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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

Mandatory Reading for Evangelists

1 min read

Whether you're advocating for Web standards, design patterns, social media, or any other cause or group of people, certain basic principles apply. I think these two resources should be considered mandatory reading for evangelists of all sorts:

  • The Developer Evangelist Handbook by Chris Heilmann explains what a developer evangelist does (definition could apply to evangelists in other technical arenas) and provides instruction and recommendations how to best fulfill this role.
  • For when times are tough, also read 5 Tips for Stranded Evangelists. The recommendations here will help you work your way out of difficult scenarios when it seems that you're alone or everyone is against you.

Read any other good evangelism resources lately? Mention them here!

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

Beyond Web Standards

1 min read

I'm often asked how one can convince their employer to adopt Web standards, and unfortunately there isn't a short or simple answer. That, in part, is why I created the Circle of Standards (both the process and the Web site). I also give presentations on this very topic, including one I'll be doing today at the online <head> global web conference.

My slides are available for download and if there are questions that don't get addressed sufficiently in the session, you can post them here.

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.

Kimberly Blessing

Standards Suck

1 min read

Standards Suckis a podcast show/blog by Anne van Kesteren, Marcos Caceres, and Lachlan Hunt.

So far, the topics covered include WCAG 2.0, the Selectors API, and ARIA in HTML5. However, they haven't explained why they think that standards suck. I guess we're supposed to gather that from the complexities of what's discussed.

Kimberly Blessing

'07 and the Ragged Kimberly

2 min read

There are only about 12 hours left in the year, which seems about the right time to take stock of what's happened to me in the past 12 months and what's to come in the next 12.

Looking back, I can't believe all that I accomplished in 2007. Some of the highlights include:

And that list doesn't even include work accomplishments!

As I plan for 2008, I have a number of exciting challenges ahead: more writing, more speaking, more travel -- but also serving as a committee chair for GHC08, running a BarCamp, writing a CS1 course curriculum based on Web development, and more! But best of all, I'm looking forward to moving home to Philadelphia -- a slight change in plans, but a good one.

Into 2008, and into the Arena! (And if you don't get the Duran Duran references, shame on you!)