Skip to main content

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

Blog, Interrupted

3 min read

I started this blog in January of 2010, with the intention of re-contextualizing myself as an authority on career development for web development professionals. My goal was to post weekly about topics that would be relevant for early and mid-career web developers, or for new managers. The first month went decently, I thought: I had a long list of topics I wanted to address, I had a set time for writing (on my train commute), and I got great traffic and decent responses to what I published.

Then things got busy at work, and weekly posts turned into monthly ones. As issues and frustrations crept up at work, more time went by without posting. Without regular practice, constructing coherent opinions was time consuming and, due to what was going on in my day job, I found myself injecting too much cynicism and negativity in to my posts. Still, many readers and colleagues encouraged me to keep at it, and occasionally a post appeared.

Then, in February of 2011, my life changed when a family member became ill and I took on primary care-taking duties. Most of my time was taken up by phone calls to various state and government agencies, doctor's visits, shopping trips, extra laundry... and what wasn't taken up with care-taking work was spent trying to chill out. Now, almost exactly two years later, with that family member happily situated in the proper care facility, I have time to myself again. With this time, I'm starting to understand how much I've changed, and how much this experience has taught me about myself as a person, but also as a leader, a team member, a technologist, an advocate, an educator, a student -- the list goes on and on. I am still me, but my brain has been rewired. And, I think, it's for the better.

As for the blog, I do intend to continue with it. I still have a long list of topics to write about, and I need the writing practice! But change is constant and time is in limited supply, so I know that the posts won't be produced quickly. I can't promise that I will respond to every question I've received in the past few years, although I'd like to, since they were all wonderful and important questions I hear many people asking. I do hope that whatever I do write here will impart some knowledge that you, dear reader, find useful or interesting. Thanks for sticking it out with me.

Kimberly Blessing

Welcome 2013!

1 min read

XKCD Comic

Via XKCD. Happy new year, everyone!

Kimberly Blessing

Working On Weaknesses

4 min read

Say NO to kryptonite t-shirt Even Superman has a weakness. (One of mine is wanting to own lots of cool t-shirts, like this one.)

In my last post, Understand and Leverage Your Strengths, I wrote about focusing on your strengths to make yourself (and your team) happier and more successful.

But a former direct report of mine wrote to remind me that, even when one understands and leverages his or her strengths, it's still possible to have a weakness or skill deficit that makes true success difficult to attain. What does one do in this type of situation? If this is something that's weighing greatly on you, here's my advice.

First, get specific about the weakness. Don't just summarize it as, for example, "I'm not a good communicator." What is it that you're not good at or comfortable with? Is it that your written communications lack structure or suffer due to poor spelling and grammar? Are you terrified of speaking before a crowd and thus get tongue-tied whenever you must do so? You want have a focused statement that spells out what you're addressing; for a bit of positive reinforcement, you might even specify what related skill you have that you're good at. Using the earlier example, you might be able to make the following statement: "While I am able to clearly summarize and deliver my thoughts verbally to one person or a few people in a regular team meeting, I get very nervous about speaking before larger groups or people I don't know well, to the point where my delivery of prepared statements can be very awkward."

Next, determine how much you need to grow to be successful -- and this means getting specific about what success means to you. Let's say that you're a web designer and you want to start doing some consulting work where you deliver design and front-end code for clients. You are already a decent HTML and CSS coder, so you have that covered, but you don't know any JavaScript and anticipate having to write some every so often. Rather than give up on your consulting business idea because you think it will be too hard to learn JavaScript, you may want to think about finding someone you could outsource that work to. Or you can work with some developer friends to create a small suite of scripts that you rely on. Or maybe you really should buckle down and try to learn JavaScript before you assume that you can't!

Once you've figured out the above you can create a development plan. Take out a sheet of paper. On the left, write down where you are today; on the right, write down where you want to be. Then identify the steps you need to take to get from one to the other and write those out in between. Assign some dates to each step, et voilà, you've got yourself a plan!

Does that sound too easy? It might, especially if the idea of addressing this weakness fills you with dread or fear. To that end, I strongly suggest that you seek feedback throughout this entire process. You may be surprised to learn that others don't view your weakness the same way you do -- this can be a really great perspective to consider. By talking about your weakness, you may come to terms with it. Or, you may be able to identify someone who could mentor you as you work through your development plan.

So, what's your weakness? Leave a comment and you just might find someone who can help you as you help yourself!

Kimberly Blessing

Understand and Leverage Your Strengths

4 min read

I like to know things about myself. Don't you? I've taken personality tests and behavioral assessments to be more self-aware, to learn what I should focus on in my personal development efforts, and to better understand how I related to and communicate with other people. OK, and for fun. You've probably done the same, right?

Me with my StrengthsFinder book My strengths are: Command, Deliberative, Significance, Strategic, and Learner.

My favorite self-assessment is one that many people don't know about: StrengthsFinder 2.0. StrengthsFinder is both a book and a test: the book includes an introduction to StrengthsFinder, a code for accessing an online assessment tool, and an explanation of the 34 strengths (or "themes"). The assessment results in a customized report which will help you understand your strengths and how you can use them to be more effective in both your work and your personal life.

Personally, StrengthsFinder has really helped me embrace my strengths. For example, I used to think of myself as "bossy" (because that's how people described me) and I looked for ways of toning down this "weakness". But learning that my number one strength was Command made me feel different -- it helped me understand that being the boss is a natural position for me and that people look to me to lead them. It made me realize that having formal management and leadership responsibilities would make me a happier, more productive person, rather than a cranky and bossy individual contributor.

You may already see why, as a manager, I love StrengthsFinder. We can't all verbalize what we're good at or what kind of work we love to do. For a while, I've asked everyone on my teams to take the test and share their results with me. Once I know what strengths a person has, I can better leverage their skills to make them -- and the team -- more successful.

For example, in the software development community, most programmers have one of the rational temperaments (ENTJ, INTJ, ENTP, or INTP). But if you manage a team of programmers, you can't just look at them as a a bunch of INTJs (a very common type for programmers, though a very small percentage of the overall population) -- you need to see them as individuals. INTJs are introverts and can be brutally honest, but that doesn't mean that they can't be persuasive communicators to large groups. StrengthsFinder gives me far more specific information about a person than a behavior or personality test can tell me.

StrengthsFinder Team Top 5 Grid

Once a group of people complete their StrengthsFinder assessments, you can chart their results to determine overall group themes. I've done this with three teams of employees at different companies and the results are always enlightening. For example, about half of my present team has the "Adaptability" strength -- this is perfect for our team because our product strategy has shifted around quite a bit in recent months, so we have people who can roll with those changes. We also have about 50% "Input" and "Learner": both are crucial to the way we operate. Where we have only one or two people exhibiting a certain strength, I see how I can use those individuals to encourage the overall team, to ask important questions, or to sustain us when the sh*t hits the fan (a necessary evil).

Strengths Finder 2.0

What are you waiting for? Learn more or buy StrengthsFinder 2.0 now and take the test. Learn about yourself. Share the results with your family and team. Encourage others to take it and share their results. At the very least, it should confirm what you already know about yourself -- but I'll bet you'll learn something new, too.

Have you already taken StrengthsFinder? What are your Top 5? What have you learned about yourself or others?

Kimberly Blessing

Web Developer Job Search: Interviewing Tips

4 min read

Obi-Wan Kimberly Blessing That's me conducting a speed interview during my Speed Interviews session at WebVisions 2010

I've interviewed a fair number of web developer candidates recently, and many have followed up with me afterwards for feedback. The number one question I get? What else should I have known or said during the interview to land the job?

This is a pretty easy question for me to answer, so let me give all of you some insight into what I'm looking for, as a hiring manager and interviewer:

  • Have an opinion. This doesn't sound too tricky, right? But in order to have an opinion, you have to have some knowledge and/or experience. For example, if I ask someone what their favorite browser is and why, it's going to be easy for the person to come back with a response -- likely based on what they use everyday. So why is it so difficult to tell me what doctype you prefer to code against, or whether you like or dislike reset CSS? To me, not having an answer means that you either don't know what these things are or don't have experience with them. Oh wait, you do have experience, but you don't want to voice an opinion that would be contrary to my own? Your interview is not a time to be timid! State your case and let me at least know that you know what you're talking about. I certainly won't judge you negatively for that.
  • Know some HTML5 and CSS3. There are lots of HTML5 jobs opening up, and even those employers that don't presently advertise the need will want these skills in the future. What, you haven't learned any HTML5 or CSS3? You're a professional, right? The excuse that your current job doesn't support you trying these things doesn't fly. There are plenty of websites and new publications out now to help you get up to speed in your own time. Plenty of shops are currently looking at switching to HTML5 and adding CSS3 features, and they want people who are able to contribute to these efforts from day one. Believe me, you don't need a lot of time to pick up some knowledge -- in just a few hours you can learn quite a lot!
  • Admit that you don't know. Sometimes interviewers will throw you curveball questions designed just to get you to say one thing -- "I don't know." Yes, it can be mean, but it does have a purpose: are you someone who will bullshit your way through an interview, and then possibly a job? Or are you willing to admit that you don't know something -- and in that case, are you the kind of person who shuts down, the kind who asks for help understanding, the kind who says "I'll go learn about that and follow up"? It should come as no surprise that I like the latter kind of person. But there's an even more practical reason for this: you may misunderstand a question, or the interviewer may not ask the question in a clear manner, or you may not be able to give a direct answer to a question but you could speak about something related. Saying you don't know, but that you're going to try to answer the question in the way you understand it, shows patience and diligence -- and may just expose some additional skills or knowledge. Don't hesitate to say it.

Want some more interviewing tips? Back in May, I ran a session at WebVisions called Speed Interviews. In it, I gave some tips to help the audience have a great interview experience, and then I conducted a number of 2-3 minute interviews on stage. It was a fun but challenging experience for me! My slides are online and I welcome your questions about interviewing. Good luck!

Looking to learn more about HTML5?