Web Site Expert巻頭レポート(英語)

The Changing Portrait of Web Development Careers

The United States government's Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks almost everything you ever wanted to know about employment: what occupations are growing, what those occupations pay, what skills are needed. But when it comes to the growing profession of Web site design and development, the agency has fallen behind. It classifies Web designers simply as graphic designers that work on the Web. That simple description might have been true in the days when the Web was just an interlinked set of HTML pages, but but these days, the employment picture is more complex. With companies living and dying by their Web presence, Web development has become a true professional occupation. Web developers must often know something about marketing, user interfaces, and the nuances of e-commerce. Some developers have cultivated research skills to develop concepts and the presentation skills to sell those concepts to management.

The field is also increasingly one of specialists. In a smaller company, you can still be an all-around Web master who handles everything digital for the organization. But for larger companies, the team is now as diverse as a movie production crew, though the highest demand is for specialists who have gone beyond their specialty. "Specialists come at problems with a hammer regardless of whether the problem is a nail," said Zachary Jean Paradis, director of experience strategy for the multi-national consulting firm Sapient. "We need specialists who think like generalists."

To get a snapshot of Web site development as a career in the United States, I spoke with two people who help train people for the profession, to Sapient's Zachary Jean Paradis, and to Ben Lau, who found his career on the job. Let's begin the tour with him.

Ben Lau, e-commerce manager, True Religion Brand Jeans

When Ben Lau earned his undergaduate degree from San Francisco State University in 1996, his timing couldn't have been better for a career in Web design and development. The "dot.com boom" had just begun--it wouldn't burst until four years later. Companies were just figuring out the value of being online, and if you were talented and interested, you could get in on the ground floor with no other credentials than that. Lau's degree in marketing and communications gave him some basic skills for e-commerce. His long-time interest in computers kept him going.

Lau began his journey doing customer support in a video game company, Total Entertainment Network, which would later become Pogo.com. His Web development days began when he was promoted to product manager. "At that time there were many entry-level positions that quickly led to more responsibility. It was a startup mentality, and I was at the right place at the right time. I worked with some great people, including hard core programmers and designers, and I learned a lot."

When Electronic Arts bought Pogo.com in 2001, Lau returned to Los Angeles where he grew up. He married, and as it would turn out, he pursued a classic Southern California e-commerce career. He co-founded a business doing Web site development. A few years later, he took a full-time job managing the e-commerce site for Pelican Parts, an online retailer specializing in BMWs and Porsches. A couple of years later, he switched industries again, moving to Michael Stars, a "casual couture" clothes company specializing in selling upscale women's T-shirts. "I was the web producer and took care of anything digital, including managing the e-commerce site and looking at new technologies, vendors, and marketing venues," Lau recalls. That job led to a larger company in the same industry: True Religion Brand Jeans, which was a lot bigger than my previous company. "I’ve been here almost two years. I’m the e-commerce manager―everything digital falls to me, including online marketing."

Lau is a classic case of a self-made Web site expert. He was not formally trained, and got most of his experience on the job. He moved into e-commerce after stints with customer support, product management, and business development. If you want to sell things online, that combination--as much as any technical training--turns out to be a valuable experience. Along the way, Lau did take some classes in HTML. He read books and hung out with friends who were themselves programmers and designers. He learned Adobe Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Illustrator.

"I’ve always considered myself a hybrid person: I can do a lot of different things, which saves money because I can take care of most everything. I wouldn’t say that I’m a 100 percent programmer, but I can speak the language. I don't do coding, but if it’s already been done, I can identify what’s wrong or what needs to happen next. I'm not a 100 percent graphics designer, either--but I can do it as well. My theory is that in any position you hold, you should be able to do the entire process yourself from beginning to end. That can really help in a tough economy and for companies who are new to e-commerce and don't have a definition of exactly what they are looking for. My advice: learn as much as you can, be adaptable, and cultivate a wide network of people. One thing they didn't teach me at school, and a lot of my younger friends still don’t understand, is the value of being connected with your industry peers. Networking really makes a difference. When I go to conferences, I still see a lot of people I know. E-commerce is still a small world."

Rod Berg, Associate Director, Career Services, Parsons The New School for Design

One sign of Web design's becoming a professioon is the number of schools offering courses. One of the most respected is Parsons, one of eight schools at The New School in New York's Greenwich Village. The New School is known for hiring working professionals, and most of the Parsons faculty teaches part-time, spending the rest of their time as in-house and freelance designers. "They know what’s going on out there. It helps our students be in tune with the world," says Rod Berg, Parsons associate director, Career Services. "For example, the head of our illustration department was the former op-ed art director for the New York Times. Now he does freelance illustration as well as being full time head of illustration at our school."

Parsons is a design school, not specifically a Web design school. For people interested in the field, it's the medium and tools that change, not the underlying design principals. For the past seven years, Berg has been helping design students, including Web designers, launch their career. The preparation varies. "Some students have a good idea of what kind of career they want," he says. "Others may be very talented, but have no idea of how the process works." But either way, the career path for most students is with an internship. Parsons' New York location and national reputation gives students plenty to chose from: Berg has placed interns in a wide variety of enviable positions: including placement at Apple, Google, Marvel, the United Nations, MTV, and ESPN.

But do internships actually translate into full-time work? Ideally, the internship leads to some freelance assignments. The freelance assignments help prove the designer's worth. "So when a job opening comes up, they've already been tried and tested, and will be among the first to be considered." And if not, there are other opportunities, even in this tight economy, from non-profits to startups, consulting firms and larger companies. "Who doesn’t need a website? Animation, advertising, publishing, multimedia are all looking. Fashion designers all need e-commerce sites." Berg thinks that landing a job is like gardening: you plant resumes everywhere you can, and eventually, an opportunity will sprout. As Woody Allen once said, "90 percent of life is just showing up."

While Web development is becoming the realm of specialists, undergraduate training at Parsons is about getting good at the fundamentals. Berg rarely meets students who set out to be, say, a background artist, even though that's a job description companies now post. That degree of specialization comes with post-grad training or on-the-job experience. What has changed is the demand for technology expertise. Ten years ago, Berg says, artistic talent was everything. "Now some talented old school designers and illustrators without computer skills are realizing that going forward will be a struggle."

The ability to communicate well is also becoming important. "Often graduates have to sell their ideas, so you don’t want shy, meek people. You have to have a personality to match your computer talents, especially when there is so much competition. If a company sees two fantastic portfolios, the person whose presentation is more vibrant and confidant will get the job offer." Parsons faculty were committed enough to that idea that they renamed the undergraduate program. What was once called "Graphics Design" is now "Communications Design." Graphics is still taught, of course, but it is for a utilitarian purpose, not art for art sake.

Jeremy Alexis, assistant dean and a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design

The Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design has the largest graduate design program in the United States. By the time they are accepted to this Chicago school, most students already have plenty of hands-on design experience. But they are attracted to the school for something else. "Our students aren't necessarily moving pixels around, or designing the final website, or even dealing with the information architecture," said Associate Dean Jeremy Alexis. "Rather, they are responsible for going into the field, understanding how people use a website and how that experience could be improved, as well as evaluating the surrounding business factors. They use their fieldwork to put together recommendations that are handed off to the actual production team." Design research will become part of the job description for some of the school's graduates, a full-time career for others, including those who get hired by large consulting firms like Sapient and Razorfish. "The process plays out differently at different firms, but that's the general idea," Alexis says.

This planning and research may not be what Web site developers think of when they first enter the profession. But the role is a sure sign of the times, an indicator of just how seriously companies take their Web presence. And it's not that the school doesn't value hands-on experience: five years of design work is typical. Rather, it expects students will have already gotten it by the time they arrive. However, the school also accepts students with no design background, but with related skills--in engineering, social science and economics. To catch up with their peers, they spend a year of 60-hour weeks in the school's version of boot camp, learning product and graphic design from a professional faculty. "You’d be surprised at how sophisticated and successful these people can be in a field that's brand new to them," Alexis says.

Why would the Institute of Design accept non-designers? Alexis says that each of these disciplines fit into the design research process. Social scientists are trained to go into the field, talk to people, and summarize what they've learned. Economists understand something about industry trends, and the importance of creating something of value not just for the user, but the organization. Engineers are trained to make sketches and prototypes that can quickly convey the idea behind a design. This third skill is especially important for a related field of study: design leadership, the ability to move an idea from inspiration to implementation. "This is now the critical skill for designers," Alexis says. "It’s not enough just to have interesting ideas. A designer's professional responsibilities include making sure those ideas move from the concept stage and actually get implemented. Our design leadership classes teach students how to manage creativity, how to think about the complexity of a large project, how to manage client relations. We have a class that shows how to engage stakeholders by involving them in the design process. People who are part of the early stages of a design are more likely to approve it later on."

The school also teaches students how to integrate a company's digital assets and services, from accounting through customer service to e-commerce and online customer service and support, to create a single Web presence. "That's where a lot of the Web work is going now," says Alexis. "It’s less about creating interesting Flash pages, more about looking at the business as a series of activities and creating a single source for accessing all of it."

Design research, leadership, and integration: they all suggest new directions for website developers, and I wondered whether the companies themselves had kept up? "Five to ten years ago when company representatives came to the school, we spent the first 20 minutes just having to explain what design is," Alexis says. " Now, that process is much better understood." A measure of that understanding is the kinds of people who now come to the school to recruit new graduates. In the early days, Alexis says, designers typically hired designers. "It was a small group in a small circle. But over the last five years, traditional human resource people are coming to school as a routine part of their recruiting schedule. That means that designers are no longer an 'exotic' hire, more an expected part of any communications team--something the HR department now understands. That's great for the profession because it legitimizes it."

As does Parsons, the Instutute of Design suggests that students find an internship program. "But we also tell them to work on actual projects that have real clients and real results. That can matter a lot when students seek out their first job, especially in this economy. They should be able to demonstrate to employers that they had an impact on a real organization, that their work has yielded results. For example, I have a group of students working for the City of Chicago on a recycling program. They are working directly with the Department of Sanitation. They are interacting with stakeholders all the time. In the end, they will be able to point to a very specific, implementable solution for the city. They will be able to tell prospective employers: here’s how we arrived at it, here’s how we interacted with the stakeholders, here’s how they are going to implement it." The underlying message to prospective employers: these students haven't just been hanging around the classroom, where any idea seems possible. They have already learned how to deal with the constraints of the real world.

Zachary Jean Paradis, director of experience strategy, Sapient

"We’re hiring like mad, " says Zachary Jean Paradis, director of experience strategy at Sapient. Launched in 1991 as a business and IT consulting company ("Two guys; one office") Sapient now employs 7,000 people with more than 30 offices. Sapient's career Web page puts it succinctly: "We want thinkers." The page could have also said: "We want specialists who can think like generalists and problem solvers."

"As a company scales larger, requirements for Web design splits into areas: information architect, content strategist, and art director," says Paradis. "In the mid-1990s, the webmaster did everything. Now there is a lot of different expertise required. Content strategy, for example. Large organizations may have many different websites, different purposes for those sites, and many, many types of content. To help consumers make sense of all that takes a dedicated effort and specialization." Sapient hires art directors, information architects, user researchers, creative directors, visual designers, social media specialists, and interactive developers, among other disciplines. Job seekers define themselves by those specialties and the firm lists jobs that way. It's like the medical profession: general practitioners have largely given way to specialists.

But Paradis says that job candidates should still be multi-talented. "I want to see someone who has mastery over their domain, but can also fluidly interact with a larger team. That means having a little bit more breadth of experience and skills. So if I see someone who is an information architect, but who also has experience doing research and content strategy on smaller projects--he or she gets special attention." The degree of specialty depends to some extent on the level of the hire. "Below the manager level, we’re just looking for you to have mastered your discipline, or at least be far along the way and show some passion for it. But when you get to the manager level and above, you need to start demonstrating that you can do more. We do have specialists that focus on just one thing, but those people may be less useful for a given project. People can’t be zealots―they have to master their craft, find a specialty, and then be comfortable with branching out."

Candidates should also be passionate about an industry or a sales channel. If a candidate is applying as an e-commerce specialist, Paradis looks for someone who loves the experience of shopping online, and is thus immersed enough to think more deeply about it. The same is true for other areas. "For example, any company in the travel industry must have mobile strategy, yet many today do not. That means not only supporting mobile devices, but integrating that experience with the conventional Web experience, as well as the call center.

That, says Paradis, is why Sapient is hiring like mad. "We want problem solvers more than we want pixel pushers. Those skills are in incredibly high demand: there is tons of critical work to do. The work will determine whether companies or organizations fail or succeed. It will require that people think in new ways."