'Now's the time for the geeks in the trenches'

Christian Heilmann
Christian believes devs should focus more on real world usability issues

There's no denying that last year the wheels were coming off at Yahoo. A significant number of people were laid off, others were voluntarily leaving the company in droves.

But there's one man in particular who stayed and, seemingly unperturbed, carried on with what he does best: spreading the word of the open, accessible web all over the world and helping developers to make the web better. This man is Christian Heilmann.

Christian's official job title is 'international developer evangelist', which means he travels around the globe to meet developers, talks at conferences, helps people start their own BarCamps and gets feedback on Yahoo products.

He then comes back, gives internal tech talks and reports back on what he's learned and where the market is going. "I do the same thing as a Jeremy Keith or a Douglas Bowman but I just do it with the backup of a big company," Christian explains. "I could have done it as a freelancer but I think it would be a shame to leave a company where I've got such a great internal network and I know a lot of people."

One thing Christian has noticed on his travels around the conference circuit is that a lot of events have turned into big back-patting exercises, always featuring the same speakers. "I see people coming up with the coolest new CSS effects and the coolest new layouts for their blogs," he says.

"But I think we should stop profiling ourselves. It's time we look at the things that take up our precious time, such as bank websites – there's not a single one that has good usability and yet they're what we use day to day. I come back from a conference and go to our own internal system to log my expenses and that's two hours wasted because the usability is completely off the mark.

"But whenever I talk to other standardistas and suggest going to the likes of Oracle or Documentum – the people that build enterprise level systems – and making them understand the benefits of standards, the answer is always that we'd never reach those guys and why should we bother? I think it's time we bother. Talking to each other about how cool our blogs are isn't going to change the world. If we want to get rid of IE6 and other older browsers, we have to get rid of all the systems that are dependent on it."

Nobody needs rock stars

Another problem Christian highlights is the huge gap between the development world and the accessibility world. "My biggest challenge this year is to make people who aren't techies talk to techies in a language that each party understands.

"The people who need and benefit most from the open web don't understand it because us techies are too much into our own lingo. What the hell's a 'password anti-pattern', for example?! We have to understand that nobody needs rock stars any more. Nobody needs technical guys that come up with cool solutions that nobody uses. It's about making things work and explaining them in layman's terms, so people can benefit from it. I'm a big fan of microformats, for example, but I have yet to see the killer application for it."

'Rock stars' in the web development world are one of Christian's bugbears. In his opinion it should be more about teamwork than about relying on one expert. When Christian started at Yahoo about three years ago his boss wanted to build one of the best web development teams in the world.

"We assembled a lot of people," he remembers, "but we made the mistake of assembling far too many good people, because a team has to be not only rock stars. You can't just put rock stars together and hope something happens. A team has to consist of lead developers, rock stars and junior developers who can learn from these people and give them some breathing space. There's no need for HTML experts. It should be a team that knows about it, rather than having a really cool rock star web developer sitting in the corner who burns himself out within half a year."