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Tech insights: Rich Harris on why he created Svelte
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Rich Harris on why he created Svelte

08 March 2023, by Simone Markham

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Here, Rich Harris explains why he created Svelte.

Transcript

I took a job working at a financial publication in London. And this was about the time of the 2008 financial crash. And I distinctly remember just a few months after I started working - it was my first job - a bunch of people got laid off because the economy was crashing. I thought it was going to be a last-in-first-out situation.

And I was on the chopping block, but they weren’t paying me enough for it to be worth their time to fire me. So I survived. But the lesson that I took from that was, you know, if I’m going to make it in this industry, I need to become more employable. And so I started drifting towards more technical roles. And a couple of years after that, after spending some time working on video stuff, they needed someone to do some basic HTML angling, essentially.

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And I was kind of in the right place at the right time. So I started playing with code again. And at that point I was seeing the kind of work that was happening at places like the BBC and The Guardian and The New York Times, where they were using code, generally Flash, but also increasingly JavaScript, to produce these interactive journalistic experiences.

And they were doing stuff with data that I thought was very relevant to the work that we were doing at this financial publishers. And so I got very inspired by the work that I was seeing happen at those places. And I was like I want to do that. And so I started trying to teach myself JavaScript with the help of the development team at the company.

When I started doing visual journalism, the tooling available to programmers wasn’t as good as it is today. There just wasn’t as much stuff. And it was hard, it was really hard to write these rich interactive applications.

And so with, you know, all of the naivety of youth, I thought I can solve this. And so I started working on a framework of my own called Ractive, which was kind of inspired by a mash-up of Knockout and Angular and some of the other things that were around at the time. And it was pretty good.

Like I was very fond of it. It had some success, you know, was used by a few different companies and introduced a lot of the ideas that are nowadays kind of table stakes in frameworks like single file components and stuff like that. But ultimately it just wasn’t good enough to compete with some of the bigger frameworks. And so after a few years, I became of the view that Ractive, like many of the frameworks from that era, weren’t really well suited to the era of the mobile web.

A lot of these things had been built with the desktop web as the kind of environment in which they were designed and expected to run. But the mobile web was becoming more and more a part of people’s daily experience. And the reality was that we were shipping too much JavaScript and we were doing too much work and we needed to kind of reset our expectations around what frameworks look like.

So in a way, Svelte began as an act of atonement for my sins. You can kind of trace its origins back to Brooklyn JS, which was a monthly meetup that used to happen in Brooklyn just around the corner from here. And this was a place where JavaScript programmers in the area would come together and they would share lightning talks and talk about things they’re working on.

And one of those evenings I was talking to one of the people who ran Brooklyn JS, and he was talking about an idea that he had that would turn the code that you’d written into something else. He was talking about compilers. And I didn’t really understand what all that meant at the time, but the idea kind of lodged itself in my brain.

And so these two things came together, my own sense of responsibility for having built a framework that had too much JavaScript and did too much work. And this idea that you could use compilers to do a better job of delivering a really good user experience. And that came together and around Thanksgiving 2016, the idea for Svelte happened. And I spent a few furious days coding and at the end of that we had version one of Svelte and it kind of took off from there.

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