Getting a Web Development Job For Dummies (2015)
Part I. Getting a Job in Web Development
Chapter 3. Understanding Where Web Designers Work
In This Chapter
Discovering what it’s like to work at a web development company
Understanding how other organizations use web developers
Knowing what to look out for when working for a company
Web designers are everywhere. Every organization has a website — and there are many professional-looking websites that don’t really have much of an organization behind them. So web work is ubiquitous; every organization has web developers working for it at least part of the time, whether they’re full-time employees, contractors, or employees of a web services firm.
Most web designers take somewhat of a random walk into and through their careers. They get an initial job in web development, or they start doing web development work when they have an entirely different title and set of responsibilities. Then the technologies they use, the areas of expertise which they develop, and the people they get to know determine the next step in their career, and so on, perhaps for decades.
In this chapter, we provide you key information you need to use in deciding how to start your career — or how to continue it in a more interesting and rewarding direction. We describe the different types of organizations that web developers work in and how being employed by different types of organizations affects the way you work.
Finding Out about Work at a Web Development Company
One of the very best ways to kick-start your career in web development, or to energize a career that’s started to run out of steam, is to find work with a web development company.
Web development companies are focused on web development as their only job. This has all sorts of implications, mostly good, for the job you’ll be doing and for your career going forward.
In a web development company, you probably won’t do much but web work, and you’ll do a lot of it in a short period of time, hopefully to a high level of expertise — supported by other awesome professionals like yourself.
Oddly, web development work often doesn’t pay all that well. In a web development company, you might experience the joy of being billed out to a client for a princely (or princessly) sum such as $1,000 a day, and seeing about 20 percent of that amount in your paycheck after deductions.
Also, the client rules the roost. Web services companies live and die on their clients’ happiness, so, at the end of the day, the customer is always right. The good web service companies have rules, procedures, and structure that keep the client at least somewhat in line, or get a lot more money from them if they keep moving the goalposts during a project. A bad web services company tries to make up for its own missed deadlines and its clients’ flightiness by sweating its assets — which means trying to get more work out of you without paying you any more money.
In a web services company, you’ll work very hard, for relatively little money, but with brilliant people. You’ll use the latest technology and be paid to live on the cutting edge. Your later career will benefit many times over from even a few years spent at a web services company.
The table below sums up the pros and cons of working for a web services company. Read and enjoy:
· Pros: Varied and interesting work. Latest technologies. Lots of travel. Bright, hardworking people. Respect from (the better) clients and peers in web development jobs.
· Cons: Long hours. Pay on the low side, demands on the high side. Lots of travel. The client is king.
· Salary: Often low for the role and responsibilities, and bordering on a minimum wage violation when you consider the number of hours you’re likely to work.
· Benefits: Often solid, if the company is well-established.
· Career path: Get underpaid working for a web services company for a few years, then get overpaid to work half as hard, for twice the money, from a non-web services company that will be dead impressed by your background.
Web services companies are often pressure cookers. They’re great places to have worked for, and difficult places to actually work.
Figure 3-1 shows a promotional blurb put on the Small Business Administration (SBA) site for a web services company (www.sba.gov/community/discussion-boards/web-design-web-development-and-seo-small-businesses). You can see that this company is a generalist firm without any one strong technological edge; the focus is helping small businesses. Other web development companies have any number of specialties.
Figure 3-1: The SBA hosts a promotional paragraph for a web development company.
Finding Out How Companies Use Web Developers
Web development jobs at companies that do something besides web development as their main work — which means, most web development jobs — are pretty hit or miss.
First, the bad news. Web development work is inherently uneven in nature. When someone needs to do something new, whether a new site or a new approach to an existing one, there’s a lot to do, and it’s often creative and satisfying work — adding new capabilities, using new technologies, engaging with new customers.
Getting the clients to make up their minds
The most frustrating single thing in web development, as in many other creative endeavors that people do for money, has nothing to do with the actual work. It’s getting the thrice-darned client to make up his mind.
Web work is protean — in both senses of the term. It changes frequently and easily, and, the results of the work are versatile, able to do many things. It is at least theoretically possible to build an entire website with one talented developer — and for that website to be more capable, more functional, and more attractive than a website that’s had a team working on it for a long time. Of course, this kind of outcome is unlikely, but it is possible.
So web developers often spend most of their time trying to figure out the specification, finding out that there’s no way the specification can work, dealing with changes in the specification, and so on. What’s really happening is that the client is wanting to be wowed, to see amazing work done for very little money — so he keeps pushing the developers to do miracles as the deadline looms and the requirements list gets longer.
There is often no extra pay for the rework relating to this process, and the final deadline drives the project — everything will get done in a rush at the end, perhaps poorly, because that’s what it takes for people to stop arguing and start supporting the completion of actual work. Working in a web services company is often valuable largely because successful web services companies have put a structure around this process; they insist on client commitment strong enough to ensure forward motion. If they’re not getting it, overage fees start piling up, which is usually enough to force a quick decision in one direction or another.
The trouble is, most companies don’t have enough personnel to do big projects well. So they overcommit their internal resources or hire in external specialists, who at best teach the internal folks new skills. At worst, the external company does the best bits, and leaves the meat-and-potatoes work to the internal people.
Worse, when an internal team is between big projects, its people can become layoff bait — people who are easy to let go when budgetary pressures hit. Then, when a bigger staff is needed for the next big project, there aren’t enough internal people around to handle it, and the depressed and demoralized remaining staff may not feel super-energized to step up to the plate either.
Now, though, for the good news. Companies are in business to make money, so they need to “keep up with the Joneses” — or stay ahead of them. This competitive pressure can push the company to do some pretty interesting things online. A sophisticated company will manage its web development people well, getting them educated and letting them experiment during slow periods, so they’re fully ready to go when the stuff hits the fan.
The difference between contractors and consultants
One of the most abused pairs of related terms in the English language is contractor/consultant. Here we attempt to bring clarity to these oft-confused words.
A consultant was originally a term used in England for a consulting physician: a doctor so eminent that he (it was always “he” at the time) was called in to consult on other doctors’ tough cases. Today, the mainstream meaning of consultant is similar — a somewhat eminent man or woman who is called in to advise other, perhaps less experienced, practitioners on what to do next. Consultants may also pick up a scalpel and join in the actual work at hand, but they’re being paid for their strategic insight and next-level expertise more than for any actual work they turn out.
A contractor is simply an individual contributor (usually) working under contract instead of as an employee. It actually sounds, and often is, somewhat less prestigious than being a full-time employee, with benefits and the assumption of some kind of job security. Contractors usually get paid more per hour than other workers, but the distance between a contractor and being back out on the street is not very far at all.
Both consulting and contracting are very common in web design work. Projects often need the strategic vision and high level of expertise generally associated with consultants. And projects often need the short-term boost of throwing in bodies and minds who are competent and easy to move in and out of a project, even if the hourly rate required seems quite high.
Now the terms are often used interchangeably, especially by contractors who call themselves by the more prestigious-sounding term consultant. But, as you enter into or continue your career in web development, keep in mind what the terms really mean, as explained here, and how you yourself prefer to work.
Keeping even with, or ahead of, the Joneses also means using the latest technology. If you work for a company, and keep your sword sharp by experimenting with the latest technology, you may well get the opportunity to do some pretty interesting stuff.
Remember that recruiters and hiring managers for future jobs will read your resume the same way as a Google search engine, looking for how many years of experience you have with whatever hot technology they think will solve their problems — or help their department survive the ax when budget-cutters come along.
This list captures some of the good and bad aspects that are likely to come up when working for a company that’s in some business other than web services. Check any specific opportunity you get against this list of potential plusses and minuses.
· Pros: Stable work, or, at least, stable pay even if work is lacking for a while. Serious responsibility creating and maintaining the web presence for companies with real problems to solve. The opportunity to plan and to integrate your work with serious corporate strategies.
· Cons: Potential for boredom, or manic/depressive work schedules — months of little work followed by weeks of panic as a deadline looms. The most interesting work may go to hired guns from outside, who come and go. Everyone with a “C” at the start of his or her title — CEO (Chief Executive Officer), CFO (Chief Financial Officer), CTO (Chief Technical Officer) — is king.
· Salary: Get your money up front, and a bonus, if you can. Established companies will often pay very well up front for expertise in “name” technologies, but raises will stop as soon as the bloom goes off that particular rose.
· Benefits: Often solid, sometimes amounting to the kind of “golden handcuffs” that make it hard to leave for new opportunities.
· Career path: Cash in on good opportunities with an established company, but only stay as long as the work is interesting, and keeps adding “name” technologies and impressive projects to your resume. Answer those recruiter calls — or make calls of your own to recruiters — when the sun is shining.
Doing web development work for non-web service companies is a mixed bag. It can be great, awful, and everything in between. Manage your career carefully when working for a company, and don’t be afraid to leave.
Sometimes you’ll get hired to do web development work for a company that isn’t a company yet, more a gleam in the eye of one person, or a couple of people. They may have quit their day jobs, or they may still be in them. And they may have a lot of money, or very little.
This kind of work is likely to be performed as a consultant (you bring strategic insight and rare expertise) or a contractor (you’re as skilled as a good employee, and willing to work on an hourly basis). It’s tough, because one-man bands — really meaning very small, poorly funded efforts — generally want a lot, and can only pay a little.
As in so much else about web work, the trick here is to get a clean, solid definition of the job, and then stick to it as much as possible. (Employers tend to remember that the work wasn’t done on time, not that the requirements changed half a dozen times from the start of the project to the end.) Make sure you get paid a chunk up front, and then steadily as you go along, because the strategy, and your assignment, could end at any minute. Find out how much money there is, and make sure to deliver something usable before the money runs out, even if you have to say no to the client on some of his requests.
Surfing the Sullivan curve
Kevin Sullivan was the Human Resources chief for Apple in the years between the first and second Steve Jobs eras — that is, during the early and mid-1990s. He became somewhat famous for a rather cutting analysis of the value of tech workers over time.
Sullivan posited that the hottest employees were those who had several years of experience with the latest and greatest technologies. This meant three or four years, not ten or twenty; hot technologies, by definition, are only hot for a few years.
Sullivan also noted that an employee’s salary tends to rise over time, whether she was getting more productive or not.
The Sullivan curve mapped the value of a new college graduate tech employee after she joined Apple. During her first few years out of college, the employee had a lot of new knowledge, but not enough experience to apply it well. However, she was inexpensive to employ.
Then came the golden age — employees who were a few years out of college, with knowledge that was still fresh, and valuable experience. Pay, however, was rising. The job of a tech company was to get the most out of these knowledgeable, experienced employees before the third stage kicked in.
In the third stage, knowledge gets stale, and pay goes up along with years of experience. The benefit of experience doesn’t offset the employee’s aging knowledge base and increasing pay. Time, Sullivan strongly implied, to get rid of that employee and hire someone fresh out of school.
For you, the trick to beating the Sullivan curve is to keep updating your resume with new and hot technologies — and, sadly, not to let your salary or hourly rate get out in front of your likely value to a company. Think of your salary as a multiple of what your company would pay an entry-level employee straight out of school, and be ready to show how your extra productivity more than offsets the pay disparity.
Working for one-man bands can be very rewarding and a real career-builder and resume-builder too. It produces great networking opportunities as you reach out to people for help, advice, and small contributions of work. (Those opportunities are often paid for by a nice lunch or a drink after work, rather than an actual payment of money.)
Managing the clients’ budgets for them is one of the key skills of working for very small companies as clients.
There’s a lot to think about when you consider working as an independent contractor — including how things look from the client’s point of view. Figure 3-2 shows a web page (www.sba.gov/blogs/5-things-know-about-hiring-independent-contractors) with advice from the Small Business Administration about how employers think through the decision as to whether to hire an independent contractor.
Figure 3-2: The SBA also tells companies what to look for in hiring independent contractors.
The term startup gets used quite broadly because it sounds so cool — and because every project starts up at some point. Here we’re referring to a classic, Silicon Valley-type startup.
So that begs the question, what is a Silicon Valley-type startup? Here are a few indicative — not determinative — characteristics:
· Founded with a clear idea of the initial product offering; the initial team’s job is to get that product to market, even if they have to hire a few hundred people to do it.
· Externally financed, or financed by founders who’ve made money from previous startups, and basically invest in themselves. High-tech company incubators; angels — venture capitalists and other well-off people spending their own money — and venture capitalists spending investor money are the other funding sources.
· Founded by a small team that’s ready to take on the world, and then beefed up with people (mostly engineers) who get chunks of stock in the company. (One or two founders might have a quarter of the company each; the initial chief marketing officer might get one percent of the stock.)
· Run on a tight time schedule to get a product to market and either getting bought out (in which case, profits may never appear) or going public (in which case, profits better happen and increase quickly).
· Run on a tight value schedule. Investors want to see a ten times or more return on their money in just a few years. You have to contribute strongly to this kind of value increase, or you’re just in the way.
There are more ways to describe a classic, Silicon Valley-type startup, but these are enough to give you a feel. So, what does this mean if you’re a web developer for a startup company?
First, your resume could end up looking great. Some of the most exciting web development work is associated with startups, even if the company isn’t very successful. You should get to work with name technologies and not have to spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for decisions to be remade. In most cases, you won’t even have to redo the site — you might think you need to, but no one will have the time or the money.
Second, you could do even better than that. You should get a chunk of stock, and that might well turn out to be worth something. You probably won’t get a high salary, though; the stock options and the experience are supposed to make up for that.
Third, there is no better relationship-building opportunity than a startup. The bonds formed in the trenches of a startup — including unsuccessful ones, but more so for the winners — will be a resource for you for your whole career.
Try to serve time in a startup or two early in your career. The experience will be a gift that keeps on giving.
If you decide to create a startup of your own, you’ll need lots of advice. The SBA has lots of advice for you, under the category Startup and High Growth Businesses, as shown in Figure 3-3. Check it out at www.sba.gov/content/startups-high-growth-businesses.
Small and large companies
“Small” companies can be quite large; there are directories where companies with hundreds of companies can be considered “small.” Conversely, “large” companies can act like collections of smaller ones, an amalgamation of regions, language groups, product groups, and lines of business.
On the other hand, you can work at the core of a big enterprise. There is so much money and so much company history in some of these places that you enter a kind of Twilight Zone — “No escape, no place to hide. Here where time and space collide. You have entered the Twilight Zone.”
Figure 3-3: The SBA will give you startup advice aplenty.
Working in small and large companies is similar in principle. The web development group is a service group. In an established company, there are considered to be three basic types of functions:
· Product/services. You make what the company sells. Whether it’s Oreo cookies or high-end consulting services, you are a producer, creating the very thing the company sells.
· Sales. These people close the deal made possible by the producers. They are the miners who bring home the bacon, to mix metaphors.
· Everyone else. You can be director of regulatory compliance, head of technical support, VP of whatever — or head of the web development team. The accountants have one name for you: overhead. In fact, the accountants are overhead too. In a well-run company, there will be people scheming to get rid of you, and replace you with someone cheaper, or outsource your function, or just stop doing it. You are potential roadkill on the corporate superhighway.
No matter what you do in a company, someone will be looking to get rid of you when things are slow, and then hire in specialists when business picks up. Do your best work, but keep your eyes open.
Cultivating corporate culture
The idea of a corporate culture is a beautiful thing. It’s just lovely to imagine that the story of a company’s founding, the needs of its early customers, the contributions of countless employees, combine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, it’s a cold, hard world out there; corporate culture usually doesn’t count for that much over time. And, it’s a cold, hard world for most web developers too. The work can be fun, but there are few web developers who are corporate lifers. Confronted with a typical corporate situation, your job is to get in, do some interesting and valuable work with cutting-edge tools and technologies, make some money, and get out into a more interesting position. Your job is not to cultivate the corporate culture, or be cultivated as part of it.
So, it’s good to understand corporate culture, so you can work productively with others, and better predict the actions and concerns of the people you work with. You might also be called on to reflect the corporate culture in a web property. But don’t immerse yourself in it. If you’re planning to move on in any event, it’s all too easy to waste a lot of time and energy on concerns that will be in your rear-view mirror soon enough.
It is indeed possible to have a long and happy career in a company setting, but if you keep a startup or consultant’s attitude, you’re actually more likely to last a while than someone who settles too comfortably into corporate life.
As you settle into a company, you spend more and more time learning things that are only useful within the confines of that specific company, and less and less learning new web technologies that will help you be more productive or get your next job. Be very careful about being a “good” corporate employee.
A clock starts ticking the day you go to work for a typical company, steadily depleting your tolerance for corporate procedures and your familiarity with new technologies, interesting people, and the harsh business and technical challenges found in startups and web services companies. Take a little while to get comfortable in a typical corporate job, and then start scheming to make your job more interesting and fun, get a better job within the company, or get out.
Discovering How Not-for-Profits Use Web Developers
Let us start by pointing out that we’re making a subtle distinction here. A not-for-profit is any organization that isn’t operated like a company for the financial benefit of its shareholders and investors. This includes colleges and universities and government agencies. It also includes the similarly named, but more narrowly defined, nonprofits. A nonprofit has a specific organizational structure that resembles a company, but that is not allowed to make a profit from its activities.
What we want to capture here is the difference between working as a web developer for a for-profit company (whether a web services company, or another type of company) and a not-for-profit. Many not-for-profits have organizational structures very much like companies, and use web developers in the same way.
However, to generalize, a not-for-profit lacks a certain focus and discipline that the need to make a profit imposes on companies of all types. It’s a prejudice, but a prejudice with truth in it, that everything moves more slowly in the not-for-profit world. There simply isn’t the same fear of quickly losing market share, with the possibility of going out of business, that drives for-profit companies.
What does this mean for web developers planning their careers? Not much that’s good. A slow pace, a lack of focus, or a lack of discipline, is slow poison to a web developer of any kind.
There are not-for-profits that work with the latest technologies. In a college or university environment, you might be an early recipient of a new technological breakthrough in some critical web technology. But these situations are the exception rather than the rule.
And there are not-for-profits where you can do good or interesting work. What you want to avoid is getting captured by the gravity of the not-for-profit world. If you’re not careful, you can easily end up with skills, knowledge, experience, and connections that will suit you well for moving between one not-for-profit and another, but that don’t allow you to move back into the larger, more lucrative, and more exciting for-profit world when you’re ready to do that.
Following is a brief summary of the pros and cons of working for a not-for-profit organization. Use it to help chart your course.
· Pros: It feels great to do work you believe in with people who are not always chasing the almighty dollar (or British pounds, or euros, or remnibi). The good feeling of working in organizations with strongly positive purposes may outweigh any negatives that many not-for-profits carry with them.
· Cons: Pay on the low side, demands on the high side. Less awareness of, and less willingness to use, complex technologies. Progress in the use of new technologies can move very slowly, and then just completely stop.
· Salary: Usually low to medium. Not a lot of travel or perks.
· Benefits: If you stay for a long time, there may be retirement and other benefits that make this a worthwhile path to consider for your overall lifestyle.
· Career path: You can build a worthwhile career in not-for-profits, but consider working out of a web services company, or moving back and forth to the business world, to avoid becoming stuck in not-for-profit world.
Figure 3-4 shows a NASA page promoting the National Grid Computing Forum, one of the cutting-edge technology projects you can find in not-for-profit organizations: www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/releases/2001/01_92AR.html.
Figure 3-4: NASA is on the cutting edge of grid computing.