The Kimberly Blessing Interview
If you haven’t heard the name Kimberly Blessing, which is indeed a failing, you might have heard of some of her work.
Around the turn of the millennium, Kimberly started as an Interactive Developer for AOL. While there she was instrumental in the standards-based training of the developers as the Acting Director/Senior Manager of Studio Development.
She currently works for PayPal as the manager of their Web Development Platform Team.
Lending her expertise in managing Web standards within a team environment she learned from AOL and PayPal, Kimberly authored the “The Circle of Standards” chapter to the book, Adapting to Web Standards.
She’s also a co-leader of the Web Standards Project, an organization which played a key role in getting Microsoft and Netscape to adapt standards like CSS in their browsers. Recently AOL, which bought the Netscape Browser, announced on December 28th that support for the browser is coming to an end.
I’m pleased she is able to spend some time to talk about Web standards, of course, but also being an introvert, HTML emails, and Duran Duran.
CS: How would you describe yourself?
KB: Personally, I’m the eternal student I love to learn and to read. I’m a geek at heart, so I’m constantly tinkering, coding, and playing with new technologies. I love music. I love color. I love to be silly. I love to eat candy. And I’m an excellent napper.
Professionally, I call myself a reticent standards evangelist. Why reticent? I’m extremely introverted but I care so much about standards that I’m willing to battle my natural tendencies to help change the Web.
CS: I’m actually somewhat surprised. I’m an introvert as well and I’ve known you for a while and I haven’t really thought of you an introvert. It seems you’ve made some steps to overcome the natural tendency to withdrawal from social settings? It’s been an ongoing battle for me.
KB: If you put me next to an extrovert, you’ll see a big difference! I definitely prefer to interact in small groups or with people one-on- one, which I think works extremely well when it comes to coaching and mentoring designers and developers who are just learning about standards.
And while I’m an introvert, I’m not a recluse! Yes, I tend to stick with the social situations I’m most comfortable with, which usually involves people or environments I already know. My problem is that I greatly dislike idle time, which is what new social situations often feel like—you know, when you’re the wallflower and everyone else seems to be best friends? So I have to prepare myself for that idle time, by figuring out what I can talk to people about, by not bringing my smartphone along, etc. It sounds incredibly nerdy, I know, but that’s me. And I’m OK with that.
CS: If I may ask, how do you handle popular Web geek events like SXSW Interactive? There is almost something going from the moment the conference starts until the last closing party. As an introvert, I get burned out fairly quickly and need to recharge with solitude. Which I find also mentally taxing since you get to see people–your peers, colleagues, friends and soon- to-be-friends– for some people this one time of the year. I should be out there interacting with people, but I know my limits.
KB: That’s exactly it—knowing your limits. I don’t even try to do everything that’s on the SXSW agenda. Conferences that I regularly attend, like SXSW, are for me relatively equal parts of meeting new people and catching up with friends. Catching up with friends is kind of like downtime, since that’s generally one-on-one or small-group stuff. At other times I make myself go meet new people… and then I generally retire to my room for some quiet time. I sometimes push myself a bit beyond my limits, but not too far—that always causes burnout.
CS: What’s your academic background?
KB: I earned my bachelor’s degree in computer science at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts school near Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr’s computer science program is increasingly being recognized for its groundbreaking techniques in teaching computer science, including use of personal robots in the classroom, and incorporating research in the undergraduate experience. I did my senior research in autonomous robotic agents, while I was also working for the College as their first Webmaster.
I received my master’s degree in computer science from The George Washington University in Washington, DC while I was working full-time at AOL.
CS: What was your first exposure to the Internet/Web?
KB: Well, it wasn’t the Internet or the Web, but in 1984 my elementary school set up a network of TRS-80 computers. We had the ability to message other computers on the network, and we used software to track attendance and library book checkouts. About two years later I used Q-Link—Quantum Link—for the Commodore 64. I guess that I never really experienced a time when computers couldn’t be networked and used for one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-one communication!
In high school I regularly used FTP and Gopher to do research for the school paper. Then around 1992, I started using Prodigy and CompuServe. During my first semester in college, I started using the Web, and in 1994 I created my first Web site.
CS: How did you first get involved with Web design?
KB: Every time I say this, people laugh but it’s true! I first got involved because of Duran Duran. I’m a huge fan, and I have a huge collection of their music. In the early 1990s, there was a fan mailing list called Tiger-List and a number of people were working on a comprehensive discography. I started a ‘zine to publish the work, and as soon as I got my hands on a Web hosting account, I put the information online. Of course, there was little “design” online at the time, but I watched what other sites did, learned by reading their source code, and tried things out for myself. Still, when I go back to look at that site circa 1997, I’m impressed by elements of the design. The official Duran Duran site currently doesn’t look all that different!
CS: The first Web site I did was for a music group, too, namely U2. It seems that people resonate well when building sites about topics they love or are passionate about. Do you still work on a Duran Duran site or other sites around a similar passion?
KB: I stopped working on the Duran Duran Web site in 2000, but I’ve been thinking about restarting it as a wiki… but we’ll see.
Since 1995 I’ve worked on a Web site for Chris Connelly, the former industrial music god turned indie singer-songwriter. I even helped him published a book, Confessions of the Highest Bidder, Poems and Songwords 1982-1996. We’ve built up such a community around the Web site that now there’s little for me to do on a day-to-day basis, because the fans drive the content.
Besides music, I’m passionate about attracting and retaining women in computing and technology. For the past three years, I built and maintained the Web site for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. This year’s conference not only featured an impressive list of presenters from industry, academia, and government, but also featured many social media tools, including Twitter, Flickr, and a wiki for note-taking! Now that I’ve handed off maintenance of this site, I’m planning something new, of course. Sorry though, I can’t give you more detail yet!
CS: Let me get your thoughts on this topic. We’ve both built fan sites and probably have used them in our research for our respective interests. There’s this Wikipedia effect on fan sites or anything of some remote popularity: it completely removes the need for basic fan sites. I can search Wikipedia for information on summaries of obscure television shows that have gone off the air faster than I could at someone’s usually poorly designed fan site. Even official sites have a problem dealing with this problem.
While I love their music, U2’s official Web site can’t compete with Wikipedia and the internet. If I ever have a question about the band or want to find the latest news, I go to other resources rather than paying a forty dollar subscription fee to see the official video on their site or get a stale press release. If someone is going to build a fan site, I believe the site needs to be modeled like Whedonesque where there’s an embracing of fellow fans and the community. It’s almost as if Wikipedia has replaced what Web 1.0 was all about. Web sites need to jump start to Web 2.0 mean anything these days.
KB: This is a really interesting question for me, right now. I got away from the hardcore Duran Duran fan crowd (and Web sites) when I was in grad school and I’m now having to catch up with many of them. I’ve noticed that no one site—not the band’s official site, not their community fan club site, and not even Wikipedia—has all of the information that I’d expect to be in one place. But Google clearly makes finding resources amongst those sites very easy!
So I think that fan sites may still have a place, if they’re providing information that’s unique or if it’s presented in a way that’s easier to find and crawl than an official site.
I think that people will always want to create their own basic fan sites, just to express their fandom. But the more advanced fan sites can put a lot of pressure on an act to step up their investment in their Web presence!
CS: How was working for AOL? What were your positions and their respective responsibilities throughout your tenure there?
KB: I started at AOL in 1999 as a Web Developer and was promoted to Senior Web Developer in less than a year. I was the technical lead for the eCommerce division during a time of rapid growth it was very exciting! I also took on the technical lead role for the AOL@School project.
When you first start working on Web sites that easily get upwards of a million hits a day, it’s a little intimidating, but it gets you to think very differently about your work. Organization and planning become key factors in how smoothly site changes or a redesign gets launched. You have to think about the smallest segment of your audience, as well as the majority. You never want the division Senior Vice-President, who’s still using some ancient machine and browser and is awake at 3 AM monitoring the site launch, to call and complain.
While I was leading these development teams, I came to realize that regardless of how good our tools were, we needed coding standards in order to keep everyone on the same page with how we approached our work. I started writing coding standards for individual projects, but then I also took on writing standards for the entire Web development organization. This effort led me to push for the creation of a team wholly dedicated to standards.
In 2002, I teamed up with the head of the design standards and the nascent QA team, and we worked as the Product Integrity group. I managed both the design and technical standards, provided training, performed code reviews, and worked closely with high-profile projects to ensure they met our standards for design, code, optimization and browser- support.
Around this time I also became aware of the Web Standards movement. I’d been working with CSS since about 1998 not in any professional capacity but more as something to tinker with in my spare time. I realized that, given our systems at AOL, and our browser requirements, we wouldn’t be adopting semantic markup and strict separation of presentation and content very quickly but the seed was planted.
In 2003 I was given the opportunity to serve as AOL’s representative to the W3C CSS Working Group. By this time, the eCommerce code, which I always stayed close to, was largely Web standards compliant. Joining the working group gave me the fuel I needed to push for better Web standards compliance and the redesign of the AOL.com home page in 2004, which was 99.9% compliant, closed the deal. The coverage we got for making the switch was just a blip, but it had quite an impact. Kevin Lawver and I were proposing an internal Web Standards group around this time, and I think we partially got the OK because we were able to demonstrate that we’d get positive coverage for other conversions.
In April of 2004, I took over the Web Development organization. I launched a major training initiative for the developers, bringing in people like Molly Holzschlag and Eric Meyer, and we rolled out a new publishing platform that was completely Web standards-based. The CSS grid system we built for that tool was just remarkable in its browser support and in its flexibility. Only recently have other systems started to match what we did back then.
I left AOL in February 2005 to do consulting work. I joined PayPal in November 2006.
CS: How is your position now at Paypal different or similar than at AOL?
KB: My role at PayPal is most similar to the work that I did as part of the Product Integrity group at AOL though I have dedicated staff working for me now! Because the design and development organizations are very separate at PayPal, I’m not managing the design standards which is great in terms of allowing the team to focus, but tough in terms of getting people with the right mix of skills on cross-functional tasks. We’re still working on that, though, through training.
One challenge that is very similar, between AOL and PayPal, is getting people to recognize the importance of our transmission medium the Web. AOL was a walled garden for a long time, and getting senior management to understand the benefits and challenges in breaking out of those walls. At PayPal, I find that senior management thinks of the application first as a financial system, then as Web site. I’m working to help people understand that we first have to think of PayPal as a Web application to put the user experience and the front end on equal, if not greater footing, than the back end.
CS: I’m assuming PayPal, like AOL, didn’t embrace Web standards immediately. We all weren’t validating HTMl 4 documents in the mid 90s. What made them realize the need for Web standards?
KB: At AOL, it was very easy to demonstrate the ROI of standards, especially when it came to saving time and money on redesigns. Nearly every channel on AOL underwent a yearly redesign, and in a table-based world, redesigns took at least 6 months—so you finished launching a new design and almost immediately went into planning for the next year! With CSS-based layouts and stricter internal content standards, that time table shrunk dramatically. The clincher was the ability to tie Web standards into a new content management and publishing system that was built in 2003: when that went live, a large chunk of AOL content was then standards-compliant, and what wasn’t was easily migrated over.
I wasn’t around at PayPal when the Web standards conversation got started, but I do know that standards-adoption was largely a one- man mission that started in 2005 when Steve Ganz joined PayPal. Again, I think the ROI of standards speaks to the company’s leadership, but the focus on the financial side of the business makes the standards-conversion effort less important. The responsibility to realize a standards-compliant site is fully on the shoulders of the Web developers themselves. Nearly all of them understand the benefits of Web standards—thanks to Steve’s evangelism efforts. Now it’s just a matter of growing skill sets and empowering people to affect that change!
CS: So, your primary mission for PayPal as a group is to train other departments?
KB: My team is pretty equally split between developing our internal standards—working with the user experience and design org to create interaction and visual design standards, as well as common, reusable code solutions—building and improving internal processes and tools in support of developers, and providing training.
CS: It seems to me, maybe because I’m used to usability to be tied to accessible and standards-based design, that for a company like PayPal to be more willing to embrace a more user-centered approach to their Web site. In your opinion, how can one or a group of people in other companies in a similar situation as yours convince upper management or stake holders to change their focus to be more focused on user experience?
KB: I’ve found that when you directly ask any senior management person if they care about the user experience, their answer is always going to be “yes”. The problem is getting them to dedicate money and resources to improving that experience. This is where data—analytics and user research—becomes crucial. In a company that’s large enough, there’s probably someone looking at this data, so it’s a matter of getting a hold of it and interpreting it for management. In a small shop, getting that data might be more difficult to come by—but there’s sufficient information in the public domain that could be compiled to make a case for funding of a project to get site-specific user data.
I say this all of the time, and I’ll repeat it here: getting a stakeholder to buy in to your position on anything largely a matter of understanding what language that person speaks. Do they speak in numbers, statistics? If so, don’t go in to a meeting with stories—prepare charts to convert those stories into numbers. Do they like dollar signs? Convert that story and those numbers into dollars, then. Do the leg work so they don’t have to put extra thought into the subject. You’ll do a much better job of making your case, which greatly increases your chances of getting approval.
CS: You’re co-lead of the Web Standards Project. What’s the purpose of the Web Standards Project for those that might not know?
KB: The Web Standards Project is a grass-roots effort, founded in 1998 by Jeffrey Zeldman, to advocate for Web standards. Initially the group’s focus was on browser manufacturers, to get them to follow the W3C standards.
Since that battle is largely won, we now work on a variety of fronts: we continue to work with browser manufacturers and also authoring tool developers, but we also work with educators to help understand where educational programs today are doing their students wrong by not teaching Web standards—still a large problem, prevalent in most programs that teach Web design and/or development.
We also have teams focused on topics like accessibility, to help bring clarity to the specifications and laws and to help research questions and issues. I don’t think that even our closest followers understand all of the fronts we’re addressing simultaneously! This can be somewhat of a problem, as observers tend to think that we’re dead and irrelevant.
We agree with critics that our mission is a bit outdated and non-specific, but we’re trying to find time to revamp that, amongst all of the other work we’re doing.
CS: So, since the battle for Web standards has been largely won, when’s the victory party? Usually I’m told my invite got lost in the mail.
KB: I think that some battles have been won, but the war isn’t over yet. Some of the W3C working groups are acknowledging that they need to improve specs. The major browser manufacturers still have some work to do. And, sadly, based on the resumes that cross my desk, I’m not seeing the skill-level of the large majority of Web developers improve.
That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to celebrate: every improved spec, browser fix, site conversion, or designer/developer “a ha!” moment is a reason to celebrate.
But from my vantage point, there’s still much work to be done.
CS: How did you first hear about the Web Standards Project? And when did you first join?
KB: I probably first heard about the Web Standards Project when I read Zeldman’s book, which honestly wasn’t too long before I was invited
to join in March 2004.
CS: There are several groups called Task Forces like the DOM Scripting Task Force, Dreamweaver Task Force and so on. So, the Web Standards Project has been, not fractured so much, but more focused on several fronts? It seems like a sensible approach to make evolutionary changes.
KB: When WaSP was a single, centralized group, you knew that there were people that specialized in specific areas related to standards. But those people weren’t always available to lead initiatives in those areas or able to comment about those areas—after all, everyone had some other full-time job to do. So creating task forces around certain areas of interest, where a WaSP member could head up a group of interested WaSPs and other individuals from the community, certainly helped in terms of distributing the work. It also has helped breathe new life into WaSP: most of the recent new WaSP
members came to us through a task force.
CS: As the co-lead for Web Standards Project, do you see the “problem” now not so much with the browsers implementing standards, but the standards not being finalized in a timely fashion? CSS3, I know, has been under development for quite some time now.
KB: No, I don’t think it’s strictly a problem with the standards not being finalized, but now that the browsers have caught up considerably, it’s the logical place to look for greater progress.
What does everyone expect and need from any set of standards? Perfection. Browser manufacturers and developers alike need error- free, misinterpretation-free definitions and explanations. The only way to get that level of detail is through the dedication of knowledgeable people who have quite a lot of time to focus on the standards. Now I can’t speak for any current W3C working group, but I can say from my experience on the CSS working group that not everyone in the group had the time, given that more than half of us had other jobs to tend to. While we were all knowledgeable, we weren’t all properly equipped to dive in to crafting standards. And with relatively little meeting time, even if everyone had been cranking out working drafts, there wasn’t ever enough time to discuss everything.
In my mind, whether you’re talking about browsers or standards, I see a set of management problems, in varying degrees: a lack of knowledgeable, interested, dedicated resources; inefficient and potentially un-changing processes; and less-than-effective or no leadership. The problem here is that you can’t just solve one of these problems and see drastic change!
CS: And these are the issues you addressed in our latest book, Adapting to Web Standards, right? The introduction and management of Web standards in large companies.
KB: Yes—and it’s in the context of the enterprise Web shop because that’s what I know best. However the methodology I introduce, the Circle of Standards, can also apply to an agency or smaller Web shop or educational institution.
CS: Do you felt like you nailed the topic in the book or is there more to cover?
KB: Oh, there’s always more! I’m constantly learning from my experiences. But the Circle of Standards—the concept and process behind driving standards adoption and managing them for the long term—just gets reinforced over and over.
Even if I had the chance, though, I don’t know how much more I could express in a book, other than providing more examples — it’s kind of like learning most managerial concepts: you can read all of the literature out there, but at some point you have to try the concepts yourself in order to get the real learning experience. Still, it might be interesting at some point to add some case studies related to organizations adopting the process.
CS: Wasn’t it also part of your talk at the recent An Event Apart in San Francisco? How was the reception to your talk there?
KB: Yes, I’ve been presenting the Circle of Standards—and promoting standards evangelism as a career—for a whole year now! The reception has been great. I’ve found that many designers and developers still feel like they’re alone in their pursuit of standards and they’re looking for a way to make a greater impact. Even in organizations where everyone is on-board with standards, I still have people tell me that they’d never spent much time thinking about how to coordinate and communicate about standards. So I hope that everyone’s able to take something away from the process and use that knowledge to change their organization for the better.
CS: Is there a potential for the Web Standards Project to have a task force for the W3C then? Not to be annoying like wasps, but more helpful in troubleshooting specifications and proposals?
KB: I won’t say no, but I’d say that currently we don’t have what we would need to fully support such a task force. Like I said before, dedicated resources are necessary, and WaSP already struggles with that issue. I wouldn’t want to hamper the W3C in any way.
That said, some WaSPs are or have been on some of the W3C working groups, and I’d like to see that trend continue!
CS: What are some of the issues in regard to accessibility that the Web Standards Project is tackling?
KB: The Accessibility Task Force has mainly been focused on two efforts: how some of the microformat design patterns affect accessibility and what the implications are for some of the HTML5 proposals.
CS: As with education and Web Standards Project, how is the Web Standards Project working with educational institutions? I’ve often found that universities, as an example, are usually five years behind the curve. And in our industry, that’s ancient times. I remember the sites I was working on five years ago, but I would build them differently if I had to start working on them now.
KB: We also have the Education Task Force, which works with higher education institutions to help raise awareness of standards. This task force hosts the EduTF-PP mailing list, for educators, administrators, and students to come and discuss their challenges and success stories related to creating change in their institutions. This information, along with data collected in a recent survey, is key to helping the members of the task force prepare materials that interested parties will be able to download and use to present the case for Web standards in the academic environment.
CS: Recently the Email Standards Project was launched. While email itself isn’t associated with the Web and I believe there is a standard for ASCII text-based email, the goal of the project is to drive home support for Web standards support for HTML-rich emails. What are your thoughts on this initiative? Is this a taskforce that should have been a part of the Web Standards Project?
KB: Personally, I dislike HTML e-mail. But since we’re never going to convince marketers that they should stick to plain text, I think that using and supporting HTML and CSS in e-mail is the next logical step and the best solution.
I’m glad to see others starting up their own efforts around the issues they care passionately about. I often field requests for the Web Standards Project to take on new initiatives—which, as I’ve said and will continue to say, we just can’t cover everything. But not everything needs to be under the auspices of WaSP, and not everything should!
So I’m in full support of there being an Email Standards Project. It’s quite an honor to be associated with an organization that others see as having been impactful, and that others want to replicate in order to successfully change their own areas of interest.
CS: What are your thoughts about the future of the Web?
Seriously, I’m not a futurist. My hope is that browsers and devices continue on the path toward and eventually converge on true interoperability. I want to see designers and developers hone their craft and produce top-notch sites and applications. Innovators must continue to open new avenues to us, and standards bodies must keep up with evolving the underlying technologies. Ultimately it all comes down to collaboration—and, as we’ve seen thus far in the history of the Web, collaboration online leads to collaboration offline, and vice versa.
Other than that, I love being in an industry that is still so young that one must constantly read and learn to keep up with things—and, in large part, that means staying close to the work that needs to get done. We need to watch one another for burnout, so that we don’t lose any great contributors, and we need to coach and mentor new talent, so that we get them to contribute their talents in our arena.
CS: Finally, I want to say thank you for sharing your time, Kimberly. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And I want say also, thanks for the work you and your multiple teams—Web standards project and its respective task-forces, AOL, now Paypal—do to help out Web developers build better sites for their users.
KB: Christopher, it’s been a real pleasure on this end as well. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Adapting to Web Standards, and for writing so many other great books and articles about design and development!