An Interview With Molly E. Holzschlag

Chris Hester interviews Molly E. Holzschlag.

23rd July 2006 · Last updated: 5th October 2016

Molly E. Holzschlag is a well-known name in the world of web standards. She publishes a regular blog and has written many books on web design. So when I saw she'd joined forces with .net magazine as well, I thought it would be good to do an interview with her, to find out more about the wide range of activities she is involved in.

Photo of MollyChris: You've recently become an editorial adviser for .net magazine in the UK - how did that happen?

Molly: I think .net magazine is one of those publications we all wish for. They went through some difficult years, but hell, who hasn't? I love that they are "getting" the complexities of Web work, and they are offering a modern, high level yet diverse opportunity for people to write on topics they are passionate about.

ThinkVitamin rocks too, because Ryan and Gill are just that cool. Watch out SitePoint ;-)

How will your role with .net affect the magazine?

Ideally, I want to look over any material coming in about the issues I'm interested in. These range from challenging our ethics to transcending technological limitations.

How do you feel about them spelling your surname wrong? Twice! (It's now been corrected.)

This is a great question! Firstly, I'm never offended when people spell my surname wrong. I'm just amazed that the entire name made it through Ellis Island intact! God bless America.

Please, and like really really soon.

My given birth name is Molly Esther Holzschlag. I do like when publications and books publish my name as Molly E. Holzschlag. I really don't know why I like that E so much, but I do.

On The Web Standards Project website, you're listed as "WaSP Group Lead, Acid2 Task Force Member, Microsoft Task Force Member". How do you manage all these different memberships and still find the time to write books, articles, monthly columns and blog posts?

If you're asking me to explain myself, Chris, please don't! So many try. Hell, I try. Why I do what I do is not something I understand. I'm an over compensatory, moody girl living the Web. I just figure I'm doing my part. Any more analysis and it costs me extra therapy fees. Seriously.

How did you come to be a key figure in web standards? Was it a path you chose deliberately?

Great code and great design living side by side was the reason I got interested in standards in the first place.

Insofar as WaSp, Jeffrey Zeldman asked, and what could I say to Zeldman in 2000 other than yes, thank you, bless you, you made me?

And then get on with the business of the day.

You've posted some great songs that you made on your site. Was it ever an intention to become a full-time musician?

I used to play guitar so well I was typically introduced by band mates as "holy shit this chick can play guitar!" Sadly, I'm losing chops because I don't play enough. I also have a strong singing voice, but it goes unused almost always.

You seem to travel a lot to conferences and events around the world. Do you enjoy this aspect of your work?

As with music, language and culture interested me from a very young age. I love people, culture, the unique things that make us different yet ultimately make us the same.

It's very difficult sometimes to go to a country where you don't know the language or the culture, but people work that out. I have to say - I have yet to meet anyone that I wasn't fascinating speaking with.

People should travel, it brings both a deep and broad perspective of the world, which directly relates as to how we do the work that is the World Wide Web.

What is your favourite place that you have visited?

I love the UK. I particularly love The North though I nearly froze my nipples off this last February whilst visiting my dear friends Meri and Elly in Newcastle.

My main goal at the moment is to be able to identify, within one spoken sentence, where a person is from. I'm particularly fond of Mancurian long vowels, the Geordie dialect and the Yorkshire lilt.

Is there any one person who you rate highly in the current world of web design, accessibility and so on?

I have several people that I keep coming back to in my efforts to learn more. Eric Meyer, Tantek Çelik. But if you're asking me who's "GOT IT" in terms of markup + CSS = Design, I have to say Andy Clarke. The man is brilliant.

However, as my mentors have done for me, I don't do for others if they aren't worthy. This man has earned and continues to earn a very unique place in the progress of the web.

Clarke transcends the daily and is one of those people we all aspire to be: Able to create something that looks beautiful, but also uses markup and CSS as it was meant to be. People should watch him, because he's smart, and he has a piece of this industry we've never seen.

Let's talk about your many books. .Net magazine says you have written "thirty-plus" books, while Amazon says you've "written over 27 books related to Web design and development". I found 28 listed on Amazon. What is the total number of books you have written so far?

I think the actual number is 34. I'm working on 35 right now, for O'Reilly, and I don't yet have an animal. (For the cover - Chris.)

Wow, wouldn't it be cool if readers could pick my animal for me? Can't be something that's already been done though.

Pick my animal, youse!

Do you find your older books now suffer from out of date information?

Hell yes. And I ask my publishers regularly to pull out of date books. They won't do it so long as the book still sells. This is a very bad situation, because the publisher still rakes in the money but it's not the publisher that supports the book after its publication.

I once had to spend a year begging a publisher to remove a book from circulation. The response? "Never met an author like you, you must be insane!"

I don't care about the money. If I did, I would have learned how to finely craft murder stories and sell them as movies.

Ha, is that cynical?

OK, your most famous book is probably The Zen of CSS Design, co-written with Dave Shea. How did that come about?

Oh, so you want to make me cry, Chris? Okay I'll tell ya my side of the story.

One day I was sitting in my office working and an email arrives. It's a very well written email, and signed by some guy, Dave.

Now, I get a lot of emails from guys named Dave. I read this one though, because it was so beautifully crafted. I even wrote back a thanks, because the sentiment of that email hit me hard.

This was maybe six weeks into the CSS Zen Garden, which I'd heard about but hadn't explored yet. Dave must have figured out I was clueless as to who he was, because within minutes he responded with yet another beautifully crafted letter.

And so, The Zen of CSS Design was born.

How long did writing the book take?

About six months, give or take.

Was it fun collaborating with Dave Shea? (I remember he published a screenshot from Word showing masses of edits in various colours, which looked very complex!)

It wasn't only fun, it was the most pain-free collaborative writing experience in my career! It's funny, because Dave is an extremely precise person, and I had fears that my reckless attitude could muck that up, or cause problems. You know what, Chris? We never fought, we always worked hard, we put our love and our passion into that book and it remains one of the best book experiences I've ever been involved with.

Do you, as a member of the The Web Standards Project especially, get frustrated by the amount of invalid or old-fashioned code still out there on so many web pages?

No. I'm an educator, and education takes time.

What do you feel is the best way to improve web standards across the net? Education?

Education first, because it's bloody obvious. After that, let's tackle workflow. Why are we throwing linear processes on a non-linear medium? Sit your designers next to your CSS folks and you will progress. Don't mix it up, watch it digress. We once thought this was fantasy, but no. We need a buddy system, desperately. What's more, the idea that a web site is done upon ship date is absurd.

We really have to figure out a more efficient, iterative workflow, or we're going to suffer the consequences.

You could argue that standards are no longer as relevant, as today's browsers can handle a lot of bad code simply by reparsing it.

With IE7 about to ship, hell yes. But just as soon as we think things get stable on the desktop for now, look OUT!

Do you think that Microsoft have now become fully committed to standards with the improvements seen in Internet Explorer 7? Can we trust them?

First question: Yes, Microsoft for now is making sure its next generation browser kicks ass, and claims the next one will too. What they've pulled off in a year's time is get down on your knees worthy of praise.

You've written on your blog about moving to another country. Why is it important to you to move?

Well, I'm not very good at lying, so I'll tell you true. I'm aging. I need medical, dental and other insurance. If you want me to be even more honest, I'll say it true: I don't want to die alone in a street. And given my current status as an independent contractor, it's not as far-fetched as it sounds. I've been alone my whole life. I want something to protect me, and I'd like to think that's a good thing.

Would you be able to carry on working in web standards?

Yes, because no matter who I end up with as an employer, I know that what I bring to the table is so specific (pardon the bad CSS pun) that no one would hire me for less than the greater good.

Lastly, if you could ask yourself one question, what would it be, and what would your answer be?

I would ask myself what my priorities are. The answer is: Fix myself, and do my best to contribute to the betterment rather than the destruction of our beautiful world.