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Kimberly Blessing

My Nerd Story

8 min read

Rosie the Riveter reminds you that we can do it!These are cute totems. I have the Tesla doll.

A few days ago, I was directed to Crystal Beasley's Nerd Story post by Kirin Kalia, my Bryn Mawr College classmate. She asked me to share my own "nerd" story.

I hesitated. I hesitated because I saw that Crystal was prompted to write her story in response to one of the current sexism-in-tech spotlights. (I'm not trying to downplay whatever is going on currently -- I'm just not following it and can't speak much about it.) I hesitated because I know that my story is laden with the exact kind of privilege that is often attributed to white men in technology. I know that some women don't so much see me as a potential role model as part of the problem.

Still, I considered it. Then I went back to Crystal's post and read the comments that had been left and thought, "I don't need to deal with this shit." Crystal's post had brought out the trolls, haters, and real misogynists. While I've read my fair share of hate mail, I am past the point where I want to deal with online harassment because it wastes *my* time to have to handle it.

After thinking about it some more, I figure that if my story guides or inspires just one other person, or validates something going on in their brain (or heart), then any grief will be worth it. So, here goes.


I grew up in a middle class family that was extremely focused on education. My grandfather was an engineer in the midst of the CAD revolution; my dad and aunt were pharmacists dealing with the computerization of their field. Math, science, and tech geekiness ran in my family.

I started elementary school in 1980 and, from day one, got used to seeing a variety of TRS-80s in the building. Soon, I got used to using them on a regular basis, first through the gifted program, and later through a before and after school program, which I've written about before. BASIC was my first programming language. I wrote programs to make sounds, change the screen color, print text to screen, draw shapes -- all of which culminated in me programming a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, while I played the melody on the flute.

TRS-80 CoCo 1My TRS-80 CoCo 1, salvaged in 2008. I don't like getting rid of old tech.

Meanwhile, at home, we had Pong, then an Atari 2600. Playing games was fun, but I wanted to write programs. I got a Commodore 64; in the summer of 1983, after seeing War Games, I spent weeks trying to program my own "Joshua" artificial intelligence. Thankfully, no one ever discouraged me from working on that fruitless program. I don't think they even knew that building an AI wasn't possible. I sure as hell didn't.

The Commodore 64 eventually became a 128 and was a mainstay for everything from gaming to doing homework to getting online. In 1985 or 1986, my aunt purchased an Epson Equity PC (8088) and thus I was introduced to DOS (version 2.11, and all of the upgrades from there!). She was using it for basic word processing; I quickly figured out how to do mail merges for her, create spreadsheets, and other more "office-y" type things with it.

As I made my way into junior high and high school, my interaction with computers was limited to home and the library. Whereas every classroom in my elementary school had a TRS-80 or an Apple IIe, the only computers in the upper schools were in special computer rooms, which were mostly used by the "business prep" students. Honors/gifted students, apparently, didn't need to use computers. At home, with more and more homework to do, my computer use became much more practical -- checking math and typing papers. There wasn't time for programming.

In reality, I didn't make time for programming anymore. It wasn't in the classroom anymore, so I suppose I didn't see it as important anymore. Although I started seventh grade already knowing some trigonometry, I went back to algebra. Yawn. Science was still fun, at least, but my language and music teachers were much more encouraging of my work and progress. I turned my focus to where I got feedback and positive reinforcement. By the time I graduated high school, I had dropped out of calculus but took AP French. I had skipped the one and only programming class at my high school -- but when I saw the homework assignments, I yawned again. They would've been pretty repetitive for me.

Thanks to my grandfather, I started college with a brand-new Packard Bell 486/33, which came with 4 MB RAM, a 120 MB hard drive, a sound card, a 2400 baud modem, and Windows 3.1 -- better than my boyfriend's! In my single dorm room, I had plenty of time to noodle with my new tech. Word 6 and NCSA Mosaic had just been released. I had accounts on AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve but also quickly learned how to dial in to my college's UNIX server. That computer lasted me one year; I built a new computer the following year and upgraded it consistently, until I got to grad school and bought a fancy Dell machine with a Pentium processor.

At the same time, I was rocking my liberal arts education experience, with my intended romance languages major, until the reality of completing the quantitative (i.e. math) requirement reared its ugly head. I wanted to love calculus, but I struggled. Where to turn? Intro to computer science, of course. I figured it should be easier than suffering through more calculus. I didn't count on it changing my educational direction.

I wasn't a great student, that first CS class. Instead of really trying to learn something new, I relied on my existing knowledge and prior experience to get me through. But I guess it was clear that I "got" it enough to warrant the encouragement of the professor, my friend Deepak Kumar, to continue studying CS. So I did. It was as simple as someone saying, "Hey, you're good at this. Ever thought of majoring in it?"

Me in college with an X-TerminalIn the X-Term lab. I think Sarah and I were writing a program to play Konani.

Being a major in computer science at a women's liberal arts college with only one CS professor wasn't easy. I had to lobby the school to be a CS major, and I had to take classes at other colleges and universities in order to complete my CS requirements. I remember taking computer organization (my favorite subject) at Carnegie Mellon University, and being one of about four women in the hall of perhaps 200 people. It's only strikingly odd to me now; at the time, I knew I was a rarity, but it didn't really faze me. (Later, in grad school, the ratio was a bit better because the classes were smaller.)

I made friends with Sarah Hacker (yes, her real name) who had already decided on a CS major; she worked for campus IT services and helped me get a job. Because I knew UNIX, I made an extra 25 cents an hour! Sarah introduced me to HTML (and helped me fix my first markup bug) and I started cranking out websites on Deepak's server. Other members of the team taught me everything I know about software and hardware support. It was a perfect storm of interest, opportunity, and encouragement. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, after 20 years of experience in large internet/tech companies (AOL, PayPal, and Comcast) and other organizations, I head up the web development team and growing technology consulting practice at Think Brownstone. I've architected and built some of the coolest publishing systems and web sites in the history of the internet -- and I still get excited when I'm presented with a challenge that requires strategic thinking, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. I've been able to take my experience and turn it into book contributions, conference presentations, and a for-credit CS class at my alma mater. I'm still a technology junkie, but as a manager and leader, I get the biggest kick out of coaching younger talent and helping them grow their skills.


Disney's Kim Possible

The moral of my story is: discouraging a young mind can stop its progress, but encouragement can help get things moving again. If you're an adult, figure out who you can encourage today. If you're a young adult, avoid the discouragers (as much as you can) and find the encouragers.

Write your own Nerd Story -- don't let it be written for you.

Kimberly Blessing

Want to become an expert? Study (web) history

5 min read

Lately I've been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the past.

I'm at the airport awaiting a flight that will take me to the Line-Mode Browser Hack Days at CERN. CERN, perhaps presently most famous for being the home of the Large Hadron Collider, is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web. More on that in a moment.

Screen shotMy first personal web site, circa 1997

Twenty years ago -- What the hell? Where did the time go? -- I started college. I arrived at Bryn Mawr College a French major, soon to switch to Romance Languages. My Italian professor assigned us reading on a Web page. I was one of the few people in my dorm to have a computer (and modem! and laser printer!). I had email before I got to college, on both AOL and Prodigy. Bryn Mawr had a gopher space, but no web site -- in fact, there were only about 500 web servers up and running at the end of 1993. And yet, that seemingly meaningless introduction changed my life. I took computer science classes. I changed my major to computer science. I started building web sites -- heck, I designed and built the first web page to be hosted at www.brynmawr.edu. For me, that was the start of it all.

And so here we are today. You, reading. Me awaiting my flight to Geneva. To CERN. Holy freaking crap! Understand that, for me, this is akin to visiting Mecca, except I am worshiping ideas, and code, and technology, and the propagation of all those things that has help fuel the evolution of our world into its presently hyper-connected state.

But I must admit that I was surprised, when telling some other web developers about my trip, that they didn't know about CERN's relevance to the web. The popular history of the Internet as an American creation dominates, and it has consumed the WWW creation story for some. So I educate and inform, to set things right, to help those whose careers are based on HTTP and HTML understand their domain's history.

Now, here's where I get preachy, because I run into scenarios like this -- where a web developer will make statements about web-related history that are completely wrong -- frequently. "Oh, IE doesn't support inline-block." Wrong, it has supported inline-block for a long time, but it couldn't just be assigned to any old element. (I've heard this one a lot lately -- perhaps because I'm interviewing and one of the coding problems I give can potentially be solved with inline-block.) "Old browsers don't support the HTML5 doctype," is another popular one. Misunderstanding the origin of CSS3 properties, incorrectly attributing computer accessibility to web accessibility, explaining IE compatibility mode based on one or two simple tests rather than reading the documentation -- even attesting to a lack of JSON support prior to 5 years ago (?!) -- are things I've encountered lately.

I admit that I am quite privileged to have, essentially, grown up with the web. I've been active with it, as a user and a developer, almost as long as it's been around. I do fondly remember using both Lynx and Mosaic to not just surf the web, but also test my own sites. I remember "playing around" with CSS to layer text, and trying to get it to work in both Netscape 4 and IE 3.

But I digress -- this isn't about me. This is about getting other web professionals to better understand our field. To be correct in what they say about the past, when trying to educate others. To not make false statements, based on lack of knowledge or direct experience, which lead to wrong assumptions and misinformed decisions about code and architectures.

I realize I sound like a crotchety old geek, complaining about the young whippersnappers who don't respect their elders. This isn't the case at all. I've had the pleasure of working with many younger people, or just less-experienced people, who have taken the time to learn about the web's history. (Admittedly, some of those people were required to, when they took my course on web app development.) And just knowing facts about history doesn't do much good, without analysis or thought of impact, for today or beyond.

Genuine curiosity and a desire to learn all that one can is ultimately what makes an expert. And, truth be told, any real "expert" will be the first to admit that they're hardly such -- they're still on the quest to become experts, themselves.

So, here I am, about to board my plane, hoping to enrich both my understanding of web history, and yours. Assuming I haven't entirely turned you off, I hope you'll follow my travels on Twitter.

Required Reading

Kimberly Blessing

They Told Me I Was Smart

3 min read

A great post over at Wired, Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, included a pretty comprehensive explanation of some research done by Stanford psychology professor Carol Weck. From the article:

Her most famous study, conducted in twelve different New York City schools along with Claudia Mueller, involved giving more than 400 fifth graders a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. After the children finished the test, the researchers told the students their score, and provided them with a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests. The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it. The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

Growing up, I was always being told that I was smart -- by my family, by my teachers, and even by fellow students. I wore it as a badge of pride. And now I realize that was the worst thing for me -- because I realize that back then -- but even today -- I make safe choices so that I avoid making mistakes and thus potentially looking stupid.

I need to print this out and carry it around with me, perhaps on the back of something that reads It's OK to make mistakes!:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.

Kimberly Blessing

Web Developer Job Search: Your Resume

6 min read

I estimate that I have spent a full work-week, over the course of my career, reviewing web developer resumes. That's enough time to produce some strong opinions on the topic. Allow me to finally continue the Job Search thread by sharing my advice for creating a top-notch web developer resume.

Resume Format and Structure

Your resume format should work to highlight your strengths. The chronological resume, perhaps the most traditional format, fails in this regard. A functional resume does a much better job of highlighting your experience in a specific role, but most web developers are good at more than one thing. I suggest mixing aspects of the two formats, organizing them in a way that makes sense for you and your strengths -- then you'll have a resume that stands out.

Here are the general sections found in a great web developer resume. With the exception of the first two, the rest can be ordered and/or further broken out according to your needs.

  • Objective: If you're searching for a job, you ought to know what you're seeking! Customize your objective, as needed, when replying to job postings. (Note: If you're not actively seeking a job, but still want to have a resume posted online, it's okay to omit this section.)
  • Summary of Qualifications: It's a cheesy headline, perhaps, and all too often the summary is filled with buzzwords -- but I have read really compelling summaries that made me want to know more about a candidate. Focus on describing your strengths and what you contribute to an organization.
  • Skills: This is where the keywords and buzzwords will start showing up. That's okay: you'll back them up with evidence in the other sections. You can subdivide this section in any number of ways: Technical vs. Soft Skills, Front-End vs. Back-End Skills, Design vs. Development Skills, etc.
  • Professional Accomplishments: Here you can include project accomplishments, awards, public speaking engagements, publishing credits, or descriptions of really awesome things you've accomplished. Like the Skills section, you can also break these out separately.
  • Work Experience: If you've done any combination of full-time work, freelancing, and volunteering, this is the most generic title you can use for your work history. Some people like to break out their professional experience from other work, but I think that can undermine the importance of having taken on freelance or volunteer work. If you list accomplishments for each job in this section, don't repeat them elsewhere, and vice versa.
  • Education: I don't like to see this section missing from a resume. Haven't gone to college? That's okay. Be proud of what schooling you have made it through and list it here. Oh, and that includes training programs, conferences -- anything you've forked out money for that you've learned something from!

Required Information

If your resume were to consist of only two things, it should be these:

  • Contact Information: You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but I have seen resumes where developers didn't list a phone number, email address, or personal web site (more on that below). In my opinion, it's a waste of space to display your full home address, especially if you are looking to relocate. No one's going to snail-mail you an invitation to interview, so city and state will suffice. HR will collect the rest of your contact information later.
  • URLs: I wish I could tell you exactly how many of those ~500 resumes didn't include a single URL... but my gut says that at least half didn't feature even a personal web site URL. Seriously? If you're a web developer, you should have some URLs to share. If you're brand-new to the field, put some of your school projects online. If you've only ever done intranet-type work, get permission to copy parts of the code and make it available, or create other projects of your own to demonstrate your skills. If you're serious about getting a web development job, you need this.

On the flip side, don't waste space on these bits of information: references (or the phrase, "References available upon request"), GPA, salary requirements, or personal information (except if you have hobbies that would be of interest to another geek and would increase the likelihood of getting invited in for an interview).

Frequently Asked Questions

Does my resume have to fit on to one or two pages? No, I don't think that it does. However, I think it's nice if a resume is so well edited and structured that, when printed, it fits to exactly one or two pages (one page if you're young, recently out of school, or switching careers; otherwise two pages). However, if you truly have so much awesomeness to report, then, by all means, go on! If you're really that super-duper, I'm sure I'll want to know all about it.

Does one resume fit all jobs? NO! Don't be afraid to tweak your resume format or content to the job you're applying for. In fact, if you have diverse enough skills and interests (design vs. development) you should probably have completely separate resumes for these purposes.

I am graduating soon and don't have much web development experience. What can I do to beef-up my resume? Use the "Objective" area to make it clear that you're looking for an entry-level position. Highlight your strengths in the "Summary of Qualifications" area and place the "Education" section next, so it's clear you're just coming out of school. List your technical skills, as well as any soft skills that you can support with extra-curricular or volunteer work. If you have been active in a tech community or have attended technical or web conferences, list those.

I'm switching careers. I've taken some web design and development courses and done some small projects. How do I reflect all of this in my resume? First, don't hide the fact that you're switching careers! Your prior experience, even if in a completely different industry, has (hopefully) taught you how to deal with people and has helped you understand your strengths. Start your resume with an "Objective" statement that spells out your desire to move into web development. Then list your skills, training and experience with the web so far before providing your employment history and other educational details. Highlight any experience that translates across industries, but otherwise keep the non-web details short.


I hope the above helps you create an awesome resume. Remember, your resume (supported with at least one awesome URL) helps get you in the door for an interview, so take some time to craft one that truly reflects you!

If you have questions I haven't addressed above, I'm happy to accept them in the comments below.

Kimberly Blessing

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2010

8 min read

My Ada Lovelace Day post is a two-parter: the first part, recognizing two women who inspired me in math and computing; the second, recognizing Milly Koss, an inspirational and accomplished female computer scientist.

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Learn more

Mrs. Smarkola, Miss Herrick, and the Dawn Patrol

Article about The Dawn Patrol From the Grace Park Mini News, an article about Dawn Patrol by yours truly, circa 1985.

I am so fortunate to have been raised in the 80s, during the emergence of the personal computer. My school, Grace Park Elementary, and my teachers were excited about the TRS-80s and Apple IIes in the classroom, and many kids had Commodore 64s at home. Our teachers saw us get excited about learning; we were having fun playing with new toys our parents never had.

Our librarian, Mrs. Smarkola, was one of my most favorite people at school. When I think of her, I always imagine her with a large book in hand, head down, adjusting her glasses, focused on her reading. But I also remember her running the classroom full of typewriters and computers which was across the hall from the library. She'd walk from computer to computer, typing commands, turning them on or off, inserting tapes or disks, making sure each computer had an instruction sheet or book for the next activity. Around the time of fourth grade, a few of those computers moved into the library itself, and the whole school used them to check out and return books -- under Mrs. Smarkola's watchful eye, of course.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Herrick, was one of those teachers that all of the kids in school were afraid of. Kids talked about her being "hard" and "mean" -- but when I got in to her classroom, I was in heaven. You see, Miss Herrick loved math. I loved math. We were a perfect match! She frequently gave us math quizzes with long division problems, which I always aimed to complete first -- because the first to finish got to "play" on the computer we had in the classroom. I'd guess that I spent more time on that computer than anyone else, and I think I was also the classroom "computer aide," to help other students with it. (BTW, to this day, I love doing long division in my head when I'm bored.)

So many of us kids at Grace Park were interested in computers and learning, that our awesome principal, Dr. Joseph Fleischut, authorized a program called "Dawn Patrol" which was run by Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick. For kids who signed up and got to school about 30 minutes before the opening bell, it was a time to use the computers, typewriters, and library. As you may have guessed, I signed up nearly every day. It may have been during Dawn Patrol that I programmed a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, so that it could accompany me as I played the melody on the flute. (When I got to perform at the district concert with the computer, it choked under the hot lights of the stage, sadly.) It also may have been there that I first attempted to program a Joshua-like AI from WarGames. I definitely spent time playing the Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego games there, as well as being questioned by Eliza. But what I remember with the greatest certainty (and the utmost thanks!) were the ways in which Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick (and Dr. Fly, too) encouraged me, nurtured my passion for math, computers, reading, and learning, and always praised me for my accomplishments -- key factors which recent studies say are crucial to getting more women in to STEM.

Adele Mildred (Milly) Koss

Milly Koss and Me I was introduced to Milly Koss in September 2006 when a historical marker was placed at the site of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

Milly Koss "had a distinguished career of more than 47 years in all phases of computer technology, implementation and management, including applications design and development, software/hardware selection, database technologies and computer security." Her name is known to some -- but not enough, in my opinion.

Milly was raised in Philadelphia and attended the selective Philadelphia High School for Girls. She earned a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, at a time when schools were primarily giving spots to veterans. She graduated in 1950 with a degree in mathematics. In the early days of computing, women were seen as ideal computer programmers due to their "patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail." Of course, in order for a woman to get one of these jobs, she had to have a degree in math and not be married. Milly Koss qualified on the first point, but not on the second: she was engaged. The first company she interviewed with rejected her for this reason.

Fortunately, she was in the right place -- Philadelphia was home to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and, from the way Milly describes it, I imagine it to be a workplace much like any modern internet company -- except that 40% of their programmers were women. Milly interviewed with Dr. John Mauchly, who she described as being very nice, flexible, and open. He gave her a wonderful, exciting, creative job -- working with the UNIVAC.

Milly worked with Grace Hopper and was responsible for developing Editing Generator, a problem-oriented language for computer-generated reports, in 1952. Milly was interested in what "computers could do for programmers... how it could help programmers program." She also worked on sort routines for years, which she calls "the quintessential program for machines." She reminds us that today we should be grateful for that early work in automated programming, interpreters, assemblers, and compilers.

By the way, much of this she did while working part-time and remotely! According to Milly, when informed about her pregnancy, Grace Hopper told her to "take it home" -- meaning, the work. Milly would go in to the office one or two days a week, otherwise working from her dining room table. In an interview with Kathy Kleiman (who is the driving force behind the ENIAC Programmers Project), Milly said:

"What’s funny about that period, I’m not sure who my boss was. This was such an unstructured environment… Once I had a child they let me continue to work the way I wanted to. I inferred from that I was of value to them. Nobody lets you work that way unless they are getting value. I got increases. I got paid fairly well. Eckert & Mauchly was pretty good that way… There were no models, they didn’t care how you worked. There were no preconceived notions as to the way you could contribute. You did not have to be in the office…. We did not have huge management teams. We did incredibly new and exciting things and nobody had a problem.”

Milly later went to work for Burroughs Corporation, Philco, and Control Data Corporation, and Raytheon. At Burroughs and Philco she continued her flexible work schedule and would send her work in by mail! At CDC, she worked with early graphics algorithms and interfaces including light pens. Then Milly moved to Harvard University, where says she finally started feeling the hierarchy and loss of flexibility. She spent 27 years at Harvard, in multiple roles. She applied data management expertise to applications for the school and led an R&D effort to develop one of the first data warehouses, the Information Utility. She served as Associate Director of the Office for Information Technology and as the Information Security Officer for the university.

Milly retired in 1994. In 1997, she received a Pioneer Award at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 2000, she received the Ada August Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing. With her many years of contributions to the field, I'm sure she also inspired many people -- women and men alike.

Additional Resources

Kimberly Blessing

How To Get Your Conference or Training Request Approved

5 min read

I'm a strong believer in continual learning and keeping abreast of one's field, not only because I like learning so much, but also because I know that a lack of learning leads to stagnation, boredom, and poor quality work. Most of the developers I know are also passionate about learning, and so they, like me, are always seeking to learn and discuss and debate and code. Even though we primarily function in the online space, there's nothing like doing all of that learning and engaging face to face -- so we love to attend conferences and off-site training.

Web Forms Panel at SXSW by Ari Stiles

But conferences and training often mean travel and registration fees, and sometimes managers and executives can't see spending money on these things -- maybe they don't quite understand the importance of investing in their people, or maybe skill development doesn't seem necessary to support the business. In any case, it's up to you, the individual, to do some convincing. If you're in this situation, what can you?

Build a Strong Case

Research the event(s) you're interested in, gathering dates and locations, presenter bios, and comments from previous attendees. Craft a proposal which summarizes this research and presents a strong business case for you to attend. Will you learn skills relevant to an upcoming project? Will you build skills which could have made a recent project go more smoothly, and will also help in the future? Will you be exposed to industry or domain knowledge which will better serve your organization in some way? Link the event directly to your work. Summarize the costs, including registration, travel, and meals, and if you can, estimate the ROI.

Request Funding

I think this is the part that scares people -- asking for money. But let me share a true story: In the first few years of my career, I never asked my bosses for training or conference money. I went to the classes they offered to me, and otherwise I requested time off to attend conferences on my own dime. Then my boss discovered that I was doing this. While he was thrilled that I was taking the initiative, he was concerned. (Was I planning on leaving? Did I think that I wasn't worthy of the investment?) At that moment he made me realize that just because I get a paycheck from my employer doesn't mean that their obligation to me ends there. He made sure I got my vacation days comp'd and reimbursed the training expenses, and from then on, I went to my bosses (and in grad school, my department chair/dean) with my conference and training requests.

It's great if you happen to know how much budget your company/department/team has allocated for training, travel and events. But even if you don't, always start by asking for full funding of your training/conference registration and travel. If you're the only person going to the event, or if the event is somehow more associated with your role than someone else's, you probably have a stronger case for full funding. Be sure to ask early to ensure the maximum budget is available to you.

But what do you do if your request is denied?

Negotiate!

If you really want to attend that event, don't give up! There are a variety of ways to get there, if you're willing to work for it.

  • Try before you buy. If your organization is considering sending a group to an event or doing some on-site training, ask the boss to send you to assess the event or trainer before sending a whole team or bringing a trainer on-site. As a manager, I've made many a training and conference decision on the feedback of a few key individuals who were sent out to do reconnaissance. As a trainer, I've met many folks at conferences where we've discussed the needs of the organization and how I can help, which I think made it easier for the folks in charge to decide on hiring me later.
  • Strength in numbers. Contact the event organizers and find out how many people you'd need in order to get a group discount. Then rally a group of coworkers around the idea of attending, and convince the boss to send a group. Yes, more people makes it more expensive, but more people asking places greater emphasis on the need for someone to attend and bring the knowledge back to share.
  • Volunteer. If you're trying to go to a conference where volunteers are needed, you can usually get free admission if you volunteer. Or, if you have a large blog or Twitter following, ask the event organizers if they will give you credit for referring others to register for the event; that credit may cover part or all of your registration fee.
  • Ask for partial funding. If you can come up with part of the funding (like travel costs) then ask your boss to support you by paying the rest (like registration). Again, if you have a large following on your blog or Twitter, you may be able to solicit donations to help cover costs. In either case, share in the goodwill by promising to share what you learn afterwards.
  • Finally, if you must: send yourself. If you can afford to pay your own way, sell your boss on letting you go -- without having to use vacation time. At this point I'd say that you're going for your own personal development and you needn't commit to sharing what you learn when you return. However I'd also caution you to not be stingy -- if do share what you learn, you're making a better case to be funded in the future.

What other approaches have you used to get funding to attend conferences or training? Have you tried these techniques only to still be rejected? Please share in the comments so we can all learn.

Kimberly Blessing

CSS & Troubleshooting IE6

1 min read

On Saturday, July 18, I gave a talk as part of the CSS Summit on CSS & Troubleshooting IE6. Many designers and developers are passionately anti-IE6, while I'm one of those folks who has a soft spot for the browser. So I laid out the case for continuing support for the browser and gave some tips on how best to do that. Most importantly, I tried to reinforce the idea of planning for and managing browser support, especially the phasing out of specific browsers. After all, if you don't have a plan, you don't know where you're going.

You can download the presentation slides as well as read and comment on the use of IE6 hacks over at my personal site.

Kimberly Blessing

IE8 Compatibility Mode is not the problem

3 min read

I've spent most of my career working at large Web-focused companies which typically have multiple Web development teams to handle their sites. While the Web may be the vehicle that makes their business viable, most of the business people in these companies are ignorant oblivious too busy to follow the developments of the browser market space.

These companies, while all different, handled the release of new browsers using the same wait-and-see approach: wait until the browser comes out, see how much of the site's traffic moves to that browser, then invest on bug-fixing only if n% of users are on that browser. Most, if not all, of the alpha/beta/RC testing was done by developers who were interested enough to test and possibly bug fix (assuming the issues weren't major shared template problems). And they were probably doing this on their own time, because the business wasn't going to stop business-supporting, revenue-generating development work in order to support a new browser!

I often owned the browser support matrix at the companies I worked for, but just because I owned it didn't mean I could change it whenever I wanted. I had to convince the business teams that preparing for a new browser was worth our time and money. If I didn't walk into meetings with current and historical browser usage statistics and demonstrations of bugs in the new browser, I would have been laughed out of the room. Simply stating that "a new browser is coming and we'd better be ready" just wasn't, and isn't, enough.

Other than a handful of companies, businesses aren't in the browser business, or even in the browser support business (even though we developers may feel differently). Microsoft is right to not expect all businesses and Web sites to jump just because they have a new browser coming out, and I think that IE8's Compatibility Mode provides a decent solution to bridging the gap for users between the old, crappily coded sites and the nice, new(er), standards-compliant sites.

I'm not jumping for joy over it, of course, because it signals that we standardistas haven't succeeded in our education mission. There still aren't enough designers and developers out there building standards-compliant Web sites, with or without business support, to withstand an event such as this. There certainly aren't enough business people who understand the Web well enough to simplify the business case for standards-based development. Community and education tie into this as well.

Those who think that IE8 is going to be a wake-up call to businesses dependent on the Web are wrong -- it won't be. But it should be one to all of those designers and developers and business people who do understand the benefits of sticking with the standards: we still need to get out there and talk to our colleagues and community about standards, and help move the Web forward!

Kimberly Blessing

The Seventh Grade

3 min read

While reading another story about the lack of diversity in STEM I was newly struck by the following statement, which I've heard in various forms over the years (emphasis mine):

"I think science is seen as a man's world by a lot of people," said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. "All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade."

For me, sixth grade was spent in elementary school. I had one teacher, unless you counted the music, art, or gym teachers. We almost always had one computer (a TRS-80 or an Apple II/IIe) in our classroom, which the teacher actually knew something about and which we kids would typically fight over using. Even the few kids who had computers at home (like me) wanted to use the computer at school, and we'd rush to finish an assignment so we could get in some computer time.

Seventh grade was the start of junior high school for me, and thus began the hourly switching of subjects, teachers, and classrooms. In none of these classrooms did we have a computer, and I don't ever remember my teachers mentioning computers. In junior high, the only computers I can recall were in the library, and they weren't the sort that you "played" with. In addition, all of the extra-curricular activities I was starting took away from potential computer time at home.

So when I keep hearing about this crucial sixth/seventh grade time period for young girls, I can't help but think back to my own experience around these grades. I didn't lose interest in computers (or science or math) in seventh grade, but I was certainly separated from them. As time went on, I had less time to pursue those interests myself, and in some cases I was discouraged from pursuing them.

Sure, times have changed, but as the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Thus I'm inclined to assume that my experience may not really be that different from what kids experience today. Kids can't stay in the elementary school environment forever, but with middle schools now starting at fifth and sixth grade, are we pushing change -- not just academic and environmental, but social! -- on them too soon, thus potentially losing more future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians?

Kimberly Blessing

Working with the Not-So-Tech-Savvy

2 min read

Maybe it's the co-worker who sits next to you, or perhaps it's your boss. It could be a new client. And, invariably, someone in your family qualifies. That's right, they're the not-so-tech-savvy you have to deal with. How do you get them to understand you so that you can communicate and work together effectively?

Web Worker Daily provides 10 tips for working with the computer-illiterate, ranging from the obvious (avoid jargon and be patient) to smart strategies you may not have figured out yet (introduce new technologies gradually, talk results instead of process).

Two things that aren't mentioned in the article but deserve emphasis:

  1. Don't talk down to the person or treat them like an idiot. First of all, no one deserves being talked down to. Doing so is going to make you look bad and it will make future communications even more difficult. The person you're talking to could have a Ph.D. in some other field and simply may not have the background or experience to understand you without more explanation or context.
  2. Take the time to educate. I had a boss who was very results-oriented. When I was able to demonstrate the ROI of Web Standards in an effective way, he wanted to understand more. Over the course of a few months, I helped him learn some HTML and CSS, introduced him to our publishing tools, and gave him a copy of Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards, which we discussed at length. Didn't my boss turn around and become my biggest supporter and advocate to more senior management? And all it took was my investing in his education. Think of what educating a co-worker or client could do for you -- relieve you of that constant headache from one-off questions? Stop you from rolling your eyes after every interaction? Maybe the payoff seems small, but the mutual growth is worth it.