Web app career development path?
October 23, 2004 6:52 PM   Subscribe

So you want to do web design for a living. [More Inside]

I run a small web design company at the moment (I'm 21) but am definitely thinking of doing this for a living for the future. However, considering the relative infancy of the internet, what type of training/schooling should I think about? I live in PE, Canada, so on-line schools with a good reputation are great - or schools closeish to home.

If this isn't the best route, I'd love to know what you did to get yourself in the door.
posted by dflemingdotorg to Work & Money (21 answers total)
 
Are you really, truly, incredibly excellent at web design? Would you consider yourself head and shoulders above the average guy? Do you have other skills, like web application programming or DHTML front end coding, to bring to the table? If you don't, stay away. The market is absolutely glutted with penny-ante web designers who can make pretty graphics, pretty layouts, pretty HTML, and pretty CSS. These days you really have to have other outstanding skills and experience to go along with plain old web design, which in and of itself pays very little and sees relatively low demand.
posted by majick at 7:19 PM on October 23, 2004


Oh, sorry, I shouldn't have just said design; I meant web application development as well as a sort of catch all word.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 7:20 PM on October 23, 2004


I'm no believer in the ability of schools to train well in this area. Some of the university extension programs in my area are doing an okay job keeping up with the rapidly changing environment, but smart, resourceful developers are way, way ahead of the schools (and therefore, the people who graduate from them).

One good way to test the market is to poll job postings from time to time and see what skills companies are hiring for. Those same companies will be the same pool from which you'll be soliciting outsource jobs, so it makes sense to keep up with what they need.

I'd say most of the intense need these days is on the back end - search platform development, for example. Internal-use applications, too. Front-end expertise for consumer-facing websites is pretty easy to find. But think outside of consumer-oriented websites and you'll find a zillion companies out there who need help managing their data and making their workforces productive.
posted by scarabic at 7:37 PM on October 23, 2004


Ignore most of what Majick said about web design skills. The key point is that the world is full of people who are willing to code up web pages and web apps. If you have superior marketing skills, then the world will be your oyster. Write contracts with companies that need design, then hire underemployed developers. Lots of superior web designers are out of work because they lack the ability to find clients and execute contracts with them.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:38 PM on October 23, 2004


Either become a programmer/analyst with a broader skillset than just web applications, or become a content specialist/technical communicator, or, if you really think you've got it, become a graphic designer with more than just web skills (good luck).

I got my foot in the door by being able to do all of these up to an 'adequate' level of competance, and continue to do them all, from time to time. More analysis than anything, these days, though. For what it's worth, I think the brightest future is for technical folks who can communicate in detail with their customers and learn about domain-specific problems.

Key phrases such as "bridging the gap" are a big theme in IT at the moment - quite rightly. IT customers are maturing and much more aware of what's possible and much more willing to take an active role in development than they used to be. The future will be about collaboration and flexibility. The coders that understand they're in a service industry will be the winners.
posted by normy at 7:44 PM on October 23, 2004


What Majick said. You need to combine web development with something else to be competitive. For instance, I have a degree in business operations, formal academic certificates or association memberships that indicate proficiency or expertise in a dozen industries, and half a dozen years of developing office automation applications, and I'm finally thinking about starting my own company to develop customized web-based administration applications. (And I haven't gotten much past the thinking stage.) I tried a few years ago after a layoff without any venture capital or any contracts lined up in advance, and I ended up blowing through the savings with which I had intended to buy a car.

If you really like doing it full time, become a webmaster at a smaller company for a while. You'll learn what people actually need. There's always those who say, "go and do it, just do it" but keep in mind that you need to either have a way to live for pennies when you can't find work or can't find someone that will pay you enough to cover your expenses. Web Developers who follow 'best practices' and 'the way everyone else does it' without working in a corporate environment for a while tend to do things that they and other web devs think makes sense, and customers accept it if they don't know any better, but people who work closely, every day, with their customers for a while have a leg up.

If I were still capable of living on my mother's couch and working off of a laptop, stealing wireless from the neighbors unsecured access point ... that's the only time I'd consider launching a company to do what you're proposing at your age with your experience.

So, I guess the answer to your question is: Don't worry about training, unless you go and train in something else first. Go and get more experience before you do what you really want to do, but keep that burning desire as your goal. And keep in mind that a company that I work closely with just hired a web designer with an art-school degree. He asked for $40k/year. He's getting $12/hour.
posted by SpecialK at 7:46 PM on October 23, 2004


I think people need to read your followup clarification, but there's another point to clarify as well. What do you mean by "company?" If you just mean pimping out your own time where it's needed, and you want to pick up the right skills, great. But if you're talking about bringing in other people, that changes things. What do you mean by "start a company?" How would this be different from what you're doing now?
posted by scarabic at 8:17 PM on October 23, 2004


Oh. I should be a little more specific.

At the moment, I'm a webmaster for a very primitive non-profit organization (their first webmaster). I've done some small-business design work but I know that, right now, what I do is a dime a dozen. I market well, however. I do mostly XHTML and CSS, however I'm learning some more useful back end stuff. I want accreditation, if its necessary, however.

I want to gain skills in the back end and more, shall we say, meaty aspects of web development. I love the problem solving and the thrill of coding. I also love the seemingly infinte possibilities on the web and want to contribute.

I'm just not sure where to go from where I am, I guess.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 8:34 PM on October 23, 2004


Oh, and I should mention that I'm thisclose to holding an economics degree, so I'm not just coming in with nothing else behind me.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 8:36 PM on October 23, 2004


Hey! You and I are in the same field and I once had a love for web design (well realized it was beyond just web design, but I digress). With your economics degree perhaps you and I are talking with the same perspective.

Don't do it alone. As said before there's ton of web designers out there willing to work for shit. Use this! Be exploitative. Everyone's not good at everything, so what you need to do is network and take this as seriously as opening up a real shop.

You can so work out of your home/whatever and write it off. First sit down with a lawyer preferably in the web design field. If not web design look for lawyers who specialize in advertising/creative work. This should be the very first thing you do. Sit down with him (girls can't be lawyers!) and figure out contracts and such. This will pay for itself a hundred times over. Okay I skipped ahead a little bit, you need a business plan before you sit down with him. Figure out the extent of what you're capable of and what you need to outsource, I suggest outsourcing on an hourly basis and doing everything else you can by yourself. Do not be afraid or ashamed to outsource though, consider them hourly employees if you feel dejected. Okay now you know what you can do and who you want to aim at go to the lawyer and figure out everything so Mr. Dumbass of SmallBiz Corp. doesn't fuck you over. You want it to be ironclad so if there's ANY disagreement you can point to the contract. Don't be afraid to back out, your reputation and self-worth are more important than money. Do not get greedy.

Okay so you know what you're capable of, you know what you'll need to outsource (some coding for sure, server/hosting, etc.) go to an advertising firm. Ask them to market you. You have no background, nothing, so instead of wasting 3 years building up a background, spend a good chunk of money on an expensive advertising campaign. Do not skip out on this. Look at BMW and their advertising and where it got them. You know this, you're an econ major. When people are basically ignorant of what good design is you need to whore yourself to our wonderful commercial society.

Okay so now you have people wanting your service, do the best job you can, and pray. If you don't suck you will most likely do succeed. This is America, people with money make the money. The rare person can sit back let people come to them and make money with no capital what so ever.

But again I assume you pretty much know this. I don't mean to be condescending but I can't emphasize enough to approach this as a "real business". Too many people think 1998 and that they can get things started with a few phone calls from their basement. Well guess what it's not 1998 and that didn't work.

I made that mistake in 1998 and now realize it's not like mowing lawns. You say you want to do this for a living then put as much money as you possibly can in it and get a running start. Don't be cheap, it takes risk to make money. Get shareholders if you have to, there's a reason Wall Street exists. Once again, I don't mean to be condescending with your degree -- you probably know more than I do -- I just know the mistakes I made and wish someone would have told me.
posted by geoff. at 9:12 PM on October 23, 2004


Accreditation is garbage, IMO (and the opinion of many former coworkers and bosses). You put a certificate or whatever on your resume and it basicly screams "no experience" to potential recruiters or clients.

Get yourself hired at a larger company as the low man on the totem pole and work your way up by learning the back-end (SQL, ASP, C#, PHP, whatever) as you go.
posted by falconred at 9:42 PM on October 23, 2004


you might find that you can get a job with your economics background in a small company and then use your web/programming knowledge to build a reputation in the company as the computer/web guy (perhaps they want to share info on their intranet etc). with that as a base you might find it easier to drift towards your final target.

a route something like that might be more successful than competing directly with people better qualified than you. it's what i did (astronomy phd, started supporting computers in my dept, moved into a programming job with a strong science/maths emphasis and then slowly drifted towards more general programming).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:55 PM on October 23, 2004


Oh yeah I should mention the route I suggest won't work in a large city unless you know a lot of people. You'll get by with knowing less people and having more market penetration in a suburb/smaller city. By small I mean stay away from large coastal cities. You know your area better than I do. If you're in San Francisco you probably can't take a piss without hitting a web designer, Columbus, Ohio... less so. And as I said before, and as you'll probably find out -- less web design presence is less knowledagble clientele is more headache.
posted by geoff. at 10:03 PM on October 23, 2004


As a hiring manager, I would look at someone touting accreditation or certification in something related to web development as a sign of someone with skill at being trained at tested -- not skill at being a web developer. I consider other factors, of course, but more often than not it would be a net minus.

Depending on how you sell yourself and your customer base, this may or may not hold true, but at the very least it's a data point.
posted by majick at 10:14 PM on October 23, 2004


girls can't be lawyers!

Huh, interesting.

I second the talk about "bridging the gap" in IT. I'm not the best coder or the best designer amongst those two groups but I'm definitely the best designer among coders and the best coder among designers.

It's worked out well for me, mainly because I spend a lot of time learning new things on my own time. I find pure passion has actually gotten me somewhere a degree alone never will -- at least not with web app work.
posted by jragon at 1:02 AM on October 24, 2004


I think there are many skills that the IT world, in my 10 years experience of working in the field, are sorely lacking:-

- programmers who have an actual regard for useability (now this is becoming a cliche)

- graphic designers who have even an inkling of what is possible and what is not possible in a web application

- innovative ideas/implementation. There's too much aping going on in IT - so many indistinguishable companies all saying the same thing and executing it in the same way. Do not join this club, unless you want to work very hard in the marketing/sales area. By not joining this club, you will forge your own unique selling point. Far easier said than done, but you must be able to distinguish yourself from the herd.

- general common sense. OK, a fuzzy issue, but some examples:-

i) it's rare I see anyone who has a specific task (e.g. a web app programmer) think outside of his/her roles and see what impact they have on the overall project. This leads to miscommunication and often a project that has had it's overall design compromised

ii) fundamental communication skills - plain-English speakers. I hear too much jargon and feel too much fear from many IT people who are more concerned at sounding "professional" than actually communicating their point across. False assumptions replace "dumb" questions (better to keep quiet than appear an idiot). I have seen this many times.

iii) it's important for programmers/designers to look for the simplist, most robust solution and reluctantly work toward a more complicated solution only when absolutely necessary. Too many times I hear in meetings a programmer almost reflexivley offer some esoteric solution to a simple requirement. I think many people confuse simplicity as "dumb" and complexity as "clever".

My overall point is this: there are many gaps in the IT market that can be filled, both technical and non-technical. Don't be put off by the fact that the market is saturated.
posted by SpaceCadet at 3:46 AM on October 24, 2004


I'm not a web designer any longer--but in college I did start with some other folks a very successful web design and consultig business that did very well. (This was during the veeery end of the boom, so YMMV, but I think the same principles might still apply). We did work for some big firms, like Johnson & Johnson, and for some really tiny start-up type firms.

So here is my advice about starting up a small web shop:

- You know this already, it sounds like, but skills, skills, skills. It is incredibly important that you be, at least conceptually, a generalist. If you have an economics degree then that's a great start. It will help a lot if you know about business writ large (like what you learn from "The Economist") and about marketing--which really means effective writing--and if you know how to write and speak in a professional way. If you don't know how to do this--if meetings, etc., freak you out, bore you, or whatever--then find a partner who is a businessperson. Many small web design companies in the spheres in which you'll be initially competing are run by people who can't walk and talk like professional businesspeople, can't contribute to meetings, can't hold the attention of a room, and can't give a presentation that doesn't scream 'amateur!' You could develop these skills in your current job before startig up.

And as regards web-specific skills, it sounds like you're on the CSS bandwagon, which is good. If you are a 'web elite'--i.e., if you understand and can evangelize standards and usability, if you read A List Apart, etc., then believe it or not you are ahead of most small-business firms who still design using Dreamweaver. Make sure that you develop a way to communicate the fact that your skills are highly developed to your prospective clients.

- Partners: one way our firm became a firm of generalists was by pulling together people with extremely different interests and skill-sets. If you are still at university, you can do this very easily. One of us was a graphic designer, project manager, and writer (me), another a competent programmer, economist, and businessperson, and another an electrical engineer and hard-core programmer. I would look into partnership not in an exploitative way (as above) but very seriously and sincerely, because it can allow you to put together a compelling team that, together, are way more compelling and knowledgable than the typical firm. Put signs up around campus--in *every* department, not just computer science. Negotiate a completely equal profit-sharing agreement that you agree with renegotiate in six months or a year.

- When I started up I had worked pretty extensivley in IT--but my real web design 'awakening' was when the firm I worked for hired Sapient to build a giant online brokerage site, and I worked with the Sapient people up close, realized they were all my age, and saw that I could do what they did for a lot less. If you have only worked in IT and haven't worked for a web design firm, then consider finding the very best ones in your area and working for them. It might help, in other words, to actually work at a small shop rather than just jump right from IT to web development.

- Don't get an office until you get your first job (our office was in a basement for $1 a square foot); but come up with a good name and get business cards first.

- Last one: Become very, very good at proposal writing. Writing creative, interesting, intelligent, understandable, informative proposals is the most important skill you can have. If you don't feel you're an excellent writer, find someone who is who can write your proposals.

In my firm we used Sapient's 'workout session' model to great effect. We would send prospective clients a meaty proposal with loose cost estimates, and offer a 'workout session' of between 8 and 16 hours at a reasonable hourly rate. This meant that we would sit in a room with the client and a lot of white boards and have lengthy, productive conversations about what the product was for and what its requirements would be. We would then return to the client a much longer and more detailed project plan, which they could keep and take if they decided not to hire us. On sseveral occasions, clients paid us for the session, took the plan, and had it produced by their in-house IT. On many other occasions we were hired to produce a well-planned and endlessly discussed project. (Of course these projects were revised, changed, etc., en route, but they were well-tailored to each client and our cost estimates, etc., were accurate.)

Get in the loop on the proposals that are coming in in the firm you work for, and read heavily in the Canonical Web Books by Siegel, Zeldman, et. al. The content and its timeliness are not an issue; what you really need to know is how to write compellingly about the web, and how to get your clients excited about hiring you.
posted by josh at 6:19 AM on October 24, 2004 [1 favorite]


oh, and the web isn't in its infancy. 8 years ago there were already database backend dynamic content sites. And killer designs. just sayin.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:19 AM on October 24, 2004


oh, and the web isn't in its infancy.

Relatively, as opposed to, say, carpentry, when it comes to training. When one wants to become a carpenter, time has shown the best way to do that (trade school). Web development seems to have a more broad spectrum of how to get there and I think that's what's got me so brain-tied. People who have no "formal" training are some of the best web developers out there right now and I was trying to gauge whether that was the best way to go or not.

Thanks for the responses all, they have been extremely helpful. I (l) AskMe.
posted by dflemingdotorg at 10:40 AM on October 24, 2004


ive heard good things about this book:

creative guide to running a graphic design business


here are few items i was recently asked for samples of by a fortune 500 company in the course of discussing future work together:

1. Requirements documentation
2. Site maps
3. Process flow schemas
4. Wireframe page mock ups
5. Design requirement documentation (DRD)
6. Usability testing requirements

all the planning that happens before a lick of coding or design is done.

you might also check out the DMI - design management institute - they have some links to excellent schools and programs
posted by specialk420 at 6:02 PM on October 24, 2004


I'd say you're maybe 5 years too late.
posted by crunchland at 7:55 PM on October 24, 2004


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