Changing the TAG – An Unexpected Opportunity

I’ve been one of HP’s representatives to the W3C for the past five years, and in addition to my primary role of co-chair of the CSS Working Group, I’ve been serving as a member of the TAG for the past two years.

I admit that when I originally joined the TAG I was, like many of the working representatives in the W3C, unfamiliar with their work beyond the AWWW document. I read the TAG’s charter and their mission resonated with me. I felt that with my background architecting complex network systems I could be of some help and threw my hat into the ring. After having served on the TAG, I have a much better understanding of what the TAG does on a daily basis and how it functions.

I also understand why so many of the TAG’s former members have left in frustration. If it weren’t for the opportunity to reshape the TAG with the current election, I’d be one of them.

Please don’t take me wrong, I have nothing but the highest regards for both the present and former members of the TAG. They are some of the best and the brightest that I have ever known and had the pleasure to work with, but the TAG as a whole has its issues.

Firstly, the fact that an extremely large percentage of the working members of the W3C, the people in the trenches doing the day to day work of creating the future of the web, have either never heard of the TAG, or are only familiar with it in general terms and can’t relate to the TAG’s work in any practical way, speaks volumes in itself.

I believe the TAG is far too disconnected with the core of the important work being done at the W3C, as has largely been operating in a bubble. I really want to see the TAG be more involved with the rest of the working groups at the W3C, providing architectural guidance where applicable, and truly becoming the stewards of the architecture of the entire web platform.

There’s an amazing amount of expertise and experience on the TAG available and the fact that it’s not being brought to bear in places where it can help is a truly depressing situation.

My fellow “TAG reformists”, Alex Russell, Marcos Cáceres, Anne van Kesteren, and Yehuda Katz have already written extensively about this issue with more specific plans, so I won’t go in to further detail apart to voice my wholehearted support for the direction to take the TAG in.

The other main issue I see with the TAG, that I don’t see being addressed yet, is one of the culture of the TAG itself.

When people ask me what the TAG actually does, I often reply, “we talk a lot about talking about problems”. What drives me crazy is that I’m not really joking when I say that.

There’s an overwhelming tendency within the TAG to seek abstractions and discuss issues at a meta-level. Often this can be a good thing, finding abstractions and leveraging them to solve problems is much of what a good architect does. The TAG does have a unique position and perspective and finding these abstractions should be part of what the TAG does.

But at some point the rubber hits the road and you actually have to solve the problem that was brought up in the first place.

I just haven’t seen this happen within the TAG very often at all. I’ve seen countless discussions jump one or more levels of abstraction and wind up debating the meaning of terminology, or result in a proposal to write a document re-framing the problem, and so little time spent proposing or debating actual solutions.

Again, I don’t see this tendency being the result of specific individuals on the TAG or any lack of the best intentions. It just seems to be a default pattern of behavior that the TAG has somehow slipped into over the years and I don’t find it producing anything all that useful at the end of the day.

It’s my hope that a significant shake-up of the TAG’s membership can help break these cultural patterns and produce a group more focused on solving problems and providing tangible results.

At TPAC I took the time to speak with a number of people about the TAG, both present and former members, as well as people with an interest in the TAG, and found myself to not be alone in my opinions and attitudes towards the TAG.

Given the opportunity of this year’s elections, which has an unusual number of seats up for grabs, coupled with the amount of support I found for changing the TAG and turning it into something really effective and important, I decided to stand for re-election. If elected it’s my intention to devote my time on the TAG doing everything I can to turn it into the kind of group it could, and should be.

I hope that the Advisory Council agrees with these directions for the TAG and will cast their votes among myself and my fellow reform-oriented candidates accordingly.