Sunday, February 21, 2016

So You Want to be a Web Developer...

Yesterday, as I was culling files from my server, I came upon one from from 2010 containing the transcript of an interview done by Loree Lough, a fiction author who is also a client of mine. It amused me to see how many things have changed in web development since that interview, and how many basics are still the same. As I often get asked by people considering a career in web design or development what exactly it involves and what they need to learn in order to get started, I thought I would publish the entire interview here as a sort of FAQ. I hope it proves useful to someone.

Q: How'd you get into web design?

By my usual method of going anywhere: drifting aimlessly. I'd been a tech writer/editor for about 15 years and that was a good career, but by 2001, I was thoroughly ready to try a new one. I just didn't know where to start.

Then one day, without consulting me, my husband volunteered my services to build a Web site for a local charitible foundation… pro bono, naturally. So I had to get busy and learn not only HTML (the lingua franca of the Internet), but all the other basics, like how to upload a finished site and where hosting service comes from and all that stuff.

I was so completely clueless it was comical, but that experience was a good way to get my feet wet and start building a portfolio.

Q: What sort of training is required?

Web design and development is a very broad area with many different aspects, so it depends on what you want to focus on. You can actually learn everything you need to know about web development on the web itself, and you can find most if not all of it for free. From there it's just a matter of practice making perfect and always trying to add new technologies to your toolbox. I learned HTML and some other basics by following online tutorials and then by reverse-engineering sites to see how they were built. Once I knew HTML, I drifted into CSS, Javascript, Flash and what-have-you. Learning the design end of things is a bit different... that goes more on instinct. You develop an eye over time, but it helps to stay current on what Web "fashions" are at any given moment. I will say that it helps to learn the grassroots methods of devolopment, though. I don't use templates or WYSIWYG design tools like Dreamweaver. I like to code in NotePad because it gives me more control over whatever I'm trying to execute.

Q: What’s your favorite aspect of the work?

Best part is the infinite variety of businesses about which I get to learn something. And of course, my clients. At the risk of sounding like the world's biggest suck-up, they really are all smart and unique and interesting, and there’s not a lemon in the bunch. I like knowing that a site I’ve built is helping them succeed. Another aspect I like is that I’m always learning something new to keep abreast of changing web trends and technologies. Don’t always want to, but always have to. I’m rarely bored.

Q: Least favorite?

I really don't have much to complain about because I think I have the best job in the world, but I don't like it much when people contract for a site and then don't take any real interest in its production. The more a client stays in touch, the better the end result will be. It also irks me a bit when someone claims to need a site built yesterday, signs a contract, and then takes weeks to send me info for it. Much as I'd like to, I really can't build a site out of thin air.

Q: How many clients, total?

Depends on who you count as a client. Some have me update their sites weekly; some I rarely hear from again once I've launched their site. I've built more than one site for several of them... I'd say roughly 150 clients, give or take five or 10.

Q: How many “normal” v. author/writer clients in your portfolio?

I've lost count of the number of sites I've built over the years, but if I remember accurately, my portfolio includes five published authors and one professional copywriter... again, I've built more than one for some of them.

Q: What’s a typical work day like for you?

Up when I happen to wake with Sunrise Earth... then the long, grueling commute down the hall and up the stairs to my office, where I work on whatever I happen to have on my schedule. A typical day usually includes one or more of the following: building and/or updating sites, writing copy, writing/sending e-newsletters, working on marketing campaigns, talking/emailing with clients, applying SEO to sites, creating graphics, whatever. Generally work until noonish, when I wander downstairs in search of something to graze on. At some point every day I attempt to get some physical exercise for at least an hour to help keep the synapses firing. Some days I have meetings with clients, so I’m out of the house. In any event, I usually work til about 4 or 5 p.m., when I try to shut down for the day.

Q: What are the Top Five DO advice points for anyone thinking about setting up a web site?
  1. To save yourself time, money, and grief, cut to the chase and hire a professional.
  2. Review portfolios and check references before you choose your developer. Have a long conversation with him (in person if he's in your town) and ask a lot of questions before you sign a contract. Look for someone you feel comfortable with — it's a symbiotic relationship — and who both listens to you and explains things clearly.
  3. Have a budget in mind and let your developer know what it is. If you have a tight budget, she can usually recommend some cost-effective options for features you want on your site.
  4. Ask for the terms of the project in writing and sign an official contract.
  5. Be prepared to move forward with site development once you hire someone, and stay involved in the process, submitting content in a timely manner and giving feedback on a regular basis.
Q: What should a person interested in working with you bring to the 'initial interview'?

A person should bring questions… lots of questions! All I really need to know in order to bid on a project is the final number of pages the site will need. In an initial meeting, though, it's helpful for me to have a dialog with the client about her vision for the site — what she wants it to do for her — and anything else about her business that she wants to share with me. Such dialog up front helps me to get a feel for new clients as people and to understand their needs, priorities, and expectations.

Q: What are the Top Five DON’T points for working with a web developer?
  1. I think the worst mistake a company can make is failure to communicate with their web developer. This almost always guarantees they will get less than they could have for their investment. The more a client is involved, giving feedback and submitting content, the better the outcome will be.
  2. On the other hand, it's a mistake for clients to try to design their site "through" me. They're paying me to do that so they don't have to; they need to step back and relax and let me earn my money.
  3. Also, don't assume that a web developer is willing to build six versions of the same site and let you pick one. Trust me; she won't be.
  4. Don't try to put every bit of information you can think of on your web site.
  5. And a little text goes a long way. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, brevity is the soul of Web text.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes made by people who set up their own web sites?

Just one: setting up their own Web site. No, no... kidding. DIY can be a viable option for someone on a tight budget. But in general, the biggest mistake do-it-yourselfers make is poor organization… "blind alleys" without links to the rest of the pages on the site, for example. Another one is cramming too much information on a page, so that the poor user has to scroll vertically to China, sometimes down a long, unbroken wall of text. Or worse, has to scroll horizontally. One flagrant error that DIYers often make is to specify any font that's installed on their computer, so of course it shows up beautifully on their own PC. What they don't realize is that the rest of the world is seeing their carefully selected Haandskrift Medium Oblique as Times or Arial — the web defaults — because the rest of the world doesn't happen to have Haandskrift installed. Which leads me to another issue: most DIYers fail to test their sites on anything but their own systems when in fact, they need to check it on other monitors, browsers, screen resolutions, and operating systems. (I don't like sites done entirely in Flash for that reason: Some part of them is usually inaccessible on some systems.)

Q: Is it helpful when a potential client comes to you with an “old site” that needs upgrading?

It really doesn't save any time if they need a new site. Regardless of any existing site the client may have online, I usually start over from scratch... much easier and more efficient than trying to rework all the old code into a new structure. If it's just a matter of updating info, though, then of course I retain the existing code and just edit it.

Q: And speaking of upgrades, how often should a client update his/her site?
In general, it depends on the type of site, but at the very least, sites need to be freshened up every six months. For sites that are used as a business' primary marketing tool, once a month is good; once a week is better.

Q: What’s the best way to ensure our sites are viewed by the largest possible audience?

Search engine optimization, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, enewsletters… I recommend using pretty much every tool out there to spread the word. Of course make sure your web address is included on every print piece you have, and spread it around at every conceivable opportunity.

Q: Who’s your favorite client?
My favorite client is the one whose site I'm working on at any given moment. So hey! Loree Lough is my favorite client! (Actually she really IS one of my all-time treasures.)

Q: How can people find you on the web?

My business site is I'm also on Facebook as SumSites and as Margie Summers. And I can always be reached by email: