Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Big Companies
Issue № 238

Evangelizing Outside the Box: Web Standards and Large Companies

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.

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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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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?#section7

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#section8

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!

43 Reader Comments

  1. Well, speaking semi-officially as a VP at a big American interactive shop, I can tell you that there’s really only one strategy that ever works, ever — tie it to the pocketbook. And you have to tie it to the pocketbook as a PROFIT center (additional natural-search traffic; other suggestions welcome), rather than as a SAVINGS center (theoretically reduced operating costs.)

    That came across as preachy, but it’s the only way I’ve ever had any success at all evangelizing use of standards to the people that control the purse strings. Either that, or you fib and say that standards-compliant design won’t cost any more than “as-is process” design. There may be some shops where that’s the case, but I have yet to see one.

    I’d *love* to hear other ideas on how standards can be articulated as a profit center (reduced cycle time for changes means opportunities are capitalized sooner, meaning more spondulix in the client’s pocket?)

  2. bq. And you have to tie it to the pocketbook as a PROFIT center (additional natural-search traffic; other suggestions welcome), rather than as a SAVINGS center (theoretically reduced operating costs.)

    John, that is a very helpful insight. Thanks!

    (Thanks also for adding a new word to my vocabulary. “Spondulix”:http://www.google.com/search?q=spondulix !)

  3. I have certainly noticed huge leaps forward recently in the number of _commercial_ websites that are following good practice, which look they have been designed by the kind of businesses you’re referring to here.

    There are definitely more people out there who have got the message that a standards-compliant design isn’t more difficult (in the long run) or more expensive, and are churning them out as a matter of course.

    I don’t blame these companies and professionals for not contributing to blogs and web fora – I don’t sing about my day job when I’m not at work either! What we need to do is to ensure that their good work receives wider recognition, to somehow show the nay-sayers that it _can_ be done, and it _is_ being done. But how we go about this “¦ I’m not sure either.

  4. That’s a really interesting stance, although I’m not convinced it’s the large web companies or their staff that need to be persuaded of anything. I certainly don’t think it’s a problem with the lack (or not) of people contributing to the web standards movement from large companies.

    I suspect the only way that large web companies are going to be any more motivated by web standards is if their clients demand it.

    When clients start demanding (or expecting) web standards, then I predict the majority of large web companies will suddenly become more ‘proud’ of using web standards and actively promote them. You’re right: then the developers who have never heard of standards or have previously rejected them just won’t have anywhere to hide.

    So how do you make web standards important to the average manager commissioning a web site from a large web company? John’s got a good point “tie it in to the pocketbook”… or you can scare them with tales of browser incompatibility and getting sued over accessibility issues 😉

    Ultimately though, I think this is a situation that is improving. I think more and more people _are_ embracing web standards. Perhaps now it’s just a matter of time and patience…?

  5. I think the way to promote standards is to tell the companies that *don’t* follow standards why it’s important to you (as a customer, preferably) that they should fix their site. I think that this method becomes more relevant as the number of non-compliant sites falls.

    Another prong in the attack should be to tell laymen (friends, colleagues, anyone who will listen) that there such things as ‘web standards’ that we, as designers, should follow and if a site doesn’t seem to work correctly, there’s a chance it’s not following standards. Let them know that they should tell site owners when things don’t work.

  6. bq. I’d love to hear other ideas on how standards can be articulated as a profit center (reduced cycle time for changes means opportunities are capitalized sooner, meaning more spondulix in the client’s pocket?)

    I know that working in my job making things standards compliant helps in my turn-around in getting a new product launched. By separating the style sheets and making pages in good semantic layouts I can easily re-use that content for another product.

    So by doing a little leg work ahead of time, and by now it really is a small amount of time, I can save myself a lot of time in the end.

    I don’t know how huge companies work, but I know from working in a decently sized one that sells high-end PC’s that it all depends on the person actually putting the content up there.

    My boss doesn’t necessarily care if I make all my pages Standards compliant, he just cares if it looks good and gets all the content across that other people want.

    However by doing pages with more and more standards compliant elements in them he has slowly come around. And now whenever someone creates a page, or submits content they’re expected to give me all the elements that would be needed to make the page standards compliant.

    And like some others have said, the way to make companies who don’t adhere to standards take notice is by not buying from them and telling others. I know now whenever I go to a site to buy something and I see something that’s blatantly obvious to not being standards compliant I usually don’t end up purchasing from them. If it’s really bad I try sending an email to whatever email is on their site, who knows if it actually gets to the right person, but it still makes me feel better.

  7. If you’re considering 30 or more to be a large company, then what do you recommend to folks that work for a company with thousands? I’ve been evangelizing to my healthcare industry employer about standards and accessibility for close to two years and even making little mini-project strides here an there. There’s so many layers and so much inefficiency endemic to an organization of this size (47 thousand employees) that I feel like Sisyphus. I’m about burnt out and just want to go back to agency work with a small but talented team.

    I’ve written up a number of “our standards”? type of documents to try to get some sort of buy-in or approval from management. The real problem in my situation is that there is no one identifiable stakeholder at the top aside from the CEO (and he’s already shown he’s justifiably not nearly as concerned about Web issues as he is about healthcare issues). Outside of him, the “Web strategy”? is drafted by multiple regions, multiple physically-separate departments and a number of “e-Committies.”

    For what it’s worth, in the US, the government considers 50 to 200 employees to be a medium-size company. You’re not classified as a “large”? company until you top 200. A quick “Google search”:http://www.hanovercompanyservices.com/faq/whats_small_medium_company.asp shows that this business classification is the same in the UK. Business strategy and economics is different for small, medium and large companies.

    Ironically, it seems as though agencies that come in to consult seem to have more influence over the collective mind of the stake-holders. But the ones that we’ve hired have been marginal at best at demonstrating that they understand Web standards, semantics and accessibility.

    PS PPK: Thank you for this article. Extra thanks for all the info I’ve gleaned off of quirksmode for all these years. Your hard work and sharing of information is appreciated in bucketfulls.

  8. I agree with Swan’s comment above. I’m a web producer for a multi-channel retailer. When margins are thin, resources are tight and strategy is a moving target, web-standards become a “nice to have”, but unfortunately not a requirement. It’s a depressing realization for those of us on the inside, who may be the only web-standards-literate people within our organizations.

    For me the opportunities are few, but planting the seeds of standards-oriented thinking pays off when it comes time to shop for an agency. At that point we can push hard for an agency or developer that has a track record of standards-focused design. Coming from the inside, it sounds like a project requirement. Coming from an agency, it may come off as another way to pad the fee.

    A bit of advice: Educate your clients. Preach the gospel at the middle-level of their organizations – people like myself who don’t hold the purse strings, but may be able to influence opinion. We are going to be tasked with maintaining the work in the long-run, so we definitely have some skin in the game. And a few years down the road we probably will be the people signing contracts and hiring developers.

  9. In my own experience, most of the people I have worked with in the web dev industry are not formally educated. Whether my anecdotal experience is mainstream or not, I don’t know, I’d be interested to see some stats on University Educated (e.g., Majored in Web Design or Graphic Design) vs. on-the-job or self-taught. Personally, I hold a B.FA in Graphic Design, and I received a great deal of course instruction in “Web Design” (keep in mind, I just graduated this year), yet couldn’t find a job as a web designer, turned down left and right until I came back with some Standards-designed (which I had never heard of) portfolio examples. I think that a major front for this movement should be industry putting pressure on colleges and universities to update their curriculum. I graduated from a US News & World Report top THREE technical University, and they’re still teaching Tables from the 90’s and antiquated Photoshop techniques. Get to the students, and in one generation you will see much more change than via a guerilla blogging campaign.

  10. My education is from a two year school (a community college) that had a fairly up-to-date web development program, yet still lacked an adoption of web-standards. We learned hand-coded XHTML and CSS (which I already knew), then went on to learn Dreamweaver and Photoshop, etc. One of my professors emailed me and asked for suggestions because they were working to improve the program. I told her a focus on standards and a bend towards the web and away from multimedia in general would be good. (Or to offer a track for graphic designers as well as one for Web designers.) The program focused too much on multimedia, including training in Director, Authorware and Premiere, and not enough on the web itself.

    It wasn’t until after school that I started to become involved in the standards movement and learned what I know about semantic markup, standards-compliance, etc. And it wasn’t until I had developed a complete portfolio (instead of the table-based designs I had created in school) that I was able to get my foot in the door and actually start making some money doing web design.

    The problem with teaching Web design in schools is the cost of updated software and literature. Although I think it is safe to say at this point there is no excuse for not teaching XHTML and CSS and the importance of standards. My school has asked me to come speak to students in the web program about my experiences and I think my goal will be to encourage the students to set themselves apart by adopting a standards-based approach to web design.

  11. bq. “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.”

    All right, let’s go. This is simply true: there’s no argument here. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. It’s like this in every industry. People who are passionately in love with their discipline, whatever it may be, advocate ways to do it better, and are listened to and adhered to only by those who are equally enamored of their discipline. And we know that, but we keep doing what we do because it’s WHAT we do and it’s WHO we are.

    And then, one day, a designer says to another designer, for whatever reasons, “You ever read _On Writing Well_? You should read it. Good stuff.”

    And then suddenly, this book that only other passionate writers used to care about became something designers, and artists, and engineers started reading. And what’s more, they started _caring_. They started caring about clear, strong, beautiful writing. These people who we’ve said for decades couldn’t even read–they started to care about the discipline of _writing_!

    And so it begins.

    We put the information out there and we keep advocating web standards in little articles and posts and coffee house conversations not because we feel compelled to take over the world or even the industry. We do it because we LOVE it. That’s reason enough. The rest will take care of itself.

  12. Perhaps, we should take a deep breath, and ask those who haven’t adopted it, why they haven’t. Perhaps they are looking for different things out of it then we are, and are not finding what they seek. If we know more about the why, then we are better enabled to address it.

  13. Back in the day when ALA had a forum called The Coders Forum we started keeping a list of sites that were changing to tableless layouts using css. This is the most basic kind of change in the move toward standards.

    The list we started is still being maintained by Meryl Evans. There are examples of sites in many catagories that provide exemplary efficiency, as well as attractiveness.

    The list is located at http://csscollection.com/

  14. I’m an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) member, and last week, they sent me an “are you getting everything you want out of AIGA?” survey. I said — as I frequently do — that, no, I’m not.

    I lamented the fact that AIGA doesn’t particularly reach out to the web community, even though every studio I know locally affiliated with AIGA has at least one web programmer. In my survey response, I specifically mentioned _A List Apart_, and its efforts to encourage a standards-based approach to web design.

    For example, the AIGA communication I receive is rarely standards-compliant. Local AIGA chapters frequently set up small websites for events and whatnot. I see sites built with tables hither and yon. There’s nobody at AIGA — a voice supposedly weighted with authority in the design community — suggesting they do otherwise.

    So, in AIGA, I conjecture, we have a group of people that are unwitting subscribers of “An Average List.” They might have learned about the web in 1999, and never bothered to update their skills, if the old ones still work. Some just don’t know any better.

    There is a cavernous gap in AIGA’s “Professional Resources directory”:http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/professional-resources when it comes to web technologies.

    *My suggestion is to reach this group through partnership with AIGA.* Standards should fill that gap.

  15. If people work in companies where they have “web standards conscious”? management it would be easier for the web developer to work in such a company. Every project developed by that company will consider the web standards would be included in the scope of the project. Every CIO reads “Back End technologies”?, “Hardware technologies”? and “Net work technologies”? they are not aware of new the “Front End trends”?,”¦. mainly the web.

  16. A few comments on the comments:

    First of all, despite my definition it seems that it’s not clear I’m talking about large *website creation* companies. Healthcare companies and multi-channel retailers are entirely different kinds of companies because they don’t make websites for others, they maintain their own. Web designers who work for them have serious problems, but they fall in Jeffrey’s category of invisible web workers, not in mine. These web workers are just not the subject of my article; they’ll have to wait for the results of the Web Design Survey.

    John Young gives excellent advice on the companies’ pocketbook, but my plan was to make standards fashionable in management circles. As soon as something is in fashion, managers stop thinking about their pocketbook and start thinking about impressing their peers. Large companies have wasted enormous amounts of money on fashionable nonsense, and if we can harness that mechanism for the standards movement, we don’t have to talk about financial matters (at least, not at first).

    Besides, I don’t like the psychological part of this solution. If we’d talk about pocketbooks, we web developers would unconsciously assume a humble, begging stance, instead of a proud “we know better than you” attitude. I feel that we need to assume this attitude; it makes more of an impression on managers than talking about finance, which we don’t know much about in the first place.

    We have to make managers react to us and speak our language; not the reverse. How? By making our language fashionable.

    I fully agree with Peter Uzzi that education is tremendously important, but it is not the subject of my article, either. Besides, as soon as enough large companies demand web standards, universities will start to change, too (slowly, yes, but surely).

    “We [put the information out there] because we LOVE it. That’s reason enough. The rest will take care of itself.”

    True, but is it enough? Recently I’m starting to doubt whether the standards movement in its current form will reach much beyond its current audience; that’s why I wrote this article.

    That’s not to say we should abandon the old strategy; far from it. The old strategy will continue to serve us well, and the mechanism Amber describes will remain valid. We just need an extra component.

  17. Personally, having worked for a massive, large and large-ish company doing web dev I think you have to avoid seeing your targets as one large mass. Large companies are all very diverse. One simple difference is that some companies are web companies – in that they see the web as their business and other companies use the web because they have to. They’re not about the web, they’re about something else and are using the web to achieve their goals (selling etc…). In a company such as this, regardless of the size, there’s a bigger technical split amongst the staff. The web developers may only be a numerical minority.

    The task is then to convince the managers and decision makers that web standards are a good idea. And this all seems like a whole lot of ‘Greek’ to them. The key perhaps is working out how to communicate to the non-technical decision makers the benefits of web standards. The effort is in devising a language that’s easily understood and working out ways of getting the message across. One of the best ways is perhaps to demonstrate the benefits.

  18. bq. As soon as something is in fashion, managers stop thinking about their pocketbook and start thinking about impressing their peers

    Very true. When a new technology/technique hits a certain threshold and becomes a buzzword, managers will demand it. They may not know what “Ajax” is, but they know they need it — it’s the Flash effect all over again.

    Perhaps if “web standards” had a snazzy buzzword with the same ear appeal as “Flash” and “Ajax”? (Chazz? Swak? Spondulix?)

  19. I don’t fit into this group, twice (day job in big media company, sideline getting a w2 site going), however i think i can vouch for and help clarify where the non-standards compliant types are.

    We just hired a standards savvy front end designer after two months of searching. Recruitment agencies had no clue what we were after (they never do though but that’s another story). It may just be Melbourne, Australia but there’s a hell of a lot of table based designers out there. From my sample i’d say this archetype is someone who fell into web design because they once worked somewhere that needed it done – and they just followed the style of coding that they were shown. Often these were template driven sites – think of all those legacy CMSs that were bought in the late 90s and can’t afford to be replaced.

    Fortunately this type of designer/developer is by nature pragmatic so I believe will eventually come into contact with the standardised world.

    The other part of the target market I know about is Senior IT staff who are well versed in a variety of technologies. Again we’re fortunate because they’re easy ones to convert, just think about how standards compliance can improve load times (not to mention the argument killer SEO) and how that can affect the bottom line in terms of bandwidth.

    So i say continue the good fight, we’ll get there in the end and don’t worry too much about those who aren’t that vocal about it – they’re probably helping spread the word to target groups like these just as effectively from behind the scenes.

  20. As much as I try to push web standards; some of the designers I know, indeed some of the best, still create pages in tables and actually believe in them as a fast and effective way to get a design onto the web.

    The very large company doing my current employers content management system decided to push out that system in tables… now they’re working for free to remove that issue.

    People wont talk about the work they’re doing within large companies any time soon, there’s too many non-disclosure contracts and fear of reprisal and dismissal for people to openly say that my company is X and they’re doing Y.

    I’m speaking from experience, I literally work in a dark room, with nasty artificial lighting. By the time I leave work at 5pm I don’t have any urge to churp on the internet about how were making a new semantic page for xyz. By 5 I’m only planning my tea.

    So long as companies head in the right direction, the standards movement will engulf all those in the profession.

    If you can put a money value in either savings or additional sales and profits that is more then the cost of implementation, any business will bite your hand off (hopefully returning it so that you can type).

    So if we can all convince managers that W3C = £££ (or $$$) we’ll spark a revolution.

  21. True, but is it enough? Recently I’m starting to doubt whether the standards movement in its current form will reach much beyond its current audience; that’s why I wrote this article.

    I am here to offer a glimmer of hope. I was hired 3 years ago by a US government agency to work as a member of their web team precisely because I had experience with building accessible, standards complaint XHTML and CSS for layout. Now I create templates for numerous high profile sites both public and internal. My experience continues to be a rare opportunity to teach other developers and ‘web designers’ about web-standards and the many benefits of CSS layouts. This opportunity happened because I was interviewed by one person who cared about web-standards.
    My team members think I should write more about my experience but I never seem to have enough time.

  22. I work for a mega-huge company (employees in the 1000’s) and mostly write web apps for internal use.

    Mega-Corps have 1000’s and 1000’s of existing pages for applications which see internal use only. The only way they will be re-written is when browsers stop supporting them.

    There is absolutly no way you will be able to convince a large company to pony up the money to convert 1000’s of pages of code just to make them “standard”.

    Face it non-standard pages still “work”. Additionally a lot of the standards yelling and shouting is seen as silly and non productive in the corporate world.

    “Lets dump quriky non-standard javascript hacks for quirkily supported CSS hacks”

    “Lets stop using HTML tag properties which have been around since 1996 and replace them with CSS and embeded style definitions that requrire more syntax to accomplish the same job”

    Why? – Well, not because anything will actually look different on the page – Not because the customers will get any new functionality – We’re going to do it because some weird college kids say that it is not “standard” now – When it was “standard” when the page was written.

    What’s to guarnatee that after spending the money to meet this “standard” that a year or two from now someone will come up with another aribtary standard – invalidating all the previous work done?

  23. @”stan”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies/?page=3#32 : The standards you put in quotes have been around for seven years and more. It’s not the flavor of the month that we’re talking about. And there are advantages to adopting them. Read a little deeper sites like this one. Pick up a book by Zeldman, Kruck, PPK, Meyer or others.

    Yes, non-standards work. For you. They don’t often work for blind users. They hurt your search engine rankings. They create more page bloat. You might say that those points don’t matter in an internal corporate environment. Fine. But being among a minority group of Mac users in one of these environments (dozens among tens of thousands), I am completely unable to access most of an intranet that is supposed to serve me (because the guys that did it say, “it works for me!”?

  24. I work in a very big company, and one of our products is a Web-Based CRM platform. I am in charge of front-end coding.

    The application itself is composed of 1000s of pages that were written using table based layouts.

    Our development team consists of around 8 people doing the main development work, which means they do the server-side and also the related front-end pages. Although they know, through me, about standards, they are just so swamped in work that they don’t have time to learn how to code standards compliant pages. They don’t have time to test in multiple browsers.

    Even if they did, they wouldn’t do it, JAVA devs are spoiled in that they can write-once-run-anywhere. We web-people have to use xHTML/CSS/JS at the same time, and have to get it working on at least 2 platforms, IE and FF simultaneously. Standards are standards, but the browsers all implement it differently, so you still have to make sure that you use a subset of standards that do work consistently.

    Although management wants all the advantages of a standards-based design, they do not assign any resources to fix the existing pages. I have no time to help them, its 8 vs. 1 developer. If I tried, I wouldn’t be able to catch up, and I wouldn’t be able to attend to my other tasks.

    I’m now trying to develop a framework, that would shield the devs from the xHTML/CSS/JS. It would be a sort of meta-language in JAVA that will let them describe the parts of the page, without letting them specifying each pixel. It would let them do what they do best, without worrying about browser quirks. Hopefully this would make it into the next major version of our application…

  25. John Lascurettes – in reference to your response.

    This is not a personal viewpoint which can be changed on a whim. This is an attitude thats pretty prevalent in the corporate business world. Telling me to read books I’ve all ready read and to visit sites I obviously visit – totally misses the point. The problem is in convincing businesses that they should start following standards.

    The Standards web geeks tend to think that the Internet is the end-all-be-all of web development. Those that believe that are wrong. There are as many web pages designed for web applications which run on a companies internal network as there are pages on the Internet.

    If they want standards to start being implemented there then they need to come up with better arguments for a buisness to invest its money in revamping its old code. For Internally designed web apps:

    Search rankings are meaningless.
    There is just one mandated web browser (typically IE6).
    Zero to few sight disabled employees use them.

    Most Internet web sites only have a handful of pages to maintain and they tend to have very limited data to display which lends itself to layouts which favor wide area block level designs. Things that DIV tags are good at.

    Internal apps typically involve querying databases to return multiple rows of data that need to be sorted and analyzed. Telling people not to use tables for this is absolutely 100% wrong.

    I am working on a web app right now that involves over 387 seperate JSP pages (with their accompanying java apps/etc.). I’m adding additional functionality on a few extra pages. So what am I to do – write these pages in a way that is totally non-standard to the format that is used by the 387 others (regardless of how non-web2.0 it may be), or follow their standard so future developers will have an easier time maintaining it?

  26. @Stan
    I can see where you’re coming from. I think, while web standards developers get all of this stuff and they’ll continue to influence the non-standards based developers where they can, it’s those making the decisions that need to be influenced. You’re right when you say that most non-techie people focus on the screen, on what a page looks like. If we as developers make suggestions about introducing web standards and it doesn’t affect the look of the page or dramatically affect the performance of the site, no wonder web standards get put as a low priority.

    Because the changes are ‘behind the scenes’ I think the way forward is to convince the non-techie decision makers that web standards are a good idea for other reasons:

    * future maintenance
    * web standards makes it easier to add new features in the future
    * web standards allow the design (css) and the code to be completely separate
    * web standards allows products to be sold into other markets (the large group of disabled users on the web and those using other devices)

    Another powerful device is show the decision makers other rival web sites that have introduced standards. A bit of business related jealousy would do no harm in pushing web standards.

    I can see that this isn’t going to work for intranets but surely they’re less of an issue as you can control the browsers people use etc…

    Your comment about managers being suspicious of web standards being a ‘fad’ is another good point. It’s all well and good bleating about the fact that they’ve been around for ages, but non-techie decision makers are bound to be suspicious unless they see some benefit to their business and their profits.

    One final comment.

    bq. Internal apps typically involve querying databases to return multiple rows of data that need to be sorted and analyzed. Telling people not to use tables for this is absolutely 100% wrong.

    If you’re talking about displaying data in tables – why is this a problem? That’s what html tables are for aren’t they?

  27. You’ll never be able to convince clients/management that standards are worth the development time on their own — instead make it part of the whole CSS based design experience then rattle all of the benefits of the total package.

    My pitch is that lightweight design that makes for greater website performance and lower bandwidth costs, sites are significantly easier to update & maintain in addition to reducing the possibilities of user error (find-replace anyone?), and then the fact that search engines seem to like standards compliant websites. The SEO factor usually settles things.

    Another thing that works well is to bill CSS based design as the “˜latest and greatest’ technology. Execs are always falling in love with the latest annoying web gimmick, and it’s nice to use this for good and not for evil once in a while.

  28. I work at a mega-gigantic web corporation (10,000+ employees across the world, and hundreds of millions of users.) While we don’t exactly model PPK’s definition of “Web company,” since we don’t (often) create websites for others, we do offer end users: games, instant messaging, news, sports, mail, search, photo-sharing, a top-notch Javascript and CSS framework, and a host of other services, many of which start with “Y!” 😉

    Yahoo is a huge proponent of web standards, for very pragmatic reasons. On most teams, you can’t get hired as even a junior web developer without a solid background in standards and CSS. At the same time, we host countless 1990-style table-based layout pages, and most of them probably won’t be changed any time soon. And yes, some of our internal web apps are simply godaweful.

    The all-too-common focus on refactoring legacy pages is misguided and hopeless. There is little, if any, benefit to make up for the herculean effort. However, web companies are typically in the business of creating *new* pages, and this is where the standards movement should move. When an old system is refactored, it’s often a wholescale redesign, and that’s when a proper approach should be used. Extending a system should almost always use the language of the existing system, and sometimes, yes, that means that you implement the 254th page as table-soup so that it matches the pattern of the other 253.

    When it comes to new development, it’s a much easier sell. First, you say, “I’m going to implement this using web standards because it’s better.” (Or don’t say it–just do it.) If that doesn’t work (and it usually does), then you point to the huge sites that have used web standards to great advantage–sites like Yahoo, Blogger, ESPN, and others. Talk about their agility, their reach, how this is the new standard. Get involved in the hiring process, and try to hire developers who know about standards. (Usually they’re the best choice anyhow.)

    If that doesn’t work, then build a resume in modern HTML and CSS, put it online, and get ready to move to California. (Seriously, as more employers move to using web standards, it’s getting harder to find good web developers these days. You’re valuable!) As more standards-using webdevs reach career-maturity, web companies will necessarily shift in that direction, and devs who don’t use these methods will find themselves working somewhere else.

    Lastly, please, abandon the religious viewpoint. Software is the art of effective trade-offs. It’s not math, and there is usually not just one right answer. It does so happen that web standards can be leveraged in many cases to make a big profit in time, effort, and features, but if you’re in this business long enough as one of PPK’s “invisible professionals,” you’ll eventually find a case where you need a layout table to achieve a certain effect, or where a table-based approach is faster/easier/more maintainable, and the costs are reasonable. W3C approval doesn’t not make something necessarily a good method. If you’re going to be a zealot, be a zealot about writing high-quality code–usually that means standards, but standards are not a valid end in themselves. I feel like blogging a big fat rant when I can’t buy movie tickets on my Blackjack, but web standards zealotry is perceived as naive and misguided by managers and customers alike.

  29. I’m still disappointed that my employer (of more than 100,000 employees, billions of dollars of profit, In just about every country in the world) still uses tables for layout on their second tier pages…

  30. I used to work as a designer for a large web company three years ago, they were 37 employees at that time so it did was large, and web standards were all the rage. One area of the company was in charge of giving technical and cultural copy material about the web and the whole development process; we were given in memos about the benefit of the web standards, good programming practice, web community phenomena, and other stuff.

    A particularly interesting memo we had was about Firefox and his superiority over other browsers and why we should use it; as a matter of fact, we were practically obligated to use it as a reference for design, and for browsing both the Internet and our own VPN, because the browser itself and all its abilities and components made comunication a lot easier, a fact which I could not agree more.

    As a result, all the employees started enjoying Firefox; I remember a young girl next to me using brand new components and pushing tab navigation to its limits with her endless necessity of web community needs.

    After several months, I got bored and left the company. Nevertheless, I found that all this introduction to Firefox was a good approach to make people related to the web environment start to embrace web standards without having to actually be part of it.

  31. bq. 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.

    Excellent observation, humorous delivery. Bravo.

  32. I work for a very large retailer (100,000+ employees) as a front-end developer. For the past couple of years, my small group has been playing the role of evangelists in the areas of SEO, accessibility, and standards. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a position of not being able to change much due to the enormous enterprise architecture our web site(s) sit on. It would seem to me that smaller firms would be more flexible in their back-end architecture, having the ability to change things for the benefit of standards, without having to make a case to non-savvy senior leadership, have them pony up a fat check to our technology “partners” for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, and kick off a huge multi-year project where a hundred different uninformed business groups want to have it “their way”.

    I believe the only way things will change for large companies is for people in the know to educate those who aren’t in the reasons why standards are important — why this stuff matters, why it is ultimately good for the customer and for the bottom line.

  33. When it comes to web development, Belgium is a little fish. No real bigmegasuper companies around here. Medium size is big around here. I work for such a ‘big’ Belgium company. Like most companies in this country they discovered the importance of web standards – css – accessibility – usability too late.
    I was hired to close some gaps.
    It is so simple and for me the discussion is closed: web development needs to be web standard. Always and everywhere. And web standards for me is the whole package: CSS, semantics, and accessibility. A big client wanted just to get a conformance label for accessibility. (a competitor had it also…) I told them to get rid of the 33 useless tables (only for the header and footer!) and try to get the site web standard first. Accessibility will come much easier. They agreed. The semantic part is always a bit harder to realize with CMS and the ability for publishers to copy and paste pure MS Word junk without thinking twice. But with well written style sheets and the very necessary style guides for publishers I have seen completely demotivated publishers turn into active contributers.
    I demonstrated the power of Firefox and its very usefull plugins to the developers with whom I will have to work. So convincing. Every honest developer or designer knows that standards are the way to go. It is simply better code! And the tools are here, the convincing articles are everywhere, the benefits are so cristal clear. It is so funny that some people still try to argue. Just face the reality: good-old full table design was only acceptable in the nineties! Think and move forward.

  34. People keep talking about standards as if they are time-consuming or difficult, as if companies need to be persuaded to adopt them in spite of the ‘difficulties’. I don’t get it–I find it much easier to develop a project when I’m using standards; everything just seems to organise itself.

    If you do everything in HTML and CSS, more or less separating style from content, and then write a couple of fixes for IE, and some JavaScript for a bit of progressive enhancement, you cover every base in one go: normal web browsers, browsers without JavaScript, cell phones, screen readers… everything. And it also tends to make things better with search engine rankings; only the important stuff is in your HTML, which is the bit the spiders want. I can’t imagine the hassle of trying to get a website working in such a cross-compatible, SE-optimised way without using web standards: everything would suddenly require effort, rather than just falling into place.

    It’s just like sticking to a naming convention for all your functions and variables: if you don’t have a convention, you end up losing track of things. I almost never forget what I called a function, because I can ‘work out’ what I must have called it based on my convention, so I don’t have to open a library file and check. I think little things like that add up to a lot when you’re programming all day.

    Non-compliance would be so counter-productive for me, and I’m a solo developer–I can’t imagine how a _team_ of developers make decent progress without web standards. I haven’t encountered any of these people discussed in the article–people who ‘reject’ web standards. Who are they? Are they just odd little people who dislike society, and themselves? I’m intrigued.

    Surely the increase in productivity is why big companies should be interested in standards? It’s not an ideological thing; for me, the accessibility benefits are just a welcome side effect. The point is that it keeps your work organised and extensible, making it infinitely easier to edit things later, so you get more done in less time. That prospect must be of interest to big companies? OK, you have to learn the theory first, which takes a little while, but that’s true of any skill.

    Or am I the only one who finds standards compliance much easier than non-compliance?

  35. Exactly, Den.

    With *very* rare exception, the only time when using standards is harder than not using standards when you’re proposing that a company refactor a huge existing application or site. And that’s usually not such a good idea, anyhow, unless the benefits greatly outweigh the rewards. That’s why “I wrote”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies?page=3#28 that we should abandon the zealotry and focus on what matters–writing excellent code and building *new* systems that succeed with standards.

  36. Based on the author’s “Comments on Comments”:http://alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies?page=2#16 I’m skeptical whether many businesses fit the narrow definition of a “large web company.” Counting the offsite staff, my gig has _maybe_ 30 employees in all. And we focus on the production of web _applications_ (which PPK may consider fundamentally different that just plain ol’ websites, I don’t know).

    Assuming for the moment that I _do_ fit this elusive demographic, let me say: I’m pretty sure I already explained why we (LWCs) don’t use standards, “months ago”:http://alistapart.com/comments/whereourstandardswentwrong?page=6#54

    Because we use methodologies instead.

    Although neither “Jonathan Lui”:http://alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies?page=3#24 nor “Jay Myers”:http://alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies?page=4#33 technically fit the demo (since neither work for LWCs), their paths to standards adoption are thwarted by the very same obstacle that plagues my LWC: we each already have a methodology in place. Jonathan’s pages are generated by a CRM. Jay’s pages are plugged in to an enterprise architecture. My pages are built on the fly with Fusebox. Even without standards, we’re guaranteed a predictable level of quality.

    Assuming we heed “Isaac Schlueter’s”:http://alistapart.com/comments/standardsandcompanies?page=3#28 advice and just start making new pages better, then predictability goes out the window. I’ve done this before. In theory, there’s an abrupt switch from circa ’97 tabular layouts to beautiful standardized code. In practice, after the switch, get ready for months of tweaking while your skills adjust to the new technique. Eventually, you’ll lock into a comfort zone and start enforcing your own unwritten rules. But in that interim, code is chaos. Your site becomes an evolutionary chart of shifting styles that only you can navigate. By giving up on a methodology and instead chasing standards, your company loses the quality of predictability. Contrary to the notion that standards are faster and easier, umpteen different flavors of standards on one site (however compliant) force everyone to program on a page-per-page basis, which _slows things down_.

    In the paragraph above I paint an admittedly skewed scenario. Whenever Isaac abandons the old for the new, I bet he employs an unspoken methodology. Maybe he even goes so far as to write it down. Which simply points back to my message from months ago: standards aren’t the elephant in the room…methodologies are.

  37. bq. Whenever Isaac abandons the old for the new, I bet he employs an unspoken methodology. Maybe he even goes so far as to write it down. Which simply points back to my message from months ago: standards aren’t the elephant in the room”¦methodologies are.

    Great points, Everett. A consistent methodology is an important part of creating quality software. (And yes, we do write it down.)

    Production software is often not the time or place for testing out something that is unfamiliar. I believe that, in most cases, a team that is familiar with the standards-based approach can create higher quality software in less time than using web 1.0 methods. However, if you take a team of developers who have been using tables for the last 10 years, and say, “Use web standards!” then it’s usually a disaster. (I’ve seen it!)

    You create software with the team you have. A whole new breed of webdev is entering the market these days, and they’ve never used anything but CSS for styling. The ones that are fresh and passionate about this field are using standards. As more and more devs use standards, more and more “LWCs” will as well.

    That’s why the zealotry and the focus on refactoring old systems is absurd. Those systems will live as long as they can, and then be replaced by the competition. An inaccessible website is a bigger liability every day, and execs are learning this.

    If you want to create a new app or site using a standards based approach, then you either need to educate the team you have, or get a new one. The ramp-up time from CSS n00b to expert is about a year for a bright and committed developer. That’s less than, say, C++, but it’s still fairly expensive, and it’s silly to expect that someone can just learn it overnight. As more and more customers and employers expect these skills, the webdevs of last century will either educate themselves or get into another line of work. It’s already happening; a standards-savvy developer with a year of experience and a personal blog site is a valuable sought-after commodity.

    In other words, I think we can all calm down. The standards revolution has hit critical mass, and will continue whether we shout about it or not. There are more important things to talk about, like figuring out methodologies to create maintainable systems. (Hint: standards alone doesn’t do it!)

  38. bq. Perhaps if “web standards”? had a snazzy buzzword with the same ear appeal as “Flash”? and “Ajax”?? (Chazz? Swak? Spondulix?)

    ‘WebStanz’ or ‘Stanzy’ perhaps, to keep it slightly recognizable…

    “Is your website Stanzy?”

  39. Only web developers who care about web accessibility talk about it, write about it, and read about it. The rest of the world doesn’t even know what it is. Could the same strategy discussed here could work for increasing awareness of the importance of web accessibility?

  40. I have to say that from my personal stand point. There are only two ways to impose web-standards among the design world, particularly large companies. Before I rant any further I would like to point out the obvious. In a strictly programmed environment (c, python etc) the program does not compile unless the code has been symantically and logistically tested and found to pass. This is a strict system, but it does assure that all programs coded in that particular language are, at least, adequate.

    Say for example the same principle was applied to a segment of HTML code. It wouldn’t work if the site did not conform to w3c standards. Even if the site was poorly designed (horribly large gifs, mismatching borders etc) it would still conform to w3c standards. This is my first proposal: Target the companies that provide web-editting programs & web-servers. Imagine if apache threw out an error if a tag wasn’t closed. It would be an amazing incentive to get neat (code-wise at least).

    My second proposal would be the comsumer. Every standardista needs to put a tag at the bottom of every site they code:
    “This site conforms to w3c standards, link->read more about the movement <-link" this would make sure that clients always become associated with having a w3c compliant site. Call it a stamp of pride. Remember that even the largest of businesses are ruled by their clients. With greater client knowledge comes greater pressure upon bigger companies to clean up their act.

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