25 years in the Web Development game

What a long strange trip its’ been….

No kidding. And to think I originally used this to try to land a permanent gig in the TV business.

So how’d that go?

And for that matter, what happened to that TV business anyway?

That’s a whole other rant (that’s what I used to call these posts) for another hopefully viral story. But this is about a celebration. One I never thought I’d share.

I got into web design back in early 1996. Basically learning everything from a thick book on HTML at a South Florida Sam’s Club. Developed my first design on a used Commodore Amiga. Yep, that’s how far back I go.

Little did I know I was about to go on quite an adventure taking me through four states, a natural disaster, a pandemic, and enough changes in the industry to make me ponder where the future of the web is really going creatively.

dataTV in the beginning launched on June 1, 1996

The Early Days: How many web page editors?

Maybe I knew something early, but dataTV 1.0 was designed to have three separate screen resolutions. Mobile, Tablet, and Desktop? Try just different monitor sizes. Weren’t phones still the size of shoes back in 1996? And smart? Hardly.

Shortly after launching my first site, I got the opportunity to design some real simple sites. Then I got enough money to finally get a Mac. It was a clone. Remember those days when Apple allowed clones of Macs? Yep, the Steve Jobs NeXT void era. I got a Motorola StarMax. It was pretty basic. Certainly didn’t have the Jonathan Ive design by any stretch. But it did the job.

After hard coding my first sites in pure HTML, I started to play around with pirated versions of page editing software. Yea, I didn’t have the cash to pay for any of these but then again, I probably wouldn’t buy any of these, to begin with. That’s because none of them did the complete job. I’d move from PageMill to FrontPage to Claris Home Page and Finally Netscape Communicator. None of them did everything well so going from program to program was the only way to fly.

Finally, in late 1997, Macromedia released Dreamweaver (alongside Fireworks for web graphics…. sorely missed), and I never got anything else. Still use it today under the Adobe umbrella. Even to code WordPress themes.

Meantime, I kept looking at animation, motion graphics for the web world. I remember my first look at the Virtual Reality Markup Language or VRML for short. It was probably way ahead of its time and never cut. It was cool but clunky. Difficult to produce anything. super cool and of course, 56K modems didn’t handle the 3D models too well.

Then I got a demo copy of this other tool called Macromedia Director. Originally designed to produce interactive CD-ROMs, MM decided to make it into a web application using a plugin called Shockwave. Had a programming language called Lingo that was just too confusing to me? Hated it.

And then in the Summer of 1997…..

dataTV using Macromedia Flash in 2000

Flash: When Web Geeks became Rock Stars

I was visiting a local Broadcast Design studio in Broward County in June 1997. They had an open house for local designers once a month and one of the owners knew I was a web guy. He showed me this new program he purchased that Macromedia from a company called FutureWave. The product was called Flash.

I immediately knew this was going to change everything.

The graphics were mostly vectors. The file sizes were small. The Simpsons were already using it on their site. I saw the User Interface and Timeline. I immediately realized that this is After Effects for the web.

I got it the next morning.

I redid my site and about a month later, the offers started coming in.

I had two good ones. One to be a creative director in Dallas’ Deep Ellum area (basically the Melrose Avenue of DFW), and the other to be the Design Director of an educational video studio right outside of New Orleans. The NOLA deal was for a bit more money and they were willing to fly me in for the interview. I took it.

I shouldn’t have.

And then again, I should have.

The job itself was awful. The facility was cold and uninviting. Depressing. Yes, there was some creativity but not enough to make me happy. The job only lasted 4 1/2 months and then I was let go.

However, I could have just moved back home a failure or tried my luck in LA. Which I actually did a few days later and almost got hired. But there wasn’t much web talent in Louisiana and the town was based on tourism. Music, Food, and Saints. Never got the Saints but the other two? You bet.

One of my first clients in NOLA was a major hot sauce company that saw my own site in Flash in their office and they knew that was the direction they wanted to go. Worked with them for over a decade until they took the website in-house.

Got my first music client by attending a Passover Seder in Old Metairie, a wealthy suburb. One of the sons in the family just started a record label and has a one-page grey website done on FrontPage. Took a few months but I got him to sign a deal. The label was Basin Street Records and I worked with them for twenty years. Still work to this day with some of their musicians.

Besides being that web dude from New Orleans, I started to really get noticed for my Flash work. Won three Site of the Day awards from Macromedia. Eventually ended up on their Team Macromedia, which was kind of their All-Stat team of creative talent, and would stay there long after Adobe bought them. I’d go to Flash conferences when that was a thing, and people would stop me as if they wanted my autograph. People like Hillman Curtis, Brendan Dawes, Joshua Davis, Branden Hall, and somehow me really were rock stars. We were experimenting with so many cool ideas. Search Engine Optimization? Accessibility? Page Speed? We didn’t care about that! We just wanted to do cool shit and get paid by big agencies and studios.

Damn. That was fun.

But it was all changing.

Tender Greens produced in 2010 by dataTV

2005: Katrina blows me all the way to SoCal

Everything was going great in New Orleans. I just started a Macromedia User Group there. I had maybe 1/3 of the top music acts in NOLA covered. And I just redid the site for offBeat Magazine and I threw in a mobile-friendly version, just because I could and more importantly because it became the first mobile news site of any kind based in Louisiana. This was a huge deal and a sign of things to come.

And then it almost all collapsed.

On August 23, a Hurricane named Katrina plowed quickly through South Florida. Normally, that would be the end of it but not here. Instead, it actually gained strength and then it was headed to the Florida Peninsula. And then Lower Alabama. And then the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Yep, you know what happened next.

On August 28 around 2 am, after a lot of consideration. I packed up my then-new Prius (the best car I ever bought) and drove six hours to get to Northeast Houston. Stayed there for a week but even before the levees broke, I had my game plan set. If the worst happened, I was not going to go back. I was going to start planning to head further West on the 10 until I reached Los Angeles. A week later, I finally passed the AZ/CA state line, hoping that a huge earthquake wasn’t going to greet me and start a new life.

I figured I’d have to restart everything. Overall, California is a much higher cost of living them Louisiana will ever be. And while I’d have some extra funds between insurance and FEMA benefits, it could only last so long.

Instead, after finally settling in thirty miles north in the Santa Clarita Valley, my Louisiana clients started emailing. They needed their sites to continue to function. Especially the e-commerce ones, as this was now their only lifeline to the world for months to come. Loyalty really means something to people in the Gulf South. I eventually lost most of my clients down South but I actually gained a few too. Including what might be the most important of the bunch.

Next, I went ahead and tried to start meeting as many people in LA’s then very quiet tech scene as I could. I restarted the user group I created in New Orleans as the re-christened LAdobe User Group, and I quickly started being called “That Adobe Guy”, which allowed me to start getting noticed.

I then noticed something interesting about the majority of LA-based web developers. Most of them are flakier than a Popeye’s biscuit. A lot of projects get deserted because the developer just gets…. well, lazy. This is a laid-back type of town, but still…..

Now that I was starting to make those all-important connections. I started to forge alliances with local web hosts and PR agencies to gain a pretty good portfolio again. The big pickup in the early days was landing the Tender Greens fast-casual chainlet as they were just starting to expand. Yep, their previous web guy flaked and one of their head chefs knew me and what I could do, so not just did I take over the site, I helped to redo their entire online ordering system as well.

dataTV moves to the WordPress platform in 2011.

2010’s: Flash is dead. Long live the smartphone

While this was going on, we saw the start of the mobile revolution as the first iPhone came out, and then Steve Jobs immediately decided Flash will never be incorporated into it. So what if Blackberry’s and the upcoming Android system would initially accept it? The iPhone was the big prize and they had no interest in adding. Sure, it might have been because Adobe initially was not going to create software for OSX, it just wasn’t going to go in. Period. End of story.

It sucked.

Sure, there were newer tools incorporating HTML5 technology alongside JavaScript. I did a couple of projects for Ford that were intended to be Flash-like but not actually utilize Flash, but the realization was that type of website design was going away and plain text, HTML and scripting would rule.

So what happened?

We started to get more into the Content Management System (CMS) structure. I saw the potential early on when I was doing Flash work for Emeril Lagasse’s site in the early 2000s and they decided to switch to a blogging system called Movable Type. It’s still around but almost no one uses it. Still, it was the genesis for the debut of WordPress in 2003 and I started working with it in 2005. This was to be my future. I just didn’t realize it yet.

In 2014, I started to play around with a newer system strictly for small stores out of Ottawa called Shopify. There were a few systems similar to it. I ended up using it mainly out of desperation. Business was bad and I was nearing bankruptcy. Then one of the PR firms I was collaborating with at the time passed my name on to one of their clients, a fashion-forward cap manufacturer in Downtown Los Angeles. I only worked with them for about two years, but it got me intrigued by Shopify and what I could do with it.

In the last year, Shopify became the choice for businesses quickly trying to make the move to e-commerce as their brick and mortar businesses were stuck in neutral while the pandemic raged on.

These days, I pretty much only develop in WordPress, sometimes with WooCommerce and sometimes not, and Shopify. I’d rather focus on these two thanks to their overall popularity and the great communities they have both fostered.

To end the 2010’s, I was in Hawaii for the first time with my girlfriend, Valerie. I got an email that from a web host I knew for over twenty years. One of his biggest clients just got hacked and their web dev went AWOL. Would I be interested in taking it over?

The client was Cafe du Monde.

Cafe du Monde developed in WooCommerce in 2019

If there’s only one business you could pick in New Orleans to have in your overall portfolio, this would be the one. A business that’s been around for almost 160 years. The place most tourists go to when they first land is Crescent City. The one the networks go-to for local shots of the city.

And somehow it was now going to be developed in Sherman Oaks.

I won’t bore you here, but I have a case study elsewhere that tells more about the story. Let’s just say, I am so pleased with the work I’ve done for this local legend, and the fact I’m starting to take them into areas of e-commerce excellence they’ve never visited before.

2020’s: Where did the online creativity go?

So the not so Roaring Twenty Twenties came in…. like a thud.

The pandemic changed life for most of us. And for a while, it really affected my business. Hard.

But not if you’re in e-commerce web development.

If you were in that part of the world and not working, something was very, very wrong with you.

No doubt, the state of online e-commerce exploded ten folded in one year.

Shopify sales and the stock soared. Pretty much every single active e-commerce solution expanded and offered many more features and functionality. It’s been busy for us since last Autumn and hasn’t really stopped.

But it’s not all rosy for us web creatives.

The days of creating cutting-edge website presentations in Flash or LiveMotion or Adobe Edge Animate are long gone. Search Engine Optimization and doing everything to rank high on Google, Bing, or yes…. even the dreaded AOL now rules supreme. Page Speed, Deep Linking and Accessibility have taken over.

While WordPress still rules the world, WIX, SquareSpace, and now the newer Webflow have made inroads. I plan to blog on those topics later this summer, but for now, let’s just say it’s platforms like these that have created a lot of the cookie-cutter web designs we’ve seen everywhere.

Accessibility Lawsuits have opened many a creatives eye towards larger fonts, color contrast, adjacent links, captioning, and so on. In many cases, at the cost of overall creativity. Sure, it’s vital to make sure your website is accessible to those with disabilities. I’m not saying to ignore that. However, we can create for those features and the other ones I mentioned. All the while, having that degree of originality in the website you present to your client or even yourself. It’s gotten a lot more difficult to implement, but it is still possible to still have fun designing online.

Last summer, I got to do an online Art Gallery for a Hawaiian startup called Skull + Monarch Auction + Gallery. Midway through the project, the client showed me the example of a 3D virtual panoramic tour to showcase a featured artist’s work. I decided to investigate and found a very affordable software option called 3D Vista which was $499 for a one-time license. I created a bunch of galleries for the client and it was some of the most fun and creative experience I’ve probably had since the Flash days. So there’s still a lot of great things you can still do online to inspire your creativity.

Did I expect to last doing this for 25 years? No. This is a constantly changing business. We’ve gone from Altavista and Excite to Google. Netscape to Chrome. VRML and Shockwave to VR/AR and beyond. Don’t even get me started on social media. I’m amazed I’ve kept up. The fact after sixteen years, I’m still in Los Angeles living with the love of my life for the past decade, making all sorts of great connections along the way on a global scale.

Face it, I should still be struggling at my folks place in Jersey.