A List Apart


Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Big Companies

Issue № 238

Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Large Companies

by Published in Industry, State of the Web43 Comments

Jeffrey Zeldman recently published a blog post titled “The profession that dare not speak its name,” in which he concluded that there are many people working deep in the bowels of many companies and institutions who do the work of web designers, but without holding the title. He believes it’s time to reach out to these invisible web workers.

In this article I’d like to talk about the exact opposites of those invisible workers: the highly professional front-end programming specialists who work for large web companies. Like Zeldman’s invisible workers, these professionals have been ignored for too long; it’s time to reach out to them, too.

I believe that the web standards movement focuses too little attention on large web companies, who can be—and to a surprising degree, already have been—encouraged to adopt and support web standards. Specifically, I believe we should convince large web companies to openly support web standards, because through them, we can reach a sector of the web development community we haven’t been able to reach before.

Before continuing, I should note that from 1999 to 2002, I was the lead front-end programmer of the second-largest Dutch web company, and managed between 7 to 22 other front-end programmers—when I write about the way the employees of large web companies see things, I write from experience.

Definition: In this article “large web companies” are those whose core business is the creation of websites for others, and who employ at least 30 people.

The state of the standards movement

I recently spoke with many of the lead front-end programmers of Holland’s larger web companies, and I was amazed by the degree of standards-awareness they displayed. Nonetheless, they didn’t really advertise their relationship with web standards. One of them even apologized for his own invisibility, saying, “Sorry, but I don’t do much about my job when I’m away from work.”

For many people in the industry, being a front-end programmer is just a job. Honor requires you to do the best job you can, so of course you use web standards, but the evangelizing zeal that compels you to work on your job after office hours is largely absent.

Are these people less professional than the well-known bloggers, conference visitors, or other active members of the standards community?

Of course they aren’t. They’re just less visible. But why is that? And does it have to be that way? To answer those questions, we need to take a look back to the beginning of the standards movement.

Small businesses, freelancers, and institutions

The first wave of standardistas was recruited mostly from small businesses, freelancers, and institutions like universities and research organizations. To this day, the entire infrastructure of the standards movement is geared towards those groups. That’s not a coincidence: it works that way because small business owners, freelancers, and, to a lesser extent, employees of institutions need both web standards and the standards movement. Specifically, these groups need to support the movement, and to be seen supporting it, to make a name for themselves.

Take venerable web standards icons such as CSS Zen Garden or A List Apart. I’ve never seen a breakdown of their contributors’ vital statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them were freelancers or small business owners who contribute to these sites in order to build their reputations, so that they can attract more clients.

Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly valid motivation for contributing to the standards movement. In fact, without it the movement would fall apart in short order. Nevertheless, it tightens the bond between small businesses/freelancers and the standards movement, increasing the risk that both will forget other groups…such as the employees of large web companies.

Large web companies

Most large web companies have a very different relation to the standards movement than that of their smaller brethren, even if we discount the companies that have ignored it altogether.

Although a surprising number of large web companies, at least here in Holland, use web standards, they’re not all that obvious about it unless you study their recent portfolio items and job openings with care.

Contributing to the public face of the standards movement is not as necessary for employees of large companies as it is for small business owners and freelancers. These employees already have a fixed income. They already have exciting clients. They even have managers who listen when they talk about web standards, or at least trust them enough not to interfere with their daily front-end work.

Large web companies and their employees need web standards, but not the standards movement. That’s why they remain invisible.

The grand strategy of the standards movement

So why does it matter if large companies openly support the standards movement? After all, if they use standards in their projects, isn’t that what matters? I believe it matters because through large web companies, the standards movement can reach the still-large population of web developers who’ve never heard of standards—or who have rejected them.

The flaw in the plan

The standards movement’s current grand strategy grew from the limitations of the movement’s early years. Essentially, a few people (mostly small business owners, freelancers, and employees of institutions) started writing articles and publishing websites to promote web standards and explain tricky technical details.

Although these articles and sites were and are well-read, the problem that has plagued them from the outset is that they are read only by the people who already want to read about standards; i.e., those who are already convinced the standards are the way to go.

Furthermore, there’s no easy way to reach the unbelievers. There is no “Your Average List: For People Who Hate Web Standards” where they can conveniently be addressed en masse. They’re spread throughout cyberspace, and we have to reach them on an individual basis. That’s way too much work for a volunteer-driven movement.

So this is the flaw in the standards movement’s grand strategy: you have to be interested in standards in order to discover them. There is no built-in mechanism to convert the skeptics, or to reach the people who’ve never heard of web standards in the first place. You find the right resources only after you’ve become convinced of the need to use web standards.

What’s next?

The strategy of concentrating on freelancers, small businesses, and institutions has served the standards movement well enough in the past nine years. In fact, its success is remarkable. Plenty of web developers—many of whom work for large web companies—have become standards-aware.

But our strategy needs an additional component aimed at convincing large web companies to become more open in their standards support. Large companies need many front-end programmers, both employees and freelancers. If a large company switches to web standards, it obviously requires its employees and freelancers to become standards-aware or look for another job. (Of course, the switch was probably instigated by enthusiastic employees in the first place.)

Granted, some large web companies don’t care about web standards one way or the other. Fortunately, a sizeable minority does care. We should convince this minority to become more open about and—dare I say it?—proud of their use of web standards. We should convince them to spread the word; not on the developer level but on the management level.

Once enough large web companies use web standards and loudly proclaim that fact, other large companies will start to be afraid of missing the Latest and Greatest (always a source of management panic), mend their ways, and start to demand standards awareness from their employees and freelancers, too.

The standards movement could thus indirectly reach many web developers who have rejected or never heard of web standards—and help them adapt, lest they lose their jobs.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Toward a new strategy

How exactly are we going to do this? To the likely disappointment of a few of my readers, this article won’t say how. I am currently experimenting with ways of persuading large web companies to proclaim their support of standards, but it’s a slow process, and success is not guaranteed—and I don’t want to teach you any techniques that might not work.

As we’ve seen, large web companies need web standards, but not the standards movement. They don’t have as many reasons to support it as small businesses and freelancers do.

So your homework for today is: Devise a strategy to convince large web companies to be more open about their use of web standards, even though they don’t have an immediate interest in doing so. And then report back!

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