Remembering Molly

Molly loved to take pictures. Here she’s sitting on a couch taking a picture of me taking a picture of her. It was a favorite pastime of ours. She was wearing a black shirt with a laced coverup and has a beautiful smile on her face. This was probably at the Hampton Inn near the Convention Center as we were there for SXSW.
Credit: Aaron Gustafson

We lost a seminal figure in the world of web design this week. And I lost a good friend and mentor. Molly Holzschlag cared deeply for the web and those of us who till its soils.

This is a tough post to write, to be honest. It’s difficult to articulate just how influential Molly has been on my own work, my philosophical approach to web design, and my career.

Molly was warm and welcoming

Molly and Patrick Haney saying cheers with their mini smoothies at the W3C’s 2007 TPAC conference in Cambridge, MA. She’d invited me, Patrick, Steph Troeth, and Matt Oliphant to give the W3C an outsider’s perspective of their organization.

Molly was there when I gave my first talk. 2003. COMDEX. I’d been invited out by the World Organization of Webmasters to give a talk on XHTML. The talk was solid. My delivery was atrocious. Molly was quick to come up after and congratulate me. I was floored.

I told her how excited I was to see her and Eric Meyer give a talk on CSS later in the day. She told me Eric had had to cancel his trip last minute and asked me if I would be interested in giving the talk with her. Just like that. I don’t know that she had any idea who I was (I’d only just published my first piece in A List Apart a few months earlier). But that was how Molly rolled. She saw my passion for web standards and somehow knew I’d be able to step up.

That one welcoming gesture was huge for me. And it was the start of a long collaboration and friendship. After that talk, we met up in Vegas again in 2004 and then went on a speaking tour the U.S. together in 2005, running web standards workshops where we taught people the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and accessibility. I learned so much from her during that time and bore witness, over and over, to her immense capacity for welcoming people, bringing them together, breaking bread, building her tribe… she was the very embodiment of the word hospitable.

And gregarious. Her boisterous laugh was infectious and memorable. I can still hear it echoing in my ears.

Molly was generous with her time

Me and Molly presenting at TechEd in 2005. We’re at the front of a darkened conference room and someone in front of us is looking at the World Organization of Webmasters’ website on a CRT monitor.

This was Molly and I presenting at TechEd Pasadena, CA in 2005. One of many stops we made on our tour that year.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who gave as much of herself as Molly did. She always, always put others first, sometimes to her own detriment.

When I first met Molly, she was leading the Web Standards Project (WaSP). She poured her heart and soul into that organization and the cause of web standards. I lost count of how many events she spoke at, often on her own dime. She invited educators into her home to teach them how to properly teach the next generation of web designers and developers… for free.

She always put her advocacy for the cause first… a double edged sword we’ve since named advocacy fatigue. It took a toll on her—mentally, physically, and spiritually—and she took the occasional break from it, but she never gave up on the fight for a more egalitarian web.

Molly created opportunities for others

In this photo Molly is lying on her stomach on a hotel bed with two laptops open. She’s working on our slide deck.

While on tour, Molly and I spent nearly every waking moment together, working on our slides, hatching plans, and generally having a ball. She was the big sister I’d never had.

Another aspect of Molly’s giving nature was her insistence on opening doors for people, career-wise. I witnessed her pass along amazing opportunities that found their way into her inbox with an incredible amount of joy. Like doling out incredible gifts for a holiday.

One such gift she handed me was the opportunity to do some work with Adaptive Path. Through her introduction, I got the chance to work with an amazing team on several projects… all from my living room thousands of miles from their San Francisco offices. That was the kind of sway she pulled.

That work led to a part-time role (and health insurance) at Bolt|Peters, where I worked on Ethnio. That role gave me the freedom to quit my day job at an ad agency and begin building my own consulting business, which I launched a few months later and ran for over a decade.

All because of the doors Molly opened.

In a separate path, she invited me to join WaSP, where I worked on a lot of JavaScript-focused efforts. That led to me working with Microsoft on improvements to IE7 and IE8 and—years later—to me eventually joining Microsoft as a web standards advocate.

All because of the doors Molly opened.

And I was not alone. Wherever and whenever Molly saw an opportunity to help someone on their career journey, she would help them. Book contracts. Speaking engagements. Networking. Freelance work. If Molly saw any way she could help you, she did. No ego. No expectations. Selfless.

Her example is what inspired me to build my mentoring program. I don’t know that I can ever do as much good as she did for people, but she made me want to try.

Molly wanted the web to win

In this photo Molly is teaching people about the CSS box model. The screen behind her shows a dissection of the different parts that affect an element’s dimensions and layout.

So much of my presentation style and skills were learned from watching Molly work her magic.

If you know Molly’s name, this is probably why. She was a staunch—and loud—advocate for web standards and accessibility. A veteran of the browser wars (and subsequent skirmishes), she knew the landscape and she knew how imperative it was for standards to emerge and for browsers to implement them consistently.

I wasn’t there for the meeting, but she told me Bill Gates tried to tell her the web was “done” ’round about the IE6 days and she yelled at him. While she wasn’t one to shy away from the occasional embellishment, she was just as unlikely to shy away from a confrontation over the viability and future of the web… so it would not surprise me at all to hear that she’d yelled at him.

Molly was a lioness—nurturing and maternal to the web and its denizens and a fierce protector when they were threatened. She saw the potential of the web as a great equalizer and bristled when folks would try to wall it off or exclude people—especially disempowered people—from accessing it.

That passionate support for the open web never wavered, even when Molly became ill. In fact we’d been talking about whether it might make sense to re-launch WaSP this year, a decade after we’d shuttered it because we thought the work was done—it wasn’t.

Molly will live on in our memories and our craft

In this photo Molly is presenting on some topic or another. She is isolated against a white wall with a strong shadow behind her from the spotlights.

Knowing Molly affected me. Deeply. Her kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and passion live on in everyone her life and work touched. Including me.

I don’t know what to make of a world without Molly, but I hate that we’re living in one. She truly was a force of nature and, as such, has left an indelible mark on this industry.

I’m so thankful to have known her. To have received her mentorship. To have called her a friend.

Goodnight Mols. I love you.

Molly was also a talented songwriter, singer, and musician. This is a recording of “Love’s Immortal Fountain,” which she also wrote.

Other folks’ memories of Molly

More on by following #MollyHolzschlag.

Know of others? Please share them.


  1. @Aaron thank you for this lovely post which perfectly expresses the wonderful spirit of Molly ~ we will miss her, always. <3

  2. @Aaron Such a lovely remembrance! I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one with her laugh - always from the bottom of her soul - echoing in my head.


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