I Can’t Complain

I can’t complain,” were the words you always heard from my grandmother when you asked how she was doing.

She always said it with a crisp and positive delivery, you knew she believed those words and lived them.

Inez had the love of family and friends, a roof over her head, a passport full of stamps, and—for most of her life—a clean bill of health.

She couldn’t complain.

She was raised in Cincinnati, but was a world traveler. You name the country, Inez probably visited the place before its civil war—if it grew old enough to have one. 

For the last several years, though, our focused and headstrong matriarch fell ill to dementia. At first, it was small lapses in memory. Eventually she would forget conversations that happened in minutes and start them up again. 

It was frustrating, but still, she couldn’t complain.

Inez seemed to bounce back from a recent hip surgery. But after a week, her body began to falter and finally give way. 

Last Saturday, her family and friends came together to say goodbye, to be thankful she’s been released from pain and frustration, and dwell in the gratitude for her presence in our lives.

I like to believe my grandmother understood what I did for a living, she just didn’t take to it.

We tried over the years to think of simple ways for her to get an email address to write to family and friends, she would refuse—politely—all attempts at IT support. She wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, to know that you were well.

When WebTV was a thing (before it become another thing), Inez would refuse to even try it. Even the fabled easy-to-use iPad never made the cut.

She was happy that I had a job in a new land, a new medium—but she wanted no part in it.

In an era of social media, people cut down each other for sport—jockeying for virtual wins. There is a lot of hatred out there.

Ease of communication to hundreds, or even thousands of followers, means the most witty of complaints gets the most likes, the most attention. 

I spent the weekend with family and friends and almost no devices, other than the occasional shared text or photo. We talked, laughed, and cried together and then went our separate ways, each of knowing the other was well.

Inez would have loved it.

The Stephanie Sullivan Interview

Stephanie Sullivan is always in motion. As a CSS expert, international speaker and corporate trainer, she is in demand and shows no signs of slowing down.

We recently wrapped up an interview in which we covered a lot of ground. We talked about women in our industry, her perception of education, the CSS layouts she built for Dreamweaver, her travel tips, her geek romance with Greg Rowis and much, much more.

For full disclosure, she's also a co-lead with me on The Web Standards Project Adobe Task Force. So, "how does she put up with me" was one question I didn't ask.

Stephanie Sullivan

Christopher Schmitt: How would you describe yourself?

Stephanie Sullivan: Oh me? I'm a dork.

I'm not sure if you're asking me to describe myself in the business, or personally.

Personally, I'm pretty high-energy and active. I've always been involved in sports. I've got a fairly quirky, nutty sense of humor—which is where my dork comment comes from. I'm an extremely compassionate people-person. I can't stand suffering, which likely explains my reason for continuing to give free help on forums. I'm pretty ADD as well. Meaning—I have a hyperactive brain that requires near constant stimulation.

It also seems to be quite attracted to multi-tasking, which is not always the best way to function!

A little more focus would likely do me well. Business-wise, I'm pretty tenacious, driven and I constantly challenge myself to learn new things. I don't believe there are boundaries on what I can do—unless I set them myself.

I refuse to believe, unlike some in my industry, that being a woman affects my ability to succeed. I am constantly looking for opportunities. There are few glass ceilings here—but there are many glass hats.

Women and Our Industry

CS: A few glass hats is an interesting comment. Do you feel that women, generally speaking in our industry, are holding themselves back? Possibly blaming others for a lack of whatever success?

SS: The term "glass hats" came up in a discussions with Jeffrey Zeldman recently. I really liked it, so I borrowed it from him—thanks Jeffrey!

I do think it summarizes what happens to some people, including women. Obviously, this entire subject is huge and we could write a book on it. I'll try to summarize my thoughts since I've spent a good deal of time mulling it over recently.

I led a panel of five women at this year's SXSW Interactive called "What Women Need to Succeed." Obviously, I don't speak for all women everywhere. I am coming from my own perspective based on what I've seen, learned and experienced.

I eluded to my study of the brain, personality, etc over the years. And speaking in generalities—likely using the 80/20 principle here: 80% of women are like I'm describing, but 20% are not—many women tend to have different dominant personality traits than men. In fact, there are scientifically proven differences in the structure.

Undoubtedly, women are every bit as smart and talented as men. But the way we process information is sometimes different.

One example is that the corpus callosum of a women's brain is larger—for those of you that have forgotten anatomy class, this area is located between, and connects, the two hemispheres of the brain. I've heard it compared to a "superhighway" where we can easily dash back and forth between the two hemispheres of the brain—multitracking.

The smaller corpus callosum in men's brains is likened to a one lane road causing them to do all they can in one hemisphere before moving to the other side to work from that perspective. This doesn't make one of us better or worse. This makes us different.

For those that have had children like I have, this may explain the mother's ability to do ten things at once while the dad feel's frustrated and overwhelmed by it all. But, as usual, I digress...

I believe the "trouble" some women have in this industry is really no different than any other industry—in fact, I think ours is likely better in some ways since it's a newer industry with many younger people. In general, the men in our industry are intelligent—how many non-intelligent people really want to be, and love being a geek, right? And I say that in a most loving, admiring way with all the respect that term should elicit.

My guess would be that if we ran the numbers, the median age would be lower than many other industries. And these men, for the most part, were raised by working mothers. Few of them are bigoted or controlled by a major dose of sexism. I believe what is more likely at play here is related to the differences in the way we interact and promote ourselves.

Many women are less aggressive. Women tend to do good work and then expect to be recognized for it. Most do not want to have to do "that locker room thing" where you tell people what you've done—some would call that a form of promotion—at times exaggerated.

For the same reason—waiting on the earned recognition—women don't tend to ask for what they want. We wouldn't want to make someone else feel bad.

Women are not generally taught how to focus righteous anger in the workplace when they feel a door has been closed. Many lapse into victimhood or get visibly angry instead of focusing that anger on doing more and doing better—like an athlete does. I'm not referring to anger based on something done that's inappropriate—that absolutely should be shown as anger.

In other words, many of us have self-limiting beliefs and behaviors—and this can certainly include men as well. As women, we can learn to use these difference as strengths—multi-tracking can be a wonderful thing. And we can also learn to change the areas we choose to change. I've chosen to confront and defeat many fears along this journey.

One place many women excel is in creating and maintaining relationships. And that can certainly be a big plus in the business world. But I've also noticed—at conferences which I obviously attend a lot of—that many times the women there don't interact as much with the men. They hang back and don't introduce themselves. And from the men, I see the same thing toward the women.

To be blunt, some have told me they don't want to be seen as "hitting on a woman" because they're being friendly. So this is where our sexes can come into play.

In truth, I'm uncomfortable when I meet new people. I'm rather loud, so many don't realize this. When I'm at an event where I don't know people, I'd much prefer to just sit back and observe. But I recognized early on that there are as many deals made over a beer as in the board room. Thus, I push myself to walk up, introduce myself, and get to know people. This is what I mean by "choosing to change." When you need to bring someone in as a sub-contractor on a job, who do you think of? It's not the people you don't know—so forming relationships is important.

All this is not to say that every woman will succeed to the level she desires. Nor will every man. I've often wondered what men's self talk is when they don't reach the level of the company they envisioned. They can't blame it on their sex, so where do they focus.

Sometimes, you can do all the "right things" and still not make it to the place you wanted to be. Sometimes people are in the right place at the right time with the right opportunity—and yes, it could have been you instead. But it was them. That's just life.

But I think women can learn behaviors that will give them more opportunities to make it happen. Opportunities to create the life they want to live and career they want to have. Being successful in work is not the only thing that means we're a successful person—I certainly took it slow at the beginning due to raising my boys.

I used to collect quotes. They were randomly attached to my signature file. One of my favorites from Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work."

And another which Earl Nightingale quoted, but I don't know if he originated it is, "Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. And opportunity is everywhere."

We need to take the opportunity to meet and talk to people—to form relationships. We need to take the opportunity to go above and beyond what's expected of us in our work—and we need to give back. To help other people expecting nothing in return. Those things have never let me down—they've always come back to me.

I've always loved the last line of the song "Can't Stop" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "This life is more than just a read through." That it is. Live it and make it happen. You don't fail till you quit.

CS: In 2005, there was a panel that addressed the issue of "Where Are the Women of Web Design?" which seemed to be a telling point about the industry's gender slant. But what underscored that panel was, I believe, the 2007 A List Apart survey. In the survey only 15% of the people who filled it out were women. There really aren't that many women here. Pretty much like Georgia Tech, if you ask me.

Realizing that there are fewer women in the industry by a wide margin, do you think the lack of women in the workplace gives an appearance that women can't succeed in this industry? Is there a cultural barrier that tells women to stick away from geek-related industries that is at fault?

SS: When I meet women and they ask what I do, I can get some really odd looks while explaining. Responses vary from the incredulous, "You write code? How in the world did you get into that?," to the woman that finds it interesting that a woman would work in such an industry, to the ones whose eyes just glaze over and roll back into their heads. End of conversation.

Women do culturally look at certain types of jobs. When I was younger, I wouldn't in a million years have thought of doing this. But I grew up in a different era obviously. I'm older than many here. I would hope that at this point, it's a bit different. That said, I have a son in college and I don't know that any of his female friends are considering geekdom.

I'm not sure many schools encourage kids to look at their brain type and make career decisions based on that. Yes, I took a test in college and they gave me a list of things I might like—but none of them interested me at all. So either the test sucked, or my knowledge of myself was so lacking that the results were skewed.

I recently asked a friend of mine, whose 21st birthday is today, her take on this. This is one woman's comment, of course, but she's "of this generation" so her comment was interesting to me. To quote her, "I hear girls chat about it. They're turned off by nerdy men and dont want to be thought of as nerds by men."

Wow. That took me back! Clearly, this generation of women does not realize how sexy smart geeks are.

I don't know about you, but I'm certainly bothered by the perception that women will be thought of as "nerds" if they work in this industry. I personally prefer to be called a geek.

So today, are we still fighting with the "Cosmo girl stereotype" within this age range? It certainly gives one pause.

Learning Web Design

CS: How did you first get involved with Web design?

SS: Well, it's probably not the usual story.

When I was a teen, my dad talked me out of trying to be a brain surgeon. I did quite a few things after thatnurse, model, travel agent, corporate image consultant—but nothing I loved.

After taking 10 years off to raise and homeschool my boys, I was ready to re-enter the work force. But there was nothing I'd done before that I wanted to do again.

I have always studied the brain—brain quadrants, personality traits, brain lead. I decided this time, instead of just "trying something," I'd look at some of the things I knew about my brain, and find a career that utilized them. My brain loves puzzle-type thinking—detective work, figuring things out, research.

I thought maybe code would take advantage of those things. The only code I'd ever heard of was C++. I decided I'd learn that—until I mentioned it to a friend and he told me I was crazy.

He said C++ would probably bore me and suggested I learn the code they build the web with—HTML. I'd never heard of it.

I took one class and figured out a classroom wasn't my preferred modality to learn in—too fast or too slow. I learn well on my own so I bought books and did online tutorials for about 15 hours a day for well over a year. Did I mention I'm driven?

I also took advantage of forums where I'm sure I drove people nuts with questions. And that's another reason I now run a forum—to give back to the community and bring other people along. I vacillated between design and code over that time, since I enjoy both—but I found that even though I had previously done traditional art on paper, illustration and design on the web were different. I felt I had to focus on one or the other.

Since I'm a major tweakaholic—I can never leave a design alone—I found I could save money by hiring someone else to do the design and simply art directing. But that's probably more than you're asking. Did I mention I'm blabby?

CS: Heh, that's quite alright. Honestly.

What interested in you in becoming a brain surgeon? How much convincing did your dad have to do to keep you from being a brain surgeon?

SS: My father was a family practice physician, so likely the attraction to medicine was because that's what I was exposed to all my life.

Due to my interest in the brain, I was really drawn to that particular specialty of medicine. Sadly, the reason he talked me out of it was very sexist—and yes, he has since apologized.

He basically said that with the number of years I would have to go to school, with internships, residencies and such, by the time I was ready to practice, I would be about 30.

He supposed that about that time I would want to have children, that I would likely raise my children myself and since medical school was so hard to get into, I should leave that spot for "a man that would use it."

I thought it sad to give up that goal, but yet logical at the same time. It was a big mistake for me though. I had no goal outside that and became a nurse instead. I took nursing in a special program offered to four students my senior year of high school. I didn't love that at all and later left the medical field altogether.

CS: And you eventually found your way to Web development. A year long, self-imposed Web education seems quite an unusual route to go. When was this?

SS: I lean toward the unusual. Or maybe, I lean toward the intense. Either way, it was about 1999.

Perception of Education

CS: You must have an interesting perspective on our industry than a typical design student going through college might have. What perceptions do you have about this industry that others might typically have? How does it compare to the other industries you've been in or exposed to?

SS: Well, likely my perceptions are different coming from a non-traditional path.

Quite frankly, my overall perception of education itself is probably different. I believe that life is about learning. The day you stop learning is the day you start dying.

My reason for home schooling my boys was not to sequester them from the world—they had plenty of friends—, but instead to create thinkers. School is great if you have the type of brain that can memorize well—and spew back accurately. You'll be seen as brilliant. But what if you're more of a non-traditional learner or thinker?

Like Einstein, you could be thought of as almost retarded. My boys don't have learning style challenges, but I still wanted them to learn as part of life—not as part of sitting down at a book because someone made you.

My older son was 11th in the nation in debate one year. When he was about 12, because he loves writing, he was published almost weekly at a website for kids called Neopets.

My younger son, at 11, was trying to invent a maglev elevator for the new, super tall buildings in Asia. Nowadays, he's in public high school—says it's boring—and does lots of online research and reading about physics and science on his own time. I believe this is because he likes to learn and challenge his mind. And before you think he's too boring and geeky, yes, he loves video games and plays WoW and other games regularly with friends.

That train of thought obviously colors my own thinking about this industry. I don't believe that because someone got a degree in something related to our field they know any more than someone that did not. In fact, I hear all the time how behind many of the programs in schools are.

Our industry is fast-paced. Large institutions, like schools and universities, find it difficult to change rapidly enough. For this reason the WaSP EduTF, SoDA and Opera are all working on curriculums that schools can use that are actually useful for the graduates using them. Being self-taught, as long as you're thorough about it, is not a bad thing at all.

CS: What activities did you do with your own children that you found worked best in facilitating this desire to learn rather than memorize?

SS: My approach was to use life as a learning tool.

For instance, there is a lot of pressure put on parents to "make their kid smarter" than the other kids on the block, in the grade, wherever. As evidenced by things like, "I'm the proud parent of a honor roll student" bumper stickers, etc.

When my boys were young, it was very difficult not to succumb to parent peer pressure and grab the flash cards so that Cameron could recite more letters, colors, read first, whatever. As other parents brag about how their child can already read certain words at four, you get an intense feeling of, "Hey, my kid is smart too!" and you really want to prove it.

However, brain studies show that, especially in boys, brain development of speech and reading areas can be slower. Pushing them to read before their brain development in that area is complete can make them feel that they're stupid. The fact is, it will develop.

There are signs to watch for to know when they're ready for it. If a child is kept out of school, not taught with books and just plays in nature till they're 10 years old—within that first year in school, they typically catch up with all the other kids. So pushing them younger, to me, is not the answer.

For that reason, I waited—sitting on my hands—until Cameron started asking me things about the sounds letters made. Until he was asking me what certain things spelled. Only then did we dive into it all. But it was still just done as a part of life. I didn't own a single phonics book or flash card. We simply read lots of books—we always did. We talked about the road signs and everything around us. Life was his phonics lesson. Both boys are tremendous readers and writers now.

I typically followed their interests. I let their inquisitive minds lead our learning. Books—not curriculum per se—and the internet contain everything you could want to know. Learning how to find it is key.

I have a funny story about learning English that I love to tell. It's about Cameron again—probably because he's the oldest and all my experimenting was done on him. In second grade, all he wanted to do was math. Constantly. He did tons and tons of math on the computer with learning games and in little work books I'd get at the book store. At the end of the year, as expected, he tested 99th percentile in Math and about 75th in English.

I wasn't bothered by it. I figured that in third grade, we'd just do more English and catch up. Who says that doing every subject every year is the way it should be done?

I got a little English workbook from the bookstore—one of those that parents can use for supplemental learning—and sat him at a table with it. Sitting with a book was not really our usual way. And especially with something he was showing no desire to learn. But I was afraid he'd get too far behind, so I made him.

After three days of this, he was in tears while I tried to force him to do it. And I thought—this is not why I home school my kids. When he's ready, when he sees the value of it, he'll learn it. That's always worked before. I closed the book and put it away never to be seen again.

About two months later, he was playing one of his favorite games on the computer—Escape Velocity Nova, I think—and he discovered that there was a message board where all the players were talking to each other. He got really excited and he called me in. "Mom, I want to post here. I'll tell you what I want to say, ok?" I said, "Nope. You type it. You spell it. You use proper grammar. When you're all done, you call me in. I'll spell check and proof it and then you can send."

He would have liked me to do it, but he was so excited by the prospect of discussing this with other people that he saw the value in doing those things. Every day, he would type up his posts and I would use them as his English lessons. Within about six weeks he was above grade level and within about three months he didn't need me for that at all anymore. It was only a couple years after that when he started writing for Neopets.

That was the long answer to your question about what worked best for us. It was using their desires and interests. Using life as it happened around them. Exposing them to different things like the month we spent in Italy traveling by car in the countryside. Teaching them how to find the answers to their questions. That's what creates an inquisitive, but self-sufficient mind in my opinion.

CS: I definitely agree with that. How about your own Web education? What kind of tutorials and books did you find the most useful?

SS: When I was at the very beginning, I got a Visual Quick Start Guide for every program I had. I found them to be a great reference allowing me to jump around and easily find what I needed—I rarely read a book cover to cover.

For code and design though, I found myself using Web tutorials more. Much of my learning came from talking friends into letting me build their business a Web site, and then figuring out how the heck to do what they needed. And generally, after I had exhausted other options for figuring things out, I went to forums for help.

In fact, that's how Community MX came about. We wanted to quickly disseminate information—instead of wait for a publishing cycle—as well as provide forums to point people to further information that might help.

We've tried to create what we wished was there when we were learning. It's been going for over five years now, and at this time, we've got over 2,600 tutorials on Adobe-related products as well as the Web in general.

CS: What's the forum that you run?

SS: The forum where I'm a list mom is called WebWeavers. It's Dreamweaver-related, but we don't ban any general web-related question there either. It's a great group of folks, many of which have been hanging out there a long time. I also work the forums at Community MX.

CS: How did you get involved in speaking at conferences, workshops?

SS: I started by writing at Community MX and Adobe's DevNet Center. Then Ray West asked me to speak at TODCon and later, I spoke at Macromedia's MAX conference.

The past 18 months, I've been on the road almost non-stop due to writing the 32 CSS layouts contained in Dreamweaver CS3. I've had a lot of opportunity to talk about that, and CSS in general, in a large variety of settings all over the world. I've also been traveling doing training for corporate web departments.

Built-in CSS Layouts

CS: For those that might not know about layouts, can you describe what they are and how one can use them in Dreamweaver?

SS: The CSS layouts in Dreamweaver are simply solid, structural layouts accessed through the File > New menu. They contain no design—they have grey backgrounds on the div's to show their placement—and no graphics.

Most sites online are basically either one, two or three-columns with or without headers and footers, so those are the types of layouts you can choose from. They come in 5 flavors: fixed, liquid, elastic, hybrid and a couple absolutely positioned—not my fault—they made me do those.

Since there are so many ways to skin the proverbial CSS cat, I commented them heavily so users would understand issues they might encounter as they adapt them to their design.

It's a great learning tool for someone just starting with CSS for layout and a quick start for those that are already comfortable. I used to have custom snippets I used as quick starts, now I simply use these.

The CSS layouts don't come with a user manual and for that reason, Greg Rewis and I wrote a book last year. Mastering CSS with Dreamweaver CS3 was published this year in New Riders' Voices that Matter series.

Greg is the Group Manager, Creative Solutions Evangelism for Adobe and past product manager for Dreamweaver—though he was originally one of the founders of GoLive.

It's a project based book with six chapters. The first chapter is simply a review of the CSS principles that we felt were important for people to understand if they're going to build sites with CSS. I call it a review, because there are entire books written on what is contained in that chapter.

Each of the other chapters uses one of the CSS layouts to complete a web project. We teach Dreamweaver and CSS as you progress through the book. The projects are progressively more difficult and build on each other.

We found that most CSS books used text editors. Most Dreamweaver books have a small chapter devoted to CSS. But there was not a book showing how to use Dreamweaver to its fullest potential to create standards based, accessible web sites.

Since Dreamweaver has the majority of the WYSIWYG market, we wanted to fill that gap for people. To teach them how to use it for good and not for evil. We're getting great feedback from people using it.

CS: How did you come about to writing the 32 CSS layouts?

SS: I was asked by Macromedia—now Adobe—to bid on the project. I was extremely busy that day, but wanted to respond in some way before the weekend. I quickly read the spec and shot back an email that said something like, "Off the top of my head, here's what I see."

And then I listed things in no particular order as they came to me—A, B, C, D... M, N, O, P— I didn't expect the list to be so long, but as I mentioned before, I do so much support for CSS and Dreamweaver on lists that I have a good idea of what trips new users up. And that's basically what I was quickly throwing at them.

I have no confirmation, but I would guess that my knowledge of the product, and what can confuse its user base, contributed to winning the bid. There are plenty of people that know CSS.

International Speaker

CS: I would say that's a pretty good reason to pick you for the project!

You've just come off a long speaking tour overseas. What events were involved and where did you go?

SS: I was in Cologne and Amsterdam for Adobe Live. London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle for the Creative License tour. Barcelona and Chicago for Adobe MAX.

I did four dates in Scandinavia where part of my responsibilities included a short session for agencies on the business value of Web standards. I had the pleasure of speaking again at MultiMania in Belgium and just got back last week from Sydney, where I did two sessions at WebDU.

CS: Your passport must be blistered with stamps by now. I hope you love traveling. Have you picked up any tips when flying?

SS: Always fly business class!

Yes, I do love seeing new places. Edinburgh and Munich were two of my favorites this year—though nothing has yet surpased Tuscany for me.

The things that work for me are to have:

  • an extra computer battery,
  • a power cord that works on a plane ,
  • a pillow clipped to my backpack—since I don't always fly business,
  • an airline blanket—it's hard to get those in coach these days,
  • my iPod—to avoid annoying seat mates as necessary—always put the earplugs in the moment you sit down, even if the iPod is off. No one knows and you can always remove them,
  • Bose noise canceling headphones,
  • eye drops for my contacts as the air in the plane is dry,
  • lip balm, for the same reason,
  • saline for my nose—I actually started having nose bleeds from the dryness,
  • business cards in case you meet someone cool, and
  • a book—though sadly, I nearly always work instead of reading.

The other thing I learned by flying so much is that even when the day is overcast, or dark and stormy, once you take off and get through the clouds, the sun is shining and it's gorgeous.

I was talking to a friend who does photography about it and she put my quote on one of her photos: "It's always a sunny day—sometimes it's just hidden behind the clouds."

I try to keep this in mind on crappy days.

CS: Definitely something to keep in mind as you go through airport security these days. I've recently begun speaking in countries outside of America, but not as much as you have. I'm wondering if your experience have you found that audiences are different in these different cultures?

SS: I have to speak slower in some countries due to the language barrier. And the "personality" of audiences in some countries is much more reserved—Finland and Australia come to mind.

But the questions and enthusiasm for our craft don't vary that much. Especially once people ask questions after the session.

CS: Do you speak mainly about CSS and CSS layouts? What do you find are the common themes in the questions from your audience?

SS: I do speak a lot on content, CSS and semantic XHTML—with a little bit of SEO as well. And yes, this year has given me many opportunities to talk about the CSS layouts I built. What I tend to cover a lot in my talks is basic CSS principles. I get a lot of compliments for my ability to make these concepts more clear. I find, again based on how much online support I do, that people are using CSS—but many honestly never learned it thoroughly or properly.

They started "trying some things," maybe by pulling someone else's page off the internet and mucking about, and now, oh dear it's broken and they have no clue why.

So I enjoy "cementing the cracks" in their CSS foundation. I like speaking on more advanced topics as well, but there really is so much that people need to learn about the basics.

Even when I train in a corporate environment, I find they nearly always choose to start with basic principles and work from there. For those switching from tables for layout, there's a paradigm shift that must occur.

The same thing applies to the many designers in the print industry that are being forced to move into designing for the web. Though they don't all need to know how to code, they do need to understand how it works and what's possible.

There's a great lack of understanding in our industry, which leads to a lot of frustration. Starting at the beginning and working into more advanced concepts gets you past that.

A Geek Romance

Stephanie and Greg

CS: Your co-author, Greg Rowis, isn't just your co-author, but also your fiance. How truly geeky was his proposal?

SS: Well, it was geeky enough to make the cover of wired.com. Does that count?

Greg and I didn't start out as "fiances writing a book." We talked at a couple conferences, felt our skills were complementary and that we could write a better book together—the one that wasn’t written yet—than we would write alone.

Through the course of the year of writing and speaking together, we found that we have great compatibility—we're both dorks—as well as complimentary personalities. Since our relationship was "major long distance"—I live in North Carolina and he's in Phoenix—we use a lot of tools to stay in touch. Everything from cell phones, of course, to Skype to IM to Twitter. Telepathy isn't quite as reliable.

Having him propose on Twitter was, for me, extremely romantic. People pay big money for the billboard in Times Square. Twitter is free and all my geek friends are there. It was like the geek billboard proposal.

CS: So, Twitter is a natural venue, if you will, for a proposal for the both of you?

SS: Oh, gosh yes. Probably too much. I thought Twitter was the stupidest thing when I first heard about it. "What are you doing now" in 140 words or less? I didn't get it at all. Left. Then a few months later I heard more about it and that time took the time to understand the way friends and followers worked and such.

Since then it's been the greatest way to get to know people a little better. People you met briefly at a conference. People that you wouldn't really IM with or call. Or people you're going to meet at a conference.

By the time I meet them, I actually feel like I know them a little bit. The ice has been broken. You learn who has a really quirky sense of humor, what's going on in people's lives. I absolutely love it since my office is in my home.

I've tried other social networking applications, but I haven't found any to be as useful and interesting as twitter. I've decided it's because too many of them try to do too much. Or the interface is complicated. Twitter is clean and simple.

As far as a natural venue goes—yes, probably. Greg and I see what the other person is doing when we're not in the same place using twitter a lot. I can see, while I slave away, that he's in Munich in the beer garden enjoying a Hefeweizen.

So the proposal was appropriately on Twitter and then he surprised me with the ring on the plane to South by Southwest—we connected in the same city.

Both, for me, were perfect for our relationship and very romantic. The criticism on some blogs—in response to the wired.com story—regarding the fact that he wasn't "down on one knee in person" I find just silly. They don't live my life and they're obviously "just not geeky enough to get it." It was lovely.

Web Standards and the Adobe Task Force

CS: How did you first get involved with the The Web Standards Project?

SS: I have been on the Dreamweaver beta for years now. I enjoy working with the engineers there testing, and helping to shape the product I use daily.

At some point, I was invited to join WaSP and be a part of the Dreamweaver Task Force. Basically, I was told I was already doing what needed to be done—making a lot of noise—so just to keep it up.

CS: What kind of noise did the WaSP DWTF make about Dreamweaver?

SS: Oh, mainly Web standards and accessibility workflow stuff. It's not like the engineers don't want to make a more standards-compliant product. It's just that they're engineers. They're into creating a product, and we're into writing the code, so they appreciate us noisy folks giving them feedback about it. They're really a great group of folks over there. Very open and willing to hear us.

CS: What is your role there within WaSP?

SS: I'm the co-lead of the newly formed Adobe Task Force (AdTF). Adobe—Macromedia, originally—was so responsive to, and appreciative of our input, we're now overseeing all Adobe products that go to the web in some way in light of web standards, best practices and accessibility.

CS: Can you point to the changes that AdTF has made to the product over its history?

SS: I honestly can't point to the entire history—you'd have to talk to Drew or Rachel about that—since I wasn't involved the whole time.

But the biggest changes I saw were related to web standards and accessibility. Moving Dreamweaver into rendering standards, writing cleaner code, removing deprecated elements and program "features" and giving people things like accessibility prompts so that it actually helps educate them on best practices.

Dreamweaver had accessibility options for a while, but now they're on by default instead of requiring people to discover them. Basically, we've tried to lead Dreamweaver into being a program that will write clean, semantic, accessible code and make it more difficult to write program or browser-specific crap so that new developers don't get tripped up.

The newly formed Adobe Task Force is taking that one step further. We are working with Adobe on all products that go to the web in some way. We also hope to have some best practices articles about using Adobe products to write standards based sites in the WaSP Learn section this year.

Guilty Pleasures

CS: You've stated your guilty pleasure is 80s music. What are some of your favorite styles and artists from that decade?

SS: Heh... there are tons. Everything from Bronski Beat, Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, The Cure, Oino Boingo, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, The Divinyls, Thompson Twins, and so many more.

When I was younger, I was more into the punk version of the 80's, but now that I'm old, I lean toward the New Wave stuff. Age... it'll getcha.

CS: So, is 80s music in your iPod rotation constantly? Do you listen to other styles or, er, eras, he asks politely?

SS: Oh, heck, yea.

I love the 80's, but I'm not "stuck there." Most of the day I listen to contemporary music. My personal ipod was recently wiped out by my 16 year old who thought he was loading his iPod with all the songs on his computer. So I lost a lot of my favorite playlists.

Yes, smart people synch their iPods. But not me.

A lot of my music is on my old computer—now used by my sons and containing a lot of music I don't listen to. In light of that, I just drug what I wanted over to my iPod and handmade the playlists. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I have rather varied and eclectic tastes in music. I like everything from Damien Rice, The Dresden Dolls, Shiny Toy Guns, NIN, Drew Grow, Finger Eleven, Greg Rewis, Korn, Melissa Ferrick, Hellsongs, El Perro Del Mar, The White Stripes, PJ Harvey, The Killers, Sarah McLaughlin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tori Amos, Death Cab for Cutie and sometimes I listen to Mark Trammell or Keith Robinson's mix tapes and muxtapes.

CS: How long have you been into beach volleyball? Do you find it it's a nice balance to work life?

SS: I guess I've played for about five years. I really wish I'd found it when I was young, but back then I mostly did free weights and played racquetball.

Beach volleyball is an awesome sport. I play at a sports bar here in town where we have nine sand courts and year round leagues. Before I started speaking and traveling so much, I was in great shape due to playing three times a week. But now, I'm playing one league a week—when I'm in town.

It's not so good for the body. I've got to do better.

CS: I assume by doing better you mean setting up volleyball leagues to all the countries you visit! Otherwise, you would be racking up those frequent flyer miles.

SS: Actually, by "better," I meant joining a gym and/or working out on the road.

I'm only here so much anymore—though I did just sign up for another year of volleyball leagues. But maybe just having a few more shots of tequila on the court would work just as well.

CS: Thanks so much for your time, Stephanie!

SS: Thank you, Chris!

Further Reading

Christopher Schmitt’s past interviews:

Thanksgiving Turkey Photo Essay

This year I decided to document the brining and cooking process my brother uses for the Thanksgiving Turkey. 

Thanksgiving Turkey Photo Essay

He followed Alton Brown’s 2004 recipe for Honey Brined Smoked Turkey.

Sort of.

Instead of smoking the bird, we put it in the oven (as you will be able to see) to get that unique holiday smell in the house. I couldn’t smell anything as my nose was congested most of the week.

For posterity, I present you with the recipe, but also for a selfish reason: I don’t want to google for fluid ounce conversions for honey next year. 

1 gallon hot water
1 pound kosher salt (2.5−3 cups = ~24 fl oz.)
2 quarts vegetable broth
1 pound honey (~ 1 13 cups)
1 (7-pound) bag of ice
1 (15 to 20-pound) turkey, with giblets removed
Vegetable oil, for rubbing turkey

Combine the hot water and the salt in a 54-quart cooler. Stir until the salt dissolves. Stir in the vegetable broth and the honey. Add the ice and stir. Place the turkey in the brine, breast side up, and cover with cooler lid.. Brine overnight, up to 12 hours.
Remove the turkey from the brine and dry thoroughly. Rub the bird thoroughly with the vegetable oil. Heat the grill to 400 degrees F.

Use 1 Reynold’s Oven Bag. Spray Pam cooking spray in bag as lightly and evenly as possible. Add a bit of flour and shake bag to disperse flour around bag. 

Insert turkey into bag and following cooking directions that came with oven bag to determine amount of time bird should be in the oven. 

Two Minute Playlists for Getting Things Done

Ever had a pile of quick to-do’s that ate your entire morning? I have. And I’ve found a way to combat that.

If you’ve read Getting Things Done (book, wikipedia) and are into it like I am, you probably have a stack of 43 folders on your desk collecting dust.

When you use the system, it works—but for the most time, my collection of 43 folders on my desk checking the folders and processing the paperwork makes a giant inbox.

Chunking Short Tasks

However, one part of David Allen’s GTD strategy I’ve embraced is processing short tasks in under two minutes. 

I chunk short tasks–essentially collecting a long list of things that contains activities that I can knock out in a small amount of time, usually less than two minutes. This short task lists grows over a work day or two until it’s sizable enough to warrant about twenty or thirty minutes from my daily work schedule.

Instead of stopping work on a book or article, which requires more concentration than quick email reply, process some piece of postal mail, or what have you, I make a note of the small to-do item. Then return to the more important task at hand.

Two Minute Playlist

To help keep me focused when going through the list of short tasks is through music. I have a playlist of two minute songs on standby. 

When I’m ready to dive into list, I pull my list of tunes up and start going through my list. Whenever I hear a change of song, I know it’s time wrap up what I’m doing as soon as possible and go to the next task. 

I love this method as it doesn’t have me keep and reset a timer on my Mac or by my computer every two minutes. Also, the method leverages material I already have floating around virtually on my desktop.

Creating Two Minute Playlist

First, if you haven’t already installed the program, get iTunes from Apple (it’s free). And, if you need to install iTunes (mostly for Windows users), make sure to have the software import your music library.

Download iTunes

Next, create what’s called a Smart Playlist (File > Smart Playlist).

Smart Playlists are dynamic indexes that are based on any number of criteria you set up. What this means is that playlists can change on-the-fly as new songs are added, deleted, played, and so on. iTunes keeps tracks of all this stuff for you without any manual input. 

For this demonstration, we are going to create a Two Minute Smart Playlist, by setting up one simple rule: any song that is in the range of being two minutes long, gets added.

Smart Playlist editor

With that, all you need to do is start collecting tasks that are easy to knock out. When you reach a certain limit, like ten or so, make time into your schedule and start rocking out while gaining an increasing sense of accomplishment.

Personally, I like coming across simple tasks. It’s a happy thing. It’s honestly like collecting gold coins.

Reflecting on the Length of Music

Setting up a playlist with the limitation is two minutes gives one to reflect on the length of songs. Can someone make a really good song in under two minutes? How many songs are in your collection that are about two minutes? 

When I first went and tried this method, I thought I would have about 10 songs that fit that category, most of them being from that cheap Halloween “scary sounds” CD I bought years ago in a pathetic attempt to scare trick-or-treaters. The experiment, I thought, was sure to be an exercise in sifting through the dregs of my music collection.

However, it turns out that a fair number of songs in my collection turned up. Some of them were, in fact, surprises. One being that I seem to have too much Ani Di Franco or she needs to start making longer songs.

What turns up under two minutes in your collection?

The Taylor McKnight Interview

I first met Taylor McKnight at a SXSW conference, which one I don’t recall. Probably 2004. Or maybe 2005. It seems like many years ago, especially in terms of Web years.

Back then Taylor was a Web Developer for the University of Florida’s Web division. The university’s Web site is so successful it hasn’t gone a major redesign in years and is still the template that other universities copy to this day.

Taylor has since left UF, but still lives in Gainesville, working on pushing forward Internet-enabled entertainment endeavors that we all wish the music and movie industries were undertaking on their own.

I’m happy he agreed to be the first one in my new on-going interview series of Web developers helping to move our industry forward.

Taylor McKnight header


Christopher Schmitt: For the record, what’s your name and what you do? 

Taylor McKnight and I play on websites for a living.

CS: How would you describe yourself? 

TM: 24 year old entrepreneur who likes to create things, travel and listen to music.

CS: What are you currently into right now musically?

TM: Brightblack Morning Light — really chill, Sunday lounging music. The Ghost Is Dancing — Indie pop/rock that can’t go wrong with horns. Mika — Crazy pop that was popular in the UK and recently made it’s way over here. Boy Eats Drum Machine — This guy’s voice is bizarre, but it grows on you.

CS: Where have you traveled?

TM: In the past six months I’ve been to New York City three times, Boston, Austin for SXSW, London, Barcelona, and San Francisco. Most of it was work and or conferences but when you like what you are doing so much, it’s not really work.

CS: With all the traveling, do you have any tips for dealing with traveling? 

TM: Packing wise, I got these Packing Cubes that make it easy to find stuff in my suitcase. I try to concentrate on staying hydrated so I feel good when I get there.

CS: Anywhere you like to go that you haven’t been?

TM: I’m thinking about living in Berlin for a month next summer with some friends who already did it a year ago and want to go back. I also want to see Japan.

CS: What was your first exposure to the internet and/or Web? 

TM: Prodigy. When I was like 10 at my step mom’s office. I barely remember it but it was slow… and awesome.

CS: In what way was it awesome?

TM: I remember being excited that it was this different level of interactivity. Video games were pre-programmed months ago, magazines were written weeks ago, but things you were reading and playing with—even on dial-up—were as close to instant as you could get.

CS: Do you remember what Web sites you used to visit regularly back in the day?

TM: Well, I didn’t use Prodigy for that long, but in the AOL 9600 baud days, it was pretty much chatrooms trying to talk to cute girls who were probably old men.

CS: Was Podbop your first Web application/mashup? What was the experience like in building it and the reaction from the online community?

TM: Yes, Podbop, was my first webapp. I built it with Daniel Westermann-Clark. I was a bit naive and really thought we were just building it for ourselves and a few friends. It was built in our spare time over a few months—most of which was building up our database with MP3 links. At the urge of the Eventful.com crew, we took it to Mashup Camp and ended up winning best mashup. People really enjoyed how insanely simple it was yet useful.

CS: How is podbop doing?

TM: Podbop is on the back-burner these days as I concentrate on Chime.TV and Hype Machine. It’s not growing, but has a steady user-base.

CS: I’ve recenty moved to Cincinnati and I noticed a lot of local bands here don’t have their MP3s listed with the site. Any tips on how I, as a fan or potential fan of some local bands, could get them hooked up on it? Other than emailing them?

TM: Well, anybody, can add them, so if you know of a band with an MP3 go for it. Otherwise, what has been most effective for me is letting labels know about it since they usually have a bunch of bands under them.

CS: Chime.TV is a departure from music and into video from your recent projects of Podbop and Hype Machine. Describe Chime.TV and how it was accomplished? 

TM: Chime.TV is a super video aggregator that is probably the closest thing you will find to TV online with the most content and nothing to install. We combine 10 of the top video sites from around the web into 20+ channels, if you don’t know what you want to watch, and global search, if you do know what you want. It was created by myself and Chirag Mehta and was done over six months in our spare time. It’s easily the most complex project I’ve ever been a part of and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

CS: Did you win another mashup award for Chime.TV?

TM: Yes, Chime.TV won the Best Mashup Award at Mashup Camp IV this past July in San Francisco. It was my second time winning that award and was very exciting for both of us. Hanging around people and the environment in general at Mashup Camp is really enjoyable.

CS: There is really a lot going on at Chime.TV. Recently, I’ve been searching for Chime.tv videos and having them play sequentially without a lot of hopping around. 

TM: Good idea, I made a Flight of the Conchord channel.

CS: That’s fantastic. I didn’t even know you could do that or that one could be registered user of the site. Does Chime.TV support openID?

TM: Chime.TV doesn’t support openID.

CS: Any other features Chime.TV has that people who like YouTube would prefer over simply surfing youtube?

TM: So with your free user account you can create your own channels, bookmark favorites, and send video mail to friends which shows up when they login to Chime.TV. All the videos play non-stopwe even preload the next video) and are resizable. It’s also better than Youtube because we include videos from: blip.tv, Break.com, DailyMotion, Google Videos, GUBA, Kewego, MetaCafe, MySpace, Veoh.com, and YouTube.

CS: With sites like Chime.TV, Podbop.org and Hype Machine, you are leveraging social Internet trails and turning them into useful applications for people to in turn digest. Are you finding a lot of potential profit in this area? 

TM: I’ve been too focused on creating fun, useful apps to worry about profit too much. A.k.a, I have usually had a day-job that pays the bills. For Podbop and Hype Machine we make money off advertising, which has done pretty well.

CS: Were able to pay the bills right away with these two sites? How long did it take?

TM: For Podbop, our only cost is one $50 a month server, so we were able to cover that pretty easily. Hype Machine was around 2 years before I came aboard and was already making income when I joined.

CS: Could you describe Hype Machine and why someone would want to use the site?

TM: The Hype Machine follows music blog discussions. Everyday, hundreds of people around the world write about music they love and it all ends up here. You can find out what’s popular among music blogs this week, listen to the latest tracks being posted or even search for a specific band to hear more of them. It’s one of the best ways to explore and discover new music.

CS: What’s a typical work day for you? 

TM: Wake up at 8 or 9am, walk down the street with my laptop for a croissant and iced coffee while I check my email. Come back to my home office and work 6–8 hours on various projects like Hype Machine, Chime.TV, my blog, etc. Intersparsed with random errands and lunch. Call it a day usually around 4 or 5pm.

CS: What are typical work-related activities do usually do om a day or week?

TM: Currently I am spending my days working on the Hype Machine redesign. Chatting with Anthony over IM or Skype and implementing various design and code changes. For Chime.TV it’s a bit more marketing oriented. I look for new places to spread the word about our site and come up with new ways to promote it. I’m also currently obsessed with my Tumblelog so I post a lot.

CS: When your workload is heavy, how do you cope? 

TM: Make a physical list of what the steps I need to accomplish. Add copious amounts of
music and caffeine. Shut the door.

CS: How often does that happen in a given week or month?

TM: Probably 2–3 times a month.

CS: What software do you use on regular basis?

  • Synergy. I have a Dell and a 15″ Macbook Pro that share a 24″ monitor, keyboard and mouse using
    Synergy. It’s incredible.
  • Subethaedit is what I handcode XHTML and CSS in (it’s the only thing I use)
  • Transmit and CuteFTP are my FTP clients of choice.
  • Adium and Trillian are my all-in-one chat clients

Also, there is Photoshop, Winamp as all my music is on my Dell, IE7, Firefox, and Safari.

CS: What’s your greatest strength? 

TM: Creative brainstorming.

CS: Anything special you do in brainstorming?

TM: Nothing original. I surround myself with things that inspire me like posters, artwork, music and browse web design galleries like CSS Beauty and other Web sites like NotCot.org.

CS: What’s your greatest weakness? 

TM: Distracted too easily.

CS: Lots of people have that problem, but they haven’t been part of three Web properties like Chime.TV, Podbop, and Hype Machine. What keeps you focused to carry these projects out?

TM: They interest me personally. I love videos, go to concerts and like discovering music, so improving these sites benefit my life and that’s motivation.

CS: In your opinion, what parts of the Web need to be improved or fixed in order for the Web of today to evolve into the Web of the future?

TM: Overall, I’d say more aggregators like Chime.TV and Hype Machine to help filter out all the noise that inevitably comes with everything becoming cheaper/easier/common like making your own music or videos or blog, etc. Maybe even super aggregators for the aggregators.

Music on the Web needs to find a legal way to better cope/compete with things like bittorrent and album leaks. Things like pre-release album orders when music leaks and the ability to actually get everything in one place.

Part-time, paid internship available

I’m looking for a talented individual for a paid part-time internship. The position is perfect for the talented individual that has a passion design and development and loves to share what they’ve learned.

The role of intern will include assisting on a variety of issues. Duties will include, not not limited to, researching web design and development issues, create and produce web sites, help creating presentations and more. 

Payment isn’t much, I’m afraid, about $400/month along with any free books or schwag that we happen to come across. The position is probably perfect for the high school or college student in the design, IT or communications field.

If you’re interested, please supply links to your portfolio to schmitt@heatvision.com with INTERN in the subject line.