Kimberly Blessing Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Before she rocked An Event Apart in Boston, Kimberly Blessing was at South by Southwest like everyone else was in the Web design and development crowd. While there the publisher of our book, Adapting to Web Standards, asked her if she would do an interview with fellow New Riders author, Richard Harrington.

Below is the video the publisher made of the interview along with the transcript I’ve recently produced to go along with it.

Richard Harrington: Hi. My name is Richard Harrington. I am a blogger as well as an author and we are here today at South by Southwest, taking look at some of the things happening over in the interactive space. We have joined by Kimberly Blessing, who is a co-author of a new book called Adapting to Web Standards.

Why is there the need for this book? What was really the motivation behind it?

Kimberly Blessing: Oh, so, I think, what happened was a number of different authors, who have worked on really large sites that have made successful conversions to Web standards came together and said, “we need a document of what we have done, because there are other large companies out there where perhaps there are standards evangelists that are having trouble convincing their companies that they need to make this leap.” 

I also think there are some companies out there that are kind of struggling. They need to know that there is success. You know there is a light at the end of tunnel, more or less. So, kind of bringing together people who have been successful at this and documenting those experiences as a way to educate, encourage and just document for others. 

RH: Now, many people when they hear standards think of it as a negative thing. What are some of the benefits of putting in good standards that are usable, effective? Describe some best practices or why I can’t be should doing this.

KB: I think the biggest benefit especially when you are in the enterprise the most company see are the dollar signs. The fact that there is lot of savings that come from utilization of standards. 

If you take a Web site with about a thosand Web pages and each page has been developed by a different coder, has been designed by a different designer, and none of them are hearing to any common set of those practices or standards, like you said, then you are essentially spending money for one-offs every single time you create a new product or a new page. 

And, so, utlimately to the big business there is a lot of savings by establishing a set of standards, ensuring that your teams are following them and kind of having review process to ensure that and then reaping the savings from that. 

Of course there are benefits to the user on the opposite end. 

Once they access a website that has been consistently designed and coded, they are going to have how much better user experience. It becomes much more simple to upgrade the website, to ensure that other standards are supported on an ongoing fashion. 

Sojust for example you mentioned accessibility. You know if today your Web site is coded in one common fashion, even if it has no accessibility features to go back and add those it should be relatively simple because you are not looking at upgrading a completely different codebase. You are looking at one common set of code then just need some couple of fixes. 

RH: Now, you’ve been in the trenches when it comes to standards for some very large companies. Why do you think there is a resistance to standards? Not necessarily the companies you’ve worked with, but. you have seen this. Why do people resist this?

KB: I think folks typically resist this for one or two reasons. 

Either they think it’s going to limit their creativity or it kind of means that, you know, The Man is—and I hate to use that term, but— you know, the man is kind of holding them and telling them what to do.

But I think that if you take a look at some of what those large companies are doing, in particular the technology based companies. They have realized that they need to have this process, they need to have this documentation and it becomes an essential part of being a quality technology company or producing a quality Web site. 

And on the design front when people feel like its kind of boxing them in, you know, I kind of put it in the way that you have to design a better box set. If this particular box is too constraining, in the next revision of those design standards of those design patterns, what should the box should look like like next?

RH: So, do you really see that, I guess, for standards to be effective, it is not just top down standardization. How does the whole team or what should a company be doing to involve others in the creation of standards? 

KB: So, I am typically used to more of a gross roots, a kind of bottom up approach, to standards where people who know about our web standards typically come together first and say, “hey, lets’ try to get the company on the same page.” 

So, when you start with that model, I think first of all, you get very passionate people who want to collaborate. So right there a kind of removing any of the barriers because the people know they want to achieve success and they want to do something together. 

So, I think that really helps in terms of making for a very successful process. 

And then what those folks typically have to do is evangelize and outreach and look for those key executives who they can then sell that message to. And then one those executives latch on then they can really become top down process change and then enforces standards throughout. 

If you start it out with an executive or with some kind of top-down mandate to achieve standards, I think that’s great, sometimes what I have seen happen though is that is kind of like forcing teams together, “you have to come up with standards.” 

You don’t always get the same level of passion and commitment, you know, and wanting to break down the boundaries, but if you can find the right team and the right leader for that team, really there shouldn’t be much of a problem. 

RH: Now, we talked about large companies. Is there room for using standards for small developers, smaller teams and, if so, how is that help out?

KB: I actually think that there is a place for standards for small teams. I say in the agency environment especially with some of the smaller consultancies that are out there where you may be only have three to five people on a design or a development team, typically what you want to do is still ensure that everybody is coding in the same manner. 

Just because you create a site today for a client doesn’t mean that somebody else in the future won’t have to comeback and maintain it. And that typically it won’t be you, it could be somebody either with the company today or somebody who is not even yet with the company. 

So, if you are all working against one common set of standards or set of principles for your designing and development work it should be really easy than to go back in later on, make changes, ensure that something new is being developed is in line with the design aesthetic or with the coding structure thus making it that much easier to share.

RH: Last question for you. What’s the one thing you have learn that really drives the standards? If a group is having trouble getting in place, what can they do to turn the corner to really get standards accepted?

KB: I guess I would say its really is that comes down to people. Its all about the people there involved. 

And I guess I can say that I have seen teams that really do struggle where these some more of dead weight on the team, somebody who isn’t fully bought into the idea, isn’t towing their part of the overall package and that can be really difficult for a team. I think what has to happen in those cases, you have to have an honest conversation. 

And when it comes into evangelism the best thing to do is to have that one-to-one conversation and convert each person one at a time rather than trying to talk to a big audience and not being able to customize. 

RH: Thank you Kimberly for joining us. The book is Adapting to Web Standards with Kimberly Blessing. Hope you guys enjoyed it.

KB: Thanks, Rich.

Related Interviews

Kevin Lawver Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Co-author of Adapting to Web Standards, Kevin Lawver, was interviewed by Michael Nolan from Peachpit at South By Southwest 2008 as part of a podcast series.

I noticed the interview didn’t come with a transcript. So I decided to write up the dialogue from the interview, which is posted below the video. Enjoy!

Michael Nolan: Hi, I am Michael Nolan, a senior acquisitions editor for New Riders and we are coming to you from the 2008 South by South West Interactive festival and conference here in Austin, Texas. 

And I am speaking with Kevin Lawver who is one of the co-authors of our book, Adapting to Web standards: CSS and AJAX for Big Sites.

Now, Kevin, of course, is very familiar with big sites because he works at AOL, but before we get to that, tell me about the International Day of Awesomeness.

Kevin Lawver: (Laughter.) It is a holiday that I invented that started started as a joke at work and it slowly built. I threw together a website for it and send it to some friends and everybody thought that it is a funny idea, but I actually started taking it seriously. My kid came up with the tag line. 

MN: Which is? 

KL: “Nobody is perfect, but everyone can be awesome” and— 

MN: That’s a great tag line. 

KL: It became the start of, the idea is to do something that you wouldn’t normally do. 

MN: Then how did you do that, observe the International Day of Awesomeness? 

KL: I dyed my hair bright blue which is something I always wanted to do. My friends and in high school and they had bright blue hair and I was always very jealous, but never had the guts to actually do it myself. So, this morning in my hotel I ruin two hotel towels putting it in myself.

MN: I bet they will be unhappy when they come in and pick up those towels.

KL: I will pay for it.

MN: (Laughing.) Looks outstanding. It’s awesome, in a word.

KL: I would hope so. 

MN: Yeah, yeah.

KL: Would be a failure if I didn’t.

MN: So, your presentation you say you’ve been coming to SXSW for several years. How long? 

KL: This is my fifth. 

MN: Your fifth year at South By. And what you have seen change in South By in those five years?

KL: It’s so much bigger now. That we have—They just opened the third floor for panels last year and this year there are 12 panels going on at the same time and you have to give up all hope of meeting everybody. When I was here on 2004 my first one— 

MN: Still possible.

KL: Yeah, I met, you know, a good 150 to 200 people and I felt like I had met pretty much every one there and that was open to being met and this time there is just no way.

MN: There is no way. One of my authors compared it to drinking from a fire hose and I thought that was a good metaphor for what SXSW has become, but, still, it’s fabulous. It’s like the best conference in the Spring, at least— 

KL: Easily. 

MN: —for Web designers and developers. I mean I just always come away with new insights and excitement. 

KL: It’s a really good mix. It’s not a super technical conference and it’s not in a cubby hole. You got everybody together. You got designers and developers, entrepreneurs and writers, just lots of creative folks. So, for me the overlap is what is interesting. 

MN: Have you attended any good parties?

KL: I don’t do the parties. 

MN: You don’t do any parties?

KL: Because I just don’t handle being crushed by people. I am good with nerds because I am one, but, you know, in a bunch you cannot hear anyone talk. 

So, we decided there are two types of people in the world. There are Bar People and Dinner Party People. I am much more a Dinner Party Person.

MN: So, we probably have had nice dinners with folks here.

KL: Yeah.

MN: So when we talk about this book, Big Sites, that’s what you are presenting about here at South By this year. Tell us a bit about your presentation.

KL: I did a panel with Thomas Vander Wal, Cindy Li, Jason Garber, and Leslie Jensen-Inman about working for big companies and then making a transition to maybe start-up life or doing your own thing or educational stuff. And we talk a lot about coping mechanisms and— 

MN: What are some? What are some?

KL: I only ever worked for AOL. It has been my entire professional life. 

MN: Yeah, that’s a big company.

KL: It’s, yeah, huge. Fluctuates a bit, but it’s a very large company. 

I think the biggest one is to to know what your strata is and know what your role is and you can kick all kinds of butt within that role and within that strata and make a big difference. But, above that or maybe below it or to the sides of it, you have to decide to let that stuff be. And you don’t have much control. There is all kinds of stuff that happens above you that you can object to and, you know, make sure that your objection is noted. But they are going to go and make their decisions without you and there is nothing you can do. You can either. You have two choices, you either get over it and move on or you leave. And I have done a pretty good job over 13 years of getting over a lot of different stuff—

MN: Moving on, yeah.

KL: And you sorta cannot affect that anymore.

MN: And who on your panel represented the freelancer or the small company?

KL: Both—Jason Garber now works for a start-up. He worked with me at AOL for a while. He works for start-up of 10 people. Thomas Vander Wal works for himself. He is a single-person company. Cindy Li does freelancing and works in a small design firm and Leslie Jensen-Inman is a professor at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. We had, they all had broad experience in different size organizations. So, Cindy Li has done the start-up thing and AOL—

MN: So, what are the particular challenges for a Web designer or developer in a large organization?

KL: If you work at, you know, mass market Internet scale building things it’s a totally different exercise. You have to go out of the door being able to handle millions of request a day and you can’t really cut corners. 

Like, if you are start-up, you can sort of just throw something out there. Slap it together, throw it out there and see what happens and then worry about the scale when you get there. If you get that network effect of, you know, an AIM, an AOL, a Yahoo or Google, you can’t do that. 

You can’t just like say, “okay, eeeeeh, lets push it out and see what happens,” because it will melt without getting even half the traffic that it possibly could. 

MN: Yeah, understandable.

KL: So, you have to think a lot more about infrastructure and even, even on the frontend side you have to think a lot more about caching, geo distribution of content, you know, edge caching of assets and that kind of stuff. There aren’t books on it. 

And so when we, when Christopher, brought up the idea of doing the book. Well, lets do, you know a real explanation of how this works and how something in a very large company goes from beginning to— 

MN: So, it’s about applying Web standards to, for a large Web presence. 

What have you heard people talking about? What’s the buzz at South By this year that’s new. Is there anything new that’s caught your eye?

KL: There is a lot more talk about OpenID this year. There seem to be a lot more business panels. There is one this afternoon on bootstrapping, which we have never had a panel on bootstrapping your own start-up before. 

Honestly, I’ve been so busy doing my panel and a product that I built was up for a Web award last night, so I was little stressed out. 

MN: Did it win?

KL: We won in the CSS Category. It’s a site called Ficlets. Speaking of a scale, it was the complete opposite. AOL let us go off as an experiment last year. 

MN: Oh, so it’s an AOL site and you won a Web Award. 

KL: Yeah, for the CSS category.

MN: That should be a nice thing to go back to Virginia with and tell them. 

KL: Yes, it’s a little statue.

MN: Great. That’s wonderful. It’s really nice taking with you, Kevin.

KL: Yeah, thank you.

MN: And thank you for coming by.

KL: Yeah, no problem, it was fun.

The Nashville Voices That Matter Web Design Conference

I’ve recently returned from Voices That Matter in Nashville. As Jeremy noted earlier, this conference is a little different in that the common thread was that each speaker had written a book or is working on a book that will be published relatively soon through Pearson Education. If you don’t know who they are, I’m pretty sure you might have heard of New Riders or PeachPit books. 

This approach created a rather eclectic and engaging mix of topics in the crowd. One morning you are watching Steve Krug on stage having a conversation about usability and books. Then in the afternoon you have sessions from Kimberly Blessing talking about managing internal standards for Web development. 

As someone who is more of a generalist, working on almost every part of a site’s development, Voices That Matter was a refreshing change of pace on the conference scene. In fact, when I saw the speaker listing earlier in the year, I made a point to stay for the whole conference. 

In addition to the wide range of topics, the attendance is way lower than SXSW. So, if you wanted to follow up with someone at the conference, you could. You didn’t, like I had to for SXSW this past year, send an email to friends to haggle meeting locations and times. 

To help promote PeachPit’s Adapting to Web Standards, I was humbled to be one of the three CSS speakers that includes Charles Wykes-Smith and Zoe Gillenwater, I took the opportunity for my session to be a bit inspirational and showcase how several everyday CSS techniques, applied at the right time can create something visual interesting. 

Speaking of inspiration, there was the city itself, Nashville.

In taking it’s lengthy nickname “The Athens of the South” to the extreme, there’s a full-scale replica of Parthenon. As a reformed high school Latin geek, visiting the replica was a little bittersweet. If only the National Junior Classical League held their National convention there, I might have studied more for the Certamen.

Then there was Hatch Show Print, a printing house that’s been making music promotional posters since the late 1800s. The letter blocks they use today or pretty much the same ones they still use in music posters for R.E.M., Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and so on. 

So, looking back at it, Voices That Matter was a wonderful, intimate conference. Hope to be back next year.