Notes: How to Convince Your Company to Embrace Standards

The following are my panel notes from SXSW. As I am not the fastest typer I have paraphrased what was said. Should you notice any mistakes please do point them out in the comments for corrections.

Web developers the world over understand the benefits that standards-based development provide, but how do you get management or a client to understand as well? A small band of committed geeks got AOL and Time Inc. to embrace Web standards, not only in the Development organization, but also throughout the company -- including Design and Senior Management. Come learn how they did it, and how you can do it too.

Moderator: Kevin Lawver Web Standards Guy, AOL

KL: AOL? What the F@ck are you doing here. AOL is not the first company that you think of when you talk about standards or being open on the web. We're now part of Time Warner and they are huge they just print books and stuff.

You know who you are you are shaking your fist at the sky saying, "We can do this better�. There was a lack of a standards community and standards development was being carried out by single developers. Start with a small group of passionate folks. If you're a small startup you probably don't need a management sponsor but in a large company you need to find someone in management to collude with.

Once you have the group and someone to fly cover you need a name. Make it dignified make it important we chose the web standards advocacy group.

Imagine yourself as a pirate, don't be silent encourage interaction, keep it friendly don't sledgehammer people make them want to do it. Encourage debate so people feel part of something.

AR: Netscape caused Websites to break left right and centre. The act of convincing websites was an uphill struggle. We had to inside the company and outward as well. We wrote to webmasters but we needed to find the real decision makers. The challenge of finding these people was something that we had to do. The reason why you can get into BoA and Wells Fargo is largely down to this group I even sent them some snippets. Molly posted about AOL being redesigned with web standards.

DevEdge:
Regaining developer trust when we had broken the web was a way of bringing them back in to show them best case scenarios, accessibility, maintainability and reuse. We had to create a love affair with a truly standards compliant platform.

This team's mission lives on.
AOL also works on numerous W3C initiatives. We are looking at Ajax and DOM 3.

KB: from 99-02 I worked on the ecommerce platform. Our marketing people though we can make more money out of this if we can put a buttons to this from the browser. The product from brand to brand should look the same. We couldn't do detection on the server so we were forced to look at a single solution. I had complete control over the templates so I started to do what I could. I added a doctype, added semantics and CSS where possible. We could roll out incremental changes that massively changed our code. Even when we had done a good job of the template we needed to look at everyone else who was responsible for outputting markup. We had to work with them and helping them to change their code so that we were heading in the right direction. We provided templates for markup snippets. As well as autocode generating tools.

The benefits:
Smaller size of download, less complex.

I went onto management; it's hard to find people with standards and training with standards. I rolled my own standards programme. Instead of HTML boot camps we brought in people from the industry as well as bringing in people from your own teams to do brown bag presentations. Even 5 mins in a meeting to point out the differences between html an xhtml can be a big help. I paired people that knew standards with those who didn't.

AG:
Perestroika. I'm here to turn the iron curtain down. Time Inc is a publishing arm of Time Warner. Just 2 years ago our goal was to clone the magazine and put them on the web. Whether you work for a small or large company you do still need to go through many layers of management and people. One of the things I did was to identify the important stakeholders of each project. Your best skill is a listening skill. Ask questions; find out what matter to them most. Your weakest point is critical to success. Learn to speak their language. The design team cam e to a presentation, they told us that the content in the page was much longer. They wanted to reuse the same design to rotate the content. We were going to use Ajax. Thus we explained what Ajax is and how it works in that a user can get data without a refresh. We didn't mention XMLHTTPRequest. Because they wouldn't care about that or need to know.

I had to add extra time to take care of accessibility requirement. They said how many blind people are there anyway? In need the director of Accessibility at AOL to demonstrate accessibility. You have to take victories where you can. Do the best you can. If you use HTML with a valid doctype you make progress. Once you start building with standards there's no way to go back.

Office Pirates:
We were able to launch this site 30% faster this separation meant that development could start all at the same time.

SC:

For a long time AOL existed in a walled garden. We bake IE into the client. A lot of people didn�t know AOL existed. A list apart. Give the team a daily list of recommended reading. Doing things that cause the community to smile helps your reputation. CSS Zen garden is a great example. Real world examples are even better. We can take a real site and do a side by side comparison of their table version to my standards version. You can then show them the site in JAWS so they can see how to tab through the headings for example. Encourage people to get their own sites if they down' have one. Encourage them to try their own Zen Garden design. OR let them Zen gardenify an existing page. Have different versions of the same page with different stylesheets for an example. At AOL we look what kind of things that can show a lift in presentations. I showed this to a marketing person and she hugged me.

Take an existing website and make a standards version. For management let your staff play around in their own time. Make guidelines and code requirements. Don�t allow for old school 'screw it stick it in a table'.

Mandatory code reviews. Don't nitpick make it fun not a witchhunt. Walk past the desk and say, "How's that semantic markup going?" Give yourselves rules too. Stay patient be diligent.

KL: It's scary to stand up but do it. Speak up and be constructive. We did Guerilla re-design as we though we could help people. Show people the benefits. Show them how much faster it is. Give people places to go. You don't want to be the single point of contact for people, as you will get tired out. Set-up a WIKI we use drupal people post questions we have brown bag presentations and we use the drupal site to pick people up say there you are, Go! This helps you to get people involved. Offer training. We offered outreach to other groups. If you do a Brown bag pres plant people to ask the simple question as people won't ask them otherwise.

Learn from you mistakes. Accept it and fix it. Be open to criticism. AOl.com and resize the fonts and watch what happens. AOL is really trying to get out there. We've infected enough people and executives are interested in doing standards. I Am Alpha iamalpha.com created a microformat.

Be patient and keep working at it you'll get there.

Q: People at AOL are kicking serious butt. I love the W3C and people that go to meetings but that's not how standards come about. W�C is irrelevant you should be looking at the real world.
KL the W3C doesn't like microformats.
... KL:You have to look at the existing stuff. We looked at everyone that has widgets. We decided to create a microformat and we are going to work with the other player to create something.

AR: I don't think that the W3c should have a monopoly on standards. There's a question of relevancy and browser vendors do come to the table. People can meet to raise issues about the future of platforms. This is a convenient forum. We take W3C seriously but we also see that there are other things out.

KL: Something that we didn't mention was that you should be practical. You should use standards that allow you to get things done if it doesn't then don't do it.
AR: that's also why evangelism was successful because it enabled people to get stuff done.

Q (Meri): How do you get stuff done when it's created by vendors.
KB: I had to ensure that the standards we were working with and I had to push the vendors so that they provided us with valid good code.
KL: You have to find the people that are signing the contracts.
KB: If you have resource with how code should be delivered and you provide that up front then you can say that this is what you expect.

Q Jeremy Keith: We've been talking about internal communication but what about putting that out into the public. Does opening up the internal stuff does it help to open that stuff up to the wider community?

SC: If you look at what we did at AOL I put stuff up and this did help us.

AR: Eric Meyer did work on Dev Edge and I'm glad to see that content back on mozilla.org. It's an internal and external communication.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for backend developers for example working with ASP.net? It takes more thinking to get valid markup.

KB: At AOL the people working on the front end and sent it to the back and the backend coders would screw the markup.
KL: You have to communicate them. and it's as difficult to convince a hardcore DBA as a hard headed manager.
KB: It also depends on how close the technical people are. We helped the server people reduce the number of server they needed and they were overjoyed.

Eric Meyer: I want to share something with a client what they found with having teams compete, like who can make their page smaller helped. It's a good way to infect with trash-talking 'hey I got my page much smaller!' This means the teams need to like each other. Prize for each team that makes the smallest pages.

KB: When we got shop at AOL done so that it loaded in half the time of the old version people took notice.

...

KL: Go out and Kick some ass!

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