Netdiver magazine

/ What's new in design
digital culture

Web stars speak

continued / Interview with Eric Meyer

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/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

The moment when all the work you've done and all the experiences you've had come together in a way that is totally new to you, that changes the way you think and how you perceive the world. That's why Thomas Edison's famous dictum about inspiration and perspiration rings so true: the 99% leads up to the 1%.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client.

A client who will let the designer do his job, and take professional advice to heart. Failing that, someone who has a large bank account and is willing to pay for the extra hours of work necessitated by his own unrealistic mid-project requirement changes.

/ How should we educate our clients?

I don't think the real goal is education, it's service. If I hire a contractor to renovate my kitchen, I don't want to be taught his job skills and secrets. I don't want to know what brand of glue he's using to set the floor tiles, or which firm is supplying his wood cabinets. If I wanted to know how to install cabinets, I'd have gone out and learned for myself. I just want to tell the contractor what I want, and have him tell me how long that will take and how much it will cost. I also want him to make suggestions for ways to meet my goals that might not have occurred to me, to know that he's doing the best job he can for a fair price, and that the results will be quality work.

So I think what we need to do is find out what clients want. Then we can tell them whether or not they can have it, and at what cost. They don't need to know that their site is being created with CSS, or tables, or Flash, or whatever. They need to know that their project requirements are going to be met, and that the consultant has thought through to other possible project requirements.

For example, if a university asked me to quote them on a high-impact recruitment site but didn't mention accessibility for some reason, I would mention that I thought it an important part of the project at hand, and tailor my proposal based on that belief. As Jeffrey Zeldman said much more succinctly, "Show, don't tell." Tell them what you propose to deliver, not how you propose to deliver it.

/ How do we protect clients from their own bad decisions when it comes to web projects?

By providing our professional experience in the form of honest opinions about their decisions. That doesn't mean telling them they're stupid, but it might mean saying, "I think that isn't the best approach for these reasons, and here is something I think will fill the same need in a better way." If the client can't accept that kind of feedback, then you probably don't want to be working with them anyway. If you can't get them to at least listen to you, imagine the trouble you'll have when you ask for payment! So make sure your contract has an escape clause.

/ You have been invited to numerous web related events. Can you tell us why?

Writing books definitely helps! I'd spoken at a few academic conferences before my first book came out, but I started being invited to commercial conferences after O'Reilly announced my first book in their catalog. Publishing online can lead to similar attention, but there's still something about having words in the form of ink attached to pressed dead trees that creates an air of authority. Sometimes I wonder why that's so; I think most authors in our line of work do.

Hopefully, though, I keep being asked to speak because I continue to have something interesting to say. I do try to tailor every presentation to the event, and to keep coming up with new material to present. I have this tendency to assume the audience is the same group of people every time, so I don't want to bore them with stuff I've already talked about. It's more likely that I just don't want to bore myself, I suppose. There's nothing more damaging to a presentation than a presenter who's obviously doing the same routine for the hundredth time, and is effectively sleepwalking his way through it.

/ You are a family man. How do you manage a balancing act?

I work out of my home and have fairly flexible hours, which lets me contribute to errand-running when necessary, and that helps quite a bit. My wife Kat also works on Saturdays and some evenings, which allows me time to write and work on personal projects without intruding on my regular work hours or my family time. But the biggest factor is that Kat is incredibly supportive of my work and all that I do, and very understanding that often the work runs long hours and keeps me in my office.

We'll see how the balance evolves once she and I have children, though. I understand small ones can take up a piece of one's time.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

It's important to any form of commerce, even the flow of information and services. The Creative Commons is the best recent example I've seen. Ideas like open licensing of ideas have been around for a while, but creating a brand drew people to a central place where they could get information they needed. Granted, they also have some very compelling tools, like the license generator, but the same resources with no brand would have garnered a lot less attention from the people the initiative seeks to reach. With a simple, memorable, appropriate name and a simple logo, the Commons made open copyright accessible, respectable, and (above all) memorable.

/ How did you end up being hired by Netscape?

When Netscape decided to create a standards evangelism team, they went looking for people who had practical experience and a track record of caring about standards compliance. My name came up, and after looking at some of my writing, they got in touch with me and offered the job. I was just incredibly lucky that they were willing to let me work remotely.

/ Describe what you do presently.

My title is "Standards Evangelist," which means I'm paid by Netscape to find standards-based cross-browser solutions and promote them, to identify ways to improve standards support in Gecko and in AOL-TW properties, and to maintain Netscape DevEdge. We've been working hard to make DevEdge a lean, high-value resource for Web developers, and I'm really proud of what we've done there. I'm a member of a team of eight, all tasked with the same basic job I have, although with different specialties.

A good portion of my job is looking at Web sites that aren't cross-browser friendly, figuring out a standards-based way to do what they want to do, and proactively contacting the site maintainers to explain what was found and to give them the solution. Most of the team does similar work, and we often work together on a single site.

/ Has this become the most prominent part of your daily activities?

From a time perspective, certainly, as I spend forty or more hours every week at work, and my work is to be a standards evangelist. I'd been one before this job, but on my own time. Now I have very similar roles in my work time and my personal time, which is a wonderful combination for me, but it also means that it dominates my work life.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

It's the means to communicate more quickly, cheaply, and effectively than was ever before possible. I view it as an evolutionary step in communications technology, but not revolutionary. The last true revolution in communication was the global telegraph network, to which much of the Internet owes its nature; one of the best books I've read on the subject is The Victorian Internet by Tom Standige. Every silly blue-sky claim and technological problem the Internet has suffered is an echo of what the telegraph triggered. Remember when Negroponte claimed the Internet would erase political barriers and end wars? Exactly the same claim was made about the telegraph, more than a century earlier. That was before we'd had even a single world war, let alone two or three.

What I think is revolutionary about the Internet is not its technology, but its culture. To me, the Internet culture expresses the best parts of capitalism and socialism with its a dual emphasis on individual achievement and reward, and on supporting the common good. That may sound all touchy-feely-New-Agey, but the truth is that contributing to the common good rewards the individual as well as the community. The reputational capital you build up by contributing to the common good can translate to direct benefit to you, and that reward can take many forms. If you post a lot of helpful messages to a forum, then when you need help, the forum members are far more likely to help you out. If you release tools into the public domain, then you provide more free time and conserved effort to other programmers, who are then more free to develop tools that they will release and you can use. And all of that put together can make you a recognized name in a field of study, which increases your chances of being able to derive individual benefit in the form of speaking and consulting fees.

Obviously not everyone works that way: spammers are a classic example of people attempting to gain individual wealth at the expense of the common good. There are also those who think everything should be released into the community, with no individual reward, as if profit were somehow dirty. But many of the big names in the "everything open" crowd get substantial consulting and speaking fees, which is a perfect example of how contributing to the community can reward the individual. What the individual chooses to do with that reward, of course, is their affair.

/ If you had a single advice to give to the web dev community what would it be?

Stop thinking of yourselves as kids playing in a toy factory, and start thinking of yourselves as the professionals you've become. That doesn't mean we have to stop having fun, but it does mean we need to realize that the clients are not superiors whose every whim drives a project. They're like partners, exchanging their goods (cash) for our services. We know as much about what we do, and how to do it, as they do about their operations.

Fundamental to that, of course, is that development should be based on the use of open standards whenever possible. Otherwise you aren't actually being a professional.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

They're the same three qualities needed to succeed anywhere: hard work, persistence, and luck.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

That's a hard thing to answer, since I'm usually proudest of whatever major project I most recently completed. At this point in time, though, I'm probably most proud of my most recent book, Eric Meyer on CSS. I've had a lot of people tell me that reading the book finally illustrated for them what CSS is all about, and how it's supposed to be used; it has actually influenced the strategic direction of companies, some of them quite large. It's hard not to be really proud of that.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

I would found a Web design and technologies institute whose goal was to encourage work on advancing the tools and techniques we use every day, and on pushing common standards on which we could rely. I guess it would something like a Web Standards Project with a physical plant and a lot of funding for things like seminars, conferences, scholarships, research grants, and public relations.

I'd also do my best to ensure that it focused on human-computer interaction and user interface issues as much as it did on the technology that underlies everything, and that there was a flow of ideas and communication between those realms. The overriding aim would be to make authoring, designing, and using the Web all easier. I think that's something worth doing, and so far it's only been done sporadically.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

Find your strengths and use them as a foundation for whatever you do.

/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?

I think it's right about where it should be, as harsh as that probably sounds to the people out of work right now. During the boom years, there were a lot of companies that existed solely because someone had a good PowerPoint presentation and a cool-sounding company name. There were way too many people working a space that couldn't support them over the long haul. The bubble-burst was a pretty classical example of overfeeding leading to such a scarcity of resources that the population crashes.

Over time, the population stabilizes on whatever the ecology can reasonably support. The most capable members of the population survive, as do the fattest - although they're a lot more lean by the time things settle down. Now that the herd has been thinned, so to speak, it can grow and evolve at a more sustainable pace.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

The dictionary definition is as good as anything: a coming together or a meeting place. Browsers, for example, were on a divergent course for most of the 1990s. Now they're converging on open standards and competing on user features, like built-in popup blocking or image toolbars, which is exactly where they should compete.

/ Is the www an international network?

Of course! The major problem I've noticed of late is that we haven't worked out the whole character-encoding situation yet. The fact that I can copy a block of text in MS Word, paste it into a Web document, and then have the text get totally mangled in Web browsers is absolutely ridiculous. There are solutions, but they're poorly implemented. Document encoding is a good step, but it isn't enough; this stuff needs to be transparent. If I copy Cyrillic text from a Russian Web site, it should be pasted as Cyrillic in any application on any platform, and rendered as same. End of story. That it doesn't work that way seems to me a fundamental failure on the part of the community. I don't even care what solution we use, so long as we use one that works for everyone.

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

It will look like us, just as the Internet does today. No matter what communication medium we invent, we'll still talk about basically the same things, and in basically the same ways. The mechanics of the medium may change, but it will always be a reflection of the people who use it.

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