Careers: Interviews
Dori Smith: Internationally Respected and Widely Acknowledged Internet Authority, Author, Speaker, Technologist, Web Developer

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Dori Smith.

Dori’s best selling book credits include: "JavaScript for the WWW: Visual QuickStart Guide, 5th edition", "Mac OS X Unwired," "Java 2 for the WWW: Visual QuickStart Guide." She has written numerous authoritative print and online magazine articles. She is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and is a member of the Web Standards Project Steering Committee. She maintains the Backup Brain weblog, and is also the List Mom for the Wise-Women mailing lists.

Dori’s work is highlighted at these sites:

http://www.dori.com
http://www.javascriptworld.com
http://www.backupbrain.com
http://www.macosxunwired.com
http://www.wise-women.org

Discussion:

Q: Dori, you are coming up to 30 years of program development experience, with many successes in your career. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and sharing your diverse background knowledge.

A: Thanks very much for this opportunity, Stephen!

Q: You learned Basic on a teletype-terminal connected to a mainframe in 1977 and realized a passion. What applied at that time, applies today such as when you reviewed RealBasic for Macworld magazine back in 2001. What aspects of programming intrigued, confounded, excited, and challenged you back in 1977 and which [itemized] universal skills still apply today?

A: What I primarily enjoyed when I first started out was the challenge of solving puzzles, and that’s still the case today. I’m one of the few programmers I’ve ever found who likes the challenges of debugging code – you have to think completely logically, assume nothing at all, and go through what your code ought to do, step by step. It’s a very satisfying feeling to stamp out bugs and take pride in the end result.

What still applies today is the how-to big picture. Someone might say that they want an application or script that does one small thing that would make their lives simpler, but when you quiz them about what they’re trying to accomplish, you often find that there’s a more straight-forward, general way to solve the same problem – and one that works not just for them, but for a larger group. Along with debugging, knowing that you’re creating not just a solution but also the right solution for someone is fulfilling to me.

Q: You are a well-respected expert in Web development but you still don’t consider yourself an expert in design. What is missing from your design portfolio and knowledge scope? What ten attributes make for an expert web developer? 

A: Overall comments:

Missing elements: What I don’t have is the eye for color and style that a good designer needs to have. I can look at someone else’s design and see at a glance if it will work or not, but I’ve never been able to do it myself. If I took classes I believe that I could improve in this area, but my plate’s too full as it is!

Ten attributes:

1)   A good sense of style

2)   A good sense of color

3)   Experience with what works

4)   Even more importantly, experience with what doesn’t work

5)   The proper tools (the only one of these that you can get just by spending money!)

6)   An interest in keeping up with what’s new in the field, as there’s always something

7)   An eagerness to learn new tricks, new tools, and new technologies

8)   The ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and imagine how they would use your creation

9)   A knowledge of who a given site’s audience is and the ability to satisfy them

10)  And finally, curiosity is always important!

Q: You have a long history with HTML, Java, JavaScript; since 1996 when you taught yourself these areas. Where do you see web programming evolving in the short, medium, and long term? 

A: There are a number of interesting growth areas in the Web programming field that are just starting to take off right now. The two that I’m watching most closely are:

1)     Ajax, (which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), is a technology that allows amazing Web applications such as Google’s Gmail. Now that there is finally a large enough percentage of standards-compliant browsers around, scripters can depend on their target audience having the necessary features. The technology itself isn’t new, but the way it’s being used is.

2)     Apple’s new Dashboard Widgets, which will be part of the upcoming Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger software release. This is going to allow all those people who’ve thought of themselves as “Web” developers and not “real” developers to be able to create their own double-clickable mini-applications, using the skills they already have. It’s just HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, but Apple’s figured out how to build it into the OS to create something that I think is going to be huge.

Q: Share your top “advanced” Web developer tips:

A:  1)   Budget a realistic amount of time for testing. The last 20% of the project can often take 80% of the time.

2)   Have people who aren’t involved with a project take a look at it and let them give you feedback without telling them how it should work. If your user interface isn’t intuitive, this will show it.

3)   Test even on the weirdest browsers you can find. Too many people just test on IE/Windows and then think that they’re done.

4)   When you start developing, work with the most standards-compliant browsers you have. Bring in the non-compliant browsers later, and add hacks to cover them as necessary.

5)   It is possible to make sites with the latest bells and whistles that work in all browsers. It’s not possible to make sites with the latest bells and whistles that work exactly the same in all browsers – but don’t let that stop you from using them. Instead, make your sites degradable.

6)   Don’t go live before you’re actually ready. Conversely, don’t wait to get everything perfect before you go live. While this may sound contradictory, that’s the way this business works.

7)   There are a number of great mailing lists out there for Web developers, and, especially if you work by yourself, it’s great to have a second (and third, and fourth) set of eyes looking at your work. Join up, help others out, and then ask for help yourself – your sites will benefit from it.

8)   Make sure your sites validate using the W3C HTML validator. Besides all the other good reasons to support standards, it’s a great way to find those niggling layout bugs.

9)   Don’t work on anyone’s Web site without a signed contract. I’ve seen too many people start work after a handshake deal and a, “We both know what we’re going to do” agreement who end up getting burned. Even if you’re just doing some work for a friend, get what you both want in writing, so you can stay friends.

10)  Don’t use IE/Windows as your main browser. It’s amazing how many mistakes you’ll see on other sites when you’re surfing with a browser that’s less used, and that experience will help you create better sites.

Q: You started writing and teaching in 1997. If someone in our audience wanted to take on these roles, what advice would you give them? How would they prepare for these roles? What are the major challenges?

A: That’s several questions!

The biggest problem programmers have in becoming writers and speakers is that they often have trouble explaining what they do in English. By the time they’ve become expert enough to be asked to talk or write, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know the subject that they’re experts in. You really have to be able to take yourself back to the point where it was all brand-new, and that’s a hard jump for a lot of people. But if you can’t do that, you’ll never be able to explain it to those who are there.

What they can do to make the transition is to talk to novices (as much as possible). Talk to your target audience, and find out what they want to know, and what they already know. Too many beginning programming books assume that the readers have years of programming knowledge already, and then the readers have to buy another book just to understand the first one.

Q: You are a steering committee member of the Web Standards Project or WaSP (www.webstandards.org), which was founded in 1998. Your first concerns centered around cross-browser compatibility. You are a champion of the three legs of compliance: standards compliant browsers, user browser upgrades, and the creation of standards compatible tools used to build websites. Where are you now in this campaign and where is the overall industry heading? What are your major peeves regards to the fight for standards? Who are the leaders? Describe the perfect world? Where are the best resources?

A: This is an exciting time for the Web Standards Project, because people and corporations now understand the size of the problem and the advantages of standards support. We spent our first few years having to explain, over and over, why standards matter. Now, every browser that’s shipped in the last few years has excellent standards support. While the oldest browser in common usage, IE for Windows, is from before this advance, there’s a good chance that the next version will be considerably better.

At this point, instead of just yelling from our Web site, we’ve got task forces that work with major companies like Microsoft and Macromedia. And instead of trying to convince developers and corporations that their Web sites should support standards, we get email from Web developers bragging about their new sites.

Our #1 major peeve is the most popular browser: IE for Windows. For its day, it was an advance, but its day is past. Thankfully, Microsoft has recently agreed that they shouldn’t wait for Longhorn to update it, and now we’re working with them to help figure out what their next browser should support.

So far as resources, the place to start is at the Learn section of the Web Standards Project site http://www.webstandards.org/learn/. There’s a wide variety of useful links there.

Q: As you have been quoted, “….We’re not chicks, babes, girls, or even grrls—we’re woman, and we’re okay with being women.” Where is wise-woman.org positioned today and where do you see it heading? How will it make a difference? What is its value proposition?

A: I’m not sure how a community has a “value proposition,” actually!

The community itself has learned over their years together that everyone is a novice at something, and that something is generally where you need help right now. Because it’s a community that’s not just about one small niche, it’s able to help out in a large variety of areas. For instance, someone asking a beginning question today about databases might be the one to give the expert answer on CSS tomorrow.

As to where it’s heading, who knows? It’s an open group; anyone can join, regardless of gender. The community itself decides what’s going to go on the Web site, and that’s become an interesting and useful adjunct to the lists.

Q: Please share your top tips from Mac OS X Unwired?

A: Mac OS X Unwired covers a broad range of technology, from AirPort and Bluetooth to IR and RF. If I listed just a few tips from each, this part would be twice the length of everything else in the interview, so here are just a few Bluetooth troubleshooting tips to help if you’re having problems:

  • Verify that the device is within range

o       Class 1: 100 meters / 300 feet

o       Class 2, 3: 10 meters / 30 feet

  • Verify that the device is discoverable
     
  • For both the Mac and the Bluetooth device:

o       Turn Bluetooth off and back on again

o       Turn discoverability off and back on again

  • In Bluetooth Preferences, delete the paired device and set it up again
  • On the device, delete the paired Mac
  • If you normally pair from the Mac, try initiating the process from the device and vice versa
  • If things still aren’t working:

o       Remove and reinstall the Bluetooth adaptor

o       Restart your Mac

o       Reset the Power Manager

Q: So you have the “backup brain” site to store all those links you would want again. Comment on your “rants” and wish list items?

A: I started backupbrain.com back in 1999, when hardly anyone had heard of weblogs. Now, it seems like everyone and their six-year-old has one, so it’s been an interesting journey watching this medium evolve.

My Amazon wish list is just that – a list of items on Amazon that I’d like to have. It’s mostly there on the blog to remind my husband about birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

My rants are where I put my longer-form pieces from the weblog. The site started off as just my literal “backup brain,” but since then it’s become a little more – it’s also a place to put my writings that need to come out, but for which I don’t want to try to find a publisher. The rants tend to be op/ed-type pieces, and I try to make it easy for other people to find, read, and link to them.

Q: How do you see yourself and your web sites evolving in the medium and long term?

A: My name is Dori, and I’m addicted to buying domain names…

I say that as a joke, but it has got a bit of truth to it. I have trouble remembering all the different domains I’ve already got, so I’m trying not to buy any more!

But given that, the next area that’s really going to grow is at http://www.dori.com/dashboard/, which is currently a list of Dashboard Widgets resources. It’s eventually going to be the support site for my next book, Dashboard Widgets for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide.

Q: This is a staple in our interviews. Here is where we turn it around. Pick five topic areas of your choosing and provide commentary.

A:  Area 1: Mac versus PC: because I’ve been a Mac user for so long, everyone assumes that I’m one of those stereotypical Mac bigots. Far from it! Right now, while I’ve got two Macs sitting in front of me, I’ve also got a Dell tower. I’m a firm believer in using whatever tool is best for the job, and consequently, there are times when I need each machine.

Area 2: Vanilla versus chocolate: vanilla, because you can always add chocolate toppings on. And I do.

Area 3: There’s this common idea in the Web business that there’s a shortage of women Web designers. That’s not the case at all! In fact, most of the top-selling Web design books are by women. Many of the leaders in the community are women. The problem is that some guys just don’t see them, and some women like to play the victim card. While women are under-represented in most technical areas, Web design is one of the few success stories. 

Area 4: One of the reasons I’ve been successful in the tech writing business isn’t so much that I know the field better, or that I’m a better writer – it’s because most geeks can’t speak English.  For some reason, people who are technical tend to have poor writing skills, and editors are always on the lookout for techies who can also write clearly and grammatically. It’s a niche that I’ve fallen into, and it works for me.

Q: Can you share a story or two--something amusing, amazing, surprising?

A: 1)  Someone once came up to me at a tech conference and told me that our JavaScript book had saved his marriage. Really. He’d been trying to explain objects in JavaScript to his wife and she had just not been able to understand the concept from his descriptions – and then he remembered our book. He used the same analogy we had, and suddenly, it all made sense to her! He was very appreciative, and it really made our day to know that we’d had that kind of an impact on them, as it sounded from what he said that that conversation had been going downhill fairly quickly…

2)  One of the strangest things about this business is that while I keep getting older, the people I work with don’t. For instance, one guy I’ve been working with recently turned out to be a junior in high school – he’s the same age as my son. I suspect that he has no idea that I’m probably older than his mother.

Q: Dori, we do appreciate the time you spent sharing your incredible breadth and depth of knowledge. Thank you!

A: Thanks for giving me this opportunity!

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