My history as Web practitioner, Part One
October 21, 2022
I am really excited about Dan Cederholm’s new book, Twenty Bit I Have Learned About Making Websites. In the book, he documents his career over the last 20 years and shares lessons he has learned. I lived a lot of the “history” that he shares about so I am looking forward to reading it to reminisce about the early days of my own career.
I am looking forward to receiving my hardcover copy tomorrow in the mail.
As I anticipate reading this book, I found myself reflecting on the early days of my own career as a designer and developer. I like history and I like reflecting on my own history (Facebook memories are one of the only reasons I visit the site every day).
I have had several instances in the past 3 years that have caused me to reflect on those early days.
- Reading and listening to Jay Hoffman’s Web History
- Re-engaging with Shop Talk Show at different points and listening to episodes with guests that I have followed for many years
- Listening to the audiobook of Tim Berners-Lee’s, Weaving the Web
All of this have sparked memories and reflections that I have yet to write down.
This post grew out of some reflections I had last night while doing dishes. I started to document those musings in Evernote earlier today. That version was much more unpolished and focused mainly on the sources that informed me. But as wrote, this post became much more expansive and told more of the story than I had originally intended.
It’s my first attempt to gather these memories and tell my story of working on the Web in the very early days. I think it is important to document so that others can be aware and possibly profit from these musings. But this is mostly for me to enjoy the experience of remembering and documenting this for myself.
Early Days – 1999 to 2003
I started my career as a Web practitioner while working for Campus Crusade for Christ, now Cru. My wife and I had spent 4 years in the field doing campus ministry. We had moved to Orlando for the year to participate in a brand new leadership development opportunity and to figure out the next step in our ministry career. We worked in the Campus Ministry’s national office at Campus Crusade’s new world headquarters building.
I had learned how to program websites with HTML as a creative outlet a few years earlier. When we discussed our roles for our time in Orlando, I expressed an interest in helping to develop a Web presence for the ministry partner development office as part of my job. I was a coach for new staff who were raising support for their ministry.
Five months before we moved to Orlando, I was reintroduced to a lot of great resources at a new staff training that I attended. I recognized a need to help reintroduce those resources to other staff who had been in the field like I had. Along with coaching the new staff, I began to dive into the world of creating and maintaining websites as a professional by creating this online resource center.
In my early days, my tools were very simple–writing HTML in a text editor and then viewing the file in Internet Explorer. I added FrontPage to the toolkit in the spring of 2000, as I needed a way to put the files on the server. Originally, I would send the files to a co-worker but he soon realized I was updating the site more often than he had time for. So he set me up with FrontPage, which had a built-in FTP client. I also started using Photoshop along the way when I started adding more graphics.
After that year-long development opportunity was over, we stayed in Orlando when I took a similar job with a resourcing site called GodSquad. The site was created to help resource students and volunteers who were starting new campus ministries. This was a new model of ministry.
In the past, Campus Crusade only had ministries on campuses led by full-time staff members. But the leadership realized the task was too big to rely on that model alone so a “catalytic” model was created. These students and volunteers were coached by remote Campus Crusade staff, many of who worked together as a team in the national office in Orlando.
During our development year, my wife worked in that office and coached several campuses in the Midwest. I began to build relationships with her teammates and learned that they had a need for someone to help evolve GodSquad. It had been created several years earlier but without full-time attention, the site was stagnating.
My role was to serve as the “webmaster” of the site. I took over the site in August 1999. An outside design firm, which included a former staff member who had created the original site, designed a new logo, and site navigation. I took those assets and “designed” a layout for the rest of the homepage and secondary pages. At that point in time, most of the site was behind a password that only students, staff, and volunteers had access to.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first instance of taking a design from a mockup and developing it (front-end development). The new site launched on November 6, 2000. I worked from home for about a month on the redesign after our first child was born in September.
As a “webmaster”, I continued to evolve the site by adding new resources that I had gathered from other staff members. I also freshened up the look of the site a couple of times in the first year. Two years later, I did a complete redesign of the site that included a new site architecture that reflected our ministry’s critical path for engaging a campus. So webmaster was a very broad term for:
- content strategist
- information architect
I worked with a team of distance coaches. My ideas came out of our staff meetings or from overhearing phone calls that the coaches had with students and volunteers in the next cubicle. I created a special collection of resources on September 11, 2001, after hearing one such conversation.
The role was a great fit for me. It allowed me to use my ministry experience and combine that with my new skills in building websites. I had always enjoyed “resourcing” other people. My way of doing that had been through enthusiastically sharing about books I was reading with the people I interacted with each day.
One of the things I was most excited about when I first started using the Internet was having access to resources that helped equip me as a person and in my job. It is no surprise to me as I look back that I ended up taking the path that I did.
The fuzzy part of my memories of these early days is remembering what informed me. What were the sources that informed me and helped me to grow as a designer/developer? Designing and building websites began as a hobby. But it was quite different when you were creating things that would be used by a lot of people. I can tell you today what those sources are. But it is fuzzy what they were then.
- When did I first encounter Dan Cederholm, whose new book is what is inspiring me to write all of this down?
- What were the sites that I would frequent to read new articles and learn from the experience of others?
Back in those days at the turn of the 21st century, we had to “find” articles online. We “surfed” the Web. It is very different from today when most of the stuff that I read comes to me through an RSS reader, Twitter, or my company’s Slack.
The Web was young. This was even before search became such an important tool.
So how did I find new things? I am not really sure. But I did somehow. I somehow made different connections and found new articles and sources that helped me to grow in my skills.
I had several other friends who were Campus Crusade staff that were part of the same leadership development opportunity. They had also stayed in Orlando and were part of an Internet team in another office of Campus Crusade’s headquarters. I am sure that connections with Shawn, Reggie, and Rob led me to several of the sources that I learned from.
I also read a lot of different books. I remember I had a red reference guide to HTML, probably from O’Reilly’s. I bought Jakob Nielson’s book, Designing Web Usability, right before I started working on GodSquad.
I remember reading an article about blogs in the summer of 2002. I started a webmaster’s log on GodSquad. I would share different things, mostly related to things I had added to the site. Back then, the site was all static so I would update the log by adding it to a static page. And then one static page was eventually split into multiple pages by month.
This was a big year for me in the development of my career as a Web practitioner. I had just launched a major redesign of GodSquad at the end of 2002. At this point in my career, I was working with GodSquad and one other site for the team of distance coaches I belonged to. But the scope of my work soon expanded.
It started with the redesign of LINCZone. The purpose of the site was to connect Christian students to existing campus ministries (Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, The Navigators, and others) and to identify potential leaders to launch new campus ministries where they did not exist.
Around the same time, I was asked to consider creating a version of GodSquad for our ministry in Mexico. The catch was that they needed the site in two weeks. They had hoped to unveil the site on the last day of a student conference. The leadership hoped to capitalize on the momentum of the event and help launch new campus ministries in Mexico.
I was reluctant to take on this project with such a tight deadline and I had a full plate with several other projects, including LINCZone. But 12 days before the conference, I had trouble sleeping.
I went to my office and worked out three different design options (of course, the “client” picked the very first one I had created), which was a rare thing for me. I usually had one idea that I just modified. I worked hard over the next two weeks and was able to launch the site, Mateo 28, on the last day of the conference.
But my biggest project that year was redesigning the Campus Ministry’s website. The audience for this site was much larger than any of the projects I had done before it. I worked closely with the Communication team, who stewarded the site and wrote content for it. I was able to apply a lot of the things I learned from reading Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think, to improve the site experience.
One of the sources that informed me during that year was Macromedia’s DevNet Developer Resources. Several articles and tutorials helped me to move away from styling with HTML tags and using CSS instead.
During that summer, I worked through some tutorials that introduced me to CSS layout techniques such as absolute positioning and floats that would lead me away from using table-based layouts. I did not use CSS for the layout of the Campus Ministry site but it was the first of my projects to use stylesheets for colors, fonts, font sizes, margins, and padding.
I may have started reading A List Apart around this time, but I am not completely sure. I distinctly remember using the Macromedia site but that is the only one that sticks in my head.
At that point in time, developers will build sites using nested tables for layout. I did most of my work with the visual editor of Dreamweaver. I would occasionally open the code editor and write the HTML by hand.
When I first started using CSS, I used the CSS panel in Dreamweaver to write my code. That involved entering the different CSS values so I did not know how to code CSS on my own.
I did all of my design work in Fireworks. It was a great tool, much like Affinity Designer or Figma are today. It was much easier and more intuitive to use than PhotoShop. PhotoShop was not a web graphics creator. It was image editing software. Fireworks was an actual graphics editor. I would only use PhotoShop for image editing, mostly to resize images in those days.
Doorway to the next chapter
I attended the Macromedia MAX 2003 conference in November in Salt Lake City. That conference was the doorway into the next phase of my career. I was introduced to UIE at the conference through some workshops that were led by Josh Porter and Christine Perfetti. I would eventually subscribe to the UIE newsletter which became an important source connecting me to other voices in the industry.
The conference was the first Web industry conference I attended. Two of my colleagues from Campus Crusade also attended. We enjoyed exploring Salt Lake City at night after the conference sessions. I still have the fleece that they gave away to conference attendees.
I did a one-day workshop prior to the conference on connecting Dreamweaver to a database and doing database-driven design with PHP. I remember being very excited about that at the time. Dreamweaver had some tools that made it easier to connect to a database. I say “easier” but I still had a lot of trouble connecting to servers at Campus Crusade and really never was able to tap into the potential of that tool.
I was also very excited about a Fireworks workshop I attended. The presenter was in the process of publishing a book, Fireworks MX: From Zero to Hero. I started using Fireworks along with Dreamweaver in May 2000. I loved Fireworks. I was self-taught and excited about having a resource to help me take my skills to a new level. I believe the book came out later in 2004 but with a lot of Web books I owned, I never made my way through all of it and did not get the value out of it that I had hoped for.
The Big Pause
One of the reasons may have been because of the huge pause I was about to take in my career. As a missionary for Campus Crusade, I had the responsibility to raise money for our salary and other ministry expenses. We were at a point in my life where we desperately needed to raise a lot more funds to support my growing family (we were pregnant with our second child).
I had been investing time in fundraising here and there, but it became painfully obvious that I needed to give more focus to those efforts. So I made a very difficult decision to pull back in 2004 and focus entirely on fundraising efforts. This put a big pause on things for the world of the Web. I did not have the time to continue pursuing many things that I wanted to grow in or learn about, such as reading the book on Fireworks.
But when I returned at the end of 2004, I would begin a new role and a new chapter in my Web career.
- Twenty Years Ago – GodSquad Redesign Launched
- Timeline of my Web history (I need to update the last two years)
- A list of my Web projects with thumbnails of the sites. It is not a complete list (missing a lot of smaller projects during my Bonnier days) but covers most of the work I have done over the last 23 years.
- Archived version of GodSquad (2002 redesign)
- What Happened to the Webmaster – a post from Jay Hoffman’s The History of the Web