The Web Gets Personal

Forget "send me an email." The new mantra is "visit my Web site." Here's how you can make the Web your personal calling card.

Remember when you first got a hot-off-the-press stack of business cards with your brand-new email address? For most of us, that moment came a few years ago. But for IBM vice president John Patrick, a business card with an email address was already old news. Back when most of us thought URLs were European noblemen, Patrick was handing out business cards that featured his own Web address.

Patrick had figured it out early. An email address gave people a quick way to reach him — but a personal Web site let him reach right back. Rather than fielding endless client queries, he could direct people to his site, where answers to common questions are always available. Patrick realized that his Web site offered a personal and corporate showplace no email address could match. He turned his site into a haven for his own hobbies and interests, as well as a demonstration of IBM's Internet technology.

Lots of people have their own Web pages, most of which aim to impress through force of personality. In this edition of @Work, we profile three pioneers who use their Web sites as personal calling cards — not only as a powerful way to express who they are, but also as an indispensable tool to facilitate what they do. They have gone beyond email, beyond vanity Web pages to create a new kind of personal Web site that can put a human face on a big impersonal company. Isn't it time for you to turn the (Web) page?

The Networker

WebWeaver: John Patrick, 52, vice president of Internet technology at IBM.

When you think of the Internet's leading companies, IBM probably doesn't come to mind. Even so, Big Blue was building the backbone of the Net when Netscape's Marc Andreessen was in high school. Now the company is asserting its online presence, and John Patrick is leading the way.

Patrick played a major role in the design of IBM's original corporate Web site, so it's only fair that he grabbed a piece of it for himself. He describes his site as a "hobby," but its style perfectly reflects the new Internet imperatives at IBM. There's plenty of eye candy to pull people in, erected on a sober foundation of industrial-strength Internet technology.

Reason for Being: Patrick got his first look at the World Wide Web in 1994. "All the bells and whistles went off. I saw it as something that was going to change everything about the way we do business." He delivered a paper on the Web at that year's Internet World conference and was swamped with requests for copies. He quickly decided that he ought to "walk the talk" and create his own Web site.

Patrick wasn't too ambitious when he started out. "Initially it was, 'Hi, I'm John. Click here to read the Get Connected paper.'" Then the site became a hobby, a place for self-expression, and a chance to try out advanced Web design tools like JavaScript and animated images.

"I've tried to create a site that allows me to relate to the Internet community," he says, "to add value to people just learning about the Net, to share my point of view on things I'm interested in, and to experiment with the technology I enjoy."

Elements of Style: Patrick keeps the site clean but lively with colorful, fast-loading graphics and a touch of animation. "I'm not a graphic design expert. I just follow the principle of creating what I like and making changes based on feedback."

Patrick's papers and speeches are indexed at the site, but his favorite jottings are on his Reflections page. "Reflections is my personal take on a unique experience like riding through the Chunnel, the rush of a keynote speaking opportunity, or meeting with interesting customers and colleagues. I get a real charge out of relaying these tidbits on my site, and in return I get consistent feedback from readers."

The Payoff: Patrick's hobby has made him IBM's ambassador to the Internet. There's some boosterism on his site, but it's low key. "You won't ever find on my site, 'Click here to buy a PC.' I'm not trying to advertise IBM products per se."

What Patrick is advertising is his company's Web expertise and its renewed sense of adventure. People come to the site thinking "Big Blue"; Patrick tries to send them away thinking "Cool Blue."

URL: John Patrick, http://www.ibm.com/patrick

The Communicator

WebWeaver: Andy Oram, 41, acquisitions editor at O'Reilly & Associates, the publisher of computer books based in Sebastopol, California. (Oram works out of Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Writing computer books is brutally hard work. That goes double when you're writing for O'Reilly, a house that caters to serious gearheads. Andy Oram likes to tell of the time he finished a book on Unix, only to learn that one obscure command worked differently in different versions. Oram spent the next month getting the details right.

That's just the kind of war story that Oram wanted to share with prospective writers for O'Reilly. While the company's Web site features information for would-be writers, it wasn't detailed enough to suit Oram. So he created his own site. Now Oram's scribes know what fresh hells await them, which makes their work easier — and Oram's, too.

Reason for Being: The page aims to give new authors a real-world scoop on writing for O'Reilly, before they commit to 30,000 highly technical words.

"I found I was saying the same thing to authors, over and over again," he says. "Because we're a Web-promoting company, the obvious solution is to use the Web. All I did was put the medium to work."

Elements of Style: What style? Oram aims to inform, not dazzle. He has created a hierarchy for the site so that authors can get a quick dose of an editor's wisdom and get back to work. And he uses background colors to help guide the reader.

"The top of the homepage is yellow, the second level is wine colored, and so on. Each color lets people know how far down they are in the hierarchy." Oram avoids using background patterns, which make it harder to read text.

The Payoff: The page helps writers deliver on-target work — and reduce crisis phone calls in the wee hours. For example, Oram once discovered that a book he was editing needed an extra chapter. It was a last-minute insight: "I apologized to the author for asking for such a big change near the end of the project, and I mentioned that my Web page had warned of such a possibility. He said, 'I know, I read it.' The site had prepared him. He was ready to deal with emergencies."

URL: Andy Oram, http://www.ora.com/people/staff/andyo

The Publisher

WebWeaver: Jeffrey R. Harrow, 48, senior consulting engineer for Corporate Strategy & Technology Group, Digital Equipment Corp. He works from a home office in Amherst, New Hampshire.

For the past few years Jeffrey Harrow has shared his views on the computer industry with his Digital colleagues, first by email and later through a Web newsletter on the corporate intranet. Now his newsletter, "The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing," has leaped the firewall and landed in the browsers of technology junkies worldwide.

Digital practically invented the Internet soft sell: the company's Alta Vista search engine became one of the Net's leading brands simply by being indispensable. Harrow's newsletter is in the same tradition. There's no rah-rah recitation of the latest Digital product brochures. Instead there's a collection of informative articles featuring the most significant developments in the industry — no matter whose clean room they come from.

Reason for Being: The newsletter was born in 1991, when Harrow began writing up his views on the high-tech debates of the day and sharing them with interested colleagues.

"Originally it was all by email. That was the only available technology back then." Driven by word of mouth, demand for Harrow's postings grew to the point where he found himself cc-ing over a thousand people. The World Wide Web offered a better way. "After a significant number of readers became Web-enabled, it was a natural move to use my newsletter to jointly explore this new publishing medium."

Publishing on the company's intranet brought Harrow's newsletter to the attention of Digital's salesforce, which thought it was too good to keep bottled up inside the company. "They felt it was a really tangible demonstration of how Digital is committed to staying abreast of the incredible changes in our industry." So this past November, by popular demand, "The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing" went public. Harrow says the site now attracts about 35,000 readers a week.

Elements of Style: Successful design is all in the planning, says Harrow. "I began by clearly articulating my goal for the site. Then I tested the site at every step of development against my goal. Instead of creating glitz, I always thought about supporting my goal."

The Payoff: The future-of-computing newsletter has made Harrow a hero to many Digital salespeople. "I've been told by our salesforce that having the newsletter in front of customers on a weekly basis opens up doors for them."

It's also opened quite a few doors for Harrow. His Web site has brought in invitations to make sales trips to companies in England, France, Germany, Israel, and Singapore. Harrow may well be the first Webhead to discover that spending lots of time on the Internet is a great way to get out of the house.

URL: Jeffrey Harrow, http://www.digital.com/rcfoc/Home.html

Hiawatha Bray (wathab@tiac.net) covers personal technology for the Boston Globe.

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