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.

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