Thirteenth Parallel /archive/scott-andrew/

Scott Andrew (profile & interview)

January 2002

Scott Andrew
name:  Scott Andrew LePera
location:  San Francisco, California, USA
age:  32
work:  Components developer at KnowNow Inc.


How and when did you get into web design?

As a kid, I was a BASIC whiz, programming endless Zork-like text adventures and arcade-style games with my Atari 800 while all the other kids were using the Commodore 64.  Around the time I started college, I put the 800 in a closet and didn’t do anything resembling programming for almost ten years.  After college, I learned to use tools like Quark Xpress, Pagemaker and Photoshop, and I began designing the cassette sleeves, stickers and flyers for the rock bands I was playing in.

Around the same time, the place where I worked (I hesitate to tell you it was a conveyor belt factory) installed new PC’s and put me in charge of administering the company’s sole email account.  Having the only computer in the shop with an Internet connection, I quickly became fascinated with the World Wide Web and how web pages were written and served.  I felt myself being drawn back to those early days of BASIC programming, only this time it was intersecting the realms of both visual and information design.

I liked this convergence so much that in 1998 I enrolled in the Visual Design program at Kent State University, where I spent many hours happily drawing subdivided squares and learning how to properly clean Koh-i-Noor pens.  The school didn’t have a formal web design curriculum then, so I spent many hours at the computer center pouring over the HTML 3.2 spec and learning about the basic underpinnings of the Internet.

Then, while looking for summer work, I was offered a full-time “Editorial Tech” position at (a property of Advance Internet, which is owned by Newhouse News).  I withdrew from the program at Kent and made the Web my 24-7 job.  I learned and did a lot of different things at, from dabbling in Flash to hacking together content management systems in PERL.  More to the point, I discovered JavaScript and subsequently, DHTML.

Why did you start using DHTML?

I’m interested in using the browser as much more than a device for viewing flat, static pages.  The whole idea behind DHTML is that pages don’t have to sit there like a chunk of immutable text; they can be dynamic and responsive.  Better yet, DHTML doesn’t require much from the user: a modern browser with JavaScript support will do, although “modern” may arguably include Netscape 4.x.

Who did you particularly admire when you were starting out and what sites inspired you?

Eddie Traversa’s DHTML Nirvana site and Thom Brattli’s Scriptomania were two early sites that introduced me to what DHTML could do.  But it was really Dan Steinman’s Dynamic Duo tutorials that won me over, mostly because a healthy developer community was forming there and there were more opportunities to participate in shaping the API and contributing widgets.  Later, Brent Gustafson’s Assembler blurred the line separating slick online graphic design and the more geeky, code-oriented DHTML.

What about now?

There are so many good works coming out these days I honestly can’t keep up.

How has the web changed since you started?

I’ve definitely seen a fragmentation.  I was a latecomer to the Web, at the beginning of the dot-com bubble, and in the year that followed it seemed all you needed to know was how to sling HTML to get a high five-figure salary.  Now, in the post-bubble days, people are becoming more specialized in their skills.  And instead of “how much money can we make?” people are starting to ask “what can we do that’s really useful?”.

I think it will be interesting to watch how the web will grow now that the fairy dust has been shaken off.

How would you like to see it change in the future?

I would very much like to see a decline in the amount of porn spam, thank you.

Who and what should we watch out for in the future?

I think the AOL vision and the Microsoft vision of the web will not, cannot be stopped.  Ever since the furor over Smart Tags, I’ve been thinking that the Web will fragment into separate “neighborhoods”, with the pristine-lawned, gated communities of MSN and AOL, who have everything nicely packaged for them, and the funky, broken-concrete hipster district of the Rest of the Web — the people who refuse to have their mail addresses end in “” and sneer at the idea of running an NT box.

I fully expect to see more shenanigans like MSN’s blocking of “non-standards-compliant” browsers (they blocked both Mozilla and Opera [ed: article on CNET]), and to tell the truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day MSN or AOL users were blocked from viewing sites that don’t originate from within their own networks.  But maybe that’s a bit of a paranoid vision.

Yeah, don’t give them ideas.  What are you currently working on?

Recently, I’ve been very interested in the concept of “accessible” DHTML.  I’ve been experimenting with DHTML that collapses into accessible elements when JavaScript and CSS support is removed.  I’m planning to turn these experiments into a series of articles or tutorials on how to make DHTML content more accessible to visitors who may have to use special programs like screen readers.

What do you see yourself working on in the future?

Hopefully, as new technologies get introduced into the browser, I’ll be at work hacking on them, trying to break them, trying to make them do stuff.  I’m excited about the SVG standard: vector graphics described as XML within the page.  On the work front, I spend a lot of time developing with KnowNow’s technology: real-time notifications across HTTP, asynchronously and nearly platform-independent.  Using it, we built the first (to my knowledge) all-DHTML instant messaging client that used HTTP to deliver the messages, not a proprietary or untested protocol.

What message do you try to convey in your work?

I’m mostly about education, spreading the word about standards and the concept that browsers are not just page-viewing apparatus; they’re becoming application platforms.  So we need a common, standardized set of tools: DOM, CSS, ECMAScript, and so on.

What do you think of the so called “web design community”?

It’s a pretty loose term; developing for the Web is really a convergence of several disciplines, so “web design community” casts a rather wide net.  Most people associate “web design community” with things like and online design collectives, but I think those aren’t really representative of everything Web design is about.  There’s visual design, information design, usability design, application design — all of these things apply, because the Web is not like television where everything is trapped in a rigid box and there’s no SUBMIT button.

What do you think about Jakob Nielson’s view on web design?

I think we have to take Mr.  Nielsen and his comments in context with his intended audience.  He has chosen a very particular audience, the corporate sector, and has made a very good living from loudly telling them what he thinks are best practices for web design.  In that context, many of his principles make good sense.  Of course, he gives his AlertBox pieces provocative titles like “The End Of Web Design” and “Flash: 99% Bad” — understandably sending designers into fits of spitting rage.  The end result is everyone ends up debating Nielsen’s points, which is how it should be.

Personally, I try not to dwell on those points so much in my day-to-day work. A year ago Nielsen published a piece on how and why you should avoid DHTML drop-down menus.  A year later, drop-downs are still as popular as ever.  If Nielsen’s criticisms resulted in, say, a better or more useable drop-down menu design, well, everyone benefits for that.

Conversely what do you think about all the experimental web art going on by people such as Joshua Davis and Yugo Nakamura?

Yugo and Josh are doing exactly what artists have done for centuries: taking a new medium and pushing it in unconventional directions.  I think the idea that art that lives on the Web, is created from the Web, has no place on the Web is wholly ridiculous.  It’s like saying that paper is intended for writing but not painting, or that stone is intended for building walls but not sculpting.  It’s a totally different mindset and it’s no less valid than any other approach.

At the same time: I’m jealous!  I want to able to do that stuff with DHTML, without a plug-in!

In your eyes what is the most important factor effecting the growth of the internet?

I don’t know if I know that answer to that, since there is so much more to the Web than what I deal with from day to day.  Each day, thousands of people are getting on the Web for the very first time, so that’s a factor.  Digital music and movies are a big issue; I think we’ll see more heavy-handed tactics from the RIAA and MPAA to squelch the free distribution of digital media, so that may profoundly affect how such media will be delivered over the Web in the future.  Then there’s the whole “who controls the Web” issue, with Microsoft and AOL both pushing hard to establish trusted networks; that’s definitely going to impact the future growth of the Web.  And now, there’s the issue of privacy, and what lengths government will go to to protect their interests while respecting the privacy of its constituents.  All of these and more are going to shape the future Web.  It’s both exciting and a little scary.

But for the time being, I deal with browsers.  I think developers and designers alike are up against the Late Adoption wall.  We want users to use the latest browsers, the latest plug-in, so we can be free to innovate and give them a richer experience.  But getting users to upgrade, to abandon the environment they’re already comfortable with, is like pulling teeth.  And thousands of new users are discovering the Web every day, and experience indicates that most of those users are going to stick with whatever browser is already installed on their system.

I think we’re entering a particularly crucial time.  It won’t matter if we as developers can choose the tools to work with, if big companies with the lion’s share of eyeballs are going to dictate what tools our users have to view our work with.  That’s why open and common standards like those being recommended by the W3C are so important.

You’re releasing a DHTML book, co-written with Steve Champeon, Eric Costello and Eric Meyer, what should we expect from it?

It’s a pretty massive and comprehensive undertaking.

How did you come to collaborate with Steve and the two Erics?

Steve contacted me about doing the book.  He had previously written a book on DHTML for HungryMinds, and when they approached him about a book for the Bible series he went looking for people to co-author it.  He contacted Eric Costello and myself early in 2001.  Eric Meyer was brought on later to help with some of the CSS chapters.  Porter Glendenning also contributed some of the intermediate chapters.  It was a very difficult challenge to complete the book, since we all had day jobs to contend with as well.

What approach did you take, what goals did you have for it?

From the beginning, we all agreed that we didn’t want to write another thousand-page reference book.  Instead, we wanted to concentrate on building a solid framework from the ground up and cover all relevant aspects of DHTML.  That includes a solid understanding of HTML, CSS and JavaScript and how they work together.  So many cut-and-paste DHTML scripts available today are horribly implemented because the author didn’t have a good enough grasp of the basics, or the person in charge of implementing the script had no clue how it does what it does.  The more time you spend on things like proper document structure and valid HTML and CSS, the less time you’ll spend debugging a broken DHTML script.

Any final Comments?

[Answer in the post]

Ok, Scott thanks ever so much for your time.