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Analog-to-digital conversion

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A (not-so-brief) wander along the path that led a middle-aged woman to fall in love with coding for the web.

I’m 57 years old, a female designer and web architect with a traditional design background who has been building websites since long before the days of WordPress, from before “blog” was a household word. As a coder and digital creator, I had to learn nearly everything on my own since there weren’t even computers in my university days. The big tech advance of my time was memory typewriters, which I doubt most folks under 40 have even heard of (IBM Selectric III, Wheelwriter). I keep reading great posts about women in tech by those much younger than me who will likely replace me in the wink of an eye if I don’t keep up. So here I am with a cup of coffee early on a Saturday morning, thinking on paper about how I got to where I am now – spending long days and too many nights coding, researching and configuring. All I can say is, thank God it’s true that you’re never too old to learn new tricks. I decided to write this article after attending the 2013 WordCamp in Montréal, where I participated in a session called Women In WordPress. A lively discussion about how some of us got to where we are in the tech world motivated me to document my own trip.

While working in publishing, advertising and design in Boston in the ‘80s, at the height of the tech boom in that region, I bought my first Macintosh, a 512 with a disc to boot it up. I created gorgeous little pixelated illustrations, experimented with HyperCard apps and typed and printed all my own media plans, proposals and letters on it, which greatly pissed off my boss at one job, who kept insisting that that was what secretaries were for. I kept telling him I was faster and more accurate than the secretary, and it was easier to make corrections (she used a memory typewriter). Today, that same man has learned how to type, uses a Mac, and once called me just to tell me that I had been right all along. Not long after, I paid $5,000 for a LaserWriter, borrowing the money from my Mom. I was lucky enough to work with a company that had us rubbing shoulders with the cream of the tech crop – Mitch Kapor, Dan Bricklin, the folks from Bistream, Mark of the Unicorn (now MOTU) and a slew of up-and-coming developers and companies who went on to change the digital world. Aldus’ Paul Brainard himself demonstrated the very first version of PageMaker while sitting on a desk in our offices! A series of Macs moved through my life over the next few years, as well as large-format monitors, including my favorite, a black-and-white, Radius model that could be pivoted from landscape to portrait mode – a telling precursor to the functionality of the iPod Touch and iPad. I think it must have cost somewhere around $2,500, a shocking sum at the time.

In 1987 I moved to Vermont, co-founding a boutique communications design firm with another designer. Although we were based in a small, rural town, we somehow managed to get projects for elite, nationwide clients in an era when “direct marketing” was the buzzword. Looking back, it seems ironic that our clients’ offices were so far away from us, something that is common today. Back then, pre-Skype, I’d take the all-night train to NYC for a morning face-to-face meeting and return home late that same day in a teensy-tinsy Roomette sleeper. The porter even shined my shoes while I was sleeping (even though I’m a woman, I wore funky but stylish Oxfords).

In the early ‘90s, we were working for several tech firms and I was designing as well as writing advertising copy and user manuals. I first began learning about code and programming by bugging my geek (all male, of course) friends for help. Over time, it became possible to learn directly from the internet, which did not yet have good search or much-indexed content back in the day.

I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but I had a chance to work on some projects with the late-great, tortured-but-brilliant, tech-creative genius and musician Tom Tafuto, a Vermont neighbor and friend who initiated my first true coding experiences. Tom freelanced for noted companies in the digital space, among them Apple and IBM as well as numerous major creative agencies. He even paid the local (private) telephone company to run a T-1 line right up to his barn studio, putting everybody else on his dirt road online at unheard-of speeds for the time. With his aid, and my handy Apple Powerbook, I learned to write HTML and made my first web pages, using tables and frames to get stuff positioned properly. We fantasized about all the things the internet could/would potentially do. CSS came along and I learned how to make stuff look (faintly) like its print counterpart. I began using <divs> and creating layered web graphics, which seemed like an amazing thing. We pitched clients to build websites. They laughed (“Why would we want to do that? Who is going to look at a brochure on a computer?). Nobody had a web URL on their business card. Our email addresses looked something like They wouldn’t even fit on a business card!

We designer-types had Macs already, but we didn’t often upload our now-digital artwork to the printer unless it was by a long, slow, pretty-much-guaranteed-to-fail, dial-up-connection in the middle of the night. I don’t know how many mornings I got up to discover that the transmission had crapped out five minutes before the end of my 200MB upload and had to jump in my car with discs, Zip drives or some other long-since-dead removable media (some still in my storage closet) in hand. This generally happened during a blinding snowstorm when the major highway was closed, even though for some reason the printer wasn’t, and the client didn’t care if I died to approve the print run. Curse. Sigh. Subaru.

The digital world overtook us only subtly.

I remember I clipped out the first ad I ever saw with a URL in it, a car ad in Wired magazine. Wired was so hip, printed on the most expensive paper with the least eco-friendly inks possible (metallic) and it cost something like $60 a year to subscribe but it was designer/gadget heaven and so full of geek attitude, although I never did like the car or cigarette ads, which seemed at odds with some of the content. I still read it, but today I get old copies from my Dad – an 81-year old retired engineer/CFO who I taught to make websites, too (and the magazine now costs more like $13 a year).

When I first moved to a small town in rural Québec in 1997, like most people, I had a painful dial-up connection, yet I still managed to actually make a living doing digital design for my clients. I actually feel a little sentimental pang when I hear the increasingly rare sound of a successful b-r-r-z-z-z-z-e-e-p dial-up connection tone. Although we are only 70 miles from Montréal, we still don’t have DSL or cable on our country road – I have to settle for a 4G satellite connection which functions pretty well as long as you don’t want to upload anything huge in a rush or watch HD movies online. I usually spend a day each week somewhere with “real” high-speed and pray nightly for 10Mbps to happen to me.

Website creation seems to have gone full circle in the past fifteen years – we started out doing everything 100% by hand, then tools like Dreamweaver and its “WYSIWYG” coding (although we were still using tables and frames) let non-coders mess with the HTML invisibly and see the results as they worked. I admit that I used this tool when it first arrived, but quickly discovered that it wrote terrible code. The thing was, I actually knew what the HTML was supposed to look like and could fix the errors. Many more tools came to market and more people began to create their own websites. Perhaps also not so surprisingly, people began to call me to help them repair their (frequently self-) broken websites. Frames and layers went out of vogue and CSS became a teenager, although many sites still sported embedded styles rather than a link to a stylesheet. I made first sites for lots of folks. And second-generation sites. And third-generation sites. We learned to use a fancy new trick called “text includes” to prevent us from repeating the menu, footer or other common content in every document within the website, which was a nightmare when the client decided they’d rather say Send Us A Message than Contact Us in the primary menu. Javascript and Flash became popular, mostly to enable tricky visual effects like pop-up windows and animated splash pages. Any designer worth his salt knew how to create at least basic Flash animation, like menus with sound effects (guilty) or a cool Welcome To My Website graphic that did crazy stuff and then ushered in actual content. Nobody was much worried about search engine optimization. Heck, we were still using Alta Vista to find stuff online. Google just sort of sneaked up on us.

Then along came the era of the blogging engine, now generally referred to as a CMS (content management system), changing everything. The designer/developer created a “theme” (design) for the site, installed the software on a hosting server and gave the client login credentials so they could edit content directly in their browser window, in an editor that worked pretty much like Word (which they were used to), rather than via an FTP connection and some sort of editing tool like Dreamweaver (which many clients bought and learned to use despite their complete lack of skill or interest in coding). A CMS could take many shapes – I started by playing with b2 (the precursor to WordPress), Drupal, MovableType, Moodle, Pligg and many more. I became obsessed with installing and trying out software, a habit I suffer from to this day. And I fell totally in love with open-source software. A dangerous combination! I had just signed up for my first shared hosting account, one that allowed me to be a reseller (using the popular WebHost and CPanel options at my host). While still on a dial-up connection (imagine!), I installed and tried out literally countless open-source applications, including blogging, educational, finance, project management, portfolio, social software . In a way, I think it satisfied my shopping urge. I was always getting something new, but guilt-free.

Instead of static, “flat” (as in HTML files) websites, our sites became “dynamic”, with each page being interpreted by the server and built for the browser as the user clicked on a link. I evolved into a WordPress specialist, which turned out to be a good choice since WordPress now accounts for 18% of all websites on the planet and more than half of the top 20 blogs on the internet. My stylesheet, site functions/structure (usually PHP documents containing a mix of HTML and PHP) and content (the database) are separate, following the MVC (model-view-controller) convention that is popular today. While coding these sites isn’t too hard, it did mean that I had to learn PHP and understand the basic workings of a MySQL database, tasks I truly enjoyed in my pursuit of ever more knowledge. But this turn of events apparently turned off a lot of would-be web designers of my generation, who had made the transition from the X-Acto knife to the Mac and were just beginning to make the transition to web design. Unlike me, many of them hadn’t started at Day One of the web, without the double-edged sword of tools that hid the underpinnings from them. I didn’t know it then, but I had been in the right place at the right time.

And so, just a few years later, the circle is still unbroken, as we chuck out (okay, mostly) the WYSIWYG tools and use newer solutions that bring us closer to the olden days of handcoding, only with little GUI extras like syntax highlighting and code checking, plus add-ons that make our work easier. Almost everybody’s site is built on some sort of CMS platform, their content in a database. We create responsive sites that change according to the device upon which they are viewed. And we use development and design “frameworks” like Twitter Bootstrap to speed up development and CSS compilers that allow us to write variables and constants into our stylesheets using special style “languages” like SASS and LESS. We are always on the quest for the perfect “master” upon which to base our next site. We worship at the altar of the god of SEO, in hopes that we’ll end up in Google heaven. Luckily, most of the tools we use on the web make that happen pretty easily, because nearly every tool in our arsenal is optimized out-of-the-box. And we old-timers can’t help laughing when we read bios that state “over four years’ experience” in web design, as if four years is somehow long. In traditional design terms, it doesn’t even count! But the funniest part is that few can really claim to have more than ten years’ experience doing anything on the web.

Some typical web development concerns circa 1998 : HTML table layouts, loading content into a specific frame, web-compatible colors, page load speeds of less than 18 seconds; wondering when our manually-submitted listing to all the search engines would kick in, stuffing catchy meta keywords in the document <head>, properly embedding Shockwave Flash media, worrying about whether or not visitors would have the proper plugins to view our content; whether or not they would have Javascript activated or accept cookies; amassing lots of outbound/inbound links, fear that our site would not display properly in Internet Explorer.

Typical web development concerns circa 2013 : working responsive layouts, page load speeds of 3 seconds or less; search engine optimization (mainly for Google); trackbacks, pingbacks, inbound, social links; fear that our site will not display properly in Internet Explorer.

As I wind up this tale, one thing is clear about the whole experience thus far. While absolutely everything was slower in the early days of our professional digital lives – computer CPUs, internet connections, hard drives – we still managed to make a living with our imperfect tools and yet still have time left over for doing (sometimes lots of) other things. In my case, that was raising three kids; running a small farm with sheep, horses, goats, pigs, chickens and a garden; skiing in winter; swimming on hot summer days; playing music with my band on weekends. Today, I still play music and am there as needed for my (no longer living at home) kids, but I spend much more time on my computer, mostly for work – searching, learning, designing and troubleshooting – but some for pleasure (reading, watching movies, socializing). I can be reached everywhere I go, sometimes to my benefit (an emergency arrives and I can deal with it quickly, whew!), sometimes not (I’m having fun and a client interrupts me with something that could have waited). It’s a tradeoff, for sure. It’s also, ironically, the reason I got up this morning and sat down with my coffee mug to write this (on my laptop) while listening to summer birdsong while a light breeze wafts in over the back porch.

Hey, I think I’ll go for a swim now!

Photo © Aimé Méthé