Wednesday, May 24, 2006

TLA Tutorial: HTML

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients regarding dealing with my fellow technology workers (other than the smell, the funny clothes, and our complete inability to understand that no one is interested in the intricacies of the latest "Star Trek" episode) is the language we use. It is so full of jargon and technical shorthand, that we might as well be speaking Swahili. The average techie spews forth Three-Letter Acronyms (TLAs) as if his very life and livelihood depended upon it.

In my efforts to "clear up the confusion", I've decided to start a semi-regular offering where I will make an effort to describe some of these technologies in a way that is more approachable to the non-techie. Tonight we'll start with an easy one -- HTML. It's actually an FLA (four-letter acronym), but who's really counting, right?

Not that it is really important, but HTML stands for "Hyper Text Markup Language". It is the language which is the basis of every single web page you see. Of course, it is a computer language. Outside of the world of web-heads, I don't know anyone who actually tries to communicate with other humans using this language.

If you look at the source of any webpage, you can see that HTML can actually look extremely complex. If you'd like, just use the menu on your browser and select "View" -> "Page Source" if you use the FireFox browser or "View" -> "Source" under Internet Explorer. If you glance at the window that pops up, you will immediately be turned to stone. No, not really. Still it can just look like a big mess if you don't know what you are seeing. Quickly close that window before you go blind.

The thing is, if you look at the very basics of HTML, it truly isn't very complex. You can see an "open tag", some text, and then a "close tag". For example, if I want to make a piece of text bold, I would do something like this:

This text is <b>bold</b>

And it would look like this on screen:

This text is bold

As you can see, the open tag is "<b>" and the close tag is "</b>" and the text in between is what gets "bolded". Depending on which word processor you use, this is just like clicking on the "Bold" button in the toolbar to turn on the bold face, typing some text, and then hitting the button again, to turn it back off.

There are tons of other tags: <i> for italics, <u> for underline, etc. There are some which are more complex, like those for lists and tables. You can even put one set of tags inside another (for those frequent occasions when you need text which is bold, italic, underlined and blinking), but it all comes back to this basic concept -- open tag, text, end tag.

Congratulations! You survived the description of a technical concept! Now, when someone starts blathering on about HTML you won't have to feign a migraine headache just to get out of the conversation. You might still want to, but I will leave that to your personal choice. If you'd like to satisfy your morbid curiosity and see a list of all the tags that are available, I recommend the Bare Bones Guide to HTML.

What other TLA's would you like to know more about?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Experts

I have a confession to make. I am a do-it-yourselfer -- or rather I think I am. I have this grand illusion that I not only can do anything, but that I should do everything.

My wife and I have been considering remodeling our basement for a couple of years now. She has been gently trying to convince me to hire someone to do the job for us. No, not me! I will do it myself! (imagine me standing with chin and chest outthrust pretending that I am wearing a cape billowing in the wind) Do I know the first thing about installing an electrical system to code? It has something to do with wires, right? Do I know anything about building a bathroom from the ground up? Hey, I've heard of "sweating" a pipe! Could I even build a stud wall with any degree of accuracy? I'm relatively sure there are nails involved.

Obviously, my skills in the above areas are a bit limited. The thing is, I know I could learn how and that's what gets me into trouble. After all, most people think programming a computer is a pretty complex thing. I think it's easy. Surely I could learn how to remodel my basement! Of course, then I reflect on the fact that I have twenty years of experience putting all the ones and zeros in the right order. And the first few years were filled with errors, missteps and occasional moments of outright catastrophe. Upon reflection, do I really want that in my basement? Hmmm.

On top of that, of course, is the consideration of how much my time is worth. I could easily see myself spending an entire day trying to hang a single piece of sheetrock. What else could I have done with my time? The mind boggles. In fact, I'm sure I could make more in that day, doing the job at which I have become expert, than a professional construction worker would charge me to hang that same piece of sheetrock.

So, in what areas of your life would you consider hiring an expert (even if you know you could do just as good a job yourself)?

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Puzzling Business

I've been helping people and organizations build better websites now for over a decade. In that time I've had the joy of discovery, occasionally been frustrated, but always had a heckuva lot of fun puzzling out the many projects. I am one of those truly fortunate people who managed to find something they like to do and then found someone willing to pay me to do it!

Most people who know me know that I love puzzles. Sudoku, crosswords, cross-sums (now called "Kakuro") -- they all have the power to fascinate and ensnare me. Before going on a plane trip, I'll pick up a book of math and logic puzzles and I'll barely notice the time between take-off and landing, except when I have to juggle my puzzle book and my beverage. It is a rare puzzle indeed which forces me to give up.

My work on websites, from the simplest brochure site to the most complex online content management system is, at its base, just one big puzzle after another. Hmm, this information has to show up on both sides of the screen. How will I do that? This section has to be purple and 40 pixels tall. What were those commands again? That picture isn't supposed to be flipped upside-down. What is going wrong there?

Now that I've started working more on my business (as opposed to in my business), I'm starting to see that I can apply these same puzzle-solving techniques. How do I describe my business? Which marketing method will best reach my target market? What systems can I devise to make things run more smoothly?

What methods do you use to work both in and on your business (or in your job)? Maybe you find the similarities in playing chess. Possibly yours is more like scripting a movie. How does it work for you?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Calling of Your Soul: David Layne

In my business, I am very fortunate to be able to work every day with people who passionately strive to make the world a better place. They've devoted their time and talents to easing the suffering of others. Many take time from their not-so-copious leisure hours. Others have made this service into their career. I am amazed and humbled by their dedication.

I remember the first time I met David Layne, co-founder of the HOMES Coalition. He was in the midst of planning a large charity event to raise donations for the Community Housing Network and needed to update their website to provide information for that event. He had very clear ideas of what he wanted and was able to articulate them well (something I always appreciate). What really got me, though, was his attitude. The enthusiasm and passion that he brought to the table infected even me. I left that first meeting with a tremendous respect for his energy and vision and a deep excitement for the task at hand.

I was privileged to "listen in" on the planning process that went into preparing for the bash. It was a lot of work and the people involved were all donating their time and talent. In the end, though, with the powerful force of David and his team behind it, the event was a great success. If you really want to know why David can bring such energy and passion to the table, just read his own words about the celebration (scroll down past the pictures) and I think you will understand.

Who have you met recently who really "wowed" you?