Learning from the masters

I love my career, and I have done ever since I got the opportunity to start practicing web design and programming in the second half of the 1990s. Building on my experience at school, when I learned BASIC on an Apple II and later on a BBC Micro, I first turned to the internet as a means of being able to present my photos to a wider audience. The new technology also allowed me to exercise and develop my design skills without having to resort to a pen and paper. I’ve always found the technique of moving pixels around the screen much easier to handle than the art of moving paint or charcoal around a piece of canvas.

When I first began programming for the web, I learned that using an editor was a pain in the neck; mainly because back then, the “Browser Wars” were in full swing. It wasn’t so much a requirement to learn the differences between the browsers, but a daily challenge to get layouts to look the same in Microsoft and Netscape browsers. That challenge led me to learn HTML and CSS myself, to overcome these problems and work around the bugs inherent in not only the browsers which display the internet, but the HTML layout tools which generate them. I prefer to write HTML and CSS code by hand to this day, and can outrun pretty well anyone who uses a GUI to produce web page layouts.

Having so many years of experience in an environment which develops continually can be just as much of a problem as an advantage. Younger or less experienced web programmers don’t necessarily know the back story of the browser they’re programming for; why should they, though? Does it matter that we all used nested HTML tables to make fixed-size layouts back in the 90s, or is it important that one understands the difference between the different CSS classifications stretching back to 1996? Probably not, although this grounding means that modern tribulations with cross-browser layouts are a snip in comparison.

Having so much experience, gained through self-tuition and online research, means that it’s sometimes difficult to find others to learn from; particularly when the area in which I want to learn is one in which I am so well-versed. Where colleagues have expertise in certain areas of web programming, it’s rare that I come across a true expert in my day-to-day life who teaches me something completely new.

I was therefore delighted to come across the Big Web Show series by Jeffrey Zeldman and (previously) Dan Benjamin in audio podcast format. I’d seen the podcast some time ago, but I think that I was only aware of it as a video podcast. Jeffrey was one of the first well-know experts I came across when I started working on websites, mainly through his blog The Daily Report, and later through the projects which he launched, including A List Apart. Dan Benjamin is also a name which I’ve known since the early 2000s, as he has been running his popular blog Hivelogic for over a decade, and shared the technique for delivering a random header image on a website using PHP back in *gulp* 2003.

The video format put me off the podcast when I originally came across it in 2010, but now that it’s available in audio format, I can use the time I spend travelling to work and back to catch up. The first episode I listened to this evening was on the use of web fonts back when the technology was breaking in Spring 2010. Whilst the technology is now much more established, the podcast is very illuminating on some relevant subtopics: not least, explaining in comparatively simple terms how font hinting works for screen display, and why it’s such a pain.

I’ll be catching up on nearly three years of podcasts over the coming weeks, and look forward to improving my skill set and learning about the breaking technologies and techniques as I progress through the series.

The podcast is published regularly at http://5by5.tv/bigwebshow and via iTunes.

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