Sunday, October 07, 2007

Two Tales of One City...or Somethin’ Like That (Part I)

Trey Magnifique
Old adages are great, aren’t they? They’re true just often enough to make you think, “Wow, I shoulda remembered that!” in the wake of circumstances that pass through our daily lives.

It’s easy to distill the circumstances of our daily lives into these neat little packages of dogma anytime the unexpected occurs. We cite the truisms, No one knows what tomorrow will bring, or Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

My favorite is actually a rather new entry to the lexicon: Never assume, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.

We just never know, do we? It’s amazing how often something or someone we were sure we had pegged to be one way, turns out to be another. We all do it, and usually without a lot of consequence. We simply shrug and say, “Who knew?”

However sometimes, when the stakes are a bit higher, it’s easy for a lot of us to be a bit more dramatic. Sometimes it’s easier to assume the worst than to hope for the best, then when to our surprise, the worst doesn’t come to pass, when we’ve successfully dodged a bullet, we gain perspective as to what our measure of blessing in this life is all about.

Over the past year I’ve learned — quite happily, I might add — that I was wrong about a lot of things.

I’ve come to appreciate the considerable good fortune that has been afforded me in the most unlikely of circumstances. At a time when I seriously feared for my future, he who I feared would be my executioner has turned out to be my savior.

What you don't know can hurt you
When I was told in the spring of 2006 that I was being passed over for the newly created Webmaster position at work, it stung, but not too much. I knew I was under-qualified to take on supervision of the new web site that was at the time still under construction, being created in all Java and CSS, two more recent web technologies that I knew ‘about,’ but certainly didn’t ‘know.’

I was stuck in a time warp. For eight years I had been tied to old, failing and/or obsolete web software that The Company’s previous two IT providers either owned or were heavily invested in, not-so-coincidentally foisting them upon us, having convinced upper management that they were the tools best suited for our needs.

Yeah, and carrier pigeons are the best way to send a letter, too.

So while everyone else in my profession was busy engaging the new technologies of the Web, learning CSS, JavaScript, and the newly mandated extensibility standards for HTML, I was still in the Pleistocene epoch. While my contemporaries were breaking away from the chaotic world of ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) web editors, eight years later I was still hip-deep in programs like, NetObjects Fusion and Lotus Domino.

So when the time came that The Company finally decided to graduate from dino-tech and embrace the current web standards, I wasn’t ready. I was like a deer in the headlights. I saw the truck coming, but felt powerless to move.

Now if you’re thinking it sounds as though I might need a little cheese to go along with my whine, you’re probably right. Sure, I was dealt a bad hand, but I didn’t have just to wring my hands as I did (when I wasn’t sitting on them, that is).

The Company’s ill-informed technology decisions didn’t absolve me of the sins of paralysis and apathy I committed against my own career. Instead of waiting for someone to hold my hand, I could have sought training, and of course I didn’t.

Even years ago, I could have made a bigger stink about our backward web technology. Perhaps I could have at least gotten the ball rolling, and convinced a few of the right people up to wake up and smell the coffee of the standards-driven movement that was sweeping the World Wide Web. But logically that would have required that I understood it myself first, and of course, I didn’t.

I could have attempted to learn JavaScript on my own instead of expecting for someone in IT to code the half-dozen JS projects that I had proposed, for me. I would have been willing to do most of the work; I just needed some guidance; someone to bounce questions off of; a little on-the-job mentoring. But no, “Too busy,” they said. “If you can’t do it, outsource it,” they said, and of course we never did.

I felt as though I was on an island; stranded; a castaway to my own fear of failure.

Instead of being a code warrior, I was a code worrier. I feared that if I stepped from behind the security of my one-pixel transparent GIFs and WYSIWYG web programs, surely I would be exposed for the programming-challenged faux-nerd that I was.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a pretty good designer, if I can say that without sounding too conceited. I’ve never had trouble making web sites that look good. It’s just that nowadays nice-looking isn’t good enough; non-interactive web design has become about as out of step as the 56k modem: just barely passable, and certainly not the way you want to go.

I suppose my problem was that I came into the Web arena from the print design world, with no knowledge whatsoever of code writing. I was a graphic designer who dove into web design using visual layout tools as opposed to learning HTML from a traditional coding perspective, and I certainly had no experience with programming languages like Perl/CGI, Java, or JavaScript.

I was exactly the type of person that the new movement was trying to at least enlighten, if not eliminate altogether. I was a web designer who understood little to nothing about the extended syntax of HTML, but instead depended upon WYSIWYG web programs to lay out pages visually, with their bloated, non-standard, bastardized code beneath the surface.

The biggest outcry against this visual, auto-generated method of creating web pages came from an area most people didn’t give a lot of thought to years ago, but whose ever-growing voice is now being heard and catered to: sightless and handicapped web users.

Web page readers are browsing devices that allow handicapped folks the ability to surf the web, by actually ‘reading’ a web page’s code audibly to the user, who navigates around the page via voice commands responding to the options given.

This method of actuating the functionality of a web page requires clarity in the way the page code is written, with the naming of all elements being essential, otherwise the maneuvering about for options is useless or at best extremely difficult for the user.

In this case, navigating through murky, ill-fashioned code would be like driving a car down the road trying to figure out where you are but all the road signs are either blank or written in gibberish.

This and the fact that clear, precise naming and code conventions saves processing time and thereby overall bandwidth, makes the push for code clarity as sensible as it is necessary.

So, bottom line was, I knew that I was in for a pretty radical change, and while I accepted it well enough, I still didn’t get the urgency of it all. I can’t say I went kicking and screaming into the New World, but I sure didn’t go willingly. It took a little prodding — in more ways than one.

You can’t judge a book by its cover — or its age
As I did more than hint about last year, the get-to-know-you period between my new boss, Katie, and me hit a few rough spots. As we transitioned from the old to the new web presence, I blithely continued to stroll along, plugging away at my job, almost as though nothing had changed. I had been told that it would be up to me to arrange the training I would need to learn CSS and JavaScript, et al. But instead of stepping up, I retreated to busywork related to the brand update that commanded most of our attention during 2006. It was work that needed to be done, but I focused on it to the exclusion of nearly all else, using it as my rationalization for not taking the initiative to arrange the training I would need when the new web site came online.

The Webmaster position still had yet to be filled over that summer, when the outsource company who was hired to create a new, whiz-bang corporate web site had nearly completed their task. With the exception of being asked my opinion on a few matters along with the Marketing team as a whole, I wasn’t included in the meetings during which the particulars about the new web site were hammered out.

I suppose I may have overreacted, but I felt more than a little left out. I had to wonder if I wasn’t being slowly nudged out the door. Regardless of what my concerns were, my resolve should have remained strong, but to be honest, it wasn’t. I sulked. I felt the walls closing in. I just put my head down and did what I knew I absolutely had to do, and nothing more.

At that point I remember thinking, “Why get training? What’s the point? I’m probably gonna lose my job anyway.”

Fortunately those self-destructive thoughts were only occasional, but I’d be lying to say they didn’t affect my behavior. Nonetheless I did try to do a few things to indicate that I was worth keeping around.

I was able to make a few JavaScript improvements to the existing web site that temporarily placated Katie’s abject disdain for it, but I knew was treading water at best, and still gradually sinking overall.

When Trey, the new Webmaster was finally hired in August, I really didn’t know what to think. I already had this persecution complex going with Katie. I could only imagine that a late twentysomething Web whiz-kid would regard this old dog with at equal disdain.

The last thing I expected was a totally cool, extremely smart and genuine person who actually cared about my success, when he most likely had the power to replace me if he felt I couldn’t cut it.

I really saw what Trey was about when the ca-ca hit the proverbial fan a little more than a year ago. After the new web site launched in October, he had been bringing me along slowly, giving me simple projects to do; things that didn’t require a lot of ramp-up with regard to maintaining our shiny new web presence.

However we fell behind on a new initiative that was directly related to our customers, not just the corporate look of The Company’s web site. When pressed for the reason we didn’t deliver as scheduled on the developmental deadline we had for the project, Trey reluctantly admitted it was because he had to go in and clean up after me, which was the truth.

I had thought I’d done pretty well on this, my very first CSS project, but there was obviously still a lot I didn’t know. All things considered, Trey was impressed with the work I did, but Katie wasn’t so patient.

She basically told Trey that I was skating on extremely thin ice, and that she was upset that I hadn’t prepared myself my better to be ready for the work that I knew was coming. And she was absolutely right about that.

But to his credit, Trey defended me. He didn’t throw me under the bus when he had ample opportunity to do so. However that situation was the wakeup call I needed.

Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks
I immediately went out and got a couple of CSS books, which coincidentally, both Trey and other coder friends I knew suggested. I began reading and practicing. All through Thanksgiving vacation I had my nose set fast into tutorials and those books. My head was spinning. I felt totally overwhelmed at first, but quickly began familiarizing myself with the tenants of CSS.

All the while, Trey was extremely encouraging, giving no indication that that any question I had was too trivial or burdensome. Slowly but surely, I started to get it.

Now a year later I feel pretty comfortable and the path to Trey’s cubical is a little less worn than it was several months ago. Next area of concentration is JavaScript, which still poses a looming threat to my overall viability as a web designer in the New World. However I’ve been able to find a lot of good support materials and tutorials on the Web, so, onward and upward I suppose.

The point is, this guy who I had no confidence would find me anything more than a stumbling block has been more than fair. He doesn’t coddle me, but by the same token, I haven’t exactly needed it. I just needed someone to provide a little guidance; someone to bounce things off of, so that I didn’t feel so isolated in this sea of new challenges.

Lucky for me, Trey went far beyond my unnecessary paranoia. I really couldn’t have asked for someone more grounded, stable and fair.

Lucky me, indeed.

Next: Meeting of the minds
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