Peering in through the window

There is a law, let’s call it Newbery’s Law (for it is I), which states:

As a discussion with a web developer who learned their trade in the 90s grows longer, the probability of them complaining that nobody learns by using ‘view source’ any more approaches 1.

Sure enough, I learned quite a bit by viewing source on other websites. It’s still possible to a certain extent. We don’t just have view source, but incredible developer tools as part of all modern browsers. We can debug, inspect, audit and profile as much as we like.

Unfortunately, minified and obfuscated code makes it hard to get any real insights, and dev tools can’t tell us about the principles and practices of the team responsible for the site.

So it’s interesting when a large, long-running, well-known site like The Guardian opens their shutters and allows you to take a look in through the window.

The Guardian team made their front end project public on GitHub back in 2014, as they were developing a new responsive re-design. It’s worth revisiting again to see how projects like this change over time.

Notable items of interest:

  • It’s a Scala Play app. This is one of those recent-but-already-established technologies that nobody really talks about any more but is still in use.
  • package.json is always worth a read to see what front end tech is in use
  • Most of the front-end fun is in static/src

But it’s the docs I find most revealing. These inlude variously up-to-date or ageing docs on architecture, browser support (last updated in 2016), CSS approach, testing and loads more.

Engineers working in organisations like this are often encouraged to write articles for the public blog, but these often present a rather rosy picture of engineering team efforts for the purposes of recruitment.

Public developer docs are a great alternative insight, because the audience is other internal team-members, so guards are down, and the tone is far more honest. This gives a more realistic view of what it would be like to work on the project from the outside looking in.

Do you know of any other commercial websites that have made their source code publicly visible? Hit reply and let me know any other examples.

All the best,

– Jim

Receive emails like this in your inbox

I write about front-end engineering leadership every weekday.

Sign up now and get my Front-End Engineering Responsibilities Laundry List PDF for free.

You'll get regular emails about front-end development. Unsubscribe at any time.