Thoughts on a Decade of Professional Web Jobs

— 6 minute read

Apparently I seem to have lost a decade somewhere... Maybe down the back of the sofa? No? Oh, that's right, it went mostly on building websites, with occasional sitting in pubs ranting about usability. I thought, given that it's 2010 and clearly the future, it would be worth distilling some of the wisdom of ten years worth of web shenanigans.

Especially the ranting parts.

I spent the first month of 2000 at the Birmingham Post and Mail's web department. Ironically, given its recent attempts at social media and hyperlocal web stuff, the owners at that point began the decade shutting down the department. No more making site's for Garages for me...

Things I learned there? Agencies will try and charge you a really ridiculous sum if they think you aren't clued up. For example, for modifying a prospective portal system from 600px wide to 800px wide. No really, it shouldn't be tricky if you coded it right, which means you're either trying to shaft us or it's crap.

I also learned the value of colleagues who share ideas and push you to do better. It was a team who had migrated from being print-ad designers, and while I may sometimes criticise print guys who make that transision badly, it's because I know it can be done very well indeed. My colleagues there brought with them their ability to rapidly produce great design work; Something I still wish I was better at.

Fortunately, as that department was shut down, I found a new job at Antiquesweb, a Solihull-based startup selling services to the antiques trade. Hey, it was 2000, the dotcom boom was still just about in full swing, startups offering share options seemed the way to go. Those were the heady days of working out how this web thing worked when you're on a budget and your next paycheck might not turn up if you don't get new business. So we learned the hard way that splash pages kill your traffic, that technology doesn't matter as much as people and their quirks and that you can analyse the effectiveness of your choices really easily on the web.

We learned how to play to our new medium's strengths by focusing on users needs and finding a way to monetise that. I miss those days, the meetings in the pub, the bounced paychecks... Ok, maybe not those.

Antiquesweb folded at the tail end of 2001, but in 2002 I started at glasshaus, where I was applying my real-world experience as a tech editor for their excellent range of web development books. I've written glasshaus before, so I'll spare the details.

Things I learned at glasshaus? Standards matter and user experience is king, certainly, but also how to market effectively online by building community and engaging alpha adopters (thanks Bruce). I learned that I knew more about the web than some experts - I had to to correct their work, after all - Amazing what a confidence boost that was. It honed my writing skills too and my ability to switch between technologies as well, ASP.NET one day then PHP the next.

As was popular with tech companies, glasshaus's parent company Wrox went bust... But not before I'd experienced my first web conference (Web Design World 02 in Boston) and had one of my designs complemented by Zeldman. Good times. I'm still immensely proud of Web Graphics for Non Designers, even if it wasn't as good a seller as Dreamweaver MX with PHP...

I spent a bit of time freelancing after that. Some development work, some editing of books for Sitepoint and Apress. I wrote a lot of content for DMXZone. Things I learned : I wasn't great at the business growing part of freelancing, I needed a good network and that wouldn't come 'til later. Looking back, I also made a mistake in not putting more of my articles on the open web. 2003/2004 was an exciting year for web standards, but most of my intro articles to CSS  and DOM scripting from that time are locked behind a paywall. Actually, maybe that's better, I'd probably be embarrassed by them now... 6 years is a long time in web terms, I was probably advising people to test in Mozilla Firebird or something.

I didn't solely freelance for long. After two redundancies due to collapsing companies I thought a bit of stability might be due. So, seeing a three-days-a-week job at the University of Central England (now Birmingham City Uni.) - I figured it would give a solid base on which to keep the freelancing going. As it happened I made my self useful, which got noticed, which allowed me to grow the role myself and I went full time a little while later.

Working for a University is an interesting experience... There's lots to recommend it, you get a lot of opportunity to be involved in really interesting projects, work with great people with a real passion for learning and help with fascinating research. I could write insightfully on why working on university websites can be frustrating, but fortunately I don't have to, just watch this from Paul Boag.

Things I learned working at a university? How to wring every ounce of performance from a webpage clientside, how to get things done in a labyrinthine organisation and how to SEO a page within an inch of its life, how to build a PHP framework from scratch and then move a 1500 page flat-file tables-spaghetti site to a new CMS without anybody noticing.

I also learned I'm pretty good at selling standards and user-centric design and teaching people accessibility. I actually had somebody on a training course say I changed their approach to web design, that's a pretty awesome thing.

It was also during my six years there that I got involved with the Multipack and started speaking at events and putting myself out in the community a bit more. I can't speak highly enough of my local peer group, a great support network and sounding board. Oh, and great events too, you should come along.

Finally, I spent the last month of the decade at Talis, a move I took because it's a company with a lot of big ideas and a lot of talented people. Too early to say what I've learned yet, though it's looking like being RDF, SPARQL and how to get up at 6.30 in order to do a nursery drop off and get to work on time...