Careers: Interviews
"One of the greatest digerati" and amongst the "Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web"

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Molly E. Holzschlag.

An author, instructor, and Web designer, Molly has authored over 30 books related to Web design and development. She is "one of the greatest digerati" and amongst the “Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web”. There is little doubt that in the world of Web design and development, Molly is one of the most fun and vibrant Web characters around. 

As a steering committee member for the Web Standards Project (WaSP), Molly works along with a group of other dedicated Web developers and designers to promote W3C recommendations. She also teaches Webmaster courses for the University of Arizona, University of Phoenix, and Pima Community College. She wrote the very popular column, Integrated Design, for Web Techniques Magazine for the last three years of its life, and spent a year as Executive Editor of WebReview.com.

Amongst her latest book credits are 250 HTML and Web Design Secrets from Wiley, and Sams Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours, both of which are garnering favorable reviews.

Discussion:

Q: Molly, your elite reputation for excellence precedes you; we are very fortunate to have you with us for this interview. Thank you!

A: The good fortune is mine!

Q: As “one of the greatest of digerati”, how did you get your start in computing?

A: I grew up knowing I was going to be a writer. I spent most of my childhood reading and writing, and most of my teens and early twenties living wild adventures worthy of a poet and novelist. My first professional job was as a medical research writer, and I did that for several years before I found the online world. Little did I know that I’d end up making my mark as a technical author, it was never in the plan.

I became ill in my twenties to the point that I was housebound for several years. During this time, I was extremely challenged to find something to do with myself. My brother gave me his Commodore 64 so I could have a computer for my writing endeavors. Another friend gave me a modem for the holidays. That would be a 300 baud Hayes external modem, which was approximately the size of a tissue box. I got online with local BBSs and QLink – which was where I saw live, international chat for the first time. I knew I was looking at something that was going to change my life – I just didn’t know how dramatically that change would become.

From that point, my fascination for the online world grew into a major passion, one that has stayed with me to this day, some 15 years later.

Q: Please share two surprising experiences.

A: (1) The day I received an email from a publisher asking me to write a book about web design.  It was 1995, and the idea that a publisher would just email me and make that kind of an offer made no sense.  I’d long held the belief that writers had to struggle to get book deals, and here was some guy offering me a contract out of the blue.  I didn’t believe it!  I thought it was a hoax, but I researched it and it was in fact very real.  I had the contract the next day, and began writing my first book.  That was a definite surprise.

(2) I was once doing training for a startup in San Jose during the rising years of the dot.com generation. I kept hearing this gong sound off every half hour or so.  I asked “what’s that?” and was told each time the gong sounded, it represented that another half million or more was raised for the companies endeavors. That surprised me. They’re out of business now. That didn’t surprise me.

Q: Can you share with us a humorous story?

A: People often ask me how I came about getting the molly.com domain. Under the advice of my then book-authoring mentor, Harley Hahn (who owns harley.com, which is way too cool if you ask me), grabbing that domain was important to my career. At the time, domain registration was under the auspices of the internic, back when registering domain names was free. The problem was someone else had it, but it had gone into a non-active status and was about to be released. I must have typed “whois” from my dialup command-line Internet account 400 times a day just waiting to see when that status changed. The moment it did, I grabbed molly.com successfully.

Within five minutes, I received an email from a guy at a subsidiary of Wang. He wrote to tell me that he, too, was trying to get the domain name because of a big search engine project they were working on that had been code-named “Molly” after the CEO’s baby girl. Could I be so kind as to give up molly.com for their venture, and in return receive a link from their soon-to-be search engine? It was sure to get me lots of hits. Now remember, this was back in the bad old days when everyone was cybersquatting like mad. I told the guy no way.

Next thing I know, an email with a photo of little Molly came flying through the ethers, apparently a plea to my maternal instincts. Perhaps they thought if I saw her darling, cherubic cheeks I’d instantly think “How cute! How selfish of me to want molly.com, I’ll give it to this darling baby girl.”  Um, right. I told the guy no way.

So he comes back at me one more time, this time saying “name your price.”  So I did. I told him he could have molly.com for the price of my retirement. Suffice it to say I’ve had molly.com ever since. I often wondered what happened to that search engine project, too. I assume it got bit-bucketed.

Q: Describe in “detail” your work, as a steering committee member for the Web Standards Project (WaSP).

A: My role at WaSP has largely been related to the organization’s membership and the ongoing need for us to constantly revisit who we are and why we are. We have been struggling to find our identity – the standards work has just begun – but our current audience is mostly well-educated at this point. How do we branch out? What message do we want to send now? How can we, as a group of very busy people, find ways to promote Web standards without burdening our already burdened schedules? We have no real answers yet, but are chipping away at the issue while keeping our BUZZ blog the primary face of WaSP to the public, and the focus on the independent work of our members in their evangelical roles.

If you asked other WaSPs what role I play in the organization, they’ll probably tell you I’m the “Mom” or the “Witch (with a “B”)”, depending upon how they see it :).

Q: What ten tips can you pass on from your Webmaster courses?

A: 1) Know your audience.
2) Know what your intent with the site is, and clearly state it.
3) Content is critical.
4) Document everything.
5) Balance knowledge with experience for best results.
6) Learn the most you can about the technologies with which you work.
7) Learn the most you can about browser problems and how to work around them effectively.
8) Adhere to web standards.
9) Care about your disabled audience members.
10)  Review your process constantly.

Q: Share your valuable experiences from your popular column, Integrated Design, for Web Techniques Magazine.

A: Writing a regular column for a print magazine was a critical point in my technical as well as editorial education. I started out with a lot of passion and a little knowledge, and by the time the magazine folded during the dot.bomb, I ended up with a lot of knowledge and a passion somewhat jaded. It was a fair trade, though, because it was during that time that I became exposed to Web standards and the range of topics that interest me these days. Since that time, the passion has been re-ignited, and InformIT has allowed me to pick up the column again, this time with the name “Integrated Web Design” based on my book of the same name, which was based on the original column. Oh, what a web we weave.

Q: Describe your work as Executive Editor of WebReview.com.

A: The happiest days of my life to date surrounded the work I did for WebReview. I came in as the transitional managing editor, when O’Reilly sold the online magazine to CMP Media, which owned Web Techniques and the WEB conference series among many other technical properties.

It was a fascinating process to take an online magazine from one company to another, rework and refashion its efforts as well as redesign the entire site. It was such a successful transition that I was asked to stay on for a year as Executive Editor, and what a year it was.  I worked with the best team ever, I got to work from home in Tucson and commute to San Francisco once a month – which was a terrific balance for me, and I got to meet so many of the amazing writers, designers, and developers who graced us with their talents. In fact, some of my very close colleagues today, such as Eric Meyer, Christopher Schmitt, Nick Finck, Biz Stone – the list goes on and on – came out of that time.

It was a great period of my life and I mourn its passing, which it decidedly did when the dot.bomb hit.

Q: What ten goals do you hope to accomplish as one of the “Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web”?

A: 1) Promote web standards.
2) Promote accessibility.
3) Promote best practices.
4) Assist people in pursuing their professional goals within the industry.
5) Continue speaking and meeting people from all corners of the industry and the world.
6) Continue to enjoy blogging at molly.com and interacting with my awesome site visitors.
7) Write more books.
8) Write more articles.
9) Be a helpful resource to my readers, students, and clients.
10) Never stop learning.

Q: Pick four books from the more than 30 you have written and share five tips from each book. 

A: Book 1 title:  Special Edition Using HTML & XHTML
a) Always use a correct DOCTYPE
b) Validate your documents
c) Write structured documents
d) Use CSS for presentation
e) Fall back on tables for layout only when absolutely necessary to do so.

Book 2 title: CSS: The Designer’s Edge
a) Begin with a structured document.
b) Understand your document tree.
c) Understand the way CSS integrates with that document
d) Understand inheritance, the cascade, and specificity
e) Know your hacks and workarounds, use them only when you have to

Book 3 title:  Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours (with Porter Glendinning)
a) Installation can be complicated, but following a sequential set-up can help you avoid problems.
b) Consider your blog’s goals carefully.
c)
 If you’re not a designer, consider using pre-designed templates
d) Understand trackback
e) Techniques for managing comment spam.

Book 4 title: 250 HTML and Web Design Secrets
a)  Put together an excellent selection of diverse tools.
b) Understand the need for process and project management.
c) Develop good habits when developing, preparing, and publishing content.
d) Use valid HTML or XHTML wherever possible.
e) Use CSS for presentation wherever possible.

Q: Provide an overview of your recent book credit, Sams Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours. Why should our readers study this book? What differentiates it from other books?

A: The differentiation is that at this time, there isn’t much out there on Movable Type. So it’s a great starting point for new users. Movable Type isn’t an easy program to work with; this book provides real step-by-step help. I co-authored it with Porter Glendinning, who has great insight and style, so the book – while a series book – has a lot of personality. The tag reference in the book that Porter wrote is worth the price of the book alone.

Q: What prompted you to start writing?

A: As mentioned, I always knew I would write. Once I took that first invitation, it became pathological. I’ve joked about this a lot, but there’s some underlying truth to it – it’s like an addiction. I rarely look back, I focus on the book I’m writing right now, and what I’ll be writing next.

I’m a very verbal person. Could you imagine having to listen to me go on and on in person?  Trust me, my family can only take so much. So book writing and public speaking and training are good, focused, healthy outlets for my overly verbose self.

Q: Provide your viewpoints on the major technologies today and where you see them in the future. For example: XML, UML, Web services, the Internet, Java vs C#, VB, C++, and other ones that you may wish to comment on.

A: I’m not really qualified to discuss any of these issues with the exception of the Internet, which, when I look in my magic crystal ball here, looks extremely different in the future than it is today. How is it different? I don’t know, and frankly, the mystery is part of the fascination.

Q: What are the ten most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?

I can address this as it pertains to web design and development specifically. 

A: 1) Adhering to web standards. I think people are being convinced, it’s just a slow process. The real barrier still remains in the hands of browser developers. Fix the browsers and there’d be no argument.
2) Making sites accessible. As if this should even be an issue – the web was meant to be a platform and device independent medium. We need to get back to that vision.
3) Managing security issues in web browsers and operating systems.  Dear Microsoft, my mother’s computer is loaded with spyware, adware, and viruses. Please stop being so sloppy and start respecting your customers.
4) Funding education and training, particularly for government and education.
5)
Re-evaluate the idea that cheaper is better. Consider the outsourcing issue. In some cases, it might in fact be more economical in the short term, but are the results as good? Quality comes with a price, period.
6) Managing what I call “OGS” – Organic Growth Syndrome. This means figuring out methods of managing growing web sites with thousands, even millions of documents.
7) Integrating skills more efficiently
8) Improving communication within web teams
9) Improving communication between web teams and management / administration
10) Providing ongoing education for all

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A:  I’m currently working on a project with Dave Shea of Mezzoblue, and am writing a non-technical professional’s guide to HTML & CSS.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations? 

A: 1) Blogging in general.
2) Blogging tools in specific.
3) Blogging features as they apply to web sites: Comment systems; content aggregation, trackback technology.
4) Content Management Systems
5) Mass document management in industry, government, military and education

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A:  I have numerous setups, including Windows and Mac OS (but not OS X).  I am so fed up with Microsoft’s sloppiness (I worked for MSN for five years, so I take it a little personally) that I want to move everything to Mac OS X and Linux.  I’m starving for a PowerBook, though, so anyone out there who’s interested in taking pity on this poor writer, please buy me one!

Q: If you had to do it all over again….?

A:  If I could go back in time and rearrange things, I would warn investors not to invest in air, prevent the over-extended, “it’s a Bonanza!” mentality that led the dot.com to the dot.bomb. Because when it blew, it blew up some really good stuff along with the nonsense.

I’d set my time machine to ensure that 9/11 never happened.

I’d encourage the refocusing of the U.S. government onto the positive growth toward a global community where resources can be shared and use the Internet as a means of helping to distribute that information and those resources. The dot.bomb, 9/11, and subsequent political strife have all resulted in a wound to the industry as well as the human soul that may take lifetimes to repair, but I doggedly remain optimistic.

Q: What drives you to do what you do?

A: I fell in love with the Web, its denizens, its technologies, and its vision. When we’re in love, we do everything we can – sometimes even to the point of self-destruction – to keep that love the focal point of our lives.

Q: How do you keep up with all the changes?

A: I don’t.  I get stuck just like everyone.  But I just keep chipping away at it, learning what I can, keeping my mind open to new ideas, and constantly staying in touch with other people from all levels of the industry so that new ideas and fresh perspectives are always a simple “hey” away.

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: Q1: What does it feel like to have so much attention placed on your work?
A1:  Scary and wonderful. Scary because I don’t want to let people down, yet I’m imperfect and make mistakes the same as everyone. So it’s bound to happen from time to time. Wonderful because it makes me feel like I’m doing something important in the world, and lasting, and I think most people want to feel that.

Q2:  Do you always see yourself in the industry?
A2:  No. I believe there will come a day I walk away from computers and communications technologies, buy some land in a remote area, grow my own food, build my own shelter, and spend my time reading, making music, and writing about completely different topics.

Q3: You are very outspoken and open on your weblog. Has this ever caused you any problems?
A3: Yes, I was the victim of a physical attack based on things someone read on my weblog. I have also had a few stalker types as a result. Neither of these things will stop me from living my life and expressing it authentically.

Q4: What do you consider the most gratifying part of your work?
A4: The fact that I look at my peers and realize that they are the people I admire most in the world. The fact that I get to meet people from all walks of life and truly interact with them.

Q5: What do you consider the most frustrating part of your work?
A5: Trying to rebuild my business after the dot.bomb. While I managed to stay working, I took a huge drop in pay and ended up not managing my money as well as I ought to have. But it was all new to me – financial success was nothing I ever really expected nor was ready for. As a result, I have teetered on bankruptcy for several years and am struggling to avoid that. I work constantly, and while I do make very decent money, it comes in chunks with no discernable schedule. This doesn’t help me keep great relations with my creditors, but hopefully this will all settle down as time goes on.

Q: Molly, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: Thank you Stephen! It’s been my pleasure.

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