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An Interview With Harley Alexander

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Read Time: 15 min

When I was fifteen, I was an awkward skinny kid whose voice switched octaves seemingly at random. I was the type of kid who turned bright red even when a girl would say hello. That was me; Now meet Harley Alexander. At only fifteen years old, Harley has accumulated an unprecedented amount of knowledge. While the rest of us, at that age, considered the day to be well spent if we got thirty minutes of actual work done, Harley has raised the bar to an extremely high mark. "How to Be a Rockstar WordPress Designer" co-author at 15? Is that crazy? How did he do it?

How old are you?

I’ve gotten away with 23 – I even managed to score a couple of baileys shots on a flight over to the States recently. I can get away with 19 easy, but I’m actually only 15 – one month off 16!

What part of the world do you live in?

I live about 10 minutes drive from Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia – Very lucky for a surfy like me.

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How long have you been studying web development?

For about 4 years. We did a huge project in year 6 that needed a website– I quickly emerged as ‘the help guy’. In year 8 we had to make a website for Design and Technology. I topped the class (30/30) and helped the teachers with stuff. So it all started pretty early and picked up speed.

What languages are you most fluent in?

English, French and Spanish. Oh Web Languages!? I know HTML and CSS like the back of my hand. WordPress stuff is etched in my skull pretty bad too – I think about code all the time… Geek.

You do quite a bit of work with PHP. What caused you to choose this language over the other competitors?

More of a PHP-WordPress hybrid, actually. I’m currently learning PHP in a bit more detail from a mate, but frequently use raw PHP in WordPress development – sometimes WordPress just doesn’t actually have it all (shock horror).

Have you had any formal training?

Nope. Aside from school classes where I knew more about it than the teachers (“What’s a div? We use tables…”), and some really basic Guru help from my two web designer uncles – but they live in NZ so not so much. I’m pretty much self taught. I actually recently wrote an article about it on my site

What's your text editor of choice?

Coda by far! It’s so sexy… But I must admit the upcoming Espresso is looking rather sleek. I must have a copy of CSSEdit to compliment Coda however, because the CSS editor in Coda is kinda shoddy.

Javascript library of choice?

jQuery seems to dominate a lot of my brain space. The way it’s used just seems so streamline – thus the reason behind the lack of MooTools and Dojo Tutorials!

Your web dev heroes?

I don’t generally know the people behind the sites so much as the sites themselves. Which is a shame really. Unless you advertise yourself like Adii does! His business stuff is pretty amazing and well thought out.

Despite the business relationship I have with Collis, I think it’s pretty amazing what he and Cyan have done with Envato and FlashDen. It’s kinda like going from nothing to a multi-million dollar corporation in a few years – amazing stuff.

I think guys like Small Potato of WPDesigner (Shame it went to crap), Alen Grakalic of CSSGlobe and the Dejan Cancarevic of Stylized Web are champs too, I mean they’ve all built content and a site that was good enough to be sold off from nothing (CSSGlobe isn’t actually for sale, but the content and following is proof enough). I’d sort of wished I could get a few thousand followers from nothing when I started off. Then I found feedburner/analytics and it became an addiction.

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How have you managed to learn so much at such a young age? Have you been forced to make sacrifices in other areas of your life?

Indeed, something’s gotta give with all the time I put into it. My parents have had to talk to me about balancing schoolwork and my other stuff. In fact when I signed up to do the book I got a specific lecture to pick up my game at school. But I’m allowed to take my laptop to school, so when I finish schoolwork quickly (typing>handwriting), I can get on with my other stuff.

It’s actually funny, come to think of it, school is probably the only thing that suffers. I love all my sport and seeing friends more than the web dev stuff (it’s also very important to lead a balanced lifestyle), and school is the only thing I like less. Not to say web stuff is at the bottom of my priority list, it’s just if I’ve been coding all night, I’ll wanna go play some sport the next day.

Your most recommended web development book?

I don’t really learn from books. But if I had to pick a set of eBooks that I read, it’d have to be any of the O'Reilley cookbooks. I learn by doing, so if there is a product at the end (rather than knowledge of integers and how they relate to ruby), then I’m happy and will have learnt something. Any practical books/eBooks.

*Note - you might be interested in reading 50 Must-read books on web development.

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You recently finished helping Collis write the "WordPress Rockstar" book. Can you talk a bit about the writing process? Did you enjoy it? Is it possible that you might have to go back and edit your work in order to compensate for WordPress 2.7?

This was a huge milestone in my little ‘career’. It came right after my ‘big break’ (big at my age) with the NETTUTS job, so I was really pumped about it. I finished it ASAP (within a month I think), and have been eager to hear response about it from whoever gets it!

In terms of a process, I’d DO what needed to be done, and then I’d re-teach it. I wouldn’t jump straight into teaching, I’d just do something rough THEN write about it. I dealt with hiccups along the way. Sometimes I’d be frustrated for days on end because one small segment of code isn’t working. A bit of a pain. It was a bit of a struggle getting tutorials in on time whilst I was also writing the book – so I requested a month off to do so, and it worked out well.

It was like writing one, big huge tutorial (or 4), which I really enjoy doing. As I said, I learn by doing, so even throughout writing I went through a huge learning curve myself – some techniques I never knew existed. I was very lucky that I got the ‘job’ in the first place – I was actually pitching an idea for a tutorial to Collis that happened to be pretty much what the book was (a-z of WordPress).

Thanks to WordPress 2.7, I will most definitely have to fix some stuff – Collis or I will have to fix all the screenshots. Lucky there weren’t that many… But it’s still a bit of a pain. Good thing is, the beta of 2.7 has been released with the new interface fully implemented so we can be up to date – maybe even release in time with the release of WordPress – who knows?

Would you like to write more books in the future?

Absolutely! I had so much fun writing it, learnt so much, and it was a huge challenge that I enjoyed tackling head on. The entire business side of things (I.E. meeting with Collis, arranging legal stuff, payment etc) was also a huge learning curve, as there are so many hiccups due to legal things it’s not funny. I wasn’t aware that we needed to go through a zillion different copies of contracts to get it just perfect! It introduced me to the ugly world of finances and the lot.

But yeah, most definitely up for another writing challenge. I think it’d be cool to have a whole lot of books that I can take to job interviews, etc, and the surprise on people’s faces when you tell them ‘Oh yeah I wrote a book’ is just golden.

Do you plan on working at a design firm in the next few years, or would you prefer the freelance life?

I most definitely want to experience working for a design firm. It’s kinda one of those things that make you feel immersed in the field. I know hardly anybody personally that knows half a thing about WordPress. Most people know what a Blog is, but not WordPress, which is kinda frustrating. It’s nice to talk to the few who know what Smashing Magazine and NETTUTS are. I also think that it would give me a perspective on how to participate in group projects, rather than doing my own thing from start to finish. I also envision that a firm will be as cool as the Google offices – all fun stuff to relax when work gets too hard. I’ve vowed to never work in a cubicle.

You're one of the most consistent writers on NETTUTS. How do you come up with new ideas every week?

It’s getting harder, but I look at trends in top blogs and sites and do my best to replicate them in WordPress. I really want to write more than just WordPress, and am learning Joomlah – I wish it was as easy as WordPress. Drupal is a nightmare, all those weird panels and headers. My next tutorial is going to be a WordPress options tutorial!

I also think as big as I possibly can with the languages/techniques – jQuery has vast animation, so I dream up the most extensive interactive interfaces, then scale it down till I can write about it – The whole Leopard jQuery Desktop idea started off as like a 3D thing that you could fling objects about – but that proved impossible. I was playing around with all the Leopard stuff as procrastination for schoolwork, and I tried to replicate a stack in jQuery. It worked, so I saw what else I could do.

Finally, I’ve noticed that Article articles always get warm reception – if there is a list, a set of tips, or links I can provide, I’ll scour the web for the best of that, include it and use it. I Haven’t done much of that though.

Another great way to get inspiration is to simply look at suggestions! If I see a suggestion that is plausible, I’ll sit down and try to learn it, then write about it!

You use jQuery extensively in your NETTUTS tutorials. Is there any one feature that you wish the jQuery library would implement?

I’d really like jQuery’s animation to be a bit smoother and faster – if you use too much on one page it tends to become buggy. Other than that, I’m actually surprised as to how near-perfect jQuery is for my purposes – it’s readable code that works and is easy to learn/understand. What more could you want?

What made you choose jQuery over the other available libraries?

It’s so easy to use! I initially started trying to use MooTools (I like the name, and ‘Moo’ is my girlfriend’s nickname for me). I tried to grasp MooTools, and I had a load of help from a talented programmer called Jenna ‘BlueBerry’ Fox – I wrote an article about her a while back.

My interest in MooTools subsided, and I realised to create even better websites I should probably learn a JavaScript library properly – JavaScript itself is too clunky! It actually ‘officially’ got me into it when I was trying to make a light switch on and off in my old desk-y design. I used raw JS and that took 11 lines, without animation. With jQuery AND animation, I was able to make it switch on and off with just 5 lines. Pretty funky stuff.

There was recently a debate on NETTUTS over whether or not it's advisable for talented young developers like yourself to delay their career three-four years to attend college. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Look I think that you can have a balance of both. I mean if I can manage my school life to the point where it’s satisfactory but not the best, and still do all the work I do, then I think you can balance both. I daresay that High School is more intensive than Uni (Australian College) - according to my older friends anyway.

The other thing is, is that you could always study something design related to keep you in check with what you’re doing! You can get a degree in something you enjoy.

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That said, what are your plans for the immediate and further future?

I’ve recently put my subject selection in at school; I’m dropping most of the academic studies and pursuing all my languages and Design; French, Spanish, English, DT, Visual Arts and Maths. All going according to plan, I’ll drop Visual Arts in the first few weeks and head over to TAFE once a week (TAFE is vocational skills College for adults) for a Multimedia course.

Then in year 12 (final year of school), I’m going to drop Maths and replace the Multimedia course with a Graphic Design course. So I’ll be doing intensive Language and Design for my final marks – which I think is a good move. It’s also what I want to do, not what I should do.

Then after school, I think I’m gonna go travel for a long time. I have contacts all over the world, thanks to my traveling in the past, so I’ll meet up with loads of friends and hopefully find a whole lot out about myself too.

For Uni, I think I’ll do a Web Design course, going more into the theory and programming side of things rather than design and front end stuff – as boring as that sounds I think it’ll be a good foundation.

What advice would you give anyone as young as you wanting to get started up in this field?

Instead of a generic ‘Stick with it, it’ll show results in time’, I’m gonna be very abstract and tell you all to invest time in skills rather than knowledge. A good lesson my Dad taught me is to always pick skill building over academic stuff. That’s crazy you might say! But I think it works on the same principle as ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. People and Skills, in my opinion are much more valuable than knowledge.

Also, stick with it! I said I wouldn’t… But one common mistake I make all the time is to give up after a few attempts of something working – if not now, then never, right!? Wrong. Persist. You’ll get there, if someone out there can do it, so can you.

What’s next on the agenda for you in terms of Skills then?

I want to learn an MVC style language/library rather badly. I’m tossing up between Ruby on Rails, CodeIgniter and CakePHP. I love how CakePHP has little metaphors for all the things (I.E. Salts and the Bakery), which I think would make it easier to understand. Some form of backend development though.

And do you have any short term goals and a ‘pie in the sky’ set of goals?

Who doesn’t?! Short term, I’d love to get a decent following on my site Baffle! inc.. I really want to make content that people read, and will feel satisfied when it’s reflected in number of readers/traffic. I’m not so much money focused for my site’s goals, and would much prefer the idea that people are listening to what I have to say and want to hear it.

My pie in the sky goals are the silly goals that sound crazy big. Ultimately, I’d love to have a passive stream of income that brings in enough money to travel and live all over the World. Then settle down with a babe of a wife and a few kids somewhere in Europe (Possible Geneva or Madrid) and freelance – It’s fun! I’m only 15 years old though, so that’s all still up in the sky.

Enough about web design! What hobbies do you have, what do you do with your life at current?

As I mentioned, I think it’s very very important to have a balanced lifestyle – too much of a screen isn’t healthy for you. I love my sport, and it’s a great release when a script wont work too. I surf, do Tae Kwon Do and kickboxing – along with a hell of a lot of Basket Ball at school (I’m 6’3”, comes in handy).

I go out a lot, spend weekends at friends’ places, go to parties, go for walks, go to the beach, the lot. You need to be able to escape the interwebs world and get into the real world, because you need to succeed as a person before doing well online.


Thanks so much to Harley for taking the time to be interviewed. Next Friday (Saturday for some), we'll be posting an interview with Jonathan Snook. See you then!

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