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I left Apptio in May.

There’s a lot I could say about leaving there. There’s a lot I wish I could say. But I can say this: Between a lack of new and compelling challenges, a sense I had completed the goals I set for myself coming in, and a shift in cultural values, it was the right time for me to go.

It was an annoying, stressful, and painful job, but yet, immensely rewarding and never boring. I jumped into the deep end of a complicated enterprise product and got to work on improving its user experience by any and every means necessary. I got a design team from two of us fighting for a voice in the organization up to eight people, with a real UX director and seats at the product leadership table. For as limited as my resources were, I did a hell of a lot. And that came through in every job interview I did after I left.

I was hoping to take more than a few weeks off between jobs. Unfortunately, the white-hot market worked against that, and I was inundated with offers and interview requests as it got out to the broader community that I was available.

So I decided to play the process exactly the way I wanted to play it. I set up introductory “coffee dates” where I’d sit down with an organization and figure out whether it was worth my time or not to pursue their opening (or if their job description even fit me — or any human on the planet.) I said no more than once. I rejected job offers. I figured this may be the last time I’m ever in a position to say no, so I might as well make the most of it.

I changed my focus as well. Before, I looked more for “next step” positions, ones that were clearly the next rung on the ladder. This time out, I zeroed in on finding a high quality organizational culture. One that pushes its people, pushes boundaries, and yet values weekends. And I wanted a place where I felt like I was truly making a difference. (I’m still saddened that at Apptio one customer used something I designed to help them identify whom should go during a massive round of layoffs.)

Ultimately, I found one organization with a great culture, great values, and a mission to improve the world — EnergySavvy. And they liked me enough to give me a job as their Lead Designer.

EnergySavvy is out to build a product where utility companies can find energy efficiency opportunities in their customers’ homes. The more insulation you have, the less natural gas or electricity you use. The less gas used, the less fracking. The less electricity used, the less coal being burned.

For the first time in the 20 years since I graduated with my BA in environmental conservation, I’m working for a company that’s in the ballpark of my degree field.

The company is small but tight. Dev quality is high. They’re quiet but ambitious. And they’re out to change the world.

I’m sad to have left Apptio. It’s a great company with great ideas driven by great people. I hope they will fulfill their lofty goals. But it was time to go. And EnergySavvy is an opportunity to try something new, learn more, and work with kick-ass people. It’ll be challenging, of course. But I’d have it no other way.

So, on to the next one.

Because today is my 40th birthday.

  1. Dress like you belong where you are.
  2. The right answer is always YES, except when it’s NO. Growing up is about learning when the answer is NO.
  3. It really is about the dental floss, not brushing or mouthwash.
  4. If a woman is beautiful, tell her. She may never have heard it from anyone before.
  5. Find the shy person at the party and talk to them.
  6. Don’t be the first to speak. Be the person who, when they speak, everyone listens.
  7. You can hear a rock show plenty well with earplugs in.
  8. Respect people’s dietary choices, even if you think they’re insane.
  9. When your car’s brakes make a squealing sound, don’t wait to get them checked.
  10. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for oil changes, not the advice of the guys in the business of changing it.
  11. A healthy dose of skepticism is always good, but don’t let it make you cynical.
  12. You will be duped multiple times in your life. Accept it.
  13. Some people you call friends now you will not remember their names in 10 years.
  14. Hold beliefs lightly. Hold them tightly and they will no longer be of value to you or anyone else.
  15. Be smart enough about a subject that you can go 10/10 on a pub quiz about it. Be broad enough that you’re not solely known for going 10/10 on a pub quiz about it.
  16. If you’re an American, live abroad long enough to gain a healthy understanding of how the world sees America.
  17. If you’re not an American, visit the non-touristy parts of America to gain a healthy understanding of how America sees itself.
  18. No matter what sports team you follow, they will always disappoint you far more than they reward you. Choose a team to follow anyway.
  19. Come into a conversation not wanting to impress with your knowledge but your listening skills.
  20. Have a drink you always order at a bar, even if it’s just water.
  21. If you believe your work is so important that you can never take a vacation, you’re wrong.
  22. Focus on what you do best at work and what’s needed. Don’t get distracted by the siren call of work for the sake of work.
  23. Do not work like a sprinter. Work like an endurance runner. Find a pace where you won’t burn out.
  24. If you ever make enough to afford it, pay for a maid service. Clean abodes take one source of worry away.
  25. Accept that no matter how right you feel you are probably wrong.
  26. No one else can understand what Bob Dylan is saying, but he’s still a genius.
  27. Eat something you think is disgusting, just once. If you like it, your world will be changed. If you don’t, you have something to gross people out with next time it comes up in conversation.
  28. They are absolutely right about exercise. A regular constitutional is good for you.
  29. Never turn down an offer to have a meal with someone.
  30. If you hate your job, find another one before the current job makes you bitter.
  31. There is a very good chance the thing that’s so important you had it tattooed on yourself will be wholly unimportant to you later in life. Treat that tattoo as a marker of where you came from and where you’re going.
  32. Read, read, read, but it doesn’t have to all be books.
  33. People think you’re an arrogant, weak, angry, timid, loud, shy, hard-hearted, emotional jerk who cares too much and too little for them, the things they care about, and other people. There’s nothing you can do about it, so live for yourself, not for them.
  34. Defend the weak. The rich don’t need you; they can buy their own supporters with their walking-around money.
  35. Leave everything better than you found it.
  36. Be charitable with your time and money. You don’t have to be the one bringing the change. You can always be the one paying the change-maker’s salary.
  37. You’re not old until people stop saying how young you are when they ask your age. Therefore, always surround yourself with centenarians.
  38. Have goals. Complete them.
  39. Find your passion. Pursue it.
  40. In all things, treat people with more respect and dignity than you would expect them to treat you with.

Honestly, though, litanies of advice are just pointless and stupid bromides from people of a certain age. There are only four things you need to know: GO. LIVE. LOVE. DO.

Let me tell you about my father.

He was the product of divorce — my doctor grandfather ran off with his secretary when Dad was 8 — and of squandered wealth (from the oil on his Cherokee grandfather’s land). So he carried the weight of a disapproving mother and the inadequate feeling of being abandoned by your dad.

So he spent his teen and early college years drinking, smoking, and pretty much living out the frat boy dream. And then Vietnam happened. He attempted to slip out of combat duty by joining the Coast Guard — they promised him he’d “patrol the East Coast” on his tour. He failed to have them specify which country’s East Coast he’d be patrolling.

But the Coast Guard shook him out of his frat boy slumber. After a few years floating in the Gulf of Tonkin, he came home driven. He double-timed it through the University of Oklahoma’s architecture program, ended up with two degrees, knocked up and married his girlfriend along the way, and went to work.

And never stopped working. Dad was all hustle. 40 hour weeks became 50. 50 became 60. He worked for a firm, quit in disgust to start his own private practice, came back to the firm when they begged him to return, quit again in disgust and started his own firm, ran it in the midst of the worst recession Oklahoma had seen since the Dust Bowl, and eventually had one of the leading small architecture and engineering firms in the Southwest.

And promptly dropped dead at 47.

That last week of his life he’d worked over 90 hours. He had come home late Sunday morning — having gone in at 4am, per his usual — complaining of a backache and looking agitated. 15 minutes later, he collapsed and was dead within minutes, the back of his heart having exploded.

Thing is, 90 hours wasn’t uncommon for him in those final years. And he wasn’t working 90 hours because of a deadline — he worked 90 hours because he hustled. He was after business. He never took a vacation. He’d only stop for sleep and OU football.

Dad didn’t trust his junior architects to drive projects to completion, so he’d often take some of the important, overarching parts for himself. When Mom took over the business, she needed seven people to replace Dad. That’s how hard he worked. But he didn’t leave a pretty corpse. At 47 he looked like he hustled enough for two lives.

The spectre of Dad’s early death has haunted my vocational decisions. It was when I realized I’d hit hour 90 of work at a dotcom that I realized I had to walk out. I probably stayed in my higher ed job longer than I should have because leaving that job after 5:30 was considered workaholism. I took my current job because of a promise of work-life balance.

I’ve spent the last 40 years ambivalent about hustle. I don’t want to commit, but when I do, Katie bar the door, do I ever come. I’ll work past midnight to get things right. I’ll take on far too much work in the name of winning fame — and “doing a good job.” I’d sometimes flaunt my willingness to work long and hard as a badge of honor to be burnished in front of a crowd of adoring fans.

But I also don’t want to commit. I don’t want to turn into Dad. And so I was in this weird space of wanting to be a total control freak and wanting to work incredibly hard, yet feeling like because I wasn’t one of those kids who “hustled,” I was never going to make it.

In the last few weeks, though, I think I finally have understood what the lessons of Dad are — and they’re not even what I thought they were.

It’s about focus, not hustle

I think in the tech world we have oversold the idea of hustle. I have a lot of Gen Y friends who talk about their late working patterns, saying how “their generation is different” and “you only get there when you hustle” and “building it yourself without help shows your greatness.” So they work. A lot. And they mythologize the people who work a lot. And people who don’t work a lot, well, they just don’t want it.

But I also find their work can be a lot of noise. They end up doing a lot of things they may not be good at in the name of being a hustler. They’ll give an employer 80 hours of work a week, which makes the employer happy since they don’t have to hire a second person, but also makes the employer worry the hustler’s going to burn out awfully quickly.

Michael Jordan was never seen as a hustler. Maybe Marv Albert might mention it every once in a while when he was saving a ball going out of bounds, but Michael Jordan was never considered a hustler.

Who’s considered a hustler? The kid off the bench who flies around the court knocking the ball around, diving for loose balls, grabbing the rebound, and generally generating noise on the court.

There’s nothing wrong with having a player with hustle on your team. But in a contest between twelve Michael Jordans and twelve hustlers, who’d win? The Jordans. Because Jordan wasn’t about saving every last ball or snapping down every last rebound. Jordan was about being focused on his craft — and about being extremely competitive. He didn’t hustle because he was focused on winning.

I see these tweets every day from people I know in the tech industry bragging about how many hours they’d worked. And I wonder if those hours are focused on their craft — becoming a better coder, designer, tester, whatever — or if they’re unfocused hours spent running around trying to do a thousand things, none of them well. I get the sense they’re not.

Because here’s the secret I’ve learned: You cannot do everything. The number of things we can do well is far smaller than we want to admit, and the number of things we can do well simultaneously rarely exceeds one. I’m learning, the hard way, that my own desire to be a hustling hero runs cross-purposes with my ability to deliver greatness.

I want to Save All The Worlds. At my current employer, there are many, many things that need attention if the organization is going to reach the “industry leader” greatness it wants to reach. The place seduces a person like me into believing everything must be fixed and that I am the one to do it.

Saving All The Worlds was grinding me to dust. The stress mounted, my weight shot up, and I was miserable. But at the same time, I was hustling, yes I was, with all my late night work and running from fire to fire. I felt important. But I also felt miserable (see the stress, the weight, etc.)

So I’ve changed tack. I’m not out to hustle anymore. I’m out to focus. I’m out to figure out what I absolutely rock at and push myself to be a Jordan-level competitor when it comes to that. But that means I’m not working late unless I have to, I’m not treating my work as if that’s what makes me great, and I’m certainly not going to run around talking about how much work I do.

Instead, I’m just going to be so freakin’ good at what I do that I don’t have to hustle. I just do great things. I’m just going to save the world I can save, and leave it to others to “hustle.”

It’s about trust, not control.

Another part of that Saving All The Worlds lie is the belief that you, alone, are capable of bringing about change. And is it ever easy to fall into that trap.

Back to that part about Mom hiring seven people to cover everything Dad did — it’s not like Dad hired incompetent people. Some of the young architects and engineers he hired have gone on to be partners in other firms in the Southwest. He had good people there. He just didn’t trust them.

I think in the tech industry we tell ourselves that lie — that no one is as competent as we are — because we’re afraid of the possibility that we ourselves will be found out. Impostor syndrome runs rampant in tech firms. Getting through that, letting go and having confidence in others’ abilities is the key to sanity.

I had an intern who was such a superstar at coding that we hired him full-time. I have no doubt he’s going to be an even bigger star some day. But I can also tell you that I, for a lot longer than I’d like to admit, felt threatened by his quality. It’s taken me a long time to realize that that’s counter-productive. Instead, I need to trust in his quality and let him be great. He’s no threat to me; instead, he takes away from me part of my anxiety. I don’t have to save his world. It’s in his good hands.

Dad refused to do that. Which is why he spent 90 hours at the office the week he died. His trust in hustle — and his inability to trust anyone else with it — led to his early demise.

Hustle is hype.

So when I hear someone talking about their hustle on Twitter at some obscene hour of day (which I’m usually awake for due to my anxiety-induced insomnia — see the Saving All The Worlds part above) all I can think is WTF were you doing from 8 to 5?

Now, some of the people talking about their hustle are freelancing at night to bring in extra money. Some of them are small (or one-person) shop workers who can’t afford to spread the work. Some of them are so single-mindedly committed to what they do that they really do eat, sleep, and breathe their craft. But not everyone.

A hundred years on, we’ve forgotten why we have all the labor laws we do. The unions wanted a 40 hour work week not because they were trying to screw over the employers. They wanted it because at 60-70 hours of work 6 days a week the factory and the mine were pulling fathers and mothers away from families. The social fabric of the Victorian nation was fraying, and the churches and the social reformers were looking to reasonable work for reasonable pay as a path towards a better society.

And yet, here we are in the 21st century with tech workers working 50-60-80 hour weeks because it’s all about “hustle.”

Hustle isn’t a sign of greatness. Hustle is a sign of weakness. Hustle means you’re not confident enough in your own skills to let them speak for themselves. Hustle means you aren’t focusing on what makes you great because you won’t let go of the things you aren’t great at.

It’s time to stop tweeting at midnight talking about how much you’re getting done. Because you’re not. You’re overworked and missing out on being a superstar. And you’re going to burn out soon. And when you do, at no point will you think all that “hustle” you put in was worth what you thought it was.

Hustle is hype. Greatness comes from focus and delegation, not from hustle.

Stop hustling. Start delivering.

What is our problem with higher education exactly?

Seems like every single day there’s some new article talking about the End Of Higher Ed. It would be interesting, I think, if the same article hasn’t been written over and over again for the last twenty plus years.

The articles go something like:

  1. “Tuition rates are rising faster than inflation!” Which they have been… for at least 20 years.
  2. “These sorts of rates are unsustainable!” Which is a little crazy, given that they were unsustainable 20 years ago, and yet college enrollment has risen pretty steadily over that same time period.
  3. “Now comes $NEW_THING to challenge the existing undergraduate education paradigm!” $NEW_THING has been everything from The Internet to Khan Academy to just not going. And in pretty much every case, the Promised Disruption never amounts to more than a pebble thrown in a lake.
  4. “So this is why $MY_IDEA is the only way to save higher education!” And here you can insert pretty much anything, from Rick Santorum saying colleges are just left-wing indoctrination centers to saying colleges need to be run like businesses and even, well, whatever the hell “strategic dynamism” is.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just the mouth-foaming b-school profs or the billionaires. I’ve heard people within higher ed itself latch onto this meme. The end is nigh, we know it’s nigh, and all that will save us is $MY_IDEA.

But here’s the problem: Higher education just won’t die in the swift, convenient way the naysayers want it to.

Now, it’s not without trying. Colleges and universities have done a great job digging their own grave over the last 30 years, with the tuition hikes and the unwillingness to change in the face of the Internet. Everyone looks at what’s happened with the music industry (failed repeatedly to understand Napster and iTunes, only to get buried by file sharing and the 99 cent single) and says hey, that’s going to happen to higher ed! Same for the news industry (the commoditization of news and the failure of the paywall) and the book industry (first Barnes and Noble then Amazon crush the slow and stodgy indie bookstores, then the Kindle finally makes e-books viable) — the templates for how universities will die are there.

And yet, universities soldier on. Students keep taking on obscene amounts of debt as states slash higher ed funding. The research money keeps rolling in to universities. And despite the early successes of online education, there has yet to be a sustainable, sensible model backed by a legitimate credentializing process.

So… what gives? Do we hate higher ed? Do we want it to die a horrid death?

I’m starting to wonder if we do.

I mean, consider that Santorum did get traction with that “liberal indoctrination” line. Consider that state schools have in some cases lost more than half their funding. Consider that, despite the clear signs that running a school like a business is a fool’s game, the drumbeat for business-ifying higher ed marches on.

And inside higher ed, everyone hates the bureaucracy, the faculty politics, the problems with trying to innovate in an institution resistant to change.

Perhaps this is all wishcasting.

We’ve managed to condemn the entirety of the degree process — and the immense uplift of wealth and knowledge that has resulted from our last century of investment in Western education — without considering why it’s important, and why it continues to hold value despite our economic and political pressures against it.

And we cannot seem to look beyond our white, middle class view of things to ask if perhaps William Gibson was right: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I don’t think anyone saw the Kindle coming, but within two years the days of the publishing industry’s control of the print market were numbered. And I don’t think anyone really understood what Napster wrought until Apple finally built a model for people to legally and easily obtain music.

The future of higher education may already be here. But I bet it won’t be done by anyone you expect. After all, AT&T insisted they would be the ones who’d bring the future to you. And, well, they didn’t.

The people who could bring you the future of universities may well be the same universities we matriculated from. The naysayers and the b-school libertarians and billionaires have to be ready to accept that the ones they think are least capable to deliver that future may well be the ones delivering it.

Or… perhaps nothing at all will change. Universities haven’t changed much structurally over the last six centuries, really, even in the face of everything that’s happened during that time. They’ve been so resistant to change that what happens outside the ivy and the quad has not often interfered with the day-to-day governance of campus. Are we ready for the change we want never happening?

In 1972, Willie Nelson was 39 years old and essentially finished in the music industry.

At that point, he’d mostly been known as a songwriter. A very good songwriter, he’d written several songs that are now established in the country music canon: “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and perhaps most famously, “Crazy,” which became Patsy Cline’s signature song.

After several years as a famous-among-dozens songwriter, he’d tried his hand at singing his own songs. The results were very mixed. He’d managed to float some songs into the top 25, but unlike Conway Twitty or Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, he just couldn’t break out. By 1972, RCA was ready to drop him, and he was ready to saddle up and leave Nashville.

And so he did. He moved to Austin, and we never heard from him again. The end.

Now, we know that wasn’t the end of his career. But look around the tech industry right now — how many people do you know that are still churning away at 40, 50, 60? There are a few, but it’s an industry that likes to ride twentysomethings hard and put them away wet. It likes to lionize young CEOs, even if their immaturity ultimately becomes a boat anchor on the company’s potential. If you haven’t joined management by the time you’re 40, if you haven’t made a substantial impact by the time you’re 40, you may as well saddle up and leave Nashville.

Willie Nelson arrived in Austin in 1972, at a time when the Austin music scene we’ve come to know was just starting to flower. It was mostly centered around a dancehall on the south side of the river called Armadillo World Headquarters. There the music was incredibly eclectic — “hippie” music one night, R&B the next night, then maybe some country mixed in. And into this ferment came a retired country songwriter who embraced the eclecticism and began to transform his musical style. What he produced came to be known as outlaw country.

Three years later, in 1975, “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” reached #1 on the country charts and broke into the top 30 on the pop charts. Instead of the slick, violin and pedal steel laden countrypolitan sound of Nashville, it was two guitars, a bass, an accordion, and Willie Nelson.

And with that, Willie Nelson had flipped the script. He’d go on to have another 24 more #1 hits over the next 30 years and become a country music demigod, a Hollywood actor, a global celebrity, and yeah, perhaps the most famous pothead in America.

So maybe that’s the lesson for all of us staring down 40. Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop listening. And don’t stop changing. There’s an entire generation of web professionals that are moving into and through their 40s now, some of whom like Ol’ Willie feeling like it’s time to go to pasture. But soon enough they will find their Armadillo World Headquarters, grow their hair, and turn the web world upside down thanks to their willingness to adapt their experience to the new world.

I hope I’m one of them.

So here we are, yet again, faced with yet another Crisis Of Web Standards. Yet again someone has offered a Modest Proposal, and yet again the chorus of Upright And Decent Web Designers has responded that The Line Must Be Drawn Here, This Far, No Farther.


Look, the problem is simple: Standards just aren’t moving fast enough for the web, so we — the web design community as a whole — have chosen to be pragmatic in the face of a constantly changing web environment. The W3C wasn’t advancing HTML and the DOM fast enough, so we accepted JavaScript UI libraries to fill in the gaps, and then we accepted (begrudgingly for some) Ian Hickson’s WHATWG and the prickly embrace of HTML5. The slow-to-stall speed of CSS standards opened the door to LESS and SASS, which the community is mostly accepting despite misgivings.

And in the middle of all that, the vendor prefixes came along because we wanted to let browser makers beta new ideas without polluting the standards stream. And there were many complaints, but one surprising ally.

So we embraced all these things — a way to work around the slow progress of standards — because wanted our sites to be cool. We wanted them to have motion, animation, gradients, and all the awesome things we used to have to use Flash to pull off. And with a captive audience in iOS, we could use responsive design to really make them think They were Living In The Future.

But now we face the cost of all this need for speed: An ecosystem that so requires -webkit other browser makers want to support them too to keep themselves from falling behind. And as the web world rages against Mozilla’s “treachery,” the W3C just went to last call on Backgrounds And Borders — five years after the great CSS3 branching in an attempt to get the standards done faster. In the time it’s taken Apple to launch the iPhone and become the single largest mobile and tablet company in the world, the W3C has moved exactly two parts of the roughly 20 part CSS Level 3 spec from draft to standard. Backgrounds and Borders, should it make it to recommendation in the next year, will make three. And during that period between Last Call and Rec, Apple will launch the iPad 3 and change the game yet again.

Now, it may seem I’m digging on the W3C, but let’s be clear: I LIKE the W3C. They are moving at a meaningful and purposeful speed. They’re hamstrung by trying to keep their component organizations from strangling one another, and they’re eternally caught between the pressure of Congress and Cloakroom* dealings, but they do move with purpose and are willing to think the issues through. Given the choice between the W3C’s mandarin republic and WHATWG’s dissent-as-thoughtcrime oligarchy, I would choose the W3C 11 times out of 10.

So what really is the problem here? I’ve concluded it’s our collective hypocrisy — those of us who’ve been willing to call ourselves Standardista (or some less pretentious title). We want standards. We want reasonable, sensible guidelines from a group that we can believe in and trust. But we also want to move the web forward. We also want to watch Dan Cederholm or Eric Meyer flip out some insane CSS3 trick that makes us run back and slam it into a current project, IE7 be damned.

And we can’t have both. Standards — meet and right standards — take time. The ongoing HTML5 debacle (which most everyone denies is a debacle, but the monthly public WHATWG-member-vs-the-world blowups suggest otherwise) is proof of what happens when you try to rush to codify half-baked ideas that are deficient in real-world use cases.

Standards ship on a software release schedule — they must be designed, created, tested, re-tested, re-created, designed, re-tested, objected to, and re-designed, re-tested, and re-objected to before they ever get the “recommendation” stamp. The web, though, isn’t software. If anything, the web is a prime example of Release Early, Release Often. Websites ship with bugs, and the bugs will get fixed by priority, tomorrow, when the designer has had some sleep. In software, though, it’s either hotfix or wait a year.

So maybe in that sense WHATWG has it right — they’re releasing early and often and assuming we will eventually settle on the rules (though whether they’ll admit they ever admit they make mistakes is another conversation). But how do we do that when we also know standards need time to bake? How do we give browser makers the ability to experiment without fear of mucking up the process?

Browser prefixes.

It’s either that or extending Amaya to what it should have been all along — a canonical browser from which all other browsers should branch, built with the collected donated might of the vendors who make up the core of the W3C. Or perhaps it’s the W3C doing the same thing with WebKit. But neither of those proposals would fly. Microsoft isn’t going to let some of its best people on the IE team work directly with members of the Chrome team, and Google’s not going to do the same. They’re all in a high stakes poker game for the future of the web, and none of them want to show their cards.

Standards should be about constant iteration towards a universal. This is the web we’re talking about here, an environment that’s just reached drinking age (in the US) and that has gone from a NeXT screen to tablets and from static hypertext to animations, video, and scripted code during those 21 years. I don’t think in human history we’ve ever seen a technology grow, change, and pivot so much inside of a single generation. And yet, our standards move slowly because that’s what standards are supposed to do — move and evolve slowly.

And we should let them continue to move slowly, all while innovation continues in the sandbox of browser-specific code.

In the meantime, we look to LESS and SASS to do what Prototype and jQuery has done — be the bridge between the web we know now and the web we know should be. We pressure the W3C (and their constituent vendors) to continue the path of standardizing innovation (and perhaps join the W3C ourselves).

And we live in the hope that we don’t face with WebKit what we faced with IE in the early half of the 2000s: A de facto standard from lack of substantive competition.

It took Firefox and Safari to shake us from that near-monopoly. But what of a world where something like 90% of all the mobile devices run with a native WebKit browser?

Mobile has hastened the decline and fall of Flash. Will mobile also mean the decline and fall of web standards?

* – thanks to Colin for correcting my metaphor

At the sprint demo, one of the teams unveiled a piece of UI for the product: A time period picker that worked with accounting periods beyond the classic twelve month, four quarter Gregorian calendar. The Products division murmured when they saw the UI. Eventually, they confronted me on it.

“It’s wrong,” they said, and then gave a litany of possible solutions and vague impressions, none of which was truly helpful. They asked me to intervene, offer an alternative design. But I didn’t want to do anything.

I had given this assignment to the team’s UX designer at the start of the release cycle. I had full confidence he could drive the design and that he was fully capable of doing it.

So I talked to the designer. He came up with a whole bunch of ideas. But none of them alleviated the vague sense of unease I felt about the design. The one thing that did stick out to me was the deep blue background of the dialog. Could he try a light background instead?

No, he insisted. He’d done that already. It didn’t work.

Still feeling that uneasiness, I decided to do a full-on design review of the dialog. I looked at the functionality, compared it to the known use cases, wrote some vague scenarios I tested out on the screen, and asked whether there was something deficient or defective in the dialog.

After 90 minutes of poking and prodding, I realized there was nothing wrong with the dialog functionally. It executed every scenario well. The use cases were met. There were some minor design flaws, but there was no glaring functional problem.

So I played back Products’ criticisms and half-solutions in my head — and my own personal feelings about the dialog alongside them. And that’s when I realized that every single solution thrown at the dialog was a single solution. None of the suggestions overlapped.

General unease. Solutions that don’t overlap. A lot of vague criticism that didn’t point at any one thing in the dialog.

And that’s when the lightbulb finally came on: The problem was aesthetics.

With that in mind, I wrote an e-mail to the designer detailing a few things he could do to get this the right way around. At the center of the critique was getting rid of the blue background.

And he objected. The blue is right! The blue works! Dark colors fit the general design milieu!

Just try it one more time, I insisted. They’re expecting a dialog, and this doesn’t look like a dialog.

He dropped the blue, and quickly a new aesthetic emerged that the Products team were crazy happy about.

The blue background had too much value for the designer. He was too in love with the look to let go of it. And he needed to let it go.

The literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch spoke of the need to strip these things away:

Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

From this passage we get the phrase “Kill your darlings,” and it’s been a mantra of writers like Faulkner and Stephen King. But it’s not just writers that need to kill their darlings but all creatives. Designers have this problem, too. I’ve seen developers fight tooth and nail for a chunk of code that, while elegant, isn’t necessary or fails to handle requirements well.

When I was younger I never edited my e-mails and blog posts. As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself proofreading even the smallest e-mails just to make sure I’m not obscuring my response behind gaudy prose. In design, I am still learning to let go, but I’m getting better.

I now believe the mark of a great creative is being willing to kill their darlings without pity or regret, to understand that this is all part of a longer creative journey, and the only way forward is to kill your darlings.

I noticed during the design review that the work the designer was doing harkened back to a previous designer’s prototype that was rejected and shelved. The new design built and expanded on those original ideas. But the blue background was a carry-forward of the dark background on the original design. One designer’s darling begat another designer’s darling.

And in the end, the darling had to go. But once it went, not only did the final product look much better, it confirmed the original designer’s skills.

I have a box of Oblique Strategies on my desk. I’ve used them occasionally to break creative logjams. But before anything else, I look for my darlings and try removing them.

Kill your darlings. Only when you can kill them without pity or remorse can you move towards greatness. Great design is not about what you think is awesome. Great design is about your awesome obscuring everyone else’s need to get things done.

I do not know Robert Hoekman Jr. I’ve read Designing The Obvious, and it’s a splendid book that has helped me hone my interaction design skills. I’ve never heard him speak, but it does seem the web has held his opinions and ideas in high esteeem.

I do not know Whitney Hess. I read her post on what a user experience designer is not, which I think is the worst blog post I’ve read this year not authored by Michael Arrington (though I would note that Arrington occupies my entire top five). I found the article to be overly prescriptive in a field that was birthed from web generalists trying to fold interaction design practice into a web that was still Web-with-a-capital-W. I’ve never heard her speak, though I’ve heard good things about her.

I do know Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast. And I do know Elaine Nelson. I’ve known them for years and know their web work well. They are damn good designers and developers the world should know about, people who were building websites before Hess could drink and back when we all thought XML would save the world. (It didn’t.)

So when Andrea says to me in response to Hoekman’s scathing criticism of Hess that “people like him that make me petrified of public speaking,” and when Elaine follows with “that sort of thing makes me want to never ever write abt web,” I know Hoekman missed his mark badly.

I find some of Hoekman’s criticisms to be valid. Hess has come off as naive in her writing at times, arguing for a level of specialization that only Fortune 250 companies and dedicated UX agencies have while ignoring smaller firms as well as the public sector and their small-to-nonexistent budgets. His description of her talk in Italy suggests she didn’t understand the audience. I myself have wondered what she’s offering to the broader web world right now. I see a 29 year old with a lot of talent still locked up in promise and not expressed in action.

(As an aside, have you noticed our so-called “web heroes” are all in their mid 30s to late 40s and professionally emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s? I can’t think of anyone who’s reached “hero” status, Hoekman included, who doesn’t fit those qualifications, save Kristina Halvorson, who emerged in the last two years but is roughly my age. Do we preternaturally choose to not grant authority to any web profesisonal under the age of 30?)

So Hoekman has a good argument. Why did he choose to wrap it in so much venom?

Hoekman’s post reminded me of two other people in the “web hero” category — Joe Clark and Mark Pilgrim — that have dished out unapologetic scorn to those they do not consider worthy to tie their sandal when it comes to accessibility. I have a lot of respect for Clark and Pilgrim, but there are times when I find their prickliness and bile obfuscates whatever message they’re trying to get out.

Is it sexism? I don’t see how it could be. Hoekman’s “sin” of sexism is that he’s jumping up and down in a known minefield. He should have known better, but it wasn’t on purpose.

But there is a chauvinism to his argument. Hoekman is framing himself as speaking truth to power in an industry that refuses to tell the truth. This belief truly becomes tortured when he starts dragging Zeldman and Happy Cog into it, as if they are Wearing No Clothes. The problem is that I’ve found people in the trenches of the web world have a very sober view of Zeldman and Happy Cog, even if they’re not always running around spewing 3000 word diatribes about them on the Internet.

I mean, seriously, we all worship the feet of a twice-divorced recovering alcoholic with a petulant streak and his design firm that spit out a re-do of WordPress which took multiple iterations to return to usability? THAT Zeldman? THAT Happy Cog?

Seriously. I respect Jeffrey Zeldman. I was lucky enough to have lunch with him last year at An Event Apart. He’s contributed to building web design from a bunch of people with text editors to an immense, diverse industry. Hell, I have one of his quotes hanging from the corkboard opposite my cube. But he’s no hero of mine. He’s just another imperfect guy with something to say.

Just like me.

But what can I say in a world where Hoekman is waiting to gun me down the moment I give a talk he doesn’t agree with, or suggest a different way in user experience from “what he built?” I’ve been a web professional now for a dozen years, though it’s only only been this year I’ve turned from web generalist to user experience designer when I left the higher education web world. Do I have enough experience that I’m not going to be slapped with a “dime-a-dozen designer” label by him? Is he going to say that because I’m speaking I’m not building anymore and thus am no longer valid, like some on Twitter insinuated?

And yet, I do speak. I speak because I enjoy it. I speak because it lets me teach and be taught. I’ve been given the opportunity to speak at an Ignite, a Refresh, and SXSW. I count myself incredibly lucky that the same conference attendees that vilified a keynote speaker handed me a Best Of Conference award the following year.

And yet, I worry that Hoekman — or someone like him — is waiting in the wings to fire at will and accuse me of not being good enough for his impossible standard.

And if I, someone who has no fear of an audience, feel that way, what of Andrea and Elaine, people with as much (if not more) experience than me (and better at this than me)? Why should they dare step up and speak? Why should they share, knowing the spectre of Hoekman looms somewhere out there?

Why should anyone timid or afraid they’ll be publicly humiliated as an impostor speak in a world where Hoekman lurks?

See, that’s what makes me sad. Hoekman attacks Hess, and he loses the argument because his bile is louder than his honest criticism. Hoekman attacks Zeldman and Happy Cog, an appeal to the ground level web person that falls flat because we’ve heard it all before and we don’t need Hoekman to defend us from them when we’re adults and can do it ourselves, thanks.

But Hoekman scares the crap out of the very people who should be speaking up — the ones “building cool things” who are afraid to share what they have. The young designer who found something interesting in a Camtasia recording that led them to build a better web form. The experienced developer with much to share but a deep-seated impostor syndrome. The user experience specialist who doesn’t think they have enough experience to open their mouths in public. In other words, the very people Hoekman says he’s saving from the infant terrible Hess are the very people he’s scaring off.

“Millions of designers do and say the same things every single day, and the web is better because of it” comes across not as a statement of affinity with those of us who fight in the trenches every day but as a backhanded slap to those who stay in line and don’t stray from the path.

Because I think that’s what Hoekman is arguing for — do things his way and no one gets hurt.

He would argue differently. He would lean on the idea, I think, that those who do good work should be and will be rewarded for it. But I’m reminded of a saying of my father’s that I used over the weekend at Barcamp Seattle — “The cream rises to the top, but s–t floats too.” Trying to get signal through the noise is already difficult. We need to amplify the best so we can turn down the douchebags. How does a vicious teardown of a younger speaker help when some of us are just trying to be heard — and are trying to coax out some outstanding people out of their shells?

I don’t know Robert Hoekman Jr. But I know his vitriol, and it’s hard to separate his good ideas from his bad behavior. And while I respect his ideas about user experience, he is not my hero, for sharp criticism must come with honesty and respect, not with venom and dismissiveness.

I don’t know Whitney Hess. I know some of her writings, and I believe she lacks an understanding of how flexible the idea of user experience must be. She is not my hero, though I respect her ideas, and I believe that she is an decent person who knows she is learning, just like all of us. And I would rather live in her UX reality, flawed as I may see it, than in Hoekman’s, because hardened ideas are easier to deal with than hardened hearts.

I know Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast and Elaine Nelson. I know their writings. I know their work. I know them personally. They do great work. They are fallible. And they are my heroes, because every day, despite small budgets, great stress, and looming personal burnout, they do great things. And should they ever stand and speak, I will listen. And should I disagree, I will tell them in private long before I criticize them in public. And if I were to criticize, I would hope I’d choose to be clear and concise and dispassionate.

And should Robert Hoekman Jr choose to suggest they’re “dime-a-dozen designers” who are “hurting” an industry, I do not think I could be clear and concise and dispassionate.

The future of usability lies in the hands of a thousand professionals taking Hoekman and Hess’ ideas and making something new. I hope some of them will share their ideas — and their work — with the class. And I hope they can share without fear of Robert Hoekman Jr suggesting they are a dime a dozen, or Chris Fahey having so little respect for the industry that he’d suggest the work that’s come before has been poor. I just hope they can share.

And I hope one day I might be lucky enough to grace the stage of a conference like An Event Apart, though I think my comment about Jeffrey Zeldman has me blackballed for life.

(And one last aside to Mr. Hoekman: Leaning on “the lurkers support me in email?” Seriously?)

As I’m leaving this job, I’m cleaning out my file cabinet page by page, file by file. Along the way, I stumbled on a letter Janette Eby, our student services coordinator at the time, wrote me in 2001. It was mostly about how terrible the Prospective Students section of the site was at the time (and it was terrible… oh God, the site was terrible from top to bottom in 2001).

What’s remarkable about it is how she closed the letter:

…we live in a computer-centric world, and for those people looking for information about our school on the Internet, we must provide a website that easily and clearly directs prospective students or visitors to information they are looking for…. Good recruitment practices, which include good customer service, attract more students…. To put it bluntly, if we don’t have students, we don’t have anything. If we want to attract intelligent, qualified students it is our responsibility to practice good customer service by presenting what our school has to offer in a clear, easily accessible and user-friendly way.

Ten years ago Janette understood the mission of the higher ed web. My last ten years have been about convincing everyone else of this.

Universities exist because of those they provide service to — teaching, research, practice. They must never, ever forget that relationship.

In the waning hours of HighEdWeb 2010, I slumped into a seat in the hotel bar, trying to remember the license plate of the freight truck of adoration that had hit me. Here I was with the top prize for a talk that just 72 hours seemed heading for disaster. I was just numb. I was just biding my time until it was time to fly home.

At some point Lori Packer* wandered by. Lori was the track chair and had selected my proposal which had become this talk which had become a red stapler and a Best Of Conference trophy. We got to talking about what it all meant. Somewhere in there, I said that I’d been unhappy at work for quite a while, that I was starting to ask whether I should stay in higher ed. Lori retorted that there were many good things about being in higher ed.

I responded, “I love higher ed. And I love the web. But I don’t like my job.”

And, at that moment, I realized what I’d just said was Truth. Not “true,” because it was, but Truth, as in a revelation of honesty.

The University of Washington has been good to me the last 9 1/2 years. And yet, I’ve been unhappy. I couldn’t move up. I was top of the food chain in my unit, and because my unit valued the web, I was paid well compared to other web people on campus. And yet, I’m top of the food chain. There’s no rung on the ladder above the one I’m on.

When I did interview for other web positions on campus, I was either passed over for cheaper alternatives, or I was given offers at a massive pay cut (and still a full-time job). And all these moves would have been lateral. We have an excellent person running the web for the university right now, but she’s probably going to die in the saddle, so moving into that role is out of the question.

As well, I have a problem with political capital. I have a lot of it. Heaps of it. But it’s like the sickles and galleons of Harry Potter — meaningful in the wizarding world but utterly worthless in this world. I can’t spend the capital; I lack the power to transform it into the changes I’ve desired.

At one point last year I told my boss that for all the good things everyone thinks I’ve done, I feel like I’ve dragged the school 50 feet in 9 years, and everyone else is 500 or 5000 feet further along. I’ve been long promised that change would come, this will be the year that Everything Will Change, but the change never comes, thanks to the resistance to change that is endemic to this entire university.

It is time to go. I’m leaving higher ed.

Starting January 31, I will be moving to a technology business management startup called Apptio. They need someone who can help their brilliant Java programmers make their web applications look and feel brilliant. And I will get my first raise of any sort in 5 years.

I would love to stay in higher ed, but I’m doubly a victim of geography — I love Seattle, and Seattle is very, very lacking in institutions of higher education. If I were in the Northeast, I could just latch on to another college down the street, but in Seattle you don’t have a lot of choices. As for uprooting and going somewhere else, I just bought a house in 2010, and I’ve got a daughter in school she loves and a wife who finally has a job she doesn’t hate. On the other side, the metro Seattle high tech community right now is stronger than it’s ever been. Between this and the draconian cuts coming to UW, this is a great time to leave.

But I won’t be completely free of the higher ed community and UW just yet. I’m still teaching web development in the spring, and I’m still planning on defending my Best Of Conference title at HighEdWeb 2011. I’m not going to be scarce with the higher ed web community; I’m in a new role, but I’ll always be a fellow traveler.

I stood on stage in October talking about why why higher ed is the best gig in the Web. And I still believe that it’s true, and I’m sorry I can’t continue in higher ed. There are some great people doing incredible work at schools and colleges all over the country. And they’re doing it despite many things — money, time, an organization that values them at the level they should. Higher ed web people achieve more with duct tape and bailing wire than for-profit web people achieve with actual funding.

But in that litany of mine that’s been echoed around the web since I said it that Tuesday morning in Cincinnati, I left out one thing. Love higher ed. Love the web. Love people. And love yourself, too. Do work that makes you happy and pays you what you’re worth (not necessarily with money). If you feel that way in a higher ed job, then you’re awesome, and I really hope you’re making the world a better place every day. But if you’re miserable in your job right now, then find something else. You deserve better than long hours, low pay, and zero respect. If they don’t love you, find someone who will.

I realized that in a small way my job was like an abusive relationship — I should get out, but this life was all I’ve known. The Truth was that I did deserve better, and my loyalties should lie with my God, my family, and myself, not with a job.

And given I spent a quarter of my life at UW and a third of my life in higher ed when you count my years at Colorado, I doubt I’ll ever be free of it. No one ever really leaves the University of Washington; they just take sabbaticals at for-profit companies.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and Facebook.

* – Do not hold Lori responsible for any of this. She just happened to be there at the right time. If she comes out for the M’s-Phils series this summer, I’ll buy the game tickets.