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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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Education Blog Archive

Want to become an expert? Study (web) history

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

How To Get Your Conference or Training Request Approved

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. (more…)

CSS & Troubleshooting IE6

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.

The Seventh Grade

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?

Working with the Not-So-Tech-Savvy

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.