs? Or has everybody found you through your writing?
Sara Soueidan: I have never had to apply for a job. And I'm extremely blessed and thankful for that.
Steve Folland: Wow. So everybody comes knocking on your door because they've seen your writing that you just happen to start just as a learning yourself thing?
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, I would say that. It started that way.
Steve Folland: It's amazing, isn't it?
Sara Soueidan: Thank you, yeah. It started that way. But now it's not just the article. If I'm going to talk about my portfolio, it's not really big because I used to do stuff before. In the first couple of years, I used to do some client requests that I don't do anymore. And that's why, for example, my portfolio currently only contains two case studies and the third one is a work in progress.
Sara Soueidan: I could have more work displayed there but I once read something and it was a really nice tip. It says that only put the stuff in your portfolio ... How do I even phrase that? So, basically, only put examples of work that you want to keep doing in the future. So, basically, the stuff that I used to do in the past is not something I'm still interested in doing now and that's why I don't even think about displaying them on my portfolio.
Steve Folland: So, where did it grow from there? You have people coming to you looking for work. How did your freelance career evolve from there? So, we're talking about 2013 so it's only a few years ago. It sounds like you've traveled a long way.
Sara Soueidan: Yes, I have. It started with writing, then I got writing requests, which was part of how I made money at that time. And then there was development requests. And then at some point, also because of my articles, I had my first speaking request from Michelle Barker and she used to work for Future of Web Design Conference. So, they basically have this two tracks conference. One of them is the main track and the other one is called the Rising Stars track. So, basically, new people in the community who have something interesting to share but don't have any experience speaking would speak in the Rising Stars track.
Sara Soueidan: She was interested in what I had to say and what I was writing, actually. And thought, "Why don't you speak about the stuff that you're writing about at our conference on the Rising Stars track?" My first reaction was, "No. No way." I didn't even think about that. But then when I told everyone about that like, "Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. Hey my friends. I got this request and it's crazy." Everyone was like, "No, why is it crazy? Why don't you do it?" That's when I started considering it a little bit. One of my friends was like, "What do you have to lose? You're already sharing this stuff in writing so you could share it in speaking as well."
Sara Soueidan: I also happen to love speaking. I used to do it in school as well. I used to give classes in school and in university. I never had any problem standing in front of a big number of people. But I never thought that I would travel to another country to do that. And I would be speaking and not in my native language. In a different language. So, I had these insecurities and I wasn't really sure if I would be able to do that.
Sara Soueidan: So, I decided to finally say yes. And in order to travel, I had to apply for a visa because if you're carrying a Lebanese passport, you have to apply for a visa for almost the vast majority of the countries of the world. So, I applied for a visa and I didn't get it.
Steve Folland: Oh, no.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, it was a total disappointment. I was finally ready to do it and to speak but I didn't get the visa. So, I was determined to sort of like if they don't let me do that I am so stubborn that I'm going to try to do it anyway. I ended up after Future Web Design, like a month after that, there was CSS Conf. It was held in the US in Florida back then. So a friend of my suggested, "Since you're already ready to speak, why don't you apply for CSS Conf." And they didn't choose their speakers back then so I had to apply.
Sara Soueidan: I sent, I think, one or two talk proposals. One of them got picked actually. So, after picking the topic ... they liked the topic ... they asked me if I could record a video of myself speaking. No one had seen me speaking in English before so they didn't know if I would actually be able to do it. So, I recorded a video.
Sara Soueidan: I sent the video and they loved it. So, basically, I was able to speak in English much better than they maybe thought that I would be able to. And they accepted my proposal. So, I, again, had to apply for a visa, which I did. And surprisingly, I got it. Yes, I was able to make it CSS Conf and I gave my first talk there. And the feedback for that talk was so amazing that I got another talk request during CSS Conf. CSS Conf EU organizer, Kristina Schneider, she was at CSS Conf US and she asked me if I would do the same talk at CSS Conf EU and I was like, "Okay."
Sara Soueidan: So, that's basically how it started. So, it stared with writing and then writing led to speaking and development. It just snowballs sort of from there, especially if you first and foremost are considered God's blessing definitely. And then comes your personal work.
Sara Soueidan: I have been doing my best to keep it up. And I love speaking, I love writing, I love doing this. Yeah, so it's just kept going from there.
Steve Folland: How much time would you say that you get to put into these, I guess, your personal projects, which end up being what you write about? Because obviously, you have to do that alongside your actual work that you're being paid for, if you see what I mean.
Sara Soueidan: So, you're asking how much time I have to spend on side projects?
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Sara Soueidan: Okay. I used to have a lot more than I have today. So, I used to have a lot more time to dig into CSS specifications, SVG stuff. And the more time I had to dig into them, the more time I had to learn and the more time I had to write. But I haven't been writing for weeks now because I haven't had enough time for that.
Sara Soueidan: Or to put it another way, when I have client work and I have, for example, stuff that I want to learn about, I have to prioritize. And in this case, I definitely prioritize client work. And during the past few weeks, I haven't been able to prioritize writing again, which is why I haven't been doing much in the last few months.
Sara Soueidan: It's sort of disappointing that I haven't been working on any side projects recently. But I'm not very sad about it because the projects that I am working on are so amazing. I love working on them. So, it does feel like I'm still working on a hobby, on something personal even though it's not really mine, it's my client's work. But it feels personal because I love the projects that I work on. And I've been extremely lucky to have been working with amazing people recently. All of my clients in the last 18 months or so, they're amazing. Their projects are really nice, that I can definitely relate to. So, it does feel like I'm working on something personal even if I'm not literally working on something that's mine.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Obviously, you work with clients around the world. So, is it all remote or do you find yourself traveling a lot?
Sara Soueidan: No, it's all remote so far. Unless if I work in the future with a client that wants to, for example, travel to wherever they are for a week or two, then I wouldn't mind doing that. But so far, all of the work has been remote. Yes.
Steve Folland: So, how do you find dealing with the client relationship and the work? Like talking to them on a daily basis or weekly basis, the communication of it?
Sara Soueidan: Okay, so I'm going to focus on the recent projects because there has been sort of a pattern with my latest clients recently. And I like this pattern and I think I expect more clients will be doing the same.
Sara Soueidan: All client communication usually happens in Slack or via email or via Skype. We use Skype usually for meetings that require actually speaking, not just writing. So, the only thing that I do have usually have to manage when it comes to communication is time zones. Half of my clients so far have been American. There's at least between seven and 10 hours of time difference between here and there. So, I usually have to work on when I would be available for them, when we would all be online at the same time. So sometimes I shift my work schedule so that I work later during the day. So instead of stopping my work hours, for example, at 5:00 pm, I might start at 4:00 and stop at 8:00. So, depending on the time zone.
Sara Soueidan: If I know that they're going to be online during that time and we have to be online at the same time eventually to discuss the work. So, that's how I usually deal with it. We have Slack, we have email, we have Skype and then we shift the hours to fit both of our schedules.
Steve Folland: Cool. How do you stay, I guess, productive? And I don't know if you live alone or whatever.
Sara Soueidan: That is so hard. I don't live alone and it's so hard to be productive. Actually, you become so productive at some point that you start moving backwards, literally. Like what I usually tend to do ... but I've been really working on it recently ... is I over work. A lot. Time management has been one of my weakest points, basically. So, I would work all day, sometimes even during the night. I try not to tell my clients that I work at night though.
Sara Soueidan: I work a lot and at some point you start getting very close to burn out. But then you have to watch yourself because you're working [inaudible 00:23:22] and you can't let yourself get to that point. So, that's when you start pushing your brake and like, "Okay, I have to stop now. I have to start organizing myself more."
Sara Soueidan: I don't have a lot of distractions at home. I live with my family so I could be distracted by them but I'm not. What usually distracts me is the computer itself. I have a Twitter tab open, that is the number one distraction that I have. I have email open most of the time, you get notifications from here and there. And sometimes if you're in the flow of the work and you get that one notification from somewhere, it's enough to just break that thread of ideas and that is enough to ruin everything.
Sara Soueidan: So, I've been working on this lately. When I want to start working, I'm specifying at least 90 minutes. I'm going to work during this 90 minutes. I'm going to be in my own zone. No email, no Twitter, no anything, no kind of distractions. Maybe even put noise canceling headphones on or something and just focus on working. That helps a lot with being more productive.
Sara Soueidan: I'm also organizing my time a lot better. For that, I'm forcing myself to just turn the computer off at 5:00 pm and just stop working there. It used to very hard. I'm currently working with Smashing magazine on redesigning the magazine so I'm building the front end of the new magazine. And as always, we communicate on Slack and sometimes Bityl or someone else they would get on Slack and leave notes on the design or based on some user testing and they leave these notes at night. And I get the notifications of those notes on my phone because I don't usually put it to silent at night. And I find myself being pulled back into work even at night.
Sara Soueidan: So, it is hard. But I've been trying recently. Instead of actually turning my computer back on and working on those notes, I've been using Wunderlist more, which is a to do app. I skim through the messages and whenever I have a to do, I just put it down into Wunderlist for the next day and I start working on it first thing the next day.
Sara Soueidan: That's been helping me become more productive. So, basically, focus on specific periods during the day, during which you're going to work, to remove all kinds of distractions. It takes a lot of perseverance and it's literally sometimes very similar to physical training. Training your mind to resist distractions is not easy, at least not for me.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Okay. I'll tell you what. Let's just pause for a moment. Let me point you in the direction of the Podcast Host because they are supporting this episode as ever and we thank them for that. If you would like some support in growing your podcast or starting one from scratch, they really can help. They can even take your recording and edit it for you and publish it to the world.
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Steve Folland: So, whether you want to get started or you want to grow the one you have, do talk to them, the Podcast Host. There's a link at beingfreelance.com and if you use the promo code Freelance, you get money off as well. There's also free stuff on there. But just saying, if you get to the point where you want to buy stuff off of them use that code won't you, Freelance, and tell them I said, "Hi."
Steve Folland: Back to you though, Sara. And I'm wondering how about if you've got that kind of compulsion to just work and work because you're so in to it, you're really enjoying it. You talked about burn out there. Do projects roll in from one to the other or do you force yourself to take breaks? Do you force yourself to take holidays, vacation, whatever you might call it?
Sara Soueidan: That is still very much work in progress. For example, right now, my current schedule is Friday is definitely not a working day. So, instead of taking Saturday and Sunday off like most people do, I like to take Friday off. I could call it recreation day. It's not that I'm going to spend it in sort of holiday mode where I just go and do crazy stuff somewhere or do some sightseeing or whatever. I like, for example, if I'm going to force myself out of work, I have to distract myself with something useful that has nothing to do with work.
Sara Soueidan: What I've been recently doing is reading more books. Books that would help me in many aspects of my life. I used to draw. I sometimes try to get myself back into drawing but that hasn't been very successful recently. I am still very much working on this.
Sara Soueidan: Recently, especially during this week, as I've mentioned before, I've been setting 5:00 pm, that is when I stop working. I force myself to turn my computer off. If I find like I really need to do something, if it's work related, I could maybe just pick up a book that's about web development and read that as long as I don't get to turn my computer on.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, that's pretty much it for now. I'm not really sure what else I could be coming up with in the future. But yes, definitely. Time management, work-life balance is not easy. You have to train yourself into it. Yeah.
Steve Folland: So, we're recording this in October 2016. But we actually started trying to sort this out in May. I think it was April or May. I remember, first you were busy but then I'm sure you took like a really nice, long, decent holiday. You were like, "I'm just not doing anything. I'm off."
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, I always say that. But I always end up doing something. So the month that I did take sort of off between creations is Ramadan, which is our fasting month. So, I like to take that month. It's not that I take it completely off but I don't prioritize the web or working on the web during that month. So, it's a spiritual month, I like to do a lot of stuff offline, which means that I don't take a lot of time consuming work commitments during that month.
Sara Soueidan: So I did spend it reading, I did spend it working on my website a little bit. I wasn't completely away from the web but I also was doing any client work or making commitments with people either.
Steve Folland: And how have you managed to cope with the business, the financial side of being freelance?
Sara Soueidan: I'm not an expert. Cash flow has been more consistent lately, thank god. But of course, it didn't start out that way. So it took a lot of patience and perseverance to push through the drought times and keep going, putting work out there which would help me get work back and, hence, make money.
Sara Soueidan: I used to take advantage of all the down time that I had to actually be more creative, learn new stuff, which in turn helped me get better opportunities. As for saving, for example, I do it of course, just like everyone else. My parents always taught me the importance of it so I have been careful about it ever since I started making money myself.
Sara Soueidan: I didn't make much in the first year I started working so I had to save for like eight months, for example, to buy my first MacBook. I used to be on a very old Windows machine before that. It took an overall time frame of like two and a half years to get to the office setup that I now have, which I'm totally proud of by the way.
Sara Soueidan: I do get sometimes asked about being paid and if I have any trouble with my clients. I've never had any problems with my clients, for example, refusing to pay, which I'm extremely thankful for. Like I said before, I've been working with amazing people and I'm thankful for that.
Sara Soueidan: One thing that does bother me about being paid, though, is that I always have to factor in the fact that it always takes about a week for a payment to make it through to your bank account here in Lebanon. So that's my only annoyance finance wise.
Steve Folland: Now, one thing we haven't touched upon is the fact that you do workshops as well. Was that an extension of the speaking gigs?
Sara Soueidan: Yes. It actually literally started as an extension. I was at Frontiers in 2014 and Vitaly Friedman from Smashing Conf was there. And I usually cram so much information in my talks. I almost always need more time to talk about the stuff that I want to talk about. So Vitaly saw that and he was like, "Why don't you do a workshop about the stuff that you're talking about?" At first, I thought, "I don't think I have enough material to cover a workshop." But of course, I ended up with more material so that I could literally give two-day workshops now. But it was literally an extension.
Sara Soueidan: So I have been giving talks. I need more time to cover all of the stuff that I wanted to talk about. So Vitaly suggested that I give a workshop and I did that. The first workshop was at Smashing Conf in Los Angeles in 2015. And I've been doing it ever since.
Steve Folland: And another thing I wanted to mention. When I introduced you at the beginning, I included the word "award-winning." And I'm sure you've probably got more than one award but you won the Net Award. So, like Net magazine. This is one of those peer reviewed type awards, which I know people who work on the web really look up to and aspire to. Let's have a quick chat about that. So presumably you didn't have to enter. So how did that feel, and how has it affected your work?
Sara Soueidan: It was amazing. I totally didn't expect that at all. As soon as the Net Awards nominations started, I was a Tweet from [Anna Devinhelm 00:33:10], she's British, where she said, "I've just nominated Sara Soueidan for the Outstanding Contribution of the Year award." And I was like, "Whoa." I never even thought about the Net awards. I never thought that I would be nominated. I really didn't.
Sara Soueidan: And then someone else Tweeted, "I just nominated Sara for the Web Developer of the Year award." And I was like, "How is that even possible?" I was extremely thankful, extremely humbled. I still am. I can't even begin to explain how proud and happy and humbled I am by all that. I never expected that.
Sara Soueidan: And then, I ended up being a finalist for both of those categories. And I was chosen to get the Developer of the Year award.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Congratulations.
Sara Soueidan: Thank you very much.
Steve Folland: So, Developer of the Year for 2015. How did that then impact on you and also on your work? Did you find a change?
Sara Soueidan: On my work, I'm not sure. None of my clients that contacted said like, "Hey Sara. We want to work with you particularly because you're the Developer of the Year." That never happened. So I'm not really sure if my clients did do it because of that.
Sara Soueidan: On a more personal level, it does give you this self confidence boost. But not too much though because I'm always myself's worst critic and I still think I'm an imposter most of the time. I have to work on that.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, seriously. I did feel a little bit of guilt after I got that award like, "I don't deserve it." Now, I've made my peace with myself basically.
Steve Folland: And it must be great at driving traffic. You're obviously very well known already with your blog but driving people towards you who might not have found you already as well, I guess.
Sara Soueidan: Um-hmm. (affirmative) Yes.
Steve Folland: So, you spoke about redeveloping your site. I'm just wondering what you've found has worked or what you've tweaked over the last few years that may have worked on your site or not.
Sara Soueidan: My website started as just a blog. So, I wasn't really marketing myself as a freelancer back then. The home page was actually the blog, a list of articles. And with time, I started realizing that if I'm going to get jobs from people visiting my website, I'm probably not going to be getting them if people are going to come to my website and only see a list of articles or if my contact page is only going to contain a contact form and a like, "Hey. Do you want me to work with you? Get in touch." That definitely wasn't enough.
Sara Soueidan: So, at some point I started to change the way I look at my website. And I was actually influenced by Harry Roberts. I almost said Harry Potter. I do it every time.
Steve Folland: He is a wizard.
Sara Soueidan: Yes, definitely. I agree, yeah. I was also influenced by him because at that time he was doing and thinking exactly the same thing about his website. So, I thought, "Okay, if people are going to land on my website the landing page should be a good introduction as to who I am and what I do what I would be able to help my clients with."
Sara Soueidan: So, if a client is going to come to my website, what is the first thing that I would want them to see? And that's definitely not a list of articles like about CSS or SVG or whatever. So I started changing the architecture of my website back then. And it has been growing ever since. It now has a speaking page, a workshop page, case studies and there's a lot of elaboration about each topic in each and every one of these.
Sara Soueidan: Design wise, I like to keep it simple. I've never been into in-you-face sort of designs. I see a lot of creative designs that are just amazing but I don't feel like those are for me. The simpler it is, the better. I even once tried coloring the header. Like any color that I like just didn't feel right. So, it's currently all white with just very few pops of color here and there.
Steve Folland: I like the bit which sort of talks about how you like to work. And even more specifically than that there's this whole section, which says, "Do not get in touch."
Sara Soueidan: Yeah. Oh, my god.
Steve Folland: I like that bit.
Sara Soueidan: I had to add this at some point because I was spending a lot of time answering emails that were just ... Email can sometimes be a real curse. And unless you manage it really well, time wise and content wise and everything, it can get in the way of everything. Of your work, of your creativity, of your workflow and everything.
Sara Soueidan: I used to get a lot of emails from people asking to advertise on my website. I always said no. I used to get a lot of emails from other freelancers asking me to work for them. I don't work for other freelancers. We could work together on a project for someone, sure. But I used to get, for example, a request from a freelancer who was like, "Hey, I need some help with this very little component and you seem to be good at what you're doing. So could you build that for me?" No, that's not the kind of work I want to be doing.
Sara Soueidan: There was a pattern and there were many repetitive emails about the same topics that were taking too much time than they should. So, I ended up adding that list and it has helped immensely every since.
Steve Folland: Interesting. I like that. Okay, now I always do this thing where I ask for three facts about yourself. Make two true, one a lie and let me figure out the lie. What have you got for me?
Sara Soueidan: Oh, my god, I'm so bad at this. I scratched my head trying to come up with the lie but I'm so bad at it. So, I'm going to give you three. You might be able to figure out which one it is but I hope not.
Sara Soueidan: Okay, so number one. I once finished one of my talks on stage and completely improvised the whole thing. I once spent an entire summer doing nothing but browsing the dictionary and writing English poetry. I speak four languages fluently.
Steve Folland: You speak four languages fluently? What are they?
Sara Soueidan: Arabic, English, German and French.
Steve Folland: You improvised a talk. So you improvised the whole thing?
Sara Soueidan: Yes.
Steve Folland: And you spent a whole summer reading the dictionary and doing English poetry?
Sara Soueidan: Yes.
Steve Folland: Which is what we all do isn't it? I'm not going to dig in too deeply but I'm going to say, I don't think you would have improvised a talk.
Sara Soueidan: Really?
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Sara Soueidan: Well, what if I told you I improvise all of my talks?
Steve Folland: No way?
Sara Soueidan: Yes, way. I have never been able to practice a talk. Every single time I try to practice it. I try to say it at least once. Like, "I need to go over this talk once at least so that I know how much time I need for it." It never works. I'm never able to do it. I tried maybe practicing two times and I always end up going up on stage and I say things in a completely different way anyway.
Sara Soueidan: So at some point I was like, "Okay, why do I even bother?" When I get on stage and I look at the people in front of me, I feel like I'm standing among them, not on a stage in front of them. And it's like I'm talking just like I'm talking with you now. So, if you ask me a questions about SVG or CSS right now, I would say it in a specific way and I would know what to say. That's exactly what I've been doing.
Sara Soueidan: I have just this content. I once literally finished a talk on stage. It was at Full Frontal last year, actually. I created the talk in five hours the day before my talk. I finished it on stage and I improvised the whole thing.
Steve Folland: Okay. So, did you spend the summer writing English poetry from the dictionary?
Sara Soueidan: Yes. I was a complete nerd when I was a kid. I think this is why my English is, as many people say, really good. I grew up watching a lot of American movies, and that definitely has to do with the accent that I have somehow because many people tell me that it's more of an American accent.
Sara Soueidan: But I did. I think that was the most I've used a computer during that period during my life. I wasn't a tech girl, as I mentioned. I didn't use the computer much. But during that summer, we had an encyclopedia on a brand new computer and we had a dictionary, of course. I used to use the encyclopedia to read about dolphins and marine biology because I loved marine biology and even dreamt about being a marine biologist at some point.
Sara Soueidan: And I used to just open the dictionary and start browsing words and whenever I see a word that I like I would write it down and then I would memorize the meaning of it. And I kept doing this literally for two months in the summer. I had this thing. I'm not a poetry kind of person but maybe reading all of those words, I felt this urge to start writing sentences using those words. So that was sort of poetry, very bad poetry.
Steve Folland: Wonderful.
Sara Soueidan: But, yeah, poetry.
Steve Folland: Well, it just goes to show that you've got this thing for teaching yourself, for learning all the time, which seems ...
Sara Soueidan: I love it.
Steve Folland: ... as your friend says, you'll learn more as you go. It sounds like you're constantly doing it.
Sara Soueidan: Yes.
Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Sara Soueidan: Manage your time well. Start with that before anything else. When it comes to personal stuff, personal growth definitely learn time management. It is an indispensable skill that you just need to master. Without it you can get really messed up.
Sara Soueidan: Yeah, I would say that. Maybe client wise things that I would tell myself to remember is to always have a contract. And to never undervalue your work. Because I did that when I first started out.
Sara Soueidan: I'm actually glad that it was my very first job that was my very worst. So I learned these lessons very early in my career.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It sounds like from what you've just said there that you got to a point where you really did burn out. Did it get really bad? That you were just working, working, working?
Sara Soueidan: I think I burnt out twice. The first time was during my first job. I had to literally quit in the middle of it because I used to wake up at 8:00, I used to turn my computer on, start working before anything else. Before washing my face, before eating breakfast, before anything. I would start at 8:00 and stop at 12:00 am. So that's 16 hours of work every day for two weeks.
Sara Soueidan: At some point I just physically couldn't do it anymore. I had to quit. It was my fault because I set my client's expectations too high back then. So I basically started working like that for a few days and so they started expecting me to continue working like that. I didn't know better. I didn't know any of the stuff that I know now.
Sara Soueidan: And then there was the second burn out. It was late 2015. That was caused not by development work, but more by speaking. So, I had so many speaking engagements back to back. And I used to create a new talk for every conference. So that means a lot of stress, a lot of work, a lot of repetition.
Sara Soueidan: And you know that talk at Full Frontal that I mentioned that I improvised completely on stage? I had been in Portland for a View Source Conf two days before that. And one week before View Source, I was in ... that was Los Angeles, I think ... for CSS Dev Conf. So it was three conferences back to back.
Sara Soueidan: I was in Portland. That was in the west of US. And I flew from Portland all the way to Brighton, UK. I was completely jet lagged. I was physically sick. I was so tired and I didn't have a talk. I created that talk during all that physical and emotional stuff that I was going through. And then I improvised it the next day. It was amazing. I'm actually pretty proud of that talk and I'm very thankful for that.
Sara Soueidan: I was like, "Okay. I'll just take a week after that to rest." But then I realized that a week wasn't even close to enough. The week passed by and I was still as tired as I was before and that's when I realized, okay, I had reached burn out that was caused by all the speaking that I was doing before. Not just those three conferences but I had a lot of other engagements during those two months.
Sara Soueidan: So, that's when I started thinking more about what engagements I should be taking the time between each one, how many per month. Yeah, I learned my lessons.
Steve Folland: Man. Well, I'm glad you did. And I'm glad you're doing okay now. It's a wonderful story. Good for you. Thank you so much for sharing with us today as well.
Sara Soueidan: Thank you.
Steve Folland: Do check out beingfreelance.com. There'll be links through to Sara's site and her blog and everything which she's up to. And also, for that matter, I'll put a link in the show notes for this page for Harry Roberts episode because you mentioned him and we did talk to him. He was one of our first guests, actually.
Sara Soueidan: Yes.
Steve Folland: The CSS Wizardry. Harry Roberts as well. But Sara, thank you so much. And well, all the best being freelance.
Sara Soueidan: Thank you for having me.