The roles of the web and how to break in

Over the holidays my brother in-law was asking about the world of the web, and how he might start a career in the industry. I started thinking about all the different disciplines involved in creating a website and I realized that this was going to be bigger than just a few words in between bites of turkey. If you’re thinking about a career change, here’s a list of the major disciplines required to build a website. Depending on the size of a project there could be one or more people in each role, or a single person might perform all the roles. But a successful project does need time spent in each area.

Strategist

The task here is to set things up so that the project is a success. Who is this project being built for, and do they have certain expectations that should be met? What exactly are the goals of this project? By what measure can we say the project was a success?

These are tricky questions to answer and so strategists are usually people who first become experts in another discipline, usually information architecture or content strategy.

Content Strategist

Many web projects that we work on involve moving content from an existing site to a new home. Content strategy starts with auditing all of the existing content for several reasons: to find out what’s there, if it’s out of date, if it has a uniform voice, and if it conforms to content style guidelines. Then there’s the future: How often should new content be created? What topics should it cover?

Content strategists often come from journalism or communication backgrounds, but really it’s about having good writing skills, and being able to analyze and plan. These are the people who have dealt with the pain of managing a lot of content, and have ideas about how to fix it. The first step is to learn more about content strategy.

Information Architect

Once we have a strategy for the site as a whole, and we know what content we need to show, the next step is to figure out how to organize it in a way that people can find it — both across the site as a whole, and by structuring the information within individual pages. At first glance this might sound like a simple task, until you realize that sometimes the audiences of a website may have contrary needs. If a site needs to cater to both doctors and patients it can be tricky to make it easy for both to find what they are looking for, especially if they use different language to mean the same thing.

Some information architects come from the library sciences, but an academic background is not mandatory. The best places to learn about Information Architecture are the IA Summit Podcast and UIE Virtual Seminars.

Visual Designer

This is the part that most lay people think about when they think about “making a website.” Here we turn all of the strategy, goals, and structure into something visual. These visuals need to guide our site visitors through the website and make all of our stakeholders happy. No small task.

Designer/coders are affectionately known as unicorns

Visual designers are often trained in art and design schools. If you are making a career transition from the traditional print world to web design, you may encounter some challenges. Whereas traditional design relies on static and pixel-perfect layouts, responsive web design requires both flexibility and an understanding of emerging mobile design patterns. The ability to work in both worlds is becoming not only desirable, but a necessity.

While some designers are self-taught, there is a steep learning curve, particularly with the tools of the trade (the Adobe Creative Suite and Sketch in particular). Designers share their work and get inspiration from sites like dribbble and behance.  As design for the web increasingly requires flexibility, web shops may want their visual designers to also know how to code their designs (see the Front End Developer section.) 

Technical Lead

Here we figure out how we’re going to turn our plans into a real website. How will we store the content in a way that can fulfill the visual design, while staying easy to manage? How do we do everything in the right order so that we don’t mud the drywall before the electrical goes in?

Technical leads usually first spend a few years in one of the remaining disciplines, and should feel right at home within potentially massive and complicated spreadsheets full of spec’ details.

Site Builder

Most websites are built with a content management system (CMS) like Drupal, WordPress, or SquareSpace. This means that a lot of the work in building the website is done by configuring the CMS. Which sounds easy until you realize the breadth of the ecosystem of add-ons for these CMSes.

To become a site builder all you need to do is to play around with a CMS. But to be an expert you need to know which of the six related add-ons is the best tool for your current problem, and how add-ons interact with each other.

Back-end Developer

This is what most people think of as “computer programming” (though I don’t know anyone who calls themselves a “programmer”). Here’s where we get into abstract concepts like data structures, and algorithms. But most of it is actually much more accessible. After all, Obama learned how to code.

You can either learn to code in a university computer science program, a learn-at-your-own-pace program like Lynda.com or Dev Bootcamp, or just by taking things apart to see how they’re made and then putting the pieces together in new interesting ways (a.k.a. hacking).

Front-end Developer

Where back-end development deals (mostly) with the computer languages that servers run, front-end development deals (mostly) with the computer languages that web browsers run: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is all about molding the raw data into the visual design.

You can take the first steps of being a front-end developer right now by using your web browser’s tools to examine the code that makes this webpage, and then make some changes. Hey look at that, you’re now a hacker. Or try the same kinds of academic, or self-guided options as for the back-end. The job of a front-end developer has been getting increasingly complex in the last few years with responsive design and new tools to streamline complex projects, so rely on sites like Smashing Magazine and CSS-Tricks for the latest in the front end technologies.

Project Manager

Here’s where everything above is pulled together. Project managers make sure that everyone else on the team is working together to get things done on time, on budget, with quality (well, choose two). And as the project evolves, PMs keep stakeholders informed of the changing plans.

You can learn project management by becoming a certified ScrumMaster or Project Management Professional, but really you’ll need to learn by doing it and seeing how things can really fall apart. Ideally under the tutelage of someone who’s been around the block a few times.

Taking the first step

When laid out in a blog post it all sounds so neat and tidy; But it’s not. Whatever discipline you end up pursuing you’ll also need to become fluent in the other areas that you interact with, and from time to time you’ll even need to act like a pro. The one thing that’s common between all of these disciplines is that we’re all students. The Internet moves so fast that we all need to continually work to keep up to date. Even if you have had a formal education, you can never stop learning about the newest stuff. So that means that if you’re coming into this fresh you’re really only as far behind as the rest of us. You just need to start moving.