February 23, 2004 Program Summary

Careers in Web Technology”
by Adele Sommers and Michael Raphael

At this standing-room-only event, an eclectic gathering of technical professionals and students contemplated how careers in Web technology have progressed significantly since the early days when creating Web sites involved blissful, single-handed tinkering with a couple of display options and a few simple tools. In contrast, today's Web professionals typically specialize in distinct Web technology domains. They work in teams with other specialists, juggling and meshing advanced skills and roles.

Speakers Jeremy LaDuque, Stuart Helmintoller, and Michael BoyerProviding these valuable insights were our panelists (shown from left to right), local experts Jeremy LaDuque of New Image Technologies, Stuart Helmintoller of Helmintoller.com, and Michael Boyer of Web Associates. (See further speaker details at bottom.)

Each speaker brought a different perspective to the discussion, based on his company's particular niches. Stuart, now an independent, works with small “Mom and Pop” Web sites and many others; Jeremy's company primarily caters to local businesses; and Michael's firm deals mostly with major, non-local clients such as Apple Computer and Hewlett-Packard.

During the engaging question-and-answer session, our audience members lamented the difficulties of trying to stay abreast of the latest developments. It was a small comfort to learn that each of our panelists remembered a time in their careers when they themselves knew nothing about the Web, and relatively little about computer technology.

Drawing on education and experience in fields such as business, advertising, and fine arts, each has evolved with the times, perceiving the many benefits that emerging Web technology could offer themselves and their clients.

What is a “Web developer,” anyway?

Juggling tools, skills, and schedulesVarious Internet definitions for the term characterize a “Web developer” as a person or company that handles the programming aspects of building a Web site, creating graphics, adding pictures, creating links, and the like. A Web developer might also be a Web designer, but typically has more database and engineering experience.

One of the most important discoveries of the evening pertained to the limitations of this term, which we had used to craft our original list of questions (see bottom). According to our panelists, it offers an inadequate description of the array of specialized skills required today.

The label is “too broad,” said Jeremy. “Information crosses over all these lines. A single person needs to specialize in a few of these things, but I would not look for a ‘Web developer.’ One person can't be all of these things any longer; each component has become too deep and too broad in scope.”

Our panelists concurred that describing yourself as a “Web developer” on a résumé can cause hiring managers to question your understanding of the field. Emphasizing a specialization such as project manager, graphic designer, software engineer, HTML architect, information architect, content developer, content publisher, or Web systems engineer will appear far more credible.

“We have positions for each of these areas,” said Michael. For instance, “We need database specialists, designers, and user interface designers.”

Further, the roles overlap, Jeremy explained. For example, “We would want a graphic designer who really knows HTML,” he said, to be more savvy about the quality of the code generated by a program such as Fireworks.

Core skills needed by all specialists

The basics. Although time constraints prevented us from discussing all the requirements for each role, our panelists listed the fundamental skills every team member should have:

  • Designing and writing for the Web
  • Understanding the folder structure concept behind any Web site
  • The ability to focus on and be guided by a clients' business objectives
  • Experience with HTML (including the ability to recognize the quality of HTML code produced by a given tool)
  • A broad, up-to-date, Web-related vocabulary to communicate well with other team members

Seeing the big picture. Michael, Stuart, and Jeremy emphasized that perceiving the appropriate application of technology is far more important than having a dazzling set of technology skills. Keeping the high-level view in mind at all times — what a customer is trying to accomplish via a Web site — is paramount. Routinely considering the tradeoffs among methods and technologies should be part of the team's philosophy behind doing the work. This approach ensures that each Web site will accurately reflect the client's business goals.

“We look for someone with core understanding of various skills,” Michael said. He added that the “one thing we lack” is people with business backgrounds, indicating his company is more interested in people with “business acumen” than people with computer skills but no clear understanding of business.

With an understanding of business, Stuart explained, the designer can “back up why (s)he designed a site a certain way and how this braces the client's business needs. That’s all because the Web site is used as a business tool,” he said. Further, “the logos and information really need to reflect what the client wants. I always go to the user point of view,” Stuart noted in explaining how he approaches development.

“Again, it comes back to understanding the business,” Michael said. “If we talk about your coding, we won’t get anywhere. We’re there to make the Web site perform, and make it better according to the needs of the client.”

Understanding what Web development is like today. A discussion of current trends helped illustrate the skills most needed by individual team members. Key points that emerged from the conversation included the following:

  • Many clients are quite savvy about what they want to see on their Web sites. They've looked at plenty of examples on the Internet and can clearly articulate their preferences. Working with clients to explore their needs typically results in some immediate, stable decisions and other highly volatile requirements that must be further refined and modeled.
  • Web development is similar to other software projects but with a highly compressed life cycle. Web site design and creation are often very fast, dynamic, and fluid processes with many iterations and changes along the way. Rapid prototyping thus represents an indispensable approach to Web development.
  • The extensive use of mockups, templates, and modular components helps keep development costs down, standardizes the look and feel of the site, and reduces development time. For example, text-only prototypes called “wireframes” make it possible to define and test the usability of a site's navigational flow before a single line of code is written. In this way, usability can be checked early and often during the site development process.

Jeremy described Web development as a “rapid deployment process by nature,” and added that, “as a client learns more, (s)he wants more. The client knows you can change it, so you have to build something designed to change.” Even though Web development software is available that is fairly simple to use, 90 percent of the clients "don’t want to go in that direction,” Jeremy said.

Ease of content updating is another popular client preference. “None of our customers needs to know HTML,” said Michael. Jeremy's and Michael's companies both build Web sites with proprietary software that allows customers to make their own content changes. “All the client does is log into the control panel” to make changes, Jeremy said.

How does an information architect differ from other specialists?

“Some really hard-to-fill positions are information architects,” said Michael, with reference to a current opening in Web Associates’ nearly four-dozen employee group. This observation surfaced during the panel discussion about this particular specialization.

What is an information architect? According to various definitions on the Internet, information architects analyze and design content. They are responsible for building the information product models, element models, metadata, reuse strategies, and architectural models. They also may define user flow, site content, and navigational structures for user experiences; and develop content diagrams, narrative structures, clickstream analyses, schematic layouts, and navigational prototypes.

What's unique about the role? The information architect “drives the site development and works with designers and engineering,” Michael explained. The job requirements, however, often include skills that go far beyond those of Web designers, as evidenced by recent job descriptions. Those skills include usability, human factors, business process analysis, technical communication, focus group facilitation, and data modeling experience. (As a point of contrast, a project manager is a generalist who also may specialize in some of these areas but must understand how all of the roles and skills on a team interrelate.)

What skills are most important? We asked our speakers to elaborate on how someone can ever adequately prepare for an information architect position. Our panelists help set the record straight about the skills needed to perform in this role:

  • Communication skills. A person in this role must be able to interpret the client's needs and then act as both a designer and a translator. This role engages with clients frequently, collecting information and explaining development processes in terms the client can easily understand. In this regard, a sales background can be quite useful.
  • Business acumen. Unlike an MBA-type of competence, business acumen in this context pertains to solving business problems by exploring ways clients can increase revenue and/or decrease costs using Web technology.
  • Explaining the process. If you are interviewing for an information architect or a similar position, for example, the ability to expound on the entire sequence of Web development stages — including discussing needs with a client, analyzing business objectives, translating needs into requirements, and managing changes and iterations — will serve you well. It helps demonstrate your critical understanding of the process as well as the overarching formula for success.
  • Rounding out the team. Regardless of the breadth of your abilities, if you can strengthen a weaker area of an existing team, you may be the one to hire. This outcome is obviously situation dependent, but it strongly suggests that if you're interested in such a role, you don't necessarily need every skill, particularly if you can demonstrate those mentioned above.
What opportunities await independent developers?

Stuart, Jeremy, and Michael explained several important factors that strongly influence the opportunities for independent Web developers:

  • Not all sites are big and fancy. Many individuals and companies have low-key Web requirements. This leaves plenty of room for small-scale Web designers to cater to the myriad “Mom and Pop” businesses with modest needs.
  • Many existing sites need to be upgraded, and the proprietors may not have the time, inclination, or skills to perform the enhancements themselves. Enter a perfect opportunity for independent agents to step in and improve or redesign what no longer works.
  • Specialists are frequently needed for short-term contracts by companies such as Web Associates. Examples of sought-after expertise include Flash developers; database developers, such as Cold Fusion experts; and technical communicators and other content developers.

Stuart, an independent contractor after six years with Web Associates, noted “there’s a lot of opportunity out there” for people who want to work in the field of Web technology. “There are still a lot of businesses that don’t have Web sites, or need to have Web sites revamped. A lot of people don’t need a big Web development company,” he said.

To reduce the intimidation factor, people who go into the field and find they don’t know some aspects of Web development while dealing with a project can “farm out any of the critical aspects of what they do,” Stuart said. He often partners with a back-end programmer to complete the sites he designs.

How can we better prepare for the emerging Web opportunities?

We asked our experts about the best ways to get ready, through a combination of education and experience, for advanced opportunities in Web development. We discussed five ways of coming up to speed locally:

  • Internships. Web Associates, in particular, offers an internship program to students interested in breaking into the field as designers or engineers.
  • Distance learning programs. These range from complete degree programs, such as several in eBusiness and eCommerce listed on eLearners.com, to certificate courses in subjects such usability analysis, design, and testing offered by venues such as Online-Learning.com.
  • Volunteer projects. To strengthen your skills and enhance your portfolio, you can take on a pro bono Web site project. Whether it's to showcase your own work or help another individual or company, the value can be immense when striving to impress others. Hiring managers take these efforts seriously when interviewing candidates.
  • Professional certifications. The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a certification program that is widely recognized and accepted as a standard for project managers in many areas. Web development project management is no exception.

More links to information. Besides getting an education, people who are thinking about getting into the field of Web technology need a thorough grounding in terminology. Three Web sites, WhatIs.com, the computer section of About.com, and Grokdotcom.com offer information, as does the international STC Web site and a host of other resources on the Internet.

To have access to a wide variety of technical publications online, consider the Safari Books Online service.

Photography by Mary Meyer.

Careers in Web Technology
Monday evening, February 23, 2004

Jeremy LaDuque is the co-founder, president, and CEO of New Image Technologies™. Since 1999, Jeremy and his team of experts have successfully partnered with dozens of companies in diverse industries to assist businesses with solving their most critical challenges through the strategic implementation of Web technology. Prior to starting New Image Technologies, Jeremy was a key member of the client support system for TCI, a Fortune 100 company; and Director of Web Services at Best 1 Internet.

Stuart Helmintoller is a former employee and part owner of Web Associates. Stuart is a Web developer and fine artist with expertise in marketing, project management, site design and production, information architecture, and multimedia for online deployment. After six years with Web Associates, Stuart started his own Web development company, Helmintoller.com. Since 1995 he has built hundreds of Web pages for Apple Computer, Hewlett Packard, and many other companies, both large and small.

Michael Boyer is Vice President of Professional Services at Web Associates. Prior to joining Web Associates, Michael was VP of Marketing at Platinum Services as well as VP of Operations at Global Software Solutions, Inc. Michael has also held director and senior director positions at Copper Mountain Trust, USWeb/CKS, and marchFIRST. In 1996, he founded Hucksters, Inc., a full-service advertising agency devoted to helping small and medium-sized businesses with their marketing and design needs. Hucksters was acquired in 1999.


“Careers in Web Technology” engaged the principals of leading San Luis Obispo Web design and development companies in an in-depth look at what they seek in Web professionals today. We learned in a relaxed, informal setting what we need to know to qualify for Web-related career opportunities. Here are some of the questions our panelists addressed:

1) What is a Web developer today? Is it a project manager, graphic designer, software engineer, HTML architect (presentation wizard), information architect, content developer, content publisher, Web systems engineer, or a combination of the above?

2) What core skills are needed for typical Web developer positions, and how are they evolving?

3) For positions that go beyond traditional “Web development,” how important is each type of skill set, and what's the best way for people to round out their expertise? For example, information architect positions require the following additional experience:

  • usability
  • human factors
  • business process analysis
  • technical communication
  • focus group facilitation
  • data modeling

4) What role does the information architect or Web Developer assume with respect to the larger team and how does that affect his or her responsibilities?

5) What opportunities are emerging for those who want to become independent Web developers?

6) What distance learning or local educational resources are available to train people in each key area? Would it behoove us to find a way to offer specialized training in our community, especially to make Web positions easier to fill?

Don't miss this rare opportunity to hear and interview some of our local Web technology employers. Learn about the trends and opportunities emerging in this dynamic field!


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