Learning From Your Own Personal Way Back Machine

One of the amazing things about working at Phinney Bischoff is our company’s archives.

Our basement is packed with the physical evidence of our company’s past: boxes of old case studies, portfolio pieces, and what I assume must be part of Karl’s epic photo archive. Our servers have old examples of our digital work. For me, the highlight of the archive is the HTML files that comprised our Phinney Bischoff’s company newsletter from the 1990s. We didn’t put this on the Web, but sent our clients interactive CD-roms to serve up the images and HTML. While pouring over any archive is fun (depending on your personality), it can also help us think through other issues. By looking at old work, we can start to deconstruct how we got to where we are today. Are there things we need to remember? Does our current work reflect our past work? If it does, does it matter?

Because Phinney Bischoff’s history with the Web far exceeds my own experience, I feel a little awkward writing about what we used to do, how we did it, and what we might want to learn from it. Inpsired by a recent post by Jason Fried at 37signals, I figured I would post an example from my own past: the first site I ever built.



I built this site as part of a group assignment for a junior-level American studies class at the College of William & Mary in 2002. More than anything else about this site, I remember being really into having a left navigation that changed what happened on the right side of the browser. To do this, I used frames and JavaScript that I remember getting from some dark corner of the web.

In addition my earnestness in using <font> tags, ignoring the existence of CSS, and my obsession with frames, looking at this site gives me a lot to think about. What have a I learned in the past decade? Are there issues that I ran into in 2002 that still appear in some form or another today?

Two things jump out at me.

1.) I apparently am still a fan of left navigation doing “stuff” to what is on the right side of the screen. This past week, we launched an application for managing our client’s documentation. While the navigation is not as awesome as clicking on Cookie Monster (a seriously high bar), it is a minimalist version of the same thing.


2.) In 2002, I wanted to learn something new about the Web by completing a project. In 2014, this is still true. In every project, regardless of schedule, budget, or goals, I find something that I can do that is new and exciting. This can sometimes be pretty tough and what I end up learning is super esoteric, but it is one of things I like about being a developer.

So, why does this matter?

Looking at your first project helps you to codify why you do the things you do. By seeing through-lines, you are able to understand what things are important to you in the sites you create. For me, looking at my first site made me consider how I am primarily motivated by crafting user experiences. It also made me see that the new things we learn on each project stick with us. Attempting to figure out a left-navigation design pattern over a decade ago makes Bootstrap’s left navigation make more sense to me today.

We will all get different things from looking at our first projects. In addition to an instant humbling, and a few laughs, looking at an old project gives us the intellectual space to consider why we like what we do.

This post was originally published at phinneybischoff.com