Ethan Marcotte Interviewed

Ethan Marcotte specializes in making the code that runs some great designs on the Web. While the designs are impressive, his approach to HTML and CSS is inspiring. For me, the code often outshines the design when Ethan is on a project. It’s one of the main reasons why I asked him to co-author Professional CSS and it’s a reason that savvy Airbag industries snatched him up.

Ethan Marcotte is humble, diligent and works hard to excel in his passions. Quite frankly, we’re lucky that he has chosen to be a Web nerd instead of a literary academic.

Ethan Marcotte header

Christopher Schmitt: What’s your name and what you do?

Ethan Marcotte: My name’s Ethan Marcotte. I work as a UI developer for Airbag Industries, and my blog’s URL,, can beat up your blog’s URL.

CS: How would you describe yourself?

EM: I’m a lover, not a fighter.

CS: The unstoppable robot ninja is a lover, not a fighter?

EM: Everybody could do with a good hug now and again.

CS: You’ve stated, at one point, to owning 98GBs of music. What is the size of your music collection now?

EM: Ninety-eight? Damn…I don’t know as it’s ever gotten quite *that* high. My iTunes library’s currently hovering around 59 gigs, but I suppose the year’s not over yet.

CS: Maybe it’s not 98Bgs, but a metric fuckton. Must have lost a decimal point in the conversion.

EM: If you asked Ryan Sims, he’d tell you that 58 of those gigabytes are They Might Be Giants tracks. I say that Mr. Sims can bite me.

CS: What’s wrong with nerdy alternative rock?

EM: I couldn’t tell you. Your music might be nerdy, but mine is composed solely of Pure Awesome™.

CS:That is still a lot of music. How do you manage that large of a collection? How do you back it up?

EM: I use iTunes for the listenin’ and the organizin’. As for backing things up…yeah. I should probably get on that.

CS: I find it hard to believe that you don’t have a backup process in place for recovering your work. Do you have anything setup for backing up your work?

EM: Well, my non-music files are backed up religiously. At Airbag, we use SVN to back up all of our client work, whether it’s PSDs, static templates, or the source code for a super-awesome application we’re working on. My personal stuff is actually mirrored between my MacBook Pro and my G5 by ChronoSync.

My iTunes library doesn’t fit on my laptop anymore, so it’s exempted from the syncage–hence, it doesn’t really get backed up at all.

Which is, as the kids say, stupid.

CS: What musical artists are you into now?

EM: It sounds pretentious as hell, but I binge on music: I’ll play the hell out of an album when I first get it, then drop it cold and pick up something else. And what I listen to is pretty circumstantial, too. I mean, I’ll put on something melodic when I’m working on comps, but I prefer something a bit more jarring and mechanical when I’m coding.

Anyway. Lately, I’ve been playing quite a bit of Interpol, The Futureheads, Mobius Band, Bloc Party, Magneto, some Art Blakey, and a bit of Tracey Thorn’s new album. And the usual dose of classical music. Oh, and Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom. Always Ruby Vroom.

CS: What’s your academic background? Is it related to having four copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost?

EM: No, I’m just addicted to pointlessly long poems.

So yeah, I was a literature major in college. It was fun, in its way: I learned a hell of a lot, especially during my last year at school, but I was a bit ambivalent about pursuing anything beyond that. I figured I’d give myself a few years off, and see if I missed the books enough to enroll in, say, a PhD program.

I’m coming up on year nine of “a few years off,” so I think I’m probably getting by okay. *grin*

CS: Did you start off in Web design after you left college?

EM: Professionally? Yeah, basically. Right after I graduated, I managed to get a random job working for a dotcom outside of New York City. It was more or less the worst place I’ve ever worked at: long hours, horrible management, and bad projects. Still, the company somehow managed to attract some really incredible, talented people; they’re largely responsible for starting my education in working online.

From there, I got a job working for the Boston arm of a Manhattan-based studio. I worked as a lead front-end developer for a small team, and again had the opportunity to work with a small army of insanely bright, funny, talented individuals. Which I suppose is the best thing about this industry: there’s no shortage of rockstars to learn from.

Not to get all Hallmark on you or anything.

CS: Your own story is a path of someone not following their traditional education,or training if you will, and pursuing a different field. Do you find that learning for our industry is better when it’s done online than a traditional college experience?

EM: When I entered the industry, there wasn’t anything in the way of established curricula for web design. The dotcom era changed that, of course, but at the time my only option was learning online. So I can’t really speak with any authority as to which is better: some of the most talented designers I’ve met came from science backgrounds, and some of the best developers I know are trained artists or musicians.

CS: Were there any other jobs you tackled?

EM: After school? No, nothing really outside the industry–I mean, I’ve had some writing gigs, but so far everything’s been tech-related.

CS: What was your first exposure to the Internet/Web?

EM: Well, that’d probably be a high school BBS some student tech wonks set up when I was a sophomore. Dialing in to a FirstClass server to trash your English teacher on a bulletin board wasn’t exactly most compelling first encounter with the wide wonderful internets, but it did the trick. I was hooked.

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

EM: I first admitted this to the world onstage during AEA Boston this year, but it involved madrigals.

That’s right, madrigals: the D&D-playing dork of musical genres. I was part of an a cappella madrigal group in college—shut up—, and when they asked for volunteers to build their website, I guess I didn’t step backward quickly enough. So most of my initiation into the realm of web design involved a *cough* not-so-legitimate copy of Photoshop 3, and copying/pasting some other site’s font-und-table markup until I figured out exactly what all those little angle brackets did.

And yes, the site’s still online; no, you can’t have the URL. Trust me on this one.

CS: When did you develop that Web site? What did you do after that first Web site? How did you learn to Web design afterwards?

EM: I launched that site in 1996. Leave your DOCTYPEs at the door.

After that site went live, I did a couple freelancing gigs. Nothing especially sexy, mind, but I learned a lot. Though honestly, I’d say I got most of my education after school: on the job, and by trolling various web-related sites like Surfstation, k10k, and linkdup.

CS: What’s your least favorite CSS bug?

EM: Does “Internet Explorer 6” count?

I’m not sure I can pick just one, honestly. I’d have to say that IE’s “expanding box” model is pretty damned frustrating to deal with–at least, more so than the average rendering bug.

But in general, I have a lot fewer problems with CSS bugs than I used to. Part of that’s knowing where certain “trouble spots” lie in browsers’ CSS implementations, and using alternate methods I try to recommend that folks read up on something Molly Holzschlag called a “surgical correction strategy”. By using conditional comments in conjunction with separate files that apply browser-specific CSS patches, Airbag’s drastically reduced the amount of time it spends debugging.

CS: How do you feel about Web development now than say five years ago? In some ways it’s easier with the release of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows, but what challenges do you currently face in building Web sites?

EM: Well, I don’t think our largest challenges are technical ones. My workflow hasn’t changed significantly in the past couple years, and I think that most of the issues we were once faced with–browser compatibility, workflow questions, perceived shortcomings in CSS–have been overcome by now. If anything, I think we’re all just waiting to see what’s next: CSS3, HTML5, and keeping tabs on stuff like Silverlight and AIR. Which makes the “now” feel like a bit of a transitional period.

That’s not to say that there aren’t battles to be fought right now: we’ve got plenty of people slinging mud from both sides of the validation issue, discussions over what this whole “web design” thing actually entails, and there are still a fair number of companies that are just now learning how to incorporate standards into their work.

Anyway. It’s not a boring time to be working online, by any stretch of the imagination; it just feels like most of the big technical battles have been fought and, for the most part, won.

CS: What are your thoughts on HTML5 and CSS3 specification?

EM: It feels a little early to pass judgment on HTML5, frankly. The spec authors mention that work on the spec will be ongoing for years, possibly a decade or more. So while certain features currently being discussed make this markup junkie a little wary (Client-side database storage? Really?), I’m excited the HTML spec’s being revisited. Can’t wait to see what the end result is.

As for CSS3, let me at it. Can’t wait. Multiple background images? Want it yesterday. Flexible, multi-column layouts? As the kids say, yesplz.

CS: Have you had taken a look at or worked with Adobe AIR? Over at Heatvision we are building our first application with AIR-and it’s been fairly successful where a typical web application wouldn’t work.

EM: My experience has largely been as a consumer. I’ve read quite a bit of the literature, but the most I’ve actually done with AIR has been toying with applications like Pownce’s client and Snitter. So at this point, AIR’s just yet another framework I wish I had more time to tinker with.

CS: What do you think of Microsoft’s Silverlight? Any thoughts in its relation to Adobe Flash? You’re not obligated to use the phrase “Flash Killer” in your answer.

EM: Well, my MacBook Pro doesn’t actually meet the installation requirements, so I’m again on the sidelines with this one. If they can really smooth out some of the cross-platform woes they’ve been having, then Silverlight could really get some traction in the next few years. But right now, it’s too early to tell.

CS: I totally agree with you about companies needing to incorporate standards into their workflow. I feel there’s challenge out there for companies to embrace standards based workflow. Have you seen that in working with other companies or in your brief stint so far with Airbag?

EM: Absolutely, and I think it’s one thing we could definitely improve upon. Working in a client- and deadline-driven industry complicates the matter, to a certain extent; when a client’s worried about ad revenue, industry regulators, or the size of their logo, it’s hard to sell them on the business case for having standards-compliant code stay standards-compliant.

It’s just not a discussion we’re used to having, which is part of the reason I wrote that article for ALA last year. Rather than simply leading with benefits like SEO and accessibility, we need to introduce the benefits of–well, standards early on in the sales pitch. Hopefully we’ll develop the language in time, and our clients will start to ask for it by name. It’s not uncommon to see DOCTYPEs asked for by name in RFPs these days, so maybe we’re not far off.

CS: What’s your set up look like when building a site or template?

EM: All my coding’s done in TextMate, which is the program I’ve liked the best among the other OS X coding applications (despite the horrible, horrible single-character undo). I’ve got a directory called “-default” that has a stock directory/file setup I use for all my projects. So when I’m starting work on a new site, I just need to clone that directory and open up the TextMate project file.

I build everything in Firefox first, then test on Safari/Opera. Assuming everything looks good there, I use VMWare Fusion to check how things are looking in Internet Explorer, your dear friend and mine.

CS: For a while you were running the operation of Vertua Studios. How was being your own boss? What lessons did you learn?

EM: I ran Vertua for about two years, and had a blast doing it. But yeah, it was a bit of a learning experience. In working for myself, the biggest hurdles I had to overcome were my time management skills–or lack thereof. Client deadlines and face-to-face meetings can shape your day only so much; the real trick for me was staying focused when the schedule quieted down. I’d get distracted much less easily if I established little milestones in my day: email for a half hour in the morning, four hours of work, then a half hour lunch, and so on. I think the only way to become better at sticking to a routine is to force yourself to become a slave to one for awhile.

CS: Now you work for Airbag Industries. How was the transition?

EM: Airbag and Vertua merged in April of this year, and it’s been just stellar. There hasn’t really been much of a transition to speak of, as more and more of my work had been coming from Airbag during Vertua’s final year. So when Greg offered to formalize things a bit more, it seemed like a great fit.

And so far, it’s been great: the team is excellent, and we’ve been working on some really killer projects (with some more in the works). I saw joining Airbag as a chance to work with some of my favorite people working online today.

I mean, I’m not a trained designer like Rob, Shaun, or Jason, and definitely not a Photoshop savant like Dan, or Ryan. So as someone who enjoys designing the odd website, working with someone like Greg’s been a stupidly great learning experience. Ryan Irelan is that rare breed of back-end developer: he’s got a deep technical knowledge, but is very good at clearly communicating complex concepts to clients or to stupid UI guys from Boston. And Russ Casenhiser, the newest member of the team, brings a business development/project management acumen to the team that is nothing short of badass.

So yeah, I’d say things are good. I heart this job.

CS: Airbag appears to be a virtual company with all or most of its employees in remote locations. Do you still keep up with the routine or routines you developed while working for yourself at Vertua?

I try to, yeah. The only real difference has been that instead of setting the project timelines myself, I’m working with the rest of the team to establish them. Other than that, the routine’s basically the same: keep a strict schedule in place so that Ethan doesn’t run off to chase something shiny.

CS: Thanks for your time! It’s always a pleasure, Ethan. 

(Photo: Brian Warren)

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