The speaker interviews: Steve Souders

Steve Souders is an evangelist for web performance and open source. Previously at Yahoo, he’s now working at Google. He’s the author of High Performance Web Sites and Even Faster Web Sites and created YSlow.

It’s wonderful to have someone with Steve’s knowledge and experience talking at Webstock. We asked local web performance advocate, John Clegg, to interview Steve for us.

John: What is Web Performance Optimisation (WPO) all about?

Steve: I break “performance” into two parts: efficiency and speed. Efficiency is most critical when struggling with scalability issues and thus is more focused on backend operations. Speed has to do with the user’s perception of how fast a website is and how that affects their experience. Early in my career I focused on the performance issues of running large scale websites, but for the last six years or so I’ve been almost solely focused on the user’s perception of website speed.

John: Isn’t WPO “systems” stuff? Don’t we have to turn on some setting on the webserver and it’ll make my site fast? Why is WPO important to developers?

Steve: Luckily, there ARE many WPO improvements that are simple to implement, such as compression and caching. But not everything is that simple. The #1 challenge for building fast websites today is JavaScript, and there’s no silver bullet solution. Website owners should generate a todo list of performance improvements, and prioritize those based on the costs and benefits involved. The low hanging fruit should be tackled first, but pretty quickly the performance improvements will involve changing the way a website is built, and that’s where developers need to step in.

John: You’re giving a workshop at Webstock called “The Long Tent in the Performance Pole”. What’s it about? Who’s it pitched at? And what will we learn?

Steve: The benefits of faster websites is well documented: more traffic, happier users, increased revenue, and reduced operating costs. The entire organization is on board with WPO. Now what we need to do is figure out exactly what needs to be done to make our websites faster. We don’t want to mess this up – there’s nothing more frustrating than picking the wrong items to “fix” and seeing no improvement. This workshop shows which tools to use to analyze website performance and how to spot the most important performance problems to fix.

John: How has the focus of WPO changed in the past couple of years?

Steve: Sometimes it can be hard to get buy-in across the organization to work on optimization. You’re basically arguing to spend resources working on something that doesn’t change the way the website looks and doesn’t add any new features. That’s a tough sell! The main change in WPO over the last two years is the overwhelming number of case studies volunteered by industry leaders showing the impact WPO has on the business metrics – revenue, users, traffic, etc. The phase we’re in now is using technology to reduce the hurdles for adopting WPO. Using technology to simplify technology – it’s a fun and challenging problem.

John: How does the growth of mobile and tablets over the past couple of years change WPO?

Steve: WPO and web development in general haven’t kept pace with the adoption of mobile devices. We’re in catch up mode. I’ll be showing some mobile tools in my workshop, but there’s a real need for greater visibility into how these mobile clients perform.

John: In New Zealand, we have a lot of small to medium websites and only a few really big websites. Most of the sites are built and maintained by services companies. What advice would you give the service companies in pitching WPO to their clients?

Steve: Two things: Most of the case studies showing the bottomline benefits of WPO have been done by large websites (Google, Yahoo, etc.). That’s because it’s a lot of work to run these experiments and gather the data in a scientific way. That’s why Alistair Croll and Strangeloop Networks ran a similar case study on how performance affects typical (not huge) retail sites.

So the first thing I would do to pitch WPO would be to share these case studies, especially the ones that address websites outside of the top 100.

The second thing I would do is use WebPagetest to record a video of a fast website and a slow website running side-by-side. Even better, make it a video of the potential client and their faster competitor. Once someone sees how their slow site compares to a faster one they’ll become a WPO advocate.

Thanks Steve and John!

Steve’s workshop, The long tent in the performance pole, is on 16th February. You’ll go away with practical techniques to make your website faster – meaning a better user experience, more users, increased revenue, and reduced costs. What’s not to love!

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