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Symply Exciting

Photo of the team
Jean-Francois Groff and the team. From left to right: Jeremy Keith, Martin Chiteri, Craig Mod, Kimberly Blessing, Mark Bolton, John Allsopp, myself and Remy Sharp Credit: United Nations American Mission in Geneve

Last month, February 2019, I had the outstanding privilege and honor to be part of an amazing team celebrating the 30th anniversary of the web.

What we did and how we did it is all perfectly described on the site we created for the occasion. Here I describe what this experience meant to me, and how it made me review my professional life.

Playing with the big kids

Five years ago I saw a tweet about an event at CERN that would celebrate 25 years of the web.

To be honest, I don’t recall the details of how it happened. All I remember is that I completed a form on which I spoke a little about myself and my professional experiences. I think I did it on a thoughtless impulse, not really believing that something would come out of it. However, some weeks later I received an email congratulating me —I had been chosen to be part of the event.

Of course I was thrilled; I’d get to go to CERN, where the web was born, and be part of a team that would build the line-mode browser!

Subsequently, after I learned who the other members of the team would be, all I wanted to do was to go back to my little shell and hide myself from the world, while silently celebrating the amazing opportunity I had been given. I was going to meet not one, but three of the people I admire the most in the web field: John Allsopp, Jeremy Keith and Mark Bolton, without mentioning the other seven awesome young people.

I’m almost 53 years old, and that makes me, I believe, the oldest of the group. Yet, I could not help feeling like a little girl pushing her way through to play with the big kids.

Recalling the three days of this first event, I remembered I had little opportunity to practice my English since I had moved to France, and being in a room with at least nine other people talking with many different English accents, demanded a lot of concentration and self-motivation.

I tried to do my best, but I believe I was too self-conscientious to fit in and work with confidence.

After three days, I've left Cern feeling that I haven't contributed to the project as much as I could, and questioning what was missing for me to feel really accomplished in my professional life.

Finding my own way

My professional life took the turn it had to take, sometimes favored by, or disrupted by, my personal life, but now I don’t think I should have been afraid — and nor should you — to play with the big kids.

I had, as the French like to put it, an “atypical professional path”: I started working on the web at the end of 1994. Prior to that, I was working with a now dead document system called Interleaf created by a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts, in the 80’s.

Interleaf solutions dealt with the creation, distribution and management of heavy documentation systems like the ones we see on global or local market standards (IATA, NDA, ISO 9000…) Working with Interleaf products allowed me to learn SGML (most documentation standards were based on SGML, the only language rich enough at the time to deal with structured heavy documentation) and SQL, and to start programming in Lisp, at the age of 23.

By the end of 1994, the web was becoming a thing. Without a clear understanding of what it really was, I started playing with HTML, using "vi" as editor and Mosaic as a browser. From that moment on, my whole professional life took an unexpected turn, one I’ve since learned to love.

Because I have a degree in visual communications, working with documentation systems was a bit frustrating. As much as I loved to learn new technologies — especially programming — I regretted the fact that I was no longer doing visual and creative work. The web, on the other hand, provided me with the best of both worlds: web development and design. I became a web designer, even though the term did not exist at the time.

Leaving the cocoon

At the age of 31 I moved to France, leaving my comfy family-life behind and entering the complete unknown; this shook me in more ways than I've ever imagined.

The general public in France, in 1997, was just beginning to hear about the web. At that time, the Minitel was available in practically every household in France, and an impressive number of services were offered. So, a free-lancer web designer was not exactly what people were looking for.

Later, I was lucky enough to have a contact with a European Union's agency that wasn’t relying on the Minitel to document and communicate its actions, and so I could finally start working in Europe on the web. Being far from home and having so many new things to learn — besides French — took me more energy than I thought I would need, and my professional life wasn’t a priority anymore.

It took me several years to gain sufficient financial and moral stability to be able to be excited again about what I was doing or creating. Most of my enthusiasm for the web was revived thanks to two simple things: the book “Designing with Web Standards”, from Jeffrey Zeldman, and the article “A Dao of Web Design” , from John Allsopp (the article was published in 2000, but I discovered it some years after). Reading them both was like waking up from a long, numbing sleep; I remembered all that the web meant to me and why. It felt good to be a web designer again!

Since then, I’ve found the need to write and talk about what I was doing, and a bigger urge to learn more and to try new things.

An exciting second time

Five years after the first time we've been to Cern, all the team was invited again to a new event.

I will not lie and say that I wasn’t stressed this second time in CERN. I was, but maybe not for the same reasons as the first time; I was mostly concerned about how and how much I would be useful this time. I really wanted to be able to do something meaningful and interesting, and have fun in the process.

Well, I can say that I had fun. I was able do what I do best, HTML markup and CSS, and I could amuse myself by trying to reproduce what the NeXt interface was and the way the WorldWideWeb browser was designed.

It is interesting how hard it is to “not” align things correctly, or to not be able to give to the design some consistency or homogeneity, because that was the way the interface used to be back then: the different interface elements were added to the composition almost like you would add a shape to a PowerPoint slide, where margins and paddings are manually— and awkwardly — defined.

It was harder still to write a proper CSS, as practically each and every button would be different than the other, and each and every window would have its elements positioned and aligned differently.

By the way, have you noticed that the scrollbars used to be positioned on the left on NeXt?

After some moments asking myself why somebody would want scrollbars on the left, I came up with a solution on how to reproduce it in modern browsers: I created two nested divs, one with direction right-to-left, and one inside it, with direction left-to-right, where the real content would go.

This time I really had fun, diving in the history of the web and doing simple things like that.

Blast

With all that being said, I have to thank all the “big kids” of the team and James Gillies, from CERN, for welcoming me and for making me feel part of the team.

This time I had a blast, and that’s not only because it was awesome to work in a team where we could share the same interests and passions, but also because I myself have changed: I didn't feel I have something to prove anymore.

The good thing about aging is that we can easily focus on the really important things, and certainly not on how people see us or what they think about us.

This time there was no stress, no questioning, and no self-consciousness. This time it was simply exciting, mostly because today I know that not being one of the big kids does not make my work less valueable and my actions less meaninful.

I love the web for what it means to my life and for its simple and powerful beauty. Lot's of amazing people are working to make this industry better and better, and I like to believe that I'm one of them.