IZEAFest: Big Money Bloggers

Drew Bennett moderated the Big Money Bloggers Panel at IZEAFest in Orlando, FL. The panel consisted of financially successful bloggers including Stephanie Agresta, John Chow, Neil Patel, and Jeremy Schoemaker.

  • Question: “Why did you get into blogging?”
    • Stephanie Agresta: It was a natural evolution in terms of marketing and the fundamental shift of making publishing easier.
    • Jeremy Schoemaker: I didn’t mean my blog to be commercial. Along the course of time, people started connecting the dots and found the sites I did have from my blog.
    • Neil Patel: I didn’t think about money. I just thought about spreading the information. If I get enough people to spread this to, I essentially create a platform.
    • John Chow: The reason I started blogging was to get the top of Google for “John Chow”. I talk about whatever interests me. I keep on posting and built a readership. One of the things I talk about is how to make money online. So, people told me to prove it. So I started to monetize it.
  • Question: “What’s the craziest thing that’s happened?”
    • JS: When a guy tattooed my logo and my face on his arm pretty prominently. My wife said that night it’s time to get a security system. The craziest thing is the power that you get for being famous, popular online. like getting credentialed for Presidential debates.
    • SA: We took a bus tour from NYC to Boston with people to connect with.
    • NP: Most of my followers are Indian people and a woman wrote to me and wanted to marry me.
  • Question: “What’s the biggest pitfall?”
    • JS: The scalability of time. I get to spend more time on my family and my businesses.
    • NP: I post once a week. Now what ends up happening is that you become passionate… and then it stops becoming fun and I stopped posting. Then people would ask when are you going to post and it becomes a chore, a job.
    • JC: I don’t have a job to go to.
  • Question: “I have a decent enough traffic, but not enough clicks on the ads. How do I get people to click on ads?”
    • JS: I place ads outside of the content as much as possible. It’s up to the company on what ad copy has worked for their companies.
    • NP: Work with your advertisers to find out how best to get your message.
    • SA: Stick with things that you have affinity towards and then your audience should as well.
    • JC: For a general ad, above the fold.
  • Question: “Supposed you had to start from scratch, how would you get back on top?”
    • JC: Start the blog and just write. I blog about 2.8 posts per day. It’s the consistency that really matters.
    • SA: It’s about people and I recommend going to conferences and meet people offline, not online.
    • NP: Find bloggers and get them to blog about you and get them to subscribe to the RSS feed.
    • JS: If I could start over, I could say some things a little bit more aggressively. There’s just so much low-hanging fruit out there.
  • Question: “What did you use for your blog? How did you design them?”
    • SA: I use WordPress. Content Robot runs my blog.
    • JC: WordPress
    • NP: I use WordPress.
    • JS: I use WordPress, as well.
  • Question: “What bloggers do you read?”
    • JS: I enjoy reading TechCrunch.
    • SA: I read TechCrunch and TechMeme. I use Twitter as a filter mechanism and look at articles they are linking to. Chris Brogan.
    • NP: I don’t use RSS, I know that sounds weird. Shoe’s, John’s… they interact a lot with their commentators so there’s lots of good information there.
  • Question: “What is something you wish you knew earlier?”
    • JS: One is a mailing list. In my photo gallery, I’ve made it easy for people to embed photos into their own sites.
    • JC: I wish I knew what RSS was when I started.
    • NP: I wish I knew Digg.com. My traffic and readership went through the roof.
    • SA: I wish I could track of tools to manage productivity.
  • Question: “What is the one thing bloggers need to know?”
    • JS: Write quality content from the heart. Write it with passion.
    • SA: Patience, Hustle, Community and Content.
    • JC: Be consistent and enjoy what you are writing.
  • Question: “How do you differentiate yourself from someone who blogs like you?”
    • JS: I blog when I can and I try to do one post a day.
    • NP: Besides the brand, it’s really listening to your readers.
    • SA: I wouldn’t just focus on your blog. My brand focuses on Twitter.
  • Question: “What was your biggest mistake ever made as a blogger?”
    • JS: One time I would post a story that was more breaking news, instead of blog post about me. It told me that I’m not a journalist.
    • SA: I blew a contest for tickets to Bill Mahr. Fell asleep when I should have been at the event.
  • Question: “How is Twitter impacting blogging?”
    • SA: I find people blogging less. Robert Scoble is blogging less.
    • JS: Twitter is awesome. People can instantly send you a message.
    • NP: I use twitter as a marketing tool for my blog.
    • JC: I thought it was a big chat room. Once you get enough followers, it becomes a great marketing tool.

IZEAFest: Improving Your Content

Susie Gardner’s Improving Your Content presentation as a part of IZEAFest in Orlando, FL dealt with the elements of a successful blog.

  • Content is king, obligatory slide (with gold crown).
  • Your content needs to inform, attract, deliver, entertain,
    inspire, and convey.
  • Assuming you goal is to have an audience:
    • You want to keep the audience.
    • You want to attract new people.
  • Speaking of goals, you should have one.
    • The goals should be in line with what your audience is
      expecting.
    • Make yourself a mission statement to define what your
      goals are with your content.
    • Having an audience of “everyone” isn’t to cut it.
  • Niche
    • By finding a niche, you get to be specific with your
      content.
    • If you are not passionate about what you are writing
      about, then it’s going to get boring.
    • You don’t have to be an expert about what you are writing
      about.
    • Examples of niche:
      • Online journalism
      • Candy
      • Logo design
  • Frequency
    • There’s a magic formula:
      • Step 1: First out how much time it takes you to
        create a post (x)
      • Step 2: Find out how much time you have in a day (y)
      • Step 3: y/x equals you are able to write
  • Comments
    • They are free content.
    • Comments come to you as a reward for the hard work
      in putting in quality content.
    • Comments get to grow your content, unless you get to
      that success bracket where you literally cannot handle
      the load.
    • They are some downfalls, people don’t want to deal with:
      • Spam
      • Flamewars, etc.
    • You can work on worst case scenarios,
    • Create a policy in case stuff shows up that you don’t
      want.

      • By having a policy others will know how you will
        determine to deal with it.
    • You need to respond to comments to show that you are
      encouraging
    • Ways to encouraging comments:
      • Blog posts with ancedotes are good. Stories about your day are things
        people respond to.
      • Asking a leading question at the end of the posts,
        asking for input.
  • Food for Thought
    • Experimentation is okay. You have a moving target with your blog.
    • Carry a notebook with you to capture ideas for blog posts.
    • Everyone loves a good a tangent.
    • Spelling, grammar, and editing count.
    • Contests and polls.
    • Guest bloggers.
    • Rants/unpopular opinions.
  • Cool blogs:

IZEAFest Keynote: Jeremy Schoemaker

Jeremy Schoemaker’s Show Me the Money! Keynote covered how he got to where he was to where he is today. Major themes included hard work, prioritization, diligence, and some more hard work.

  • Jeremy Schoemaker met Ted Murphy at SXSW08 and was asked to keynote IZEAFest
  • Path to Online Success
    • 420lbs
    • Over 50k in credit card debt
    • Smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day
    • Could not get up before noon
  • Met wife through an online script that he wrote which sent out an email to women on
    dating sites

    • She wrote back saying that a simple, copy-and-pasted email wasn’t going to work and that he needs to try harder.
    • Taught him the definition of work ethic, which is hard work.
  • Tim Ferris’s book The 4-Hour Workweek is essentially “hard work and time management”, but that doesn’t sell.
    • Jeremy put together a book a called “Shoemoney playbook”
    • But the publisher’s didn’t like the title.
  • People get excited about thinking about doing stuff than doing stuff
    • But “beyond Hard Work” is
    • Work ethic, work habits
      • Set to a routine
    • Make progress every day!
    • By making some progress on a project
      • Geting the ball rolling
      • Then you realize you are done in a couple of hours
    • Prioritize the potentially profitable projects
      • A tip from his wife
    • Doing what others are not willing to
    • No fear, no excuses
      • People can come up with excuses all day as to why things aren’t going to work
  • Building a site
    • Building a site for people, not search engines
      • A lot of people get worked up over SEO
      • You want to have viral marketing (not necessarily high search engine rankings)
    • Build a strong brand
      • It’s important for people to be able to pronounce your brand
      • Good content outranks SEO
    • Survive without Google
  • Never Settle
    • Never settle. period!
    • 2004 started wih Google AdSense couple bucks a day
    • By spring of 2005 with google AdSense, started to make 1-2k per day, 30-50k/month
    • in August 2005, got the biggest check ever
    • In 2006, NextPimp.com had
      • 70,000 paying customers
      • Drove 114,00 commercial ring tone leads
      • Generated over $800,000 in contextual revenue
      • Sold over 80k in hardware (mostly data cables)
      • Over 15k in donations
    • Mobile income in 2006 was over $5million
    • in 2007, rings tones on a decline
      • Created AuctionsAds, LLC
      • Launched March 6, 2007
      • Within 4 months, over $2 million per month in revenue
      • Over 25k publishers
      • Sold AuctionsAds LLC on July 27, 2007
    • In 2008, formed ShoeMoney capital LLC
      • Invested in new startups with marketing, technology and money
      • Purchased fighters.com
      • Sold out Elite Retreat Conference in San Francsico
      • Lots of new projects on the horizon
    • Pitfalls of Success
      • Scalability
      • Growing too quickly
      • People change what they are doing when they grow to large.
      • Twitter isn’t changing the secret sauce. (It’s good but it’s not changing)
    • How do we know something will work?
      • Is it a needed service?
      • Virility
      • Revenue model
    • Leverage your position
      • NextPimp
      • Showmoney.com blog
      • AuctionAds Advertising network
      • ShoeMoney Captial LLC
      • Fighters.com
      • Keynoting IZEA
    • Looking for Help
      • Basic Internet Skills
      • I want people who want to do cool stuff, but will still do the hard work of taking
        out the trash
      • 50/50 tests
      • Doing work others won’t
    • Things You Can’t Teach
      • Trust
      • Work Ethic
      • Confidence
    • Remember this:
      • Never settle
      • Always be leveraging
      • Don’t be afraid
      • Screw Google

Panel Picking Ends for SXSW09

I’ve always thought of SXSW Interactive festival as our conference. This step-child of the Music and Movie fesitivals taking place each March in Austin, TX is our industry’s spring break, high school reunion, booze cruise and product showcase rolled into one.

It also doesn’t hurt that that the barbeque in Austin is awesome, too.

Another aspect of this conference being ours is that the powers that be at SXSW open up the panel and solo presentation submissions up for voting by the public.

Yes, you read that right.

You can log in, rate the panel’s concept as well as lodge a comment to go with it.

How many other conferences do that?

This year’s SXSW Interactive Panel Picker is released, which has led to of-all-things: hotel rooms getting booked faster than people can bemoan SXSW as having jumped the shark or nuked the fridge.

I know I was part of the chorus last year that stated that since SXSW Interactive has grown so massive that meeting friends by happenstance is almost impossible.

For example, thanks only to a string of last minute emails and text messages, I was able to coordinate a quick meetup with co-author Kevin Lawver right before the end of this past year’s festival.

The previous years? He and I took our time by hanging out going to nearby restaurants and burning rubber on a couple of treks to Salt Lick.

So, while the size has exploded—which is a good thing in the grand scheme of things—it means that the festival planners need all the help they can to put on the conference. Our conference.

If you have a few minutes, head on over to the Panel Picker and put in your two cents as to what kind of conference you want to see this March.

And while you are at the Panel Picker, I would appreciate your vote for my panel submissions:

JavaScript for CSS Ninjas
You move with ease in Photoshop. You can cut down designs into pieces and then reconstruct it into valid XHTML+CSS, but JavaScript stops you in your tracks. In this session, we look at how the JavaScript frameworks like jQuery let CSS ninjas control the interaction layer without losing your workflow momentum.
Designing Our Way Through Web Forms
Although forms make the Web go around, they are often ugly due the generic way in which browsers display them, not to mention irritating to our site’s visitors when they don’t work as expected. In this session, panelists will provide specific details on ways to successfully create compelling forms for your users.

Voting ends this Friday night.

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:

An Event Apart: Understanding Web Design

The first talk of An Event Apart in Boston was delivered by Jeffrey Zeldman. He talked about the difficulties of our profession and the lack of respect we receive since the dot-com bust days.

  • Zeldman asks for a moment of silence for George Carlin, who passed away the night before.
  • Jeffrey talks about what Web designers need, asks for laugh
  • Empathy. “If you look it up a dictionary…”
  • Puts forward example of bad web sites
    • Real.com
      • Has two competing goals for the site, which makes it hard for a single message to get out.
      • Link colors don’t have to be blue and underlined
    • ConsumerSearch
      • Site contains great articles on consumer product research
      • however, Web site is hard to use.
      • “No one figured out how to make the front page sexy.”
      • Figure out what content is important to the consumer and make them want to click that link.
      • Recommends guerrilla, cheap user testing. [Ed. note— See Steve Krug.]
    • Failure of Empathy to get yourself into the mind of the user
  • “The unmotivated need not apply.”
    • Main education courses come from product/software companies that build Web-related products.
    • “Teaching Excel is not the same as teaching business.”
    • They don’t teach you strategy in Web design courses, but they will teach you the software. [Ed. note—This is so true.]
  • You have to keep on learning.
    • Worked on creating Web design survey since they wanted facts on our profession
    • 33,000 all over the world took the survey.
    • Education is mostly relevant 53%
      • The more money you make, the less your college education matters.
      • Project managers need the less educatin’
  • Web designer
    • Gets no respect
    • It’s disturbing that in a profession that demands so much knowledge and skillsets, that we don’t get respect
    • One reason is there isn’t respect is because there isn’t a standardized title
    • Different kinds of organizations, have different breakdown of
      titles
  • Who owns the Website?
    • The Web site IA should not be reflective of org charts
    • [Ed. note—Lawyer joke warning.] Lawyers spend a lot of time on work on communication. So naturally they should be in charge of the Web site.
    • “Creative people are at work, but are being beaten down.”
  • Web designers don’t get paid very well.
    • A lot of people are making 20k
    • Women who think there is bias against women in the industry, you do better.
  • In Search of Excellence
    • “They take people who have achieved.”
    • Communication Arts is about graphic design, not about usability, not about Web design
    • This particular Web design is graphic design intesnive,
    • Journalism talks about real estate not architecure–who ever is making the most money.
  • We have to avoid “guitar solo” approach
    • Forget the showing off, but focus on the empathy of the clients.
  • “Empathetic Web Design”
    • Sounds better than “User Center Design”
    • Used more and more around Zeldman’s studio in talking about what they do and how they differentiate themselves from other shops

Twitter-Sized An Event Apart Presentation Summaries

I’m not one that you might call a copious note taker. I burn out quickly listening to presentations and tend to focus on note taking rather than digesting what is being said.

Rather than long notes, I go another direction. In order to help remind me of what I witnessed during the two-day event known as An Event Apart Boston 2008, I decided to run through the presentations and write-up a Twitter-sized summary of each one.

Title Slide

Understandng Web Design by Jeffrey Zeldman
Web designers are very talented people who should get more respect. Calls user centered design something else: “Empathy Web Design”.
The Lessons of CSS Frameworks by Eric Meyer
Eric examined nine CSS frameworks, but says they all aren’t right for you. You should make your own or adapt them to your liking.
Good Design Ain’t Easy by Jason Santa Maria, 30
Designers should be story telling. Talks about the history of print design and how that can bleed over to Web design.
Web Application Hierarchy by Luke Wroblewski
Give your users the “confidence to take actions”. Telling people visually what to do on your site is good. Learn graphic design principles.
Design to Scale by Doug Bowman
We respect proportions. McDonald’s scales, Starbucks sells experience, not Java. Quotes Paul Rand: “Simplicity is not the goal.”
When Style Is The Idea by Christopher Fahey
Quoted Paul Rand, Stewart Brand, etc. Style encourages innovation. Style sells, style happens. Fashion has a vocabulary, does Web design?
Scent of a Web Page: Getting Users to What They Want by Jared Spool
Five types of pages users encounter: Target Contnet, Gallery, Department, Store, Home Page. Users have a purpose when coming to your site.
Debug/Reboot by Eric Meyer
CSS debugging is a good way to tease out things that might be trouble. Not many people use Link Checkers. Reviews his CSS Reset rules.
Comps and Code: Couples’ Therapy by Ethan Marcotte
It’s okay to admit mistakes. Covers three projects and problems he encountered. Treat everyone on your team like a client and prototype!
Principles of Unobtrusive JavaScript by ppk
Unobtrusive JavaScript is more like a philosophy. Use JS wisely for improved accessibility and Web standards-based sites.
Standards in the Enterprise by Kimberly Blessing
To get Web standards into large companies, you need to follow the Circle of Standards: train, review, document, repeat. Buy our book!
Designing the User Experience Curve by Andy Budd
People pay for the experience of Starbucks, not for the coffee. Pay attention to detail, pay attention to your customer.
Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps by Jeff Veen
“We are awash in data.” Make data meaningful to your users. Another spotting of Napoleon March to Moscow infographic in a presentation.