Driving your father’s Oldsmobile with Eric Meyer

Driving your father’s Oldsmobile with Eric Meyer

Today with us in our imaginary studio — Eric Meyer, CSS nerd and man behind web developer careers of too many people.

Hello, Eric! How is it going?

Not too badly, thanks. It’s looking like a chill autumn day here, just as it should be this time of year. How are things with you in Lviv?

It is the same chill autumn day here, but 9 hours later ) So, while it is not completely dark and cold here, let's start! And our first question to you — how did you become a web developer?

Back in 1993, a year out of university, I was working as a computer hardware technician for a library information technology department at the university that graduated me.

A co-worker (then, as now, a friend of mine) showed the rest of us this cool beta program called Mosaic, with links you could click and images in the documents. For those who weren’t online then.

I was instantly captivated. I had a little previous experience with hypertext, but this was on a whole new level. So between repair calls and inventory management, I pestered my friend with questions and eventually taught myself HTML.

I became the university webmaster in the next year, and spent the rest of the millennium working on expanding our web presence and helping departments get online.

On stage at An Event Apart
On stage at An Event Apart

From all the exciting opportunities of that time — why did you chose CSS?

I found out that the Fifth International WorldWideWeb Conference was to be held in Paris, and I’d never been to France (or, really, anywhere outside North America). I figured that if I got a presenting slot, the university might pay to send me.

So a co-worker and I submitted a paper about one of our web projects, the conference accepted it, and the university did in fact pay to send us to Paris and attend the conference.  (The paper is online at meyerweb.com).

At the conference, I saw a panel presentation about a new upcoming language called CSS, and I was immediately entranced. It seemed like the missing piece of web design, which to that point had been very limited, and I started experimenting with CSS right away.

How did you get an idea to write CSS: The Definitive Guide?

As I worked with CSS, I kept having problems, and kept writing test pages to figure out if I was wrong, or the browsers were. Eventually I formalized those tests to cover all of CSS, and published detailed browser support tables on the university website.

Those test pages eventually became the bulk of the CSS1 Test Suite, which still looks very much like it did when I created it.

Web Review (an online magazine) asked if I’d be willing to host the support tables with them instead. I said sure, and asked if they’d be interested in CSS articles. They said sure, so I started writing monthly. For money, even!

As it happened, the Web Review folks shared office space with people at O’Reilly. Around 1998 or so, the O’Reilly folks were interested in having a CSS book written, so they asked the Web Review people if they knew anyone knowledgeable about CSS.

They recommended me, and I landed the project. So in some sense, the idea was O’Reilly’s, not mine. But I’d already started working on a CSS book, because I really wanted to teach people everything they could do with it.

I was hoping that I’d eventually work up to the point where I was worthy of writing an O’Reilly book. Instead I started out by writing one.

Playing chess with students in Uganda
Playing chess with students in Uganda

And as we are talking about books — what recently read books influenced you the most?

It’s been a while since a book really influenced me, to be honest. I re-read Scott Hawkins’ “The Library at Mount Char” recently, and given how rarely I re-read books these days, that speaks to some degree of influence.

I also enjoyed Martha Wells’ “The Murderbot Diaries” series.

Right now I’m reading a book about maintaining steam radiator systems, which is necessary because we still use steam heat in half the house.

What do you like to do when you are not busy being a web-development superstar?

My primary hobby at this point is woodworking and home repair.  I started learning basic carpentry in 2015, and have slowly sharpened my skills.  I’m to the point now where I’ve been installing a replacement subfloor in our basement, and added a new circuit to the breaker panel to install some new outlets.  I’m not up to fine woodworking yet: I can’t do detail carving or glue-less joinery, but I can build a bookcase and have it be structurally sound while looking nice enough.

My secondary hobby is game development, although that’s been on hold recently due to the basement project.  I like game development because it’s a really good way to learn new languages and code patterns.  I’ve been using Godot Engine, in part because it has strong 2D support and all the game ideas I have, or games I want to remake, are 2D in nature.  I’ve quite enjoyed it, and I look forward to finishing the basement refit so I get back to the game dev.

I actually did finish a semi-clone of the classic “Lunar Lander”, which I put online at a temporary URL.  It’s kind of huge and requires ASM support, as it’s a “web export” from Godot instead of hand-tuned code.

You have this very unusual and quite interesting page of your biography — Your Father's Oldsmobile. What is it and where we can get in it?

Ah, yes.  It’s a radio show I used to have.  There’s a bit of a story about that show, and why it’s called that.

Once upon a time, there was a commercial here in America for Oldsmobile, the car company.  They’d had a reputation of being favored by older people, so they advertised new models by saying, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”  The show was a flip on that: it covered Big Band music from 1920-1950, so it’s like it WAS your father’s kind of thing.

I can’t take credit for the name or the idea, though.  It was started by a student DJ, and when they graduated and left town, the show was taken over by a friend.  Then that friend moved away, and I stepped up to take it over.  I already knew the radio station, as I’d had a show there when I was a student.  They let me keep the show going, which I did for nine years.  There’s an archive of some shows online, for those who want to hear a younger me play classic swing, Dixieland, and more.

Here ’tis.

Web nerd or super-villain? (author Jeffrey Zeldman)
Web nerd or super-villain? (author Jeffrey Zeldman)

Another thing that is bound to your name is «An Event Apart». Tell us about it, please!

Once I was a published author, I started getting asked to speak at web conferences. Jeffrey Zeldman was also speaking at a lot of conferences, and we got to know each other personally.  At some point, we started talking about how a lot of conferences weren’t great experiences and didn’t really address people like us—they were usually very basic.  We wanted a show that was a nice experience for attendees and speakers, and one that spoke to people who had some experience and were committed to being better.

So we decided to try doing our own event, and over time, it’s worked out pretty well. It’s grown from just web design/development to cover UX, interaction design, user research, and more, but we still have a lot of web content.

It also grew from a one-day, 100-attendee show to three-day events with a few hundred attendees. We’ve kept the size on the smaller side because it feels more like a community that way.

2020 has definitely been a huge challenge for a show that’s been in-person, but that’s pretty much true for everyone in the event space, I’d say. We’ve done a few virtual shows this year, all of which are available on demand, and are planning for next year.

And what are your plans for the future, taking these uncertain times into account?

Right now, it’s one day at a time, trying to get through the global pandemic with family and health intact. I’m finishing up a basement reflooring project this weekend (or so I hope). It’s really hard to plan any further than that, to be honest.

Eric and Rebecca
Eric and Rebecca

And, as usual at the end — three advices for our readers.

  1. Learn the basics. You may be doing most of your work in frameworks or CMS interfaces, but you should know how HTML, CSS, and JS all work. Be able to hand-author a site, if need be. You probably won’t hand-author sites, for the most part, but you’ll be able to diagnose and fix problems more knowledgeably if you know those basics. And don’t think you have to have all of HTML+CSS+JS memorized — as Rachel Andrew says, my top tech skill is knowing how to Google.
  2. Stay curious. You can’t stay still in this field: it’s still too young, and too many things are still changing. Today’s hot framework will eventually be tomorrow’s has-been. Always be open to new ideas, perspectives, and approaches, and go looking for them.
  3. Be kind. There’s enough suffering in the world. Don’t add to it if you can possibly avoid doing so.

Thank you, Eric, for this great #twitterview! That was interesting and inspiring! Thank you all and have a nice weekend!

Twitterview from November 27, 2020

Author of cover photo — Jeffrey Zeldman, license CC BY 2.0