Interview: Opera Software’s Chris Mills

Chris MillsWe’re all gearing up for Web Directions South here at SitePoint HQ — it’s the biggest event on the Aussie web geeks’ calendar. This year’s conference is jam-packed with excellent talks and workshops, including a talk about CSS frameworks by our very own Kevin Yank. We’re thrilled to be a sponsor of this event, and we’re each looking forward to seeing some of our favorite topics being discussed, debated, and hashed out!

Having done a spot of web training myself in the past, I’m especially curious about the Ed Directions workshop, presented by Chris Mills, Ash Alluri, and Leslie Jensen-Inman. Chris Mills is a web evangelist and developer relations editor at Opera Software, and a major contributor to the Opera blogs and the Opera Web Standards Curriculum. We grabbed Chris for a quick chat about his work, Ed Directions, and the state of web education generally.

For those of our readers yet to make your acquaintance, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure thing. For the last two years, I’ve worked for Opera (not Oprah — it’s a browser, not a talk show) as a web evangelist and education guy. My job involves a ton of different things, such as publishing articles on web standards techniques, writing documentation for Opera products, answering questions on forums, speaking at conferences, contacting site owners about bugs with their code, helping with ideas for new marketing campaigns, and proofreading other folks’ work. And Twittering. Lots of Twittering. Yes, it is work!

For those of you who haven’t fallen asleep yet, the two main and very closely-related foci of my job are evangelizing open standards and education. I spend a lot of time writing about relevant topics and giving lectures at universities to promote better use of web standards on courses and among students. I believe that the best way to improve the state of the Web is to start with those new to learning the trade.

In terms of what kind of person I am, I’m a heavy metal guy, with a dash of hippy and bit of Wookiee somewhere in the mix. I play drums in the mighty Conquest of Steel, and spend a lot of my time playing shows around Europe. The Germans especially love us.

Web Directions North in 2008 had a very strong emphasis on education, so it’s great to see that carried through in your workshop. What would a conference participant take home from your workshop?

The primary target audience for the workshop is any educator who wants to learn how to teach web development or design more effectively, although it would also be useful for students. First, we briefly outline the current state of web education, and what we see as the problem — the divide between the industry and educators. Next, we have four sessions, covering what we see as the four critical topics: markup, CSS, JavaScript, and accessibility and usability.

In each one of these sessions, an invited expert speaker outlines the main theory behind the topic and where it fits into the overall web development ecosystem. Then we have a discussion about what is hardest to teach about the topic, and provide tips on getting around those difficulties and what free resources are available to help.

Finally, we round off the day with an educators’ panel: four or five educators have a discussion about their experiences teaching web standards, and impart wisdom to the crowd.

I think you would also gain a lot of relevant and useful information from the workshop if you are working in the industry but involved in in-house training, or perhaps if you’re a manager who wants to be up to date on what their employees need to know. I think anyone from the web development community should be interested in (or should at least find interesting) the state of web standards education and care about how this in turn affects their industry, but some might see it as a lower priority than others.

It’s been a while since I was taught any CSS or HTML — like many of us I learned through doing. What are some of the clangers you’ve heard about in schools and colleges?

There are a few really good, progressive educational institutions around the world, such as the Art Institute of Atlanta (USA) and the University of Dundee (UK), but the majority of places that do have some kind of web content in their courses don’t handle it very well. The trouble is that web development is such a mixture of science and art, and there are very few dedicated courses covering it outright. Rather, it’ll be tacked on to the end of, say, a computer science course or a graphic design course.

The computer science people often see web technologies as bad because they do not follow the same rules as so-called proper programming languages, such as a web browser having a very forgiving parser, and an unpredictable runtime environment. They will teach web development starting from a back-end technology such as ASP.NET or JSP, which ties in with something they already know, but then give little regard to what is spat out on the client side in terms of accessibility or semantics.

The design people often just want to create a nice design and get it up on the Web, and not worry about the code it hangs off. They will create a design, and then use horrible old Photoshop, slice it up, and dump it into Dreamweaver. Again, the front-end code suffers as a result.

With regards to clangers, I’ve seen standards-aware students being marked down because they didn’t use tables and spacer GIFs like it says on the curriculum. I’ve seen students making web sites entirely out of Flash or one big image. And I’ve seen students being taught a module about ecommerce site-building before they’re even comfortable with basic markup theory. When a student asks you a question such as, “What do you use for your web sites, XHTML or Dreamweaver?” you really know there’s a fundamental problem with how they are being taught.

When I conducted web training I found it particularly challenging dealing with people who weren’t beginners, but were still stuck on using font elements and inline JavaScript. Sometimes they’d have trouble seeing how the time investment was worth the improvement. What’s the most effective way you’ve found to encourage these people to make the switch?

The “old dog, new tricks” type of person is the hardest to teach, because you have to unlearn all the bad habits first. Then the argument you’ll get is often something like: “Well, I will still get paid whether I do it the old way or the new way, so why bother putting in the time and effort to learn?” With these people you just need to keep giving them the key arguments and make them as personal to them as possible, so they can identify with them more easily.

  1. You’ve got your usual arguments that code is more portable, maintainable, has a smaller file size, is more accessible, and better for SEO.
  2. In terms of learning difficulty, you can’t tell me that CSS is hard to learn, surely! Especially just the basics. Show them some simple examples of how powerful CSS can be to get them hooked. Wait until then to mention IE 6 bugs!
  3. JavaScript learning — for these people you might as well start by showing them jQuery — this will speed up their work, regardless of whether they are using the old way or the new way. Again, get them hooked, then show them more of the underlying details.
  4. Explain it in terms of accessibility — the litigation carrot, and new user markets with disabled users and mobile users
  5. Explain it in terms of job security. Show them lots of job adverts for front-end developers — more and more are now requiring CSS, HTML, JavaScript, and best practices at a minimum. Do they still want to have a job in a few year’s time?

The Opera Web Standards Curriculum is packed with good stuff — over 60 articles all up. What are some examples you’ve seen or heard about where people have used this material in their curricula?

I have been really pleased with the uptake. There are already a number of colleges in the US using it as course material, some universities in the UK, and a lot of online universities. There are many translation projects in existence: for example, a complete Russian translation of the HTML and CSS stuff and a nearly complete Chinese translation, while a Spanish university is working on a complete translation in both Spanish and Catalan.

Another really nice thing I’ve heard is how many experienced web developers are using it as reference material, and as a place to point clients and other contacts when they get inundated with tedious questions about basic tech stuff!

I’m a strong believer in students learning from practitioners; if you’re a developer and you want to start teaching web standards, where would you begin?

I’d suggest starting off by helping people in forums and so on, pointing them to good resources. Of course, for this you need a good pool of resources. Maintain your own personal golden list of resources — including the Opera Web Standards Curriculum, of course — and set about helping people. See if there is any scope in your company to do in-house training as part of your job. Also see if there is a local college or university where you could do some guest lectures or teach a part-time course. Most educational institutions are happy for any resources they can get their hands on.

Of course, if you do find yourself planning a web development course, you should check out WaSP’s InterAct project, which provides course structures, reading lists, exam questions, competencies, and so on.

Is there anything in general you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to invite everyone to check out Opera 10. We have a new beta out as of July 17th, and the final version will follow soon after! We’ve got a fabulous new user interface courtesy of my homie Jon Hicks, great new standards support and debugging tools, and more.

Any chance of an Aussie Conquest of Steel tour to coincide with WDS, since you’re down here?

Hey, if you guys fancy sponsoring, we’ll be well up for it!

I’ll have to check with the boss! Thanks for your time, Chris.

You’ll find Chris’s blog at Eclectic Brain Salad. If you’ll be at Web Directions South, be sure to keep an eye out for him!

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  • LFA

    The link to “Eclectic Brain Salad” is broken…

  • http://www.heyraena.com raena

    Doesn’t appear to be broken here. What was the error you saw?

  • Dorsey

    I completely disagree that CSS is easy to learn. It’s loaded with arcane syntax and irregular rules that require memorization as opposed to logical progression, and it’s a quantum leap that is not easy to make between “basic” CSS and creating something like a navigation menu out of pure CSS. Each new version of CSS simply heaps on more complexity rather than clarification, too. It seems to me that the CSS overlords are too close to the issue and can’t understand the complexity they’ve created.

  • http://www.sublimed.be armchaircritic

    Awesome interview!
    But sorry, already an Opera 10/9 user here… can’t convert me I’m afriad :D Already holding that banner high :D

    Keep up the good work Chris, the articles on Dev Opera are really good stuff. As another UK homie, I’m right with you on the uptake-issue with Universities. I also wish that Opera was included on default network applications too, as far too many use IE6 and Firefox only, and this isn’t much choice for students. I think that’s also the key area for Opera to expand, so good luck with the future endeavors there!

    cool metal btw too. ;)

  • Moare

    As an educator, you answered so well, Chris, and I appreciate them. I am an educator myself and you are spot on with your views.

    Chris, I will wait to read more contents from your presentation. Thank you.