Stephanie Rewis, Senior Director at Salesforce, is interviewed by Brian Kardell, Developer Advocate at Igalia, in Part 4 of our History of the Web series designed to tell the story of the web from the people who helped build, shape, and promote it.
BRIAN KARDELL: Welcome. I'm Brian Kardell. I'm a developer advocate at Igalia, and this is part 4 of this particularly recurring series that we're doing at BlinkOns recently in which we're telling the story of the web from the people who helped build it, shape it, promote it, people who were involved with the web really early. And today, I'm really happy to be here with Stephanie Rewis, who was really publicly active in a bunch of ways, especially in the HTML5 area, where I came to learn about her as Stephanie Sullivan. She ran her own business and was very public. For a while now, she's been at Salesforce, and we're actually really super lucky to have her because she's retiring soon. Do you want to maybe introduce yourself?
STEPHANIE REWIS: Certainly. Yeah, just imagine trying to be someone who speaks at a lot of conferences, get married, change your name, and then really confuse everybody. But yeah, like Brian said, I've been in this business since 1999, and for the first 12 years, had my own company. And then went to work at a startup for three years that didn't start up, as happens many times. And now I've been at Salesforce for over seven years, and I'll be retiring this summer to this lovely place you see behind me. This is a picture of my yard in Costa Rica.
BRIAN KARDELL: Beautiful.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Yes. It is lush and tropical, and I cannot wait.
BRIAN KARDELL: But yeah, how did you get involved? It's very different than how people would maybe-- you don't have to imagine it. It exists. It's out there. It's the thing that your parents could talk to you about today. Maybe you want to get involved in the web. That seems like a good idea.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Yeah. I came at it in a very roundabout way, as probably many people do. This is my third career. I had been a nurse early on and a travel agent. Then I had kids. I stayed home for 10 years. So I am old enough to retire. And I started this last career when I was 38. So I see people now going, am I too old to get into this? No, you are not. You can change your life at any point. And the reason I changed so completely is when I was looking at probably getting divorced and getting back into the workforce after being home, I was like, wow, I do not want to go back to the medical field. Travel agents have been taken over by the web. There was really not much left there. Everybody's booking online now. But when I had been a travel agent, I had taken one course, and I wish I knew what I learned to write. Probably was BASIC or something. It was either/and/or/if logic. And I wrote these macro programs on top of our travel agency program. And it walked the people making the reservations through saying, do you need a car with that? Do you need a hotel? That kind of thing. Real simple stuff. But it was the only exposure I'd had to code. And so when I was looking at going back in, my college was all biology, psychology kind of stuff, not computer science in any way. And I started looking at it. But I've always loved the brain, and so I'm like, what does my brain like to do? I like detective work, puzzles, research, just digging in and figuring things out. And I was like, maybe code would be that, that one little piece of code I did. And so I decided I would possibly learn to write C+ because that's the only thing I'd ever heard of. And I was talking to a friend that was in an RPG game with me, and he was like, oh, god no. Don't do that. He was like, you should learn HTML. And I'm like, what is that? And he said, it's what the web is built out of. And I was like, huh. That's interesting. And so I signed up for a course, a two-day HTML course at Micro Center, and I took that course, and I thought it was super interesting. However, I didn't like the classroom environment because either they were going too slow, and I'm like, yes, I've got this, I've got this, or they rush right through something, and I'm like, whoa. I don't know what you just did. And in my mind, the way my brain works is I want all the little building blocks at the bottom to be very solid, and then I want to build on top of them. I'm very uncomfortable with throwing all the blocks in the air and just watching them fall. And so I decided, hey, this is a really cool thing, and I think I'd like to know more, but I think I can learn it on my own. And I started doing tutorials, and I joined mailing lists, which were the big thing back then, in '99. And I did that for 15 hours a day. I drove people crazy with questions. I mean, I was so obnoxious. But I stayed on those mailing lists. And as I learned, I would answer the other newbie people's questions. And then I would ask the harder questions. And over a course of years, I ended up being the list mom of that main list I was on. But I always-- that's free work you do, but it's also how we all help each other. And I feel like people in the web are so giving. They write blog posts. They write tutorials. They give them away for free. At least we did back then. Now we have the lynda.coms and things like that. But back then, everything was pretty much free on the web or in books. Bookstores were big. Used to go sit in the bookstore and read and read. Bought all the beginner's guides to various programs. But anyway, I did that for 15 hours a day for the first year, and was an amazing journey of hi, friend. Do you need a website? Can I build it for you for $200?
BRIAN KARDELL: It's interesting because it is a thing that I hadn't really thought of, but a mailing list and just the community around the web actually, it's very open. And to an extent, you could get involved in lots of things, like help, like you say, getting questions answered and then helping other people. And I think a lot of people-- well, not a lot of people, perhaps, but a lot of the people that we would be interviewing in these, they did do that. And that was an important thing to have at that critical stage of the web, especially, I think.
STEPHANIE REWIS: And Brian, there weren't a lot of conferences back then, in the year 2000. But yeah, the way we learned was a lot more IRC and mailing lists and books and people's blogs. Oh my gosh. I remember Eric Meyer, the first time I met him, I was just like, I am not worthy. It was so amazing because he shared so much great knowledge. Yes. He wrote books, of course, but he also shared a lot of knowledge free with the community. And to this day, I still love that guy. He's great.
BRIAN KARDELL: I still am very happy that he came to work with us at Igalia, and I get to work with him every day. It's the greatest thing.
STEPHANIE REWIS: You are lucky.
BRIAN KARDELL: So another thing that you said is then this led to this journey of I will build you a website more because I want to learn how to do it, but also, you could compensate me to some very small extent that is not actually reflective of my labors just to keep me going. I also did that. My first websites were for a friend or something that I built just to show somebody because I wanted them on the web. An artist friend of mine, in fact, that I worked for, I got him on the web with his art very, very early because he couldn't imagine it and was like, why would somebody do that?
STEPHANIE REWIS: Well, a lot of people couldn't imagine it back then. The first one that I built was for a friend. She was a naturopath. And here she has this natural medical practice. She had never thought of being on the web. It just wasn't a thing then. And it was a really interesting learning experience because I've been focusing on the HTML and whatever, markup and such, and then all of a sudden, I'm like, oh. You need images when you build a website. Where do you get those?
BRIAN KARDELL: Right. Yeah.
STEPHANIE REWIS: And I found some beautiful photography of fruits and vegetables and such. And I did it that way. And oh, gosh. What was it called when we did those weird frames, where the navigation never changed? Oh, what was that called, Brian? It was frames. It was frames.
BRIAN KARDELL: Oh, the frame sets.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Yeah. Yeah. Frame set. So the first website I built was in a frame set. It was the only one I ever did that way.
BRIAN KARDELL: Mine too. Mine too.
STEPHANIE REWIS: I didn't really know you could do it another way. It was like, oh, I want this navigation to always be here. I should put it in a frame set.
BRIAN KARDELL: It's funny because frame sets are kind of the answer-- a lot of single page apps that are single page apps are that way because we don't use frame sets. But frame sets, we were trying to solve many of the same problems. We were like, well, I don't want the whole page to go away. I want the header and the navigation to stay there, and just this middle part changes.
STEPHANIE REWIS: But meanwhile, while you and I were building these little inexpensive things, learning, there were people getting a million dollars for a website. It was pretty crazy. I would hear, oh, such and such company paid $1.3 million for this website, and you would go there, and you'd be like, for what? Are you kidding me? So yeah, that was interesting.
BRIAN KARDELL: You did actually manage to get past the I'm going to build you a website on the super cheap. And can you talk about-- because you started what became a successful small business yourself. How did that happen initially?
STEPHANIE REWIS: It was kind of an accident, in a way. To be honest, as a woman and starting a brand new career in a thing where I knew no one, I set three rules for myself. And they were very important rules, and I never broke them. And those rules were I would never say I can't, because my personality is such that even if I believe I can, if I haven't, I wouldn't tell you I can. I would say, oh, Brian is really good at that database stuff. You should go ask Brian. So-and-so is a great graphic designer. You should ask them. And so I made the rule can't say I can't. I never once didn't deliver, which was crazy. I would then go home and go crazy doing tutorials, figuring out how to do the thing I told them yes, I will do that for you. And the other thing was it's also uncomfortable to-- I'm not comfortable at a party where I don't know anybody kind of person. I can talk to you once I get to know you. But I made the rule for myself that I would do just like guys in any business. I'll go have a beer with a group of people because you hire people you know. And even if you're uncomfortable in that situation, you make connections. And when somebody goes, oh, I need something that's very CSS-heavy, and Stephanie does that. They're not going to go out and just say to the general universe, does anybody do CSS? No. They're going to go to the people they know first. And then the third thing that-- the third rule that I had for myself was no pictures anywhere of me. And I did that for three years. There was not a single picture, nothing on my website, nothing in mailing lists. And that was just a personal thing of I wanted to make sure that everything I did was because of my brain and my abilities. I did not want somebody to go, oh, she's kind of cute. I'll hire her. No way. No way. It was very, very important to me to build this business that way. So those were my three rules. And somehow-- and I was thinking about this last night-- trying to think how I met Scott Hendricks. But I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina. Small, little beach town. And somehow I connected with another person that did the web there. And because I was focusing more on the graphic side then, because I was helping my friend and thinking about graphics, he did more database and that side of things. And so he said, hey, do you want to come work on this project with me? No pay. It's called Easy Shopping Town. It was this concept of we were going to set up these little storefronts for all the actual brick and mortar businesses in town, but people could shop virtually. And there were 10 people involved. It was a startup back in 2000, probably. And so we would meet weekly, the 10 of us. And they would say, well, we want this now. And I would say, yes, I can do that. And maybe it's animated GIFs. I didn't know how to do those. I'm like, oh. I need fireworks. OK. How does this work? And so I did more of the design piece and the front end building, and Scott did the back end. And then right as we got everything ready and we're ready to launch, we had gotten our first two customers, we had built the first two storefronts, the dot.com bust came. And boom. Everything dropped like a rock. Everybody freaked out. And the other eight people who hadn't really done work, they were going to sell it, and they were imagining these things. Scott and I did all this free work. They just said, never mind, this isn't going to work, and dropped it.
BRIAN KARDELL: So it's really interesting to me. It's like everybody that we've talked to at these BlinkOns so far, they weren't all involved in browsers then, but they got involved in actual browsers really early. You and I didn't, and we both came into it at that time when at first, nobody could imagine. Why would you want to be on the web? And then all of a sudden, I think a lot of it has to do with Netscape's IPO. Tim Berners-Lee credits that with making people realize, oh, this is going to be big because Netscape IPO was ginormous. Suddenly, there was this rush. It was the Gold Rush. You mentioned startups. There were startups everywhere. Any half-thought idea you could come up with, somebody was going to fund it and develop it. And there were so many opportunities. And like you, that's also when I really thrust into the web, and it looked very positive, and I got my first job. I bought my first car. I bought my first house. And within a very short window of time, suddenly the dot.com bust happened. And I guess the closest thing that we have really is maybe the housing crisis or something. But for our industry, it was scary like that. It was like, oh, my.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Is this even going to come back?
BRIAN KARDELL: Right. I have suddenly chosen, at some point in my life, to try to build a career on this. And uh-oh.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Yeah. Just a mom with two kids on my own, thinking, oh, boy. Did I just make a really bad decision on direction? But I kept going, and I kept building-- every time I would get a new business site to build, I would add one more thing I'd never done before.
BRIAN KARDELL: We didn't have good web standard support. And things were very, very uneven across the web.
STEPHANIE REWIS: We were still best viewed in Netscape.
BRIAN KARDELL: There were no web platform tests. That's astounding to me that it took halfway-- more, I guess, than halfway to where we are today in the web's lifetime before the actual web platform test project became a thing.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Yeah. It's pretty amazing.
BRIAN KARDELL: That's amazing.
STEPHANIE REWIS: But you were asking, how did I turn it into a business? To be honest, it was the give to get model. I stayed on those mailing lists. And as I started answering more and more questions, people that had come there to learn-- because let's say they have a small business, and they thought they could just build their own website. And so they're on the list, and then they go, oh, this is a lot harder than I realized. And then they would write me privately and say, hey. You seem like you know what you're doing. What would you charge me to build my site for me? I literally built my business by never advertising. Never had a single ad. Just helped people, and then work came to me. And the writing and speaking was the same way. I finally, after three years, felt like I had learned what I could learn on my own doing just tons of stuff, and I wanted to go to a conference and hear people. And there was a conference. It was brand new, called the other Dreamweaver conference, TODCON, and I think it was in Chicago that year. And I went there, and it was the first time I'd met anybody in real life. And it was a really exciting time. And there was a guy that worked for I guess Macromedia at the time, Matt, who was in charge of the community. And we got to talking about CSS and stuff, and he was like, would you write an article for us? And I was like, oh, god. I hate writing. No, no. I don't want to write. And then my friend that went with me, Ginger, we were getting ready to go back to the airport, and she goes, we really could do it together. I like to write. And I was like, you think? And so we got to the airport, and there was Matt waiting for his plane too. And so what are the chances in the Chicago airport? But anyway, and I was flying back to the East Coast and he was flying west, I don't even know how that happened. But ran into him at a restaurant, and I said, I think if Ginger and I can do it together, we'll do it. And he was like, all right. So that was the first-- it was a simple styling, I think it was called. Simple styling with CSS. How did I remember that? Anyway, and we wrote that, and I found that I took over. I hate writing, but I have a lot of opinions about what should be said. So I did that, and that went well, and then they asked me to do some other stuff. And then the people at the conference said, hey, why don't you-- oh, no. We started doing-- oh, gosh. Community MX. Do you remember that at all? It predated Lynda. Started almost at the same time, and the theory was, all these writers would come together in a very-- none of us got paid. It was the site makes money. It was a subscription site, one of the first ones. And when the site makes money, we all get money kind of deal. And very communal. And it was a great theory. Didn't work very well in practice from a standpoint of then behind the scenes, we're like, get your article in, but we're not paying you. I started writing the newsletter for that. That was a lot of fun because I could go out and find articles and put them together and make them funny. So that got the writing going. And then out of that, they said, well, would you speak at this conference? Because it was the same guy. And I said, oh, lord. I'm scared to death of speaking, but OK, I'll try. And there was probably a hundred and some people in the room. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.
BRIAN KARDELL: I bet that the way you performed under pressure there made a lot of people think, wow, she is pro. Even though to you, it probably felt the opposite of that. I bet that a lot of people were just, as you say, very impressed at how you handled yourself under pressure.
STEPHANIE REWIS: It was mortifying. But in the end, I went on to write a chapter in a book about CSS with Dreamweaver. And I used GoLive the first year that I was learning. Then I switched to Dreamweaver because I heard it had better database support, and I was working with a woman that was going to do the database side of things. So we switched to Dreamweaver. I really liked the split view, and I actually learned a lot of things from it, like what is this weird table markup, and why are there TDs when they're cells? And things like that. So I learned a lot by watching it. And then when I started writing the chapter in the book, they put me on the beta for Dreamweaver so you can get the stuff early and write your chapter, and I really loved beta testing. I did what they tell you not to do. I used it for my work because how else-- I'm not going to sit and just play with it, you know? So I used it for my work. It would blow things up, and I would write up bugs. I learned to write really good bugs. I feel like that's something that people nowadays really don't know how to do. When they run into a browser bug, they don't file it because I think a lot of people are intimidated, and they don't know how to write a good bug, how to make a little case and make it reproducible and say what you expect to see and what you're seeing instead and that kind of thing. So I got into that. And I had gotten into the standards thing at this point via just-- well, via learning. But I'll tell you, the biggest impression on me at that time was Molly Holzschlag. Molly and Eric both went to Vegas and spoke at TODCON. And I want to say this was probably 2003 to '04 TODCON because they did it yearly. And that was the first time I'd met Eric in person, and his wife Kat was there, and we had a blast. And I met Molly in person. And she did a talk called The History of the Web. I didn't know anything about the history of the web. I was just learning to build on the web. That was the most-- I mean, I got goosebumps. That was the most interesting thing, and it was so exciting to me, and it made everything clear. This was a journey for people. This is a journey for the platform. And that's when I got really into standards. And so when I got on the Dreamweaver beta, I was then the person bugging them. Make it do this properly. Make it know it should be outputting standards. And Drew McLellan and Rachel were in that same beta. And somewhere near the end, they said, you're doing the same thing we are, pushing them for standards. We're involved in the web standards project. Do you want to-- you're already doing the work. Would you like to join the web standards project? And I was like, sure. Let me do more free work. Right? But so I worked at the WaSP until we turned it off, and I'm really sad we turned it off. I think it was premature in hindsight.
BRIAN KARDELL: And you mentioned Molly's history of the web talk, and now here you are on a history of the web yourself. You're part of the history of the web.
STEPHANIE REWIS: It's kind of funny. Just speed us up.
BRIAN KARDELL: So I like to ask this of a lot of people is, how was your prognostication record like? For me, when I saw Amazon, I was like, cute. But--
STEPHANIE REWIS: How are they really going to-- [INTERPOSING VOICES]
BRIAN KARDELL: How can they compete with Barnes and Noble and Borders?
STEPHANIE REWIS: Exactly.
BRIAN KARDELL: It just seems impossible. When I learned that--
STEPHANIE REWIS: My prognostication was terrible.
BRIAN KARDELL: Oh, good. Good. When I learned that Google was going to sell these tiny little ads in your search, I thought, I mean, what are they thinking? That's not going to anything. But--
STEPHANIE REWIS: No, I was with you.
BRIAN KARDELL: Here we are. Here we are.
STEPHANIE REWIS: I was with you. I was totally with you. And even lynda.com, when we were doing Community MX, CMX, Lynda was getting started, and we couldn't make it work after, gosh, a year and a half of it, I think. And we're like, what is she doing? This is ridiculous. Nobody wants to pay for content. Now she retired very wealthy.
BRIAN KARDELL: Yeah, I think--
STEPHANIE REWIS: [INAUDIBLE]
BRIAN KARDELL: I wish you luck taking--
STEPHANIE REWIS: Thank you.
BRIAN KARDELL: --your good things to this beautiful place in Costa Rica. And thank you so much for joining us for this. It was really great.
STEPHANIE REWIS: Absolutely. Lots of fun, and come visit us.