After nearly fifteen years working as a web professional, there are many things I wish I’d known years ago when I was just getting started. You might think that the top items of regret are about not learning or mastering technical skills or tools like Ruby on Rails, jQuery, Node.js or Fireworks. Not so.
In fact, I believe the tools and web programming languages you use are one of the least important factors.
Anyone who has worked in the industry of building websites for a while has seen many trends start, prosper and burn out. They understand that tools and certain technical proficiencies boom and bust constantly, but the person behind the work stays put.
In this article, I’ll share with you 8 things I wish I had known about web development as a profession and as an industry.
1. The Tools You Use Don’t Matter
Today, using FrontPage professionally will get you a lot of flack. The
<blink> tag went extinct (thankfully). Yahoo! has gone from hot property to ghost town. Terms like Perl, WAP, WML, and FBML are becoming or have become relics in spite of once being requirements for many web projects. MySpace was steamrolled by Facebook. AOL was crushed by broadband internet connections.
Ten years from now, will you still be able to impress prospective clients with your insights on HTML5, CSS3, and Flash/ActionScript?
Because the tools we’re using now will be vastly different or completely gone in 3-5 years — which seems to be the average lifespan of many web technologies — the means to get the job done are almost irrelevant. The experts of tomorrow are the complete novices of today, and the gap between today and tomorrow is especially short in the web industry.
Those who are open minded, constantly learning, and in a never-ending state of growth and education are those who will stand out and succeed in the long run.
2. Depend on No One for Experience. Create It Yourself.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have interviewed many web designers and developers for full-time positions and projects over the past decade. One of the things that always shocks me is how many aspiring applicants have a weak or non-existent portfolio and are counting almost exclusively on their employer to provide growth and interesting projects.
Nothing screams laziness like an idealistic, up-and-coming web professional with an empty portfolio.
Every community is peppered with nonprofit groups, churches, clubs and small businesses who would love to have help with their websites. Sure, the budget might be low or even non-existent, but the value you get from a solid portfolio outweighs any check you might be able to pull out of a small client of this type.
Just remember that you are competing with people who have broad portfolios packed with polished samples and client testimonials whenever you go into that interview.
If you can’t find someone to do projects for, show some passion for your craft by creating projects for yourself.
If you don’t have enough interest in design and technology to do any of the above, you seriously need to reconsider your choice of career path. Without some passion for learning, growth, and without the desire to be a self-starter, a career in this field will not be very fruitful.
3. Specialize in Something
From the outside looking in, clients see a world overflowing with web designers and people who claim to be experts at everything from usability, to programming, to SEO, to design.
These prospective clients have few ways to separate the true pros from the hobbyists. The result? Your unique talents and abilities are drowned out in a sea of self-proclaimed gurus and become a commodity like potatoes or turnips.
To stand out from the pack, you need to come up with a specialty. A flag to fly. Something that makes you specially suited for specific projects. It might be small e-commerce sites. Maybe it’s websites for churches. Perhaps it’s social media marketing sites.
Whatever it is, you should focus on it and turn it into the differentiator that will help you cut through the noise and establish yourself as a niche expert. Telling people you’re a "web developer" is selling yourself short.
4. It’s OK to Say "No"
Assuming you’ve put together a solid portfolio and know where your passion lies, it’s time to get picky. I’m not suggesting that you turn down projects just to be a snob, but you can differentiate yourself by only accepting projects that make the most out of your skills; projects that shine a spotlight on what you do best.
If you’re a great designer, focus on projects that depend most on your skills; allow yourself to fail or succeed based on that. Don’t overreach and try to tackle an e-commerce site if that isn’t something you have the desire and passion to do. Don’t take on a Drupal project if what you really enjoy working on is WordPress. You’ll end up producing a project that you won’t be proud of in the end. Your lack of passion will show in the outcome.
Every project you choose to do will represent you to your next client. What do you want them to see?
It’s OK to turn down projects that simply don’t feel like a good fit. Perhaps the client wants to drive all the design decisions and how site layout will be constructed. If that’s not going to fit with your work style, you’re probably better off declining the project.
If the project is being managed by a team and there’s no clear decision-maker, that’s also a red flag warning you to consider moving on. There are many questions you can use to help get projects off to a great start and avoid pitfalls.
5. Defining Project Scope at the Start Is Extremely Crucial
Assume only one thing is true: Your client is skeptical and probably believes her 14 year-old nephew does exactly the same thing you do for 10% of the cost you charge. Other than that, you need to work with the client to carefully define and document everything before beginning any work.
The purpose of this scope-definition and discovery phase is to make sure the client completely understands what they’re getting. If they make an assumption about something that you failed to address, that’s your fault. You are the expert in the relationship and they are counting on you for clarity and guidance. Take your time and walk them through it in a professional way so you completely understand their expectations.
Scope out the entire project and specifically describe the deliverables and timelines. Social media integration, content development, SEO — all of this can easily fall into the category of "I thought that was included!"
By carefully detailing what will be provided to them, you won’t end up with a project that becomes an endless margin-eating monster.
6. The Smaller the Budget, the Bigger the Pain
Okay, this is a rule of thumb that’s not true in every single case, but I think most freelancers and contractors would agree that this is true more often than not.
It’s just a matter of economics. If you have a million-dollar budget and are only spending $50,000 of it on your website design, you will tend to have a more hands-off approach to the project than if you had a $2,000 budget and are spending half of it on your website design.
Larger clients tend to be managing numerous other projects, so they count on you more heavily to manage things for them and make the correct decisions.
Like many of you have found, smaller projects tend to have decision-makers who want to be much more hands-on and less willing to listen to your professional guidance and decisions. They simply have less money to spend and are putting up more risk.
7. The User Always Comes First
This can be one of the most difficult points for web developers to accept. Especially for beginning web developers, each project is an exciting opportunity to express yourself and let your creative genius shine. But it’s only appropriate if it enhances the experience of the users, and you are not the user.
It’s often argued that design is a vital part of the overall user experience and that the design needs to help the site stand out. I agree with that. However, some users simply don’t care. See Craigslist as an example. It’s a perfect example of an ultra-boring site with virtually zero branding. Yet it’s an undeniable success. I’d like to think that it would be a bigger success with an amazing design and interface around it, but the audience for classified ads simply doesn’t care.
Before you dive in head first and assume that a gorgeous design is a requirement, study and understand the users and get your arms around the purpose of the site.
Rely heavily on the business owner for additional insights into the minds of their customers, but always validate their assumptions with the end users.
8. Let It Go. It’s Theirs, Not Yours.
Once the project is finished, many clients will begin to make updates and changes to the site on their own. Even with a rigid CMS in place, many of them will find creative ways to take your baby and turn it into an unwieldy monster made of clashing colors, low-res photos and a disproportionately large logo.
Do your best to guide them, offer your services (at an appropriate fee), then allow them to move forward as they see fit. They are the customer, it’s their site, and you’ll need to let them take it where they want. Don’t hold a grudge, and be sure you capture the site in its original form for your portfolio!
What are some of the things you’ve learned? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!