Dori Smith

Dori Smith was a WaSP Steering Committee member, and played a key role in pushing for standards support in browsers in the earliest days of the organization. As a programmer, rather than a designer, she was well-placed to understand the problems caused by a lack of JavaScript interoperability. Smith wrote a number of books covering JavaScript, Java, Dreamweaver, HTML and CSS, often writing as co-author with her husband Tom Negrino.

Smith graduated with a degree in Information and Computer Science in 1985, and started working as full-time programmer shortly after that. She had started programming in high school in 1977 and found it something she had an aptitude for, so much so that she chose it as her major in college.

I asked her how she started working on the web, and with web technologies,

“By the time I first saw the web in 1994, I’d worked for three different boring companies, so I was ready for something different. I really got into surfing the web in 1995, and looking at the underlying HTML to see how things were done was just second-nature.”

In 1996, Smith decided to "get in on the ground floor" with Java, hearing that would be the next big thing. By this point she had been writing code for close to 20 years and learning Java was relatively straightforward, so she looked for another job. Somewhere she could use her new HTML and Java skills, rather than programming BASIC on Data General Computers in her current role.

She told me that it took a few months, but she found a web development job as what was then called a Webmaster.

“The job that hired me for my HTML and Java skills ended up being primarily JavaScript, and I fell madly in love with the language. Thankfully, it was a language that mostly loved me back for about the next two decades.”

I wondered how she had become involved with web standards, and she explained that in the early days there was only Netscape Navigator to worry about. However once Internet Explorer came along things got a lot more difficult.

Many folk at the time were not writing a lot of JavaScript and their experience of browser incompatibilities was limited to HTML and table-based design. As Smith remembers, as long as you weren't too obsessed with pixel-perfect design for every permutation of browser, screen size and operating system you could work round these issues. As a JavaScript developer however she really encountered the sharp end of differences between Netscape's JavaScript and Internet Explorer's JScript.

“What had been nice simple code became a mess of if/else conditions, and hacks that used unofficial Netscape features became impossible. So, I swore a lot and learned a lot.”

It was around this time that Smith became an author. Her then-boyfriend (later husband) Tom Negrino was a long-time tech-writer and computer book author. He had been asked if he knew anything about JavaScript, as the publisher Peachpit were looking for an author for “JavaScript for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide”. She told me that Tom's reply to the publisher changed her life, he said,

“I don't know anything about code, but my girlfriend does, and while she’s never written a book before, I have, so I think that between the two of us, we could write a good book.”

All of those hacks she had been using to get her employer’s site to work would now be on paper to help thousands of other coders. In documenting and testing all of the browsers, versions, and platforms she realized just how ridiculous the state of affairs was.

When she heard about the Web Standards Project, the weekend prior to their official announcement, she asked to be a part of it. Smith joined the steering committee a couple of days after the launch.

Smith was list-mom for the Wise-Women Web List, a community which did not exclude men but aimed to be a welcoming place for women who worked on the web. I mentioned that I felt we had lost a lot of these friendly places, that I struggled to know where to send newbies now.

Smith also felt the learning curve was steep today. That books all assume that you know the basics and more before they start off. She noted that at one point anyone moderately handy could build their own car. That time is long gone, and perhaps web development is like that now. The day of the enthusiastic amateur is over.

“... given that professionals generally start off as enthusiastic amateurs, I’m not sure where that leaves the future.”

I'm keen to know who we as an industry are forgetting, I wanted to know who Smith thought had been overlooked in terms of their impact. Like everyone involved in WaSP, Smith was a volunteer. Her experience was that the work she had put in did not result in consulting gigs or job offers.

She also remembered other women from the same period.

“There were a few women doing amazing things when I first started off in the mid-late 90s. Laura Lemay, as just one example. She sold an amazing number of books then, but kind of dropped off the map after that. Ditto for Charity Kahn, who worked for, writing code and writing about writing code. There was a woman who went by the name CodeBitch who did some great stuff around the same time. I tracked her down in 2006 just so I could meet her and thank her.

Elizabeth Castro’s career went on longer, and she sold a bajillion books, but I don’t think she ever got the respect I think she deserved either.”

I asked Smith if she felt it was helpful for modern-day developers to understand our history, and the history of the standards movement. In particular given the decline in browser diversity with browsers moving to Chromium. She said,

“I’m not sure that there is a decline in diversity of browsers. Sure, on the desktop there may be, but now you’ve also got browsers everywhere from television sets to cell phones to refrigerators to tablets.”

She noted that she finds a lot of sites that don't work well on her phone or tablet, wondering if this is due to an over-reliance on frameworks or people feeling they don't need to test cross-browser anymore. In terms of learning about the past, Smith felt that developers today spend a lot of time learning about the flavor of the week library or framework. They don't have time to learn about the past.

Smith felt that the next fight would be more about webpage weight, rather than web standards. She mentioned how even with a reasonable internet connection and a tablet with the latest OS, many sites were impossible to load.

A speaker on stage behind a podium
Smith speaking at the New Riders Voices That Matter conference, October, 2007. Photo credit Juliette Melton

I'm asking all my interviewees how their work on the early web platform has influenced their careers, and if they can see a thread from that time to what they do now. Smith's answer spoke to one of the reasons I wanted to do this project. The web industry seems quick to abandon those with vast experience, in favour of younger folk. Add to the equation being a woman, or any other underrepresented group and the prejudices mount.

“I think where I am is really a result of being on the coder side more than the design side. Older designers exist, but older programmers don’t. Female designers are common, but female coders are rare. I might have been able to stay in tech if I was one or two out of old, female, and remote, but nobody’s interested in someone who is all three.”

Smith recounts a story of talking to a person from Microsoft about her background, explaining where she could add value to the organization.

“She listened to me, asked some reasonable questions, and then said, “I know where you should work!”

“Where?” I said, figuring that I’d probably be a good fit for the Mac team or the browser group.

“Starbucks! Even as a part-time barista you can get health insurance coverage!”

No, she wasn’t joking. She was completely unable to even imagine an older woman as having a place in tech. She was far from the only one.

I describe myself these days as semi-retired, and willing to come out of retirement for the right offer. To date, there have been no offers.”

Dori Smith interviewed by Rachel Andrew. Published