Working with professional idols

The first years of my career came right around the burst of the dot-com bubble. I started working at Perceptive Software as a Marketing Communications Specialist, a writer tasked with serving also as a marketing generalist for a growing software company (during the 6 1/2 years I worked there, the company grew from 18 employees to over 300).

It was obvious at that time that the web was a big deal, but people still didn’t know really what to do with it. I certainly didn’t have a clue what I was doing. While I was in school, the web was still relatively new and while I tested it out (using such scourged softwares as Microsoft FrontPage), I had no idea that I would end up focusing solely on the web as my profession. I was a writer.

My marketing position expanded and contracted several times over the course of my employment at Perceptive Software, but I realized that whenever I spent time building things on the web that I had a lot of fun. I also was beginning to love graphic design, another discipline that intrigued me, but I knew nothing about.


It was during this time that I discovered my mentor group in the form of the good folks from Happy Cog Studios. Founder Jeffrey Zeldman wrote one of the most important books about the web ever, Designing With Web Standards, which I am holding in the picture above.

Zeldman’s treatise on the adoption of web standards is such an important book that anytime someone asks me how to start “learning web stuff”, Z’s book is where I send them. If you can’t get through his excellently scribed why and how of web standards, you may not want to really “learn web stuff.” Zeldman started as a copywriter, but quickly realized that the web was where it was at.

From Zeldman, I moved onto Cederholm and Meyer and the other important authors who helped to shape the web standards movement of the 2000’s. I read their blogs. I read the blogs they linked to, which exposed me to Santa Maria, Storey, Marcotte, Davidson, Shea and so many others that it became difficult to keep up. But I kept up.

These were the people out there making things happen on the web. Davidson’s redesign of the ESPN website to a standards-based layout saved the company a gajillion dollars in bandwidth expenses (or something like that). Doug Bowman helped Google pick out a color of blue (or not pick one) and now is the creative director at Twitter. These were (and still are) the heavy hitters. Talented designers, thought-leaders and great writers, all of them. I wanted to be like them.

I’m not.

But that’s OK. I’ve spent over a decade working for brands now and those brands need websites. When I worked at Cerner, the company decided to enter into its first major redesign effort in over 5 years and I was a part of it. I remember sitting in the office with my boss and her boss, the Director of Marketing, who asked, “Who should we reach out to for our web project?”

I said, “I don’t know if they’ll do it, but I’d like to reach out to Happy Cog.”

The funny thing about people who don’t know the web all that well…they don’t really know Zeldman and they certainly don’t know Happy Cog. So I had to explain all the stuff I’ve already laid out for you in this long diatribe of a post. Their importance to the industry. How they literally wrote the book on web standards. And so on…

It is a rare occurrence to have the opportunity to work with the people who helped shape your career, especially when those people were internet denizens — people who I looked to and read and studied and who helped form me into the online professional that I am today. But I got that opportunity for a short while at Cerner, working with Greg Storey and his fantastic team out at Happy Cog West. While my time with the team was brief (a few months into the project, the AMC opportunity opened up for me), I learned a lot about what it is to work with your professional idols. It’s an amazing learning experience, but also one where you see that there’s actual hard work behind the scenes to those amazing finished products I had seen and studied over the years. And it isn’t all puppy dogs and cupcakes. Sometimes there are missteps and hardships and crazy things you can’t predict.

But as with any experience, you learn and you move on. I was fortunate enough to make friends with Greg and others from the team and we still keep in touch. We got to hang out at SXSW. We might even work together again if the opportunity arises.

One thing is certain: I would not be in the position that I’m in now without Jeffrey Zeldman and his merry band of Happy Coggers. Their leadership on the web has inspired me and continues to encourage me over the years. They contribute a great deal to the community that is the web and not just because it serves their own interests or sells books (although it certainly does that); they do it because it is good for the web. They push it forward and they make it better.

Whether any of them will actually read this post is uncertain. It doesn’t matter to me. My hope is that some kid who is looking into where to start when it comes to “learning web stuff” will stumble upon my site and take my recommendation to start with Zeldman. (Although, if he’s younger than me, there’s no way that the kid makes it this far in the post.)

And kid, if you did make it all the way through this post and you’re looking for where to go from there, let me know, I’ve got more suggestions.

Author: Shane

Shane Adams is a marketer, designer, blogger and preacher man who lives in the Kansas City area with his beautiful artist wife Alli and his corn-chip-smelling dog, Dreyfuss.

2 thoughts on “Working with professional idols”

  1. Shane – THANK YOU for this post! I’m at a place professionally in which I’m sort of lost and bouncing from one idea to the next with regard to “next steps” in communications. The web seems like a logical place, but I’m definitely going to pick up Zeldman’s book before I leap.

    Thanks for the articulate and smart post. It is much appreciated!

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