A family member recently contacted me, expressing a desire for a career-change from the restaurant business to working on the web. He shared with me a local university program he was considering, and wondering my thoughts on it. I, uh, gave him much more than that. Below is my response, something that I think could be useful to others that are curious about working on the web

Sure, I’d love to give some feedback. I’ll keep it as brief as I can. But it’s not going to be brief. There’s a lot to unpack, because the topic is close to me!

I think firstly, there’s some good news: it’s important to note that web design and development is not in fact IT, but a creative service.

IT’s domain includes disciplines like network configuration, server administration, IE, plugging things into each other and making them work. To me, that has always sounded like an ocean of boring! Working in software or on the web, on the other hand, you’re creating things for customers to solve problems with. Much more exciting and rewarding for artistic types like us.

Second: these classes look similar to the program I did at SUNY. It looks to generally cover a wide range of work one might do on the web - design, development, and working with assets like images or video. You can specialize in one of these disciplines, or be a hybrid, depending on what you want for yourself. I have a peer who runs a business as a web designer - she writes almost no code, contracting out someone like me to turn her designs into actual webpages. I have another peer who runs a business as a developer - she works almost exclusively using an open-source website framework called Drupal, and will partner with a designer when necessary.

I’m a hybrid of the two, which is great because I love the experience of building something from the ground up. If I don’t feel like I’m involved in the big picture of a project, I tend to get bored. The problem there is that it can be difficult to be a master of any one thing, and indeed, it has taken me about ten years of self-development to start to feel really confident on the design side of the “coin”. Each web professional will find fulfillment on their own terms.

That brings me to my last point: these classes should give you a foundation of knowledge to start with, but there’s going to be a lot of fluff that you will not use, too. I would argue that this is because formalized education generally doesn’t move fast enough to keep up with the current stack of practices, standards, and tools that are used on the web. Imagine when the printing press was first invented - it was such a new medium that the best way of learning how to approach it was likely to apprentice with someone, or to experiment on your own. Same with the web - it’s brand new and its functionalities grow everyday. I see a few “red flags” in those course descriptions - Actionscript, Dreamweaver - these are obsolete tools that no web professional has used for many years.

When I did the SUNY program, it was the same. I obtained the piece of paper to get me my job, but much of what I’d learned was irrelevant (I’d been working my job as an intern, and they refused to hire me full-time unless I had a college degree). What I found was that the real learning happens by doing, and by learning what other web folks are doing. It’s a tight-knit community to other creative services, comparatively, again due to its infancy as a medium. That’s where the real learning will happen. So my guess would be that the program will give you a great base to get you started - but be aware that it won’t necessarily always be in touch with the present-day culture of web folks.

I hope you go for it - it’s a profession that consistently rewards creativity, empathy, and critical thinking - qualities you have no shortage of! I just got off a remote call with a company I work with in Minnetonka, presenting an HTML prototype of a building energy modeling app to one of their executives. I had the luxury of designing and building that prototype all on my own terms, and walking that executive through the various design decisions that I believe will make the product successful. As someone that likes to build things and think critically, it’s enormously fulfilling for me to do something like that, and to know that my work will now be handed off to the company’s software team to turn it into a fully functioning application that people around the country will use.