The amazing Molly posted a tweet yesterday with a photo of a bunch of us at the 2006 W3C Plenary in Mandelieu, France. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but that plenary was the site of one of my few accomplishments in the web standards world.
A little background, since this is now ancient web history. I was on the CSS Working Group at the W3C, representing AOL, from ~2004 – ~2008. I was just a front-end developer who was passionate about the web and standards-based development. Kimberly Blessing, who was already a member of the group and my co-conspirator at AOL, encouraged me to join, so I did. It was surprisingly easy. I just had to ask my manager, who had no idea what it was, and Roger Martin, AOL’s director of all-things-standards, and I was in. There was no test or interview.
And that’s how a college dropout who didn’t build web browsers and had no idea what he was getting himself into joined the standards body that creates CSS, the members of which are geniuses who invented the language in the first place or actually build the web browsers I used every day. It was intimidating, and I spent my first two years in the WG trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there and how I could contribute. Kimberly and I figured out fairly quickly that we were the voice of the “authors” of the web – all the people who build web pages. So, we advocated for things that would make our lives easier and make it easier to build the complex layouts our bosses were demanding.
If you were involved in this story and I’ve left you out, I’m sorry. It was a long time ago, and my memory is a little foggy. If I’ve gotten any of the facts wrong, please let me know!
Now on to 2006 and the Plenary. This was when the WHATWG and their “guerrilla” HTML5 standard were really starting to gain traction with web developers, to the point that browser vendors were actually starting to implement pieces of it. We were still stuck with IE6, but I think there were rumbles at that point that Microsoft was starting to budge and was going to start working on IE again.
That was a lot of preamble, I’m sorry. Every year at the Plenary, there’s a big cocktail party / reception thing where the nerds can all cut loose and talk about something other than web standards (we still end up talking about web standards). The day of that party, the CSS WG spent what felt like 72 hours in a meeting with the XHTML 2 working group discussing the standard and aaaaaaaaall of the many issues they needed us to address so CSS would work with it.
I left the meeting completely frustrated by what felt like a betrayal of the web’s real innovation: fault-tolerance and ease-of-use. It felt like XHTML 2.0 was reinventing the wheel and leaving out the best parts. It felt like we were wasting our time when HTML5 was right there, which felt like an iteration on the web that exists and added important missing ingredients to it.
So, I get to the cocktail party and I’m in a funk. I start talking to Daniel Glazman, one of my all-time favorite W3C people and a legendary dinner companion, and asked him what probably felt like a million questions about why this and that and the other thing and eventually, “Is anyone even going to use XHTML 2?” He laughed and said, “Why don’t you go ask them?”
And that’s when the lightbulb went off. After two years on the CSS WG collaborating with legendary geniuses, I realized that not only were all the browser vendors represented, but so were the web’s largest publishers of content. Hell, I represented AOL. Yahoo was there. Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, Apple… all there. So, I made the rounds and asked all the browser vendors and publisher folks I could find, “Are you planning on doing anything with XHTML 2? What about HTML5?”
The answers were unanimous: no one was planning on doing anything with XHTML 2 and everyone was planning on implementing at least some of HTML5 (some had already started).
I think what happened next is that I grabbed Daniel and Arun “World’s Greatest Werewolf Player” Ranganathan (who was AOL’s AC Rep and also way smarter than me, and better looking) and told them what I’d found and that’s where the idea of writing a letter came from. We decided that if we could get the major browser vendors and web publishers to jointly sign a letter throwing our support behind HTML5 and the WhatWG and asking the W3C to bring HTML5 into the W3C that it would be way more effective than us doing it individually.
Arun and I gathered all of our victims… umm… potential co-conspirators and pulled them out in the hallway. I explained the idea, Arun got all diplomatic, and we did it. The letter got written (this part is all fuzzy for me – I don’t remember who wrote it or who ended up signing it), sent, and things happened. The HTML Working Group was reformed, HTML5 became a standard within the W3C, and the web is a whole lot better for it.
I wasn’t qualified to write standards. I couldn’t even write the complex test cases used to test implementations. I gave feedback and tried to advocate for things that would make life easier for web developers and end users.
But, I am a professional troublemaker. I’m really good at it.
So, when you think you’re not qualified, or can’t get anything done, remember that an idiot without a college degree convinced a bunch of geniuses to do something crazy and in a small way helped make the web better. If I can do it, you can too. It takes creativity, perseverence and a willingness to ask the question everyone’s thinking out loud.
You can do anything. You are a being of infinite potential constrained only by the sack of meat you use to navigate the world and your brain’s idea of what’s possible. I believe in you.