robert hahn

a darn good web developer

April 05, 2006

How I Used to Build Web Sites

My first job as a web developer was working for an ISP. When I was hired, it was mostly because of my background as a Photoshop guru and my B.A. in Fine Arts. I had very basic HTML skills, but I proved to be a relatively quick study. Netscape 1.1N commanded some 75% of the browser market and was heading up; Mosaic was on the way out, and Microsoft IE 1.0 was getting ready to ship. Building websites, let alone building them for money was a relatively novel thing back then. Many of the standard practices that we think are perfectly obvious today had to be worked out by trial and error.

To build my pages, I mostly relied on Photoshop (on a Mac) for graphic design, FTP’ed the resulting slices to a Unix server, then used Pico (through a telnet session) for HTML editing. My sysadmin colleagues tried to get me on vi, and I really wanted to work with it, but I just couldn’t get my head around it; it only took me 7 years to make any headway there, and nowadays, I use it about 80% of the time. Yes, I think it was worth it.

The concept of a template wasn’t well articulated at the time, or maybe it was one of those Great Secrets programmers had that they never told us artsy-fartsy people. At any rate, I’d start work by building one page, getting it done, then making a copy of the file, ripping all the content out, and pouring in content for the new page. If, in doing so, I managed to wreck my layout, I’d modify that page until it got fixed, then moved on to the next one. In this way then, every page on a site looked almost, but not quite like the others. Amazingly enough, my work was perceived to be of very high quality at the time.

That said, I wasn’t at all that happy with this state of affairs. A good deal of the time, the kinds of mistakes I was making were mostly things along the lines of forgotten close tags, or improperly nested tags. I worked out that maybe it was a good idea to type the tags first before typing the content, then I figured out that maybe employing some kind of standardized indentation, to locate content on a page quickly might help too. But it took until the discovery of server-side includes (SSI’s) before I really woke up to the idea of using templates to build a site. But even then, I couldn’t use them all the time; if a site required some kind of interface to a cgi script (like a contact us page), then I had to abandon SSI’s and do things the old way. It got to the point where I felt that SSI’s were interesting, but ultimately useless.

This pretty much set the groundwork for how I work today; I still code my pages by hand, but the quality of the work I do is a lot better now. I managed to improve mostly by trying different techniques for building web templates and pages. Over the next while, I plan on writing about some of the various ideas that I had tried.

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Copyright © 2009
Robert Hahn.
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