Web performance for the future
I started working on web performance around 2003. My first major discovery was the Performance Golden Rule:
80-90% of the end-user response time is spent on the frontend. Start there.
Up until that point all of my web development experience had been on the backend – Apache, MySQL, Perl, Java, C & C++. When I saw how much time was being spent on the frontend, I knew my performance research had to focus there.
My first discussion about web performance was with Nate Koechley when we both worked at Yahoo!. (Now we’re both at Google!) I hadn’t met Nate before, but someone told me he was the person to talk to about clientside development. I don’t think YUI existed yet, but Nate and other future YUI team members were present, leading pockets of web development throughout the company.
God bless Nate and those other folks for helping me out. I was so ignorant. I was good at finding performance inefficiencies, but I hadn’t done much frontend development. They helped me translate those inefficiencies into best practices. The other thing was – this was still early days in terms of frontend development. In fact, when I was writing my first book I didn’t know what words to use to refer to my target reader. I asked Nate and he said “F2E – frontend engineer”.
Fast forward to today when most medium-to-large web companies have dedicated frontend engineers, and many have dedicated frontend engineering teams. (I just saw this at Chegg last week.) Frontend engineering has come a long way. It’s a recognized and respected discipline, acknowledged as critical by anyone with a meaningful presence on the Web.
I like to think that web performance has helped frontend engineering grow into the role that it has today. Quantifying and evangelizing how web performance is critical to creating a good user experience and improves business metrics focuses attention on the frontend. People who know the Web know that quality doesn’t stop when the bytes leave the web server. The code running in the browser has be highly optimized. To accomplish this requires skilled engineers with established best practices, and the willingness and curiosity to adapt to a constantly changing platform. Thank goodness for frontend engineers!
This reminiscing is the result of my reflecting on the state of web performance and how it needs to grow. I’ve recently written and spoken about the overall state of the Web in terms of performance. While page load times have gotten faster overall, this is primarily due to faster connection speeds and faster browsers. The performance quality of sites seems to be getting worse: pages are heavier, fewer resources are cacheable, the size of the DOM is growing, etc.
How can we improve web performance going forward?
The state of web performance today reminds me of frontend engineering back in the early days. Most companies don’t have dedicated performance engineers, let alone performance teams. Instead, the job of improving performance is tacked on to existing teams. And because web performance spans frontend, backend, ops, and QA it’s not clear which team should ride herd. I shake my head every time a new performance best practice is found. There’s so much to know already, and the body of knowledge is growing.
Asking backend developers to do frontend engineering is a mistake. Frontend engineering is an established discipline. Similarly, asking fronted|backend|ops|QA engineers to take on performance engineering is a mistake. Performance engineering is its own discipline. The problem is, not many people have realized that yet. Our performance quality degrades as we ask teams to focus on performance “just for this quarter” or for “25% of your time”. Progress is made, and then erodes when attention focuses elsewhere. Best practices are adopted, but new best practices are missed when we cycle off performance.
What’s needed are dedicated web performance engineers and dedicated performance teams. Just like frontend engineering, these teams will start small – just one person at first. But everyone will quickly see how the benefits are bigger, are reached sooner, and don’t regress. The best practices will become more widely known. And the performance quality of the Web will steadily grow.