Careers: Interviews
Master of multimedia and web applications, and noted Dreamweaver expert...

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Zak Ruvalcaba, a noted expert in multimedia products, and web applications; author of Que’s 10 Minute Guide to Dreamweaver 4 and co-author of SAMS’ Macromedia Dreamweaver MX Unleashed.


Zak is founder and president of Module Media, a media development and training firm. Zak has been developing web applications since 1995. He served as creative director for EPIC Solutions until 1998. His web expertise was evident in his position as Web Development Manager for SkyDesk Inc. where he developed web applications for Gateway, HP, Toshiba, IBM, Intuit, Peachtree, Dell, Convad Communications, and Microsoft. As a software engineer for ADCS and Wireless Knowledge, Zak has developed .NET solutions for Mellon Financial, Goldman Saks, TV Guide, Healthbanks, The Gartner Group and Commerce One.




Q: Zak, we appreciate the time you are taking out of your schedule to do this interview. Thank you.


A: Thank you.


Q: You have an impressive history in web development. Can you detail your path into computing, web development and multimedia products?


A: Well, I’m still fairly young so my history in computers doesn’t span all that far back. We’ve always had at least one computer in the house (Commodore 64, Atari 800) but I didn’t really start using computers for graphic design until I got my 386 in the early 90’s. From there I began using programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, and back then, Aldus PageMaker to do flyers and business cards for local stores in my area. In 1994, when I was 19, I got my first opportunity to work for a record company doing CD’s, albums, promotional items, etc. I guess it went from there. My neighbor, who was retired CIA, ran his own bulletin board (BBS) and would let me come over a lot and observe how it was run. Shortly after that, I got into HTML and the Web. AOL was getting big and I thought that the Web was the perfect medium for self expression. I would stay up all night sometimes not even sleeping just learning HTML, researching online what others were doing, and in general just being part of the online community. Back then, being online was such an exciting phenomena…people who were online truly appreciated how awesome it really was. Everything went from there….I went, studied Criminal Justice in college but was always on the computer. My senior year of college, I went to a job fair and was recruited by a company called EPIC Solutions to work as a multimedia developer. EPIC Solutions was a company here in San Diego that made software for prisons, police departments, and juvenile corrections facilities. My computer background coupled with my criminal justice degree helped me land that position. I was really lucky in a sense that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do up until the point when I went to that job fair and saw EPIC’s booth. From there, everything sort of skyrocketed. I think anyone, including myself, will tell you that working through the mid to late nineties made a huge impact on people’s careers in computers. Anyone could get a job back then. So as people moved from company to company, they gained a ton of experience. Those who were lucky enough to survive the .COM crash really gained a lot of experience and are the ones who are thriving in the market today.


Q: You have a lot of experience as a web developer. Please share the many lessons you have learned and a few interesting stories—both humorous and thought provoking.


A: I have one humorous story that has a slight moral. Back when I worked at a company called SkyDesk (1997), I was at a car dealership with the VP of Marketing and Sales. We were both browsing around looking at cars schmoozing with the car salesman when a guy walked up and asked the salesman, were we talking to about one of the cars in the dealership. Well, the man was dressed in some old 70’s style corduroy shorts, yellow polo shirt, and Birkenstocks. Not really the type of guy you’d expect at the type of dealership we were at. Believe me, I wasn’t dressed any better. Anyway, to make a long story short, the salesman completely brushed off the guy and basically responded to his question, with a snobby attitude by saying that the model of car he was asking about wasn’t in and that he didn’t expect that the dealership would ever get that model in anyway. Our salesman proceeded to walk away. Anyway, the man I was with knew the disheveled guy, turned to him and said, you don’t want that model anyway…this other one (pointing to a different car) is much faster, stylish, and comfortable. The man said thanks and left. It turns out the man was Michael Dell. I always tell that story because it has a great moral and speaks to how the .COM era really changed people’s lives. In the 80’s and early 90’s, you didn’t see people come out of college and immediately have an impact on corporate America. The .COM era really made people money. High school graduates were making $80,000 a year and driving convertible Saabs. I bought a new BMW about 3 years ago, went in with shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt and was treated like royalty. That definitely wouldn’t have been the case 10 years ago.


Q: Describe your top two favorite projects?


A: At one point I did work for a company called Wireless Knowledge, because Wireless Knowledge was a Qualcomm/Microsoft joint venture, I had an opportunity to work on some high profile projects. I got a chance to build applications for large companies like Mellon Financial, Goldman Saks, etc. for phones and Pocket PC’s. I would have to say that era in my life was the most exciting. I was building apps for phones and PDA’s like 1999/2000 before wireless communication really took off. Working with small-form factor devices is interesting too because you don’t have to worry about browser compatibility, JavaScript support, etc. Pocket PC’s and phones are fairly cut and dry, you know what you got, and you develop accordingly. I got a chance to work on the wireless TV Guide site and the Zagat Survey site. Those two projects I would have to say were my favorites. It’s too bad that the company couldn’t stick around, we were so innovative, probably too much so for the company to survive…I think the public and enterprise wasn’t ready for what we had to offer yet. We also developed the mobile information server snap-in for Microsoft.NET server. Of course, you’ll never know that it wasn’t developed by Microsoft but we had a hand in it.


Q: Can you provide five useful pointers from your books?


A: Well, I don’t have 5 pointers but I can provide some guidance in terms of Web development with Dreamweaver. First, I would say that document management is important. There’s nothing worse than doing consulting work, going into a company, and just not being able to find anything. I always teach my students that before you learn how to design web sites, you should learn how to name, store, and manage your files. Also, when using Dreamweaver, the site management window is useful. All sites should be defined and maintained through the site management window. This helps maintain link integrity, file caching, helps in global find and replace, etc. The last thing is that no one knows everything…even the best developers need help from time to time. The good developers aren’t those that know how to do everything, it’s those that know how to find what they need. Obtaining good search skills is just as important as knowing a software application like Dreamweaver or Flash.


Q: What are the major steps and challenges in writing books? What tips can you provide to aspiring authors?


A: Being an author is not easy, and to that point, not easy to get into. The best advice I can give is start by being a member of the community, chats, newsgroups, boards, etc.; from there see about getting into technical editing. Publishers will always jump at the chance to send a technical person free books or manuscripts to review. Once you’re established and you’ve developed a reputation with a publisher, ask about writing chapters on a multi-author project. From there everything will fall into place. But the road is not easy…again I’ve been really lucky in that respect. I’ve always been the type of person that calls the same person 5 times in one day just to bug them and pick their brains. Finally, Que gave me the opportunity just to get me off of their backs and here I am today. Writing is tough though. A lot of work and sometimes the payoff isn’t worth it. I have a lot of respect for authors like Joseph Lowery who have written a number of books in the field. The process is so intense and time consuming that you really have to block a lot out.


Q: Why do you do what you do?


A: Simple. I’m in Web development because it’s fun. I get to be creative, challenged, and get paid at the same time. Also, I like to push myself as far as I can. That’s why I teach, write, and work professionally. I’m the type of person who doesn’t feel like I’m satisfied unless I’m doing 5 things at once.


Q: Please share your views on the Open Source movement?


A: Hmm, I’ll pass on that question. I’m an ASP.NET guy and usually stick with Microsoft products. I don’t dislike the open source movement but as a guy who’s been building enterprise applications for years now, I would tend to stay away from open source products. Although I would have to add, that I think the open source movement is good for the future of our industry. Having one company, technology, or language dominate the market would put an end to a lot of jobs and would stifle growth in our field.


Q: Of the available software packages, why do you focus heavily on Macromedia Dreamweaver? What are the compelling reasons?


A: Dreamweaver is just a great product for easily creating Web sites and even applications. They have a superior WYSIWYG interface that is unmatched. I do a lot of programming in Visual Studio.NET but most of my HTML is usually done in Dreamweaver. I’ve been using Dreamweaver since version 1 and I’ve always found that it’s been ahead of the curve.


Q: Look into the future and predict the winners and losers in web development. How would you support your predictions?


A: The winners are going to be those that are innovative. Guys like Eric Jordan from 2Advanced for instance keep pushing the envelope and are making developers really step it up. The guys that are progressive and innovative will be the winners. People or companies that refuse to adapt will be the losers.


Q: How do you stay competitive and what pointers would you pass onto other professionals?


A: I try to continuously research new products and technologies to stay ahead. The Web Services movement has been one that I’ve been researching and developing with for a while. It’s hard to stay competitive in this field because you find that half of your time is spent researching new technologies. Again, I was lucky enough to work for Wireless Knowledge where again we were a Microsoft/Qualcomm joint venture. As such, we got to work with .NET and BREW when they were in beta. So I was fortunate enough to learn ASP.NET before it was even introduced to the public.


Q: Do you see major changes on the horizon; new “killer apps”; winners and losers?


A: I think the Web Service movement is going to revolutionize the way people build apps for the Internet. Web Services have the next potential for developers and companies to make money on the Internet and most importantly capitalize on all platforms and server models. The next “killer apps” will be those that require the least human interaction…apps that communicate and rely on other apps…that’s the business model behind Web Services and the model that I think will revolutionize communication between people and their applications regardless of platform or device.


Q:  What would be your recommended top 10 references for casual and serious professionals?


A: It depends on what you’re doing. ASP developers might find,, or useful. Flash developers will find and Ultrashock useful, etc. For a generic resource I would try the company that is releasing my next book: They really have their act together…they’re releasing some great books and consistently publish amazing articles on all aspects of Web development.


Q: What are the top ten specific challenges facing professionals in your field?


A: Well I don’t know if there are ten that I can think of but I do know of a few. Living in California you have a lot of kids graduating from science oriented schools in UCSD, SDSU, etc. The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The industry is so saturated with people who have taken 1 year of training from specialty training schools in strip malls that people right out of college are getting the same jobs that 5 year experienced people are getting but at lower pay. Not to mention that tech and bio-tech hot beds like San Diego are seeing housing prices in the millions. How can someone right out of college, with a new job, be able to afford something like that? Also, there are lots of start ups and companies where people don’t necessarily have the opportunity to stay for a long period of time. You find that people who are 25/26 have already worked for like 3 companies. It’s sad, you see a lot of fiends come and go.


Q: For those who are newly entering your field, do you have any suggestions to save them time?


A: Get a four year degree in a related field first; Computer Science, Cognitive Science, Mechanical Engineering, etc. This field is so saturated that companies are again looking for professionals who have relevant degrees not just people who went and got a certification from a certification provider in a strip mall somewhere.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what three-to-five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?


A: I think I would like to interview Eric Jordan from 2Advanced. That guy does some amazing work for the Web. I think his work is progressive and is definitely setting the bar in Web development. I would probably ask him the same questions you’re asking me. It fascinates me to talk to people in my field because I get to find out how they got started and compare their experiences with mine.


Q: Do you have any additional free-ranging comments you would like to make?


A: Thanks for the interview. I would like to remind your readers about my new book tentatively titled “Building Database Driven Web Sites with ASP.NET” on Sitepoint press. Also, come out and see me at Macromedia MAX in Salt Lake. I’m presenting “Building Web Services with Dreamweaver”. Lastly, be sure to pick up the Dreamweaver MX Unleashed book from Sams Publishing and get to work building the next great Web site.


Q: If you were to do it all over again, would you do things differently?


A: I think the clich� answer is no. But I would. I would do a few things differently. I would have taken more math in college and maybe aimed for a computer science degree rather than a criminal justice degree. I definitely would have tried to capitalize on the .COM boom. People were made millionaires in that time and I wasn’t one of them. In those respects, I would have done some things differently but from a development standpoint…I’m doing just fine.


Q: Zak, thank you again for coming in to do this interview and sharing your in-depth knowledge and experiences with us.


A: Thanks again.


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