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:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"You Must Run Twice as Fast as That"

Old Friends...
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Thus spake Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, and these days I admit I feel a whole lot like her.

When I first began building web sites back in the Dark Ages (circa 2001, when Chrome wasn't so much as a glimmer in Google's eye), my job was quite doable with a NotePad file and a copy of (then-Jasc) PaintShop. I would sit down, sketch a layout on paper, create some graphics, open a text file, and start writing HTML, dressing it up with a little CSS and Javascript.  As technology evolved, I abandoned animated .gifs for Flash and .jpgs for .pngs. The box model replaced tables in my layouts. In other words, I kept pace.

When I finished a site, I knew personally every jot and tittle in the resultant HTML files, how those files would display in both Explorer and Navigator, whether they were optimized for an 800 x 600 PC screen resolution or a more sophisticated 1024 x 768 display, and how well a Mac would handle them as opposed to a Windows PC (or, as we called them back then, an IBM clone). I would sooner have eaten worms than used a WYSIWYG development tool or anything that smacked of canned code <shudder> or a template <conniption fit>. Dreamweaver was for wusses; WordPress for lightweights.

And then I blinked, and it became 2015. A web developer in today's environment armed with nothing more than a knowledge of HTML5 and CSS3 (the current iteration of those familiar web languages) is, in a word, irrelevant. She needs not just coding skills and a proficiency in web languages, but an entire arsenal of workarounds, shims, snippets, media queries, and libraries stuffed with open-source tools to have any hope of building anything that looks good and works well in IE-Safari-Opera-Firefox-Chrome on a desktop-laptop-notebook-phone running iOS-Android-Windows-yadda. 

These days, when I build a site, I go to Bootstrap for frameworks, Googlefonts for typefaces, Fontawesome and Glyphicons for icons, SASS and LESS for CSS mixins, jQuery for form structure, GitHub for troubleshooting, and YouTube for free tutorials on all of the above. I've flattened my designs, installed my shims, expunged my Flash, abandoned my box models for grids, and completely surrendered to the many-tentacled leviathan that is modern web development.

Am I complaining? Nope; I am marveling. As it always has been, the Internet (the one of People, not of Companies) is a generous entity, shoveling information at all takers as fast  as they can absorb it. All around the world, very smart people whom I'll never meet, most of them likely many decades my junior, are inventing new ways to make my job easier, and they share it with me and others like me without charging us a cent. I'm not talking about purchased, template-based solutions that ignore my own creative and technical abilities; I'm thinking of toolboxes that solve universal problems for coders and designers so that they can serve up the best possible web sites for their clients.

So, yes, after all these years, I still have to run to stay in the same place in my profession, but I'm eternally grateful. This rapid evolution simply means that the Internet is getting better, more useful, and more generous with its favors with each passing minute.   

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Your Business Site: Still Fresh, or Getting a Little Stale?


 So you've had your web site online for a year or two; maybe a bit longer. You've drifted gradually from frequent site updates to on-the-fly posts to your Facebook business page. It hasn't seemed necessary to change your web site's content very often, so other than quick peeks to verify that it's still online and that your domain registration hasn't expired, you rarely visit your own site these days.

That's cool; right? After all, none of the site content has changed. Why shouldn't everything look and behave like it always did?

Also, you've been looking at your site through the same browser software (Internet Explorer, maybe?) for years now. Sure, it might be a few versions behind the latest and greatest, but If it ain't broken...

For a business owner, this laissez faire approach could be problematic for a couple of reasons.


First of all, fashions in web design change as fast, if not faster, than styles on the runways of Paris and Milan. What's killer one year looks stale and even absurd the next. A web site can appear to have grown a cob-web almost overnight (remember Charlotte's Web?), that screams, "Built in 2005!"

But a dated appearance isn't your biggest concern. Your business site must continue to engage its visitors who, you hope, will be able to both view it and use it as it was intended to be seen and used. Here's the issue: while you're content that your unchanged site is working like it always did, thousands of programmers are working out clever new ways to improve web coding languages. If you sit very still and listen closely in the middle of the night, you can almost hear them crowing, "Sanjay, LOOK! I just made that column float right AND change color AND auto-populate with the latest MLB scores using a single HTML tag!"

Older versions of HTML -- the lingua franca of the Internet -- are being phased out by HTML5, the latest, greatest, and most powerful version so far. This amazing language is further enhanced by CSS3, which is the newest version of the cascading style sheet (some code that can make a site written in HTML look WAY prettier).

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the web browser you happen to be using can display all the cool features of all web sites written in these new languages. At best, it will probably display some of them; at worst, none. (To see where your favorite browser lands on that scale, visit And newer versions of all these browsers may display sites built several years ago differently than older versions of the same browsers.

Soooo... if you listen a bit longer, you may hear the choking sobs of web developers world-wide as they realize their best efforts have not resulted in sites that look and work the same in every browser. Because that's impossible. The best-case scenario is an "almost."

To complicate matters, in cubicles yet elsewhere, hardware designers are slaving over hot prototypes of new hand-held devices. You got your smart phones, your tablets, your e-readers, your iOS and Android this-and-thats. What fills your laptop or desktop-PC screen with style, grace, and the epitome of user-friendliness might not even show up on an iPad. Case in point: Flash animation was the be-all and end-all for web sites of the previous decade. Now, because of a fuss between Adobe, which owns Flash, and Apple, which makes the iPad, iPhone, and slew of other things based on its iOS operating system, nothing with an "i" in front of it can display Flash.

And of course, the major players in the industry (Microsoft and Apple) are working 24/7 to upgrade the operating systems that run your laptop and PC. (Windows 8 just launched, as you've probably heard. Plenty of my clients are still running XP, which came out in 2001, before Windows 7 and before Vista.) What your users see when they visit your web site depends in part on which operating system -- and version thereof -- they happen to be using.


First of all, download the latest version of your Internet browser. If that one doesn't score high on the HTML5 test (at, consider changing to one that does. Here's a site that compares the popularity of the major browsers in use today:

As you can see, the statistics have shifted considerably in recent years. Chrome didn't even exist before 2008, and it's now the most popular browser. Internet Explorer, the browser of choice for over half of Internet users in 2008, now gets only about 16% of the pie. And Netscape, a very popular browser 10 years ago, exists no more, having evolved into Mozilla and then into Firefox.

Next, contact the company that built your site and ask for a diagnostic check-up. It may be time to tow your site into the shop for a design tune-up or even a complete code overhaul. Any web developer worth her salt will work with you to make sure your site remains a strong asset in the continued success of your business. If the company or person who built it is no longer available, or if you'd just like a fresh pair of eyes to evaluate your site in light of today's design and coding standards, SumSites (, or 636.925.2564) will be happy to take a look at it and give you an assessment.

Finally, don't overreact.
Over the years, I've learned that whatever the latest Internet buzz says is the must-have, hottest-snot trend, can be pretty safely ignored. Base your site updates on what you know of your customers and clients, your unique business goals, your own good common sense, and the advice of your web developer. As always, if you need input or care to discuss any issues with your business site, SumSites is happy to help.

'Til next time...

© 2012 by SumSites Web Design & Development, Inc.; All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Work With a Web Developer

Please don't hate me because my taste in TV programming sucks, but one of my guilty pleasures happens to be certain reality courtroom shows. As a matter of fact, there's some good takeaway in them for business owners. One of the most common small-claims cases I see -- next to brides unhappy with their wedding photographers -- are those involving people unhappy with their web sites. No, I've never been sued myself (knock wood), but that's not going to stop me from giving you some unsolicited pointers for staying out of court.

To avoid finding yourself at the plaintiff's table in such a case, consider the following tidbits of advice when you hire someone to build your site.

From my perspective, the cardinal rule of working with a designer/developer to create a web site is that the more you care about your site, the better the end result will be. This means you have to stay involved... while still allowing the person you've hired to do the job to do the job. When the pendulum swings too far in either direction, it's a pretty safe bet you won't get the best possible end result for your money.

First of all, your web developer knows web development and your web designer knows web design. They could be the same person, of course, but in any event, assuming you've vetted them (reviewed a portfolio, gotten references, etc.) before you hired them, they know more about how to do their jobs than you do. Get your money's worth and let them do it. This means that it's entirely unnecessary to try to come up with your own design. Certainly, state preferences and share ideas; your designer wants to know what you want. (In fact, we web designers are whores for praise, and we'll go pretty far to earn yours. For this reason if for no other, we listen pretty intently to your likes and dislikes.)

Second, skilled as he may be, your developer cannot read your mind. If you don't like the way things are shaping up, say so right away, and don't worry about hurting feelings. Professionals care much more about how happy you end up being with the site than they do about their own egos. I would MUCH rather a client say, "What's this crap?" than that he remained silent but was forever after haunted by his dislike of the layout or the way the menus worked. 

Finally, get involved and stay that way. Let your web designer know that you care how your site turns out. Supply necessary photos, videos, text, and feedback in a timely manner, which means ASAP. Just as your business has deadlines to meet, your web developer has project schedules as well. If s/he has budgeted six weeks in which to build your site, and by Week Seven you've only provided content for one page, there's a problem. The time and effort allocated to build your web site has spilled over into the space allotted for someone else's. Not good. Your site is no longer the focus of your web developer's attention, for one thing. For another, concepts you've discussed in initial meetings may be long forgotten, making for a lot of rehashing before your developer can get started again. So if you decide to put on a full-court press and finish the site from ground zero to launch in two days, you may find that that ssimply isn't possible.

So there you have it... my two cents for staying out of Judge Judy's line of fire and getting the web site of your dreams.  Til next time...

Margie Summers
SumSites Web Design & Development
704 Longview Drive
St. Charles, MO 63301