The ac­ces­si­bil­ity ex­pert and in­ter­na­tional speaker ex­plains how pur­su­ing a path that is aligned with her val­ues has been key to ca­reer and per­sonal ful­fil­ment

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Words by Tom May

We talk to Marcy Sut­ton about her pas­sion for cre­at­ing an ac­ces­si­ble web for ev­ery­one, her ca­reer to date and per­sonal ful­fil­ment.

If you’ve never met an ac­ces­si­bil­ity spe­cial­ist, you might imag­ine them to be se­vere and in­tim­i­dat­ing peo­ple, ready to pounce on the slight­est trans­gres­sion of ac­ces­si­bil­ity stan­dards in your web de­signs. Hap­pily, in our ex­pe­ri­ence, that’s far from the case. Al­most ev­ery­one we’ve ever met in this sphere has been en­gag­ing, charm­ing and just all-round nice – and web de­vel­oper and ac­ces­si­bil­ity ad­vo­cate Marcy Sut­ton fits right in to that mould.

Cur­rently liv­ing in Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, and work­ing as a se­nior fron­tend en­gi­neer at Deque (pro­nounced ‘Deecue’) Sys­tems, which spe­cialises in au­to­mated tools for test­ing the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of web­sites, Sut­ton is a beacon of up­beat pos­i­tiv­ity and easy-go­ing charm. And that’s no co­in­ci­dence. Her sunny dis­po­si­tion, she says, is the di­rect re­sult of her call­ing to ac­ces­si­bil­ity. “I put in a lot of ef­fort and en­ergy, and in re­turn I get back the world, ” she said with a smile.

New ca­reer path

But it’s a path she took a while to em­bark on. Orig­i­nally, Sut­ton wanted to be a pho­to­jour­nal­ist. But she grad­u­ated her Vis­ual Jour­nal­ism BA, at Cal­i­for­nia’s Brooks In­sti­tute of Pho­tog­ra­phy, at a time when news­pa­pers were clos­ing, dig­i­tal cam­eras were be­com­ing ubiq­ui­tous, and the job mar­ket was dis­ap­pear­ing fast. She’d en­joyed build­ing web­sites since high school, so now she de­cided to go all in, tak­ing an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in Web De­sign and Mul­ti­me­dia at the Art In­sti­tute of Seat­tle. Soon af­ter, she found her first job as a web de­vel­oper at bou­tique Seat­tle shop DEI Cre­ative.

She was in her sec­ond job, around three years later, when ac­ces­si­bil­ity en­tered her ca­reer in a big way. Work­ing at an­other Seat­tle-based dig­i­tal agency, POP, Sut­ton was made lead de­vel­oper on the Tar­get ac­count. The re­tail gi­ant had re­cently set­tled a class ac­tion law­suit with the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind over ac­ces­si­bil­ity com­plaints with its web­site. Nat­u­rally, ac­ces­si­bil­ity con­cerns were now baked into ev­ery­thing they did, and Sut­ton was at the epi­cen­tre.

“I was start­ing from square one, but I had a lot of help from Tar­get’s team, es­pe­cially Steve Sawczyn and Todd Lieb­sch”, she re­called. In the process, she fell in love with ac­ces­si­bil­ity. “Not only did it con­tain cool tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, it gave mean­ing to my work and re­flected my val­ues.”

Where does Sut­ton think those val­ues stem from? “I think I get them from my mother”, Sut­ton said. “She’s a very gen­er­ous per­son who re­ally cares about peo­ple, and I’ve tried to live my life like that too. So I found ac­ces­si­bil­ity very re­ward­ing to work on. I opened the door and thought, ‘That seems re­ally solid, I want to do that.’”

Project pains

This proac­tive ap­proach car­ried her through her next job, at dig­i­tal prod­uct stu­dio Sub­stan­tial, where she used her smarts to bring Google’s An­gu­lar.js Ma­te­rial De­sign project into the firm’s or­bit.

“I was bounc­ing around on Twit­ter when an en­gi­neer­ing man­ager on the An­gu­lar team asked if I’d be will­ing to speak at a con­fer­ence, ” she ex­plained. “I asked what the pay was, and he said there wasn’t any, but he might have some work for me to do… so it de­vel­oped from there. Look­ing back, I was quite a plucky young per­son even to ask about be­ing paid”, she added. “But I re­ally be­lieve that if you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get any­where.”

She spent a year full-time on the project, where she was re­spon­si­ble for UX,

ac­ces­si­bil­ity au­dit­ing and en­gi­neer­ing for the com­po­nent li­brary and docs web­site. She also started con­tribut­ing to ngAria, the ac­ces­si­bil­ity mod­ule, and Pro­trac­tor, the end-toend test­ing frame­work. But she ad­mit­ted that even­tu­ally it be­came too much for her. “By the end, I was su­per burned­out; it was a fire­hose, ” Sut­ton said.

There’s no bit­ter­ness to her rec­ol­lec­tion, though. “It’s just the way it is, in this in­dus­try, ” Sut­ton ex­plained. “You get this ini­tial rush of ex­cite­ment, this feel­ing of ‘We’re go­ing to do this!’ But then you just get to the point where you can’t keep go­ing. It’s hard to sus­tain that level of at­ten­tion for­ever.”

Com­pat­i­ble at­ti­tudes

Look­ing back, it was a turn­ing point in her life and ca­reer. “Now, I’m a bit more mea­sured about how I ap­proach things”, she said. “I re­alised you have to pace your­self and take care of your­self. I started to ride my bike more, and moved over to a new job.”

That new job was at Adobe, where she sup­ported web-based prod­uct teams across the com­pany as an ac­ces­si­bil­ity en­gi­neer, as well as con­tribut­ing to Adobe’s in­ter­nal Web Com­po­nents-based Coral UI frame­work. At first, it seemed the per­fect fit. “With my back­ground in pho­tog­ra­phy, I was al­ready an Adobe user”, she said. “I was ex­cited by the idea of mak­ing the tools I use ev­ery day more ac­ces­si­ble.” Un­for­tu­nately though, her goal-ori­ented, let’s-do-it spirit didn’t quite mesh with the re­al­i­ties of work­ing in a large or­gan­i­sa­tion. “It’s a slow­go­ing ship, with all these legacy sys­tems and code­bases, ” she ex­plained. “So while I came in as an en­gi­neer say­ing, ‘Okay, what can I fix?’ I think they re­ally needed more of a project-man­ager type.”

Af­ter seven months at Adobe, Sut­ton de­cided to move on. And while she’s keen not to crit­i­cise the com­pany per se (“They are mak­ing some progress in mak­ing their tools more ac­ces­si­ble”, she noted), her next and cur­rent job was a real no-brainer.

Deque Sys­tems, a com­pany specif­i­cally de­voted to ac­ces­si­bil­ity tools and con­sult­ing, was keen to poach her. It was an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion, be­cause now, rather than work­ing as the lone ac­ces­si­bil­ity ex­pert in an or­gan­i­sa­tion, she’d be sur­rounded by fel­low en­thu­si­asts.

“The job was ex­actly what I wanted”, she beamed. “Work­ing on ac­ces­si­bil­ity tools and prod­ucts with peo­ple who re­ally know about it; peo­ple who do it full-time for a liv­ing, peo­ple I could re­ally learn from.”

As a se­nior front-end en­gi­neer work­ing in a small, dis­trib­uted team, Sut­ton is now in­volved in the devel­op­ment and evan­ge­lism of web ac­ces­si­bil­ity tools, in­clud­ing aXe-core, an open source JavaScript ac­ces­si­bil­ity test­ing en­gine that of­fers Chrome and Fire­fox ex­ten­sions. She has also done tech­ni­cal ac­ces­si­bil­ity con­sult­ing and doc­u­men­ta­tion writ­ing for en­ter­prise clients.

“As a smaller com­pany, we have chal­lenges”, she ad­mit­ted. “But for me, do­ing my best work is more im­por­tant than stock op­tions. Now I’ve ma­tured a lit­tle bit, I’m fo­cused on man­ag­ing my time and con­tribut­ing to stuff that re­ally mat­ters.”

She sums up why it mat­ters in one sim­ple but pow­er­ful point. “Right now, I’m healthy and able-bod­ied”, she says. “But if I did have a dis­abil­ity, I’d be less trau­ma­tised about it. Now I’ve seen peo­ple go on with their lives, I know I would go on too.”

In­deed, many of Deque’s em­ploy­ees have dis­abil­i­ties them­selves, she noted. “So when we’re build­ing tools for de­vel­op­ers, we know that first and fore­most, we have to make them ac­ces­si­ble to those col­leagues.”

Girl power

Sut­ton doesn’t just share her pas­sion for ac­ces­si­bil­ity through her work. She also spreads the word far and wide through her reg­u­lar speak­ing en­gage­ments. She spoke at over 15 con­fer­ences last year, in­clud­ing

“Not only did it con­tain cool tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, it gave mean­ing to my work”

We­bExpo, An­gu­lar Con­nect and net

mag­a­zine’s very own event, Gen­er­ate New York. So it’s per­haps sur­pris­ing that she was ini­tially un­cer­tain about speak­ing in pub­lic. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be known as ‘Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Girl’ , she ex­plained. But then she at­tended an ac­ces­si­bil­ity con­fer­ence, and in her words, “fan­girl-ed out at the ex­perts who were speak­ing”.

“I came away think­ing, ‘These are my peo­ple, ” she re­called, “and had this re­al­i­sa­tion that, ‘There’s this whole thing I can fo­cus on, which seems like it would ben­e­fit peo­ple pretty di­rectly. So I’m go­ing to go for it.’”

Sut­ton con­tin­ues to go for it, be­liev­ing the need to im­prove the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the web is never done. “When­ever a new tech­nol­ogy comes out, we need to ask ques­tions about it, ” she said. It’s also about chang­ing some peo­ple’s opin­ions; one con­fer­ence CFP, for ex­am­ple, told her they weren’t in­ter­ested in ac­ces­si­bil­ity be­cause it was “al­ready solved”. But de­spite such mis­in­formed at­ti­tudes, Sut­ton said she tries to stay op­ti­mistic.

“It’s true that it doesn’t feel like we’re driv­ing for­wards with ac­ces­si­bil­ity some of the time”, she ad­mit­ted. “But when it starts to get de­press­ing, I go back to what my mum taught me: ‘Don’t sit in a pity pud­dle; do some­thing.’ And the way I see it, ev­ery blog post and ev­ery talk does make a dif­fer­ence.”

It’s not the only area in which Sut­ton is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. She also has a pas­sion for pro­mot ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for women. In­deed, she was plan­ning to gear her talks to­wards this is­sue rather than ac­ces­si­bil­ity. When she in­stead opted for the lat­ter, she put her re­main­ing en­er­gies into Girl De­velop It (GDI), a non­profit that pro­vides hands-on lessons to women who want to learn web and soft­ware devel­op­ment.

Sut­ton spent two years and four months as co-leader of the Seat­tle Chap­ter of GDI, be­fore mov­ing to Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, where she’s now dis­cussing form­ing a new chap­ter. “The thing that re­ally warms my heart is how great that com­mu­nity of women is, ” she said. “If you’re try­ing to find a way to make your life more mean­ing­ful, this is a re­ally great place to do it.”

Find­ing bal­ance

Ul­ti­mately, it’s that search for mean­ing­ful work that has brought Sut­ton to an en­vi­able place in her life and ca­reer. The burnouts of the past are now mostly be­hind her. She has ful­fill­ing work, in her dream job, and she’s re­cently swapped the big city for the small­town charms of Belling­ham, mov­ing with her part­ner Mar­cus to her dream home near the North Cas­cades moun­tains. Work­ing re­motely in this set­ting is help­ing her take a more re­laxed at­ti­tude to the daily chal­lenges, she said.

“I still strug­gle with bal­anc­ing work and life, but it’s eas­ier to see how great ev­ery­thing is when it’s this beau­ti­ful, ” she ex­plained. “Now my stress lev­els are way down. It’s funny to think that the things I was once stressed about don’t bother me at all.”

Next month: Award-win­ning speaker, con­sul­tant and writer Sarah Dras­ner

“If you’re try­ing to find a way to make your life more mean­ing­ful, this is a re­ally great place to do it”

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