Working in Public

I’m really into this idea of “working in public” lately. Just the general idea of sharing exactly what it’s like to do the job that you do, whatever it is. Sharing insights and the even the mundane-ities of the task at hand.

I’ve been recording screencasts on CSS-Tricks for a number of years now, which is essentially working in public and where my interest in this idea comes from. More recently, I did a Kickstarter with this concept at it’s core. Back me (or now, subscribe) and watch me essentially do my job as a web designer, redesigning my biggest site.

I’m writing this blog post to:

  • Note my current obsession with this idea
  • Record some disparate thoughts around this idea
  • Find out how others feel about this idea in general
  • Hopefully give birth to some bigger idea tying it all together

Disparate thoughts

I got most excited about this when Erin Kissane excitedly allowed me to record a conversation with her about the content strategy work we did for CSS-Tricks. I think even the name “working in public” came from her.

The “public” part of working in public may or may not mean access to witness that work is free.

I really love the show New Yankee Workshop with Norm Abram. It’s essentially him working in public. He’s an extraordinary craftsman. I don’t woodwork at all and I still enjoy it.

In episode 45 of 99% invisible Roman Mars talks about the band Beauty Pill and their decision to record and album in public:

While they were showing him around, he saw the angled, 2nd floor window overlooking the Black Box Theater and it reminded him of the window in Abbey Road Studio 2, made famous by The Beatles. Months later, the Black Box Theater was transformed into a very public recording studio, capturing the sounds and energy of the band, onlookers and guests over the course of a couple weeks.


My friend Kevin Hale has some some time lapse screencasts of him building out projects from near start to finish.

Timelapse of Kevin Hale’s Screen at SurveyMonkey Hackathon
SurveyMonkey Hackathon 2012 : RoomBusters Timelapse

Interesting take on working in public, because you get to see it over a period of time longer than you normally get to.

Kevin’s girlfriend Erica Sirotich also recorded a time lapse of her working in Adobe Illustrator designing a custom header for CSS-Tricks.

Recorded illustration time lapses are a big thing on YouTube.

Speaking of time lapse, cooking shows on television are essentially working in public. The often employ a technique where they work ahead and can all the sudden pull something out of the oven that they just prepared. Clever and compelling.

Due to the number of them on TV, they are clearly of interest to people. But is it just the subject matter in this case?

Bob Ross.

I watch a somewhat embarrassing amount of live StarCraft 2. For the uninitiated: StarCraft 2 is a “real time strategy” game where you control a large number of units essentially splitting your attention all over the place. Ultimately you build an army of units and battle with another player for victory.

The game software records every game you play, so you can rewatch them anytime. There is even a special interface for this, so you can learn from what’s going on and get at-a-glance statistics.

This has given rise to professional screencasters who reply these games with commentary. They offer insight into whats going on and, more importantly, get all nerd-excited when awesome things happen. It’s like watching [your favorite sport] for nerds. I particularly like HuskyStarcraft.

Why do I like this so much? Probably because it’s essentially watching people work in public. Instead of woodworking or cooking or building websites, the craft is playing a video game.

I was recently in Warsaw, Poland. I went to a part of town where there were there were a bunch of street vendors. There was an old man selling wood carvings. He was setting in a folding chair carving a piece of wood as he sit there. WOW, cool right? He’s working in public and making a living doing it.

Then, a block down, there was another old man doing the same thing. They had curiously similar wood carvings for sale.

Later, another.

Upon closer examination, the old men had a knife and were just cutting bits of wood away from a stick randomly, crafting nothing. It was all an illusion.

I was internally furious.

Working in public needs to be true and real.

I love live music. Working in public at its most raw?

Also, sports?

There are lots of professions that work in public by their nature. Construction workers, for example. But you only get to see them in general for a very short period and you gain no particular insight into what they are doing and why, so it’s not very compelling.

Subject matter might come into play too. We watch waitresses to their thing for longer periods. And we do obsesses about that a bit (at least while we’re there), don’t we?

So what to do?

My first inclination, as a web designer, would be to start some kinda website where we just record interesting examples of working in public. Maybe just a Tumblr or something. I just thought I’d float this blog post first to get others thoughts.



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7 responses to “Working in Public”

  1. Josh Long says:

    I bought a new domain just to do this… I’m going to record everything for a few reasons. 1. It makes you think clearly and directly. 2. It forces you to know what the hell you’re talking about. 3. It shows people how much you put into your work. 4. It’s a great way to document your work. 5. It’s a great way to give back and teach others. So yeah, I like the idea:) Cheers!

  2. Josh Long says:

    I also want to do it to be publicly accountable to ship!

  3. Tim Smith says:

    This is really interesting. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this subject matter as well. As you very well know, I’ve loved learning from your screencasts and I’ve recently felt I’m at a position to hopefully pass some of that knowledge on. I recently did a screencast on how to implement SVG’s onto your site. Also, with the creation of my upcoming magazine.. one of my ideas was to do something similar where I document the process of doing it. The work, the conversations and the decision making. I think this is not only good for yourself β€”you can look back at your work and thought processβ€” but it’s great for people watching who hopefully learn something and implement it into their workflow. All in all, I think working in public is a great idea and I admire people who are willing to reveal the way they work and think.

  4. My thoughts from my brain.

    I’m a dancer by profession, (hold the jokes please) I also have a terrible memory so when I design a class for professional dancers, it’s the teaching of the routine that helps me remember the routine. It’s kind of a backwards way of thinking as I obviously need to know the routine before I teach it. But often by the end of the week I really begin to understand the depth and potential of the class and hopefully the dancers I’m teaching. The awareness of others heightens my ability to learn myself.

    There are surprisingly not many other dancers that share my nerdy passion of coding and my interest of web design, so I learnt from resources like CSS-Tricks and Treehouse. (I did the YouTube search ‘How to make a dropdown navbar without JQuery’ but that draws up some questionable info)

    I needed a standard that I could learn and rely on. But even certain videos can show you exactly how to make a beautiful gallery and you go to inject that code into your own project and it’s destroyed by my helpful id=”nav” with position:absolute; and a z-index:-10000000; They don’t show you what to do when it all goes wrong.

    My point being ‘You learn, when you fail.’ So the troubleshooting and bug testing nature of the CSS-Tricks and Kickstarter videos help me understand the logic of these rules and therefor help me apply the knowledge.

    I also love the accountability of working in public, I have realised being my own boss I can get away with a lot! But working with others observing almost forces you to aim high and focuses you to finish a task.

  5. Senff says:

    I’ve thought about this. Create a web site (for a client, or random, whatever) and post day-to-day “reports” on what I did, with the main goal of getting feedback on what I should have done differently, so I could learn from it.

    Actually wanted to do something like that two years ago when I was learning HTML5; document everything about how I was learning the new things in HTML, have a daily blog (subtitled “I will make the mistakes so you know how to avoid them” or something like that).

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an audience for that, when *I* do that kind of stuff. People want to see known/popular/established developers do this, since they already have their audience.

    I’m sure this would get a lot more attention if you would do it Chris, then when I would (if anything).

    Rightly so, of course! :)

  6. Andrea Breiholz says:

    @ Senff
    You should have moved forward with that regardless! That is something I definitely would be interested in!

  7. Dan Denney says:

    I love the concept. Every time I see someone do anything on their machine I pickup a shortcut, technique or app that makes me better.

    Your Kickstarter inspired me to screencast marking up the next version of the Front-End Conf site. I’m no Chris Coyier but I think that I will learn a lot from sharing. All I have to do is figure out how to not sound like a pre-pubescent teen and I’m good to go.

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