You see, if you’re working for a Silicon Valley startup or a Fortune 500 company, there will often be enough coders that you can specialize in one thing (e.g. PHP coding) and do it all day. But here’s the thing: Those jobs are few and far between, and they tend to fit people who have specialized in one language or skill for years at a time and often have years/decades of experience in that language.
Many of the jobs that exist for people with some coding skills are for government / educational / non-profit / corporate organizations. And if these organizations have fewer than 200 people, as a fairly high percentage do, their web design department will be one person. All the jobs I’ve had in this field have been of this nature. So I’ve basically become a web generalist instead of a web specialist.
I should define that term: Some people in web design specialize in one language or skill. A “website generalist” is my term for someone who learns all the skills necessary to be the sole website employee in a medium-sized or small organization.
(One caveat: For organizations this small, they often don’t know what they really need. Someone who isn’t especially technical will write a job description for a website specialist, when what they really want is a website generalist. But perhaps an article like this one can help form better job descriptions!)
So, what does someone need to learn to become a website generalist?
Of course, code is the foundation for all the other skills. Here are some good resources for learning to code:
- W3Schools – It documents every php function, css class, and html markup. It’s something I use as an ongoing reference.
- Codecademy – Basic, free courses good for initial introduction; I haven’t found them as good for spaced repetition to really master concepts (there’s no DuoLingo for coding yet)
- Khan Academy – I haven’t used this but have heard good reports from friends who have.
- Lynda – There are a number of coding classes here.
So learn coding, but don’t stop there. Here are some other skills a website generalist needs:
SEO/Search Engine Optimization
There are several sorts of SEO. There’s white-hat (following search engines’ best practices) and black-hat (trying to game the system). Sometimes black hat produces short term gains, but I never recommend it, especially for any organization that plans to be around for longer than six months.
But within white-hat, there are two main categories. Different people call them different things, but for these purposes I’ll call them technical optimization and search engine marketing. Search engine marketing is the process of creating content for search engines to index, and researching keywords relevant to the website’s mission that might indicate people searching for topics that other websites aren’t addressing well. It would also involve link building; finding other websites that might link to your site’s content. These sorts of things are valuable and some people make a living doing just these. However, they often suit a linguistically minded person more than a coding/scientific mind. Generally speaking, if you’re a web generalist and doing this, you’re probably being spread too thinly.
However, technical optimization for websites is something that definitely falls under the role of a web generalist, and the better you are in this area, the more of an employable skill it is. This includes things like page speed, crawling error diagnosis, robots.txt settings, sitemap setup, and familiarity with Google Webmaster Tools and maybe Bing Webmaster Tools.
Here’s a good starter resource: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo.
It’s also necessary to keep up with current developments, especially in case search engine policies change. Here are some useful sites:
The basics here are a familiarity with Google Analytics, how it works, and how to set it up. The area where this can become a strong employable skill is familiarity with diving deeply into the data, including areas like creating visualizations in Google Data Studio and secondary dimensions. (Secondary dimensions are huge.)
If any advertising happens, you’ll probably need to also know how to work with Facebook pixels, Google Analytics tracking, and Google AdWords tracking, and how to get Analytics and AdWords tracking working correctly with each other, which is harder than it ought to be.
This usually won’t help you get a job, but it’ll help you thrive in a job and help people love you. You will constantly be explaining technical things to people who aren’t familiar with what you’re talking about—often people who find it as intimidating as we might find the Arabic language or the intricacies of the tax code.
Two thoughts/tips in this area: One is to just be aware of this dynamic, because simply paying attention to situations where a friendly, impromptu 45-second lesson is necessary is most of the issue. Two is to use analogies from a field that is more familiar to the person you’re talking with. I’ve used analogies from sports, cooking, literature, history, music, et cetera. And, in fact, the phrase ending the previous paragraph is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.
To the extent I specialize in anything, it’s WordPress. I’ve been using it since 2006, since its very early days. It powers 1/4 of the Internet, and nothing else particularly comes close. It’s especially popular in the small business and small nonprofit/educational/government organizational contexts that need web generalists.
There are dozens of annual conferences with presentations from experts in various fields. It might be worth going to some of these to learn and to network. But even if you don’t, there are thousands of messages from these conferences posted on http://wordpress.tv/. This is a hugely valuable resource for anyone from the very beginner to the advanced expert.
The WordPress codex, their official documentation, is also incredibly useful.
There are dozens of websites you can follow. Here are four of the most useful:
- Elegant Themes
- WordPress.org News (for official announcements)
- Wordfence Blog (for WordPress security)
Content Delivery Networks
If you end up in an ecommerce setting or any other setting where saving a half-second in page load time can increase your organization’s bottom line by 10%, then you’ll want to be familiar with content delivery networks. This involves loading resources like images and audio, as well as purchasable digital items, from a second server, often Amazon’s S3. There’s a steep learning curve to get into S3 but it’s worth it and necessary in a number of fields.
Even if you don’t specialize in cybersecurity, you can’t work in web design without needing to study it to some length. The bare minimum is to follow all the blogs and/or social media feeds of all the content management systems (CMS), CMS plugins, server systems, and programming languages that you use. Vulnerabilities will happen; the important thing is that you know immediately, or at least as close to immediately as possible, so you can fix them as quickly as possible. I use Digg Reader to keep up with RSS feeds. Feedly is also popular, but I prefer Digg Reader’s minimalist look.
If you want to dig deeper, one place to start would be with the textbooks used in the cybersecurity program at Montreat College, where I work. (Or get a cybersecurity degree!) 🙂
Occasionally a vulnerability will be public before the organization admits to it on their own official channels. This often happens when there’s a zero-day, a vulnerability that’s public before the coders have a patch. But you’ll need to know about these as well, so it’s also important to follow the RSS feeds of some of the main computer and website security websites. Here are some to start with:
- Dark Reading
- Google Security
- Krebs on Security
- Security Week
- Wordfence Blog (for WordPress-specific security issues)
It’s an incredibly useful skill, and one that’s necessary at all but the absolute smallest of organizations, to know some of the basics of server administration. It used to be that practically all WordPress installations ran a LAMP stack on a cPanel/WHM/Linux server. LAMP stacks are pretty common, still; this is to say, Linux for an operating system, Apache for server administration, mySQL for the database, and PHP as the database interaction language. If you’re in WordPress, you’ll definitely be working with the L and the P. Instead of Apache, some modern servers use nginx, because there are slight performance gains. And instead of mySQL, some use MariaDB, which is pretty similar but is licensed under a different licensing system.
As a sub-set of this, it’s useful to learn Linux-based command-line commands, since the need for this comes up with surprising frequency in some jobs (all the jobs I’ve had). There are always things that the GUI (graphical user interface) of a server can’t do. (Codecademy is a great place to learn command-line.)
You’ll also want to learn the basics of how to work with mySQL databases.
It’s useful to be familiar with at least the basics of how website caching works and how to set it up, even if you rely on a plugin to do most of the work.
Graphic Design and Typography
Depending on the size of the organization, you’ll either be expected to work with designers or to do all the design work yourself (since you’re the “website guy” and it’s assumed that of course you know such things.) Whether you end up doing it yourself or not, it’s pretty necessary to at least know how to talk the language of design. Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty is a book I read targeted toward explaining basic principles of design in coders’ language.
You can get surprisingly far down the road with a few simple rules: (1) Use a balanced/complimentary color palette, creating it with a tool like Paletton (free). (2) Generally use at most two fonts on a website. It’s OK to use serif fonts for large headers, but definitely use sans serif for body text. Typographers through the years have found that it’s easier on the human eye to read body text in serif fonts, but that rule goes out the window thanks to how low of resolution computer screens are compared to books. If you’re using multiple fonts, you probably want to use a tool like this one to help ascertain fonts that go well together.
Even if you have themes doing some of the work for you, you’ll want to be familiar with how media queries work and how to design websites to work across all screen sizes.
The EU and some other foreign countries require websites to work for the assistive technologies used by individuals with hearing or vision issues (a group that comprises about 8% of the population, and up to 15% under a looser definition). The global standard is WCAG 2.0 AA.
The U.S. has been steadily moving toward also requiring this. American governmental organizations (including public colleges) have to follow Section 508, which was recently updated to be essentially equivalent to WCAG 2.0 AA. And other sectors have been rapidly moving in this direction.
In fact, there was a landmark ruling earlier this week in federal district court that grocery chain Winn-Dixie needed to make their website WCAG 2.0 AA compliant. Since courts in our legal system follow the doctrine of stare decisis (following precedent), it is almost certain that any lawsuit brought against your organization for lack of an accessible website would not be decided in your favor.
A couple of useful websites with news in this field:
Learn how to compress JPG images, how image compression works, and when to use JPGs (images) vs. PNGs (logos and other non-photographic images). Also learn the basics of YouTube and Vimeo, with their embed options, settings and (for Vimeo) the extra embed options you get in pro accounts. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself needing to know the basics of video editing; a lot of people assume that the “web guy” will already know such things.
If you go into organizations that are involved in PCI Compliance, you’ll need to learn the basics of website security plus quite a few things that might not do much to keep your website safer but at least keep the PCI compliance people happy. If you work with a credit card processor like Authorize.net, they will often require PCI compliance.
Social media integration
It’s gotten easier over the last few years, but there are certainly some complex areas to learn for how to integrate with various social media platforms, especially when it gets beyond the complexity level of embedding a simple widget. For instance, it’s useful to know how to embed the Facebook pixel for ad tracking.
A few servers have automated/easy/free Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates. But for a number of organizational types and for most servers, it’s still necessary to set up SSL/TLS encryption the old/manual way, which is a somewhat involved process that can take 30-45 minutes, especially the first few times you do it.
Some of the largest organizations have individuals or teams fully dedicated to user experience and user accessibility. In smaller organizations, this falls on the web generalist’s plate as well, or gets ignored. It’s good to investigate some of the general research; these websites are good for keeping up with current trends:
Some jobs will require multi-lingual pages or full websites. The industry leader for doing this with WordPress is WPML.
It is becoming increasingly necessary to have something more than just a username and password. For WordPress, some of the market leaders are Google Authenticator, Duo, Authy, and Rublon. Sadly, the most innovative option, Clef, got bought out and shut down recently. But there’s a promising rookie contender using a similar concept, UpDraftPlus’s Keyy. Keyy is still early enough in development that it’s probably not yet the best option to protect an important website, but it has the potential to be the best in the field within a year or two.
A/B testing shows different users different portions of the website to see which gets more of the desired results. This is fairly complex and involves a lot of moving parts to make sure the site and the analytics work together correctly. Few jobs will list this on a job description but some will expect that you already know it and others will be pleasantly surprised with what you can bring to the table if you’re already familiar with it.
A website generalist will probably not need every single one of these skills at a job, but these are all skills that pop up with some frequency across the web generalist jobs in this field. Knowing these skills will go a long way toward success in a web design job.