The accessibility expert and international speaker explains how pursuing a path that is aligned with her values has been key to career and personal fulfilment
We talk to Marcy Sutton about her passion for creating an accessible web for everyone, her career to date and personal fulfilment.
If you’ve never met an accessibility specialist, you might imagine them to be severe and intimidating people, ready to pounce on the slightest transgression of accessibility standards in your web designs. Happily, in our experience, that’s far from the case. Almost everyone we’ve ever met in this sphere has been engaging, charming and just all-round nice – and web developer and accessibility advocate Marcy Sutton fits right in to that mould.
Currently living in Bellingham, Washington, and working as a senior frontend engineer at Deque (pronounced ‘Deecue’) Systems, which specialises in automated tools for testing the accessibility of websites, Sutton is a beacon of upbeat positivity and easy-going charm. And that’s no coincidence. Her sunny disposition, she says, is the direct result of her calling to accessibility. “I put in a lot of effort and energy, and in return I get back the world, ” she said with a smile.
New career path
But it’s a path she took a while to embark on. Originally, Sutton wanted to be a photojournalist. But she graduated her Visual Journalism BA, at California’s Brooks Institute of Photography, at a time when newspapers were closing, digital cameras were becoming ubiquitous, and the job market was disappearing fast. She’d enjoyed building websites since high school, so now she decided to go all in, taking an associate’s degree in Web Design and Multimedia at the Art Institute of Seattle. Soon after, she found her first job as a web developer at boutique Seattle shop DEI Creative.
She was in her second job, around three years later, when accessibility entered her career in a big way. Working at another Seattle-based digital agency, POP, Sutton was made lead developer on the Target account. The retail giant had recently settled a class action lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind over accessibility complaints with its website. Naturally, accessibility concerns were now baked into everything they did, and Sutton was at the epicentre.
“I was starting from square one, but I had a lot of help from Target’s team, especially Steve Sawczyn and Todd Liebsch”, she recalled. In the process, she fell in love with accessibility. “Not only did it contain cool technical challenges, it gave meaning to my work and reflected my values.”
Where does Sutton think those values stem from? “I think I get them from my mother”, Sutton said. “She’s a very generous person who really cares about people, and I’ve tried to live my life like that too. So I found accessibility very rewarding to work on. I opened the door and thought, ‘That seems really solid, I want to do that.’”
This proactive approach carried her through her next job, at digital product studio Substantial, where she used her smarts to bring Google’s Angular.js Material Design project into the firm’s orbit.
“I was bouncing around on Twitter when an engineering manager on the Angular team asked if I’d be willing to speak at a conference, ” she explained. “I asked what the pay was, and he said there wasn’t any, but he might have some work for me to do… so it developed from there. Looking back, I was quite a plucky young person even to ask about being paid”, she added. “But I really believe that if you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get anywhere.”
She spent a year full-time on the project, where she was responsible for UX,
accessibility auditing and engineering for the component library and docs website. She also started contributing to ngAria, the accessibility module, and Protractor, the end-toend testing framework. But she admitted that eventually it became too much for her. “By the end, I was super burnedout; it was a firehose, ” Sutton said.
There’s no bitterness to her recollection, though. “It’s just the way it is, in this industry, ” Sutton explained. “You get this initial rush of excitement, this feeling of ‘We’re going to do this!’ But then you just get to the point where you can’t keep going. It’s hard to sustain that level of attention forever.”
Looking back, it was a turning point in her life and career. “Now, I’m a bit more measured about how I approach things”, she said. “I realised you have to pace yourself and take care of yourself. I started to ride my bike more, and moved over to a new job.”
That new job was at Adobe, where she supported web-based product teams across the company as an accessibility engineer, as well as contributing to Adobe’s internal Web Components-based Coral UI framework. At first, it seemed the perfect fit. “With my background in photography, I was already an Adobe user”, she said. “I was excited by the idea of making the tools I use every day more accessible.” Unfortunately though, her goal-oriented, let’s-do-it spirit didn’t quite mesh with the realities of working in a large organisation. “It’s a slowgoing ship, with all these legacy systems and codebases, ” she explained. “So while I came in as an engineer saying, ‘Okay, what can I fix?’ I think they really needed more of a project-manager type.”
After seven months at Adobe, Sutton decided to move on. And while she’s keen not to criticise the company per se (“They are making some progress in making their tools more accessible”, she noted), her next and current job was a real no-brainer.
Deque Systems, a company specifically devoted to accessibility tools and consulting, was keen to poach her. It was an attractive proposition, because now, rather than working as the lone accessibility expert in an organisation, she’d be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts.
“The job was exactly what I wanted”, she beamed. “Working on accessibility tools and products with people who really know about it; people who do it full-time for a living, people I could really learn from.”
“As a smaller company, we have challenges”, she admitted. “But for me, doing my best work is more important than stock options. Now I’ve matured a little bit, I’m focused on managing my time and contributing to stuff that really matters.”
She sums up why it matters in one simple but powerful point. “Right now, I’m healthy and able-bodied”, she says. “But if I did have a disability, I’d be less traumatised about it. Now I’ve seen people go on with their lives, I know I would go on too.”
Indeed, many of Deque’s employees have disabilities themselves, she noted. “So when we’re building tools for developers, we know that first and foremost, we have to make them accessible to those colleagues.”
Sutton doesn’t just share her passion for accessibility through her work. She also spreads the word far and wide through her regular speaking engagements. She spoke at over 15 conferences last year, including
“Not only did it contain cool technical challenges, it gave meaning to my work”
WebExpo, Angular Connect and net
magazine’s very own event, Generate New York. So it’s perhaps surprising that she was initially uncertain about speaking in public. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be known as ‘Accessibility Girl’ , she explained. But then she attended an accessibility conference, and in her words, “fangirl-ed out at the experts who were speaking”.
“I came away thinking, ‘These are my people, ” she recalled, “and had this realisation that, ‘There’s this whole thing I can focus on, which seems like it would benefit people pretty directly. So I’m going to go for it.’”
Sutton continues to go for it, believing the need to improve the accessibility of the web is never done. “Whenever a new technology comes out, we need to ask questions about it, ” she said. It’s also about changing some people’s opinions; one conference CFP, for example, told her they weren’t interested in accessibility because it was “already solved”. But despite such misinformed attitudes, Sutton said she tries to stay optimistic.
“It’s true that it doesn’t feel like we’re driving forwards with accessibility some of the time”, she admitted. “But when it starts to get depressing, I go back to what my mum taught me: ‘Don’t sit in a pity puddle; do something.’ And the way I see it, every blog post and every talk does make a difference.”
It’s not the only area in which Sutton is making a difference. She also has a passion for promot ing opportunities for women. Indeed, she was planning to gear her talks towards this issue rather than accessibility. When she instead opted for the latter, she put her remaining energies into Girl Develop It (GDI), a nonprofit that provides hands-on lessons to women who want to learn web and software development.
Sutton spent two years and four months as co-leader of the Seattle Chapter of GDI, before moving to Bellingham, Washington, where she’s now discussing forming a new chapter. “The thing that really warms my heart is how great that community of women is, ” she said. “If you’re trying to find a way to make your life more meaningful, this is a really great place to do it.”
Ultimately, it’s that search for meaningful work that has brought Sutton to an enviable place in her life and career. The burnouts of the past are now mostly behind her. She has fulfilling work, in her dream job, and she’s recently swapped the big city for the smalltown charms of Bellingham, moving with her partner Marcus to her dream home near the North Cascades mountains. Working remotely in this setting is helping her take a more relaxed attitude to the daily challenges, she said.
“I still struggle with balancing work and life, but it’s easier to see how great everything is when it’s this beautiful, ” she explained. “Now my stress levels are way down. It’s funny to think that the things I was once stressed about don’t bother me at all.”
Next month: Award-winning speaker, consultant and writer Sarah Drasner
“If you’re trying to find a way to make your life more meaningful, this is a really great place to do it”