Ada Lovelace Day: Estelle Weyl

By late afternoon that day in September 2002, I was getting pretty grumpy. The sandwich at lunch had dissipated into low blood sugar; the files I’d placed on the server just moments before had disappeared (and we had neither backups nor version control); the room was stuffy on an uncharacteristically hot day in San Francisco. And here comes this woman from one of the rival teams in the hackathon, introducing herself, trying to make friends, or at least, acquaintances.

I don’t remember being very effusive. The day had been grueling–I was on a team of four, working feverishly to develop an an accessible, yet visually appealing, Web site in just a few hours here in the Mission High School computer lab. But we shook hands. I recognized this woman’s name from the discussion list for SFWoW, at the time indispensable for finding out about tech events like this one. I hadn’t known how to pronounce it.

“Estelle Weyl. Like ‘while,'” she said. Within moments we all learned how excited she was about CSS, a technique new to many people at the hackathon, which was just one day of the Accessible Internet Rally. At another gathering we’d learned about various accessibility techniques, such as supplying text alternatives to images, offering keyboard shortcuts, and using CSS for presentation. The last had been my M.O. for three years already–I was puzzled how slow acceptance of it was.

I’d recently left a job at a software company which assembled a bunch of open source superstars, both actual and self-proclaimed, and then hired some front-end types like me to rework the clumsy, visually unappealing interface for the superstars’ application into something more usable. The low status of front-end work became obvious to me upon my introduction to one of the engineers.

“Oh, one of the pixel people,” he sneered, then lumbered off, leaving me to read the absurd style guide the UI lead had delivered. CSS was too “unsupported,” the guide admonished. Use <FONT> and <CENTER> to render the design atrocities we build in the browser. I didn’t stay long at this pointless gig.

So Estelle’s bouncy enthusiasm for CSS didn’t seem infectious to me, but instead, rather naive. Do you really want to investigate a technique with near-universal applicability, great community support, a bright future?

Learn Perl. Yeah, that’s where it’s at.

Thank goodness she didn’t. Instead, Estelle dug into CSS to a level few of us do. She opened multiple browsers, on multiple operating systems, to ask one question: what happens when I do this?

The results are bookmarked by anybody who cares about cross-browser CSS, but not enough to commit these fugitive details to memory. I’ve placed I-don’t-know how many fancy list separators via li:after, but dang if I remember the ASCII code for them. Oh, look–Estelle’s catalogued them! Meanwhile, as WML gave way to near-complete HTML support in mobile browsers, Estelle was there, checking CSS support on an ungainly gamut of devices–so we didn’t have to.

Somewhere along the line Estelle decided to start talking about CSS. In just a couple years Estelle had attracted an audience. Soon there were few CSS-focused events that didn’t include at least one presentation by Estelle Weyl. And there were, increasingly, more CSS-focused events. It sounded like Estelle’s life was pretty much spent going from one glamorous conference to another.

These days she addresses standing-room-only crowds, many of whom include engineers like the one I met ten years back, now anxious to learn CSS to “keep current.” If Estelle’s story proves anything, it’s not the superiority of CSS, it’s the superiority of the person who uses passion, focus, and sheer dogged persistence to get somewhere. Pixel people or Perl people, we all stand to gain from such an example.

Update: Lorna Jane Mitchell’s post about Estelle Weyl.

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