What does a programmer/web designer needs to succeed in the current market? May 25, 2001 7:42 AM   Subscribe

even before i knew about matt's having been
laid off, i was planning on posting this to metatalk; it now has added applicability, though.

i need a job, but i have no experience in all of this crap i see postings about: websphere, sybase, etc. so here's my question: what do you guys all think that a programmer / web designer needs to succeed in the current market? any good pointers on where to learn or what to read about the junk?

posted by moz to MetaFilter-Related at 7:42 AM (16 comments total)

1. Luck
2. Good-politic
3. Extensive buzz-word vocabulary
4. Friends who hire and/or are leaving jobs and can place you as replacement

1. How to make Sushi. Not only is a Sushi-chef never out of a job, they can pick which city/country they want to work in. Allmost all the countries in the world has special visa arrangements for Shushi-chefs.
2. Drive a 18 wheeler. Trucking is a recession-free job. Everyone needs a good trucker. Hours are lousy, but so are the hours for programmer/web designers. But the pay is good. Ample travelling opportunity.
3. Exotic Dancing. Never out of work. Even the men.

1. Dack's web economy bull-shit generator. Gives you a headsup on what everyone else is talking about.
2. Fuckedcompany. Lists where all the job vacancies are.
3. War and Peace. Very good reading.
4. Learn X in 24 Hours. Excellent on the fly knowledge on X.
5. The Promised God Man Is Here. [This is a real book. Use the knowledge wisely.]
posted by tamim at 12:11 PM on May 25, 2001

Moz, unless you're a programmer get out of the field. There is no work.

If you do want to be a programmer, the best way to do that and come out with some authority is to get a CS degree. In my experience self-taught programmers aren’t given the same respect by management as university taught programmers.

If you’re a designer, good god man, welcome to being unemployed.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 4:11 PM on May 25, 2001

If you know how to program, you can pick up the details of the Web language du jour pretty quickly. This especially true if they want you to know a language with C-like syntax, such as Java, JavaScript, or even PHP, since you should already know C (better yet, C++) if you're going to do anything serious.

Really, although every single detail is completely different, there's surprisingly little difference conceptually between writing a CICS program for an IBM mainframe in COBOL and writing a Web application.
posted by kindall at 4:38 PM on May 25, 2001

Agreed. Many of the things I took from my long, fabled, glorious (cough!) history of 6502ML, BASIC 2, BASIC 7, VB 2-5, and the like applied nicely to things like HTML and JavaScript. PHP and Perl fell in line, and next up is JSP with a tinge of Java.

You'd do yourself no harm at least picking up the basics of programming, if you want to be a webdev or even a web designer. If you can create killer sites, and do everything from aesthetics to IA to UI to the programming....
posted by hijinx at 6:37 PM on May 25, 2001

luckily, i now have my CS degree. :) recent graduate. and writing a rubik's cube program in 3D with opengl, if that gives any indication of my prowess with C (C++ in this case). yet i still have had no luck with jobs.
posted by moz at 6:55 PM on May 25, 2001

I'm not sure there's any such thing as a 'web designer'. It all depends what your interest is in and where you think your strongest talents lay. Creating web sites that do whatever they're supposed to do well takes a very wide variety of skills. That's why there's so much dross out there.

The days of jobs for 'web designers' are over, if they were ever here. People who are prepared to pay for web sites want information designers, graphic designers, programmers, database designers, server administrators, writers, editors, content managers and distributors, marketers, managers.

How many people are good at all of these?

The best advice, for what its worth, in my humble opinion, no warranty offered nor implied, is to decide what you think you're best at, concentrate on it, practice it, produce something (for free if need be) to show what you can do, then try to find a position where your skill complements others. Sticking my neck out, I'll predict that the best sites of the future will be team productions, with a 'web producer/manager's vision being implemented by a group of specialists, in much the same way as almost other media is now produced.

Previous comments about luck, knowing the right people and selling yourself, that apply to any career, also matter, of course. Good luck.
posted by normy at 10:03 PM on May 25, 2001

Right now the job market is tight, and employers are being verrrrrry selective. As in: we need someone with these exact six or sixteen skills, if you do not have something on the list, even if you have the fifteen others, we will circular file your resumé. Two years ago it was different: can you define the word computer? Skip that. Can you pronounce it? I was dragged into a scary corporate 32-bit rollout where we plunged headlong into something new and unknown on a weekly basis, and they were just happy someone with a temperature was clicking the keyboard. I towered above the six-week-MCSE cutouts, and had a job when it was all over. Now, I'm regretting NOT having that certification myself, because it would open a lot more doors for me that I need opened now, today, yesterday. (I'm working on it.)

I do see more listings for C++ programmers (here in Chicago) than any other single thing.

The thing you probably need to do is tap into the hidden job market, the positions that aren't actually advertised in the paper. Network. Develop relationships with recruiters, don't just spam them, so they think of you when a position crosses their desk. Take something less for now. Tap into the temp/contract market vs. the perm market.
posted by dhartung at 11:50 PM on May 25, 2001

OK, my two cents here right now. dhartung, C++ programmers are in demand as they ALWAYS have been because programming in C++ is HARD. There are very few exceptionally good C++ programmers out there, or at least enough to fill the demand. I've been working on my CS degree for the last 3 years, and I'd still say my knowledge of C++ is still not good enough. Learning a language comes with experience. No matter how well you can read a "Learn x in 24 hours", it doesn't beat years of experience. This simply cannot be crammed.

Now on to being a little optimistic. There's still opportunities out there, unfortunately the "web design / multimedia / graphics" guys are really feeling the squeeze. With the dot-com fallout, there really isn't anywhere near the kind of demand that we saw early last year. And the web is really starting to take off in terms of writing applications. What does this mean? I'm talking about Java servlets, JSP's, J2EE. There are many, many companies out there looking for people with skills, because they can build these applications that these companies need. These are mostly the major financial institutions who still have a need for it. These guys have big money to spend on projects like this that they do need.

My recommendation? Get a CS degree. If you can't, then at least get Sun certification. The Java Programmer cert is not hard to get.

If you're a web designer / multimedia / graphics guy, try the big banks and major financial institutions. While it won't be the cool flex hour job with lots of little perks in an old converted warehouse, it'll pay the bills, and you won't have to worry about getting laid off.

Hope I've helped.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 8:08 AM on May 26, 2001

One thing I've found very useful in staying employed is to cultivate a variety of skills. At my first job, the owner of the company had never even been to college (he started the company as a junior in high school!) and believed very strongly in letting his employees "stretch." Thus, in six years at that company, I wrote and designed manuals, arranged for printing, developed software, did technical support, sold to customers, edited a magazine, produced videos, did marketing, managed development projects, participated in testing, and built an online service for educators. After I left their employ, I also built a Web site and an online store for them as a contractor. I learned what I needed to on the job and got lots of experience that looks good on the resume.

This has put me in a pretty good position when I go looking for a job. Most of my experience involves writing of a technical nature (manuals, marketing collateral, and the like, including editing and layout and design), but I can also pitch myself as saying "Oh, I can also manage your Web site and lay out your corporate publications" or whatever. I'm also more productive than the average writer or designer because I have the know-how to develop scripts and such to help me work faster, another advantage I often pitch.

Regularly doing several different types of work gives me a certain amount of security in a smaller company, since to replace my exact skill set they might need to hire two or more people. In a bigger company that may not be such an advantage, since they are typically more regimented and only want you doing one job anyway, but even in that situation my programming background gives me a productivity advantage. My advice, then, is to cultivate a personal "package" of skills that work together to reinforce each other and that are slightly different from anyone else's. Having strong skills in more than one area will make you very attractive to employers who thought they'd need to hire two or more people.

Example: I did one-page flyers for my current employer's products. (By "did" I mean I wrote them and did the layout and design as well.) The alternative was to use our advertising agency for these pieces. Having me do it saved them time (because I understand the technical details of the products, only minor changes were needed to my draft, whereas it would have taken several revision cycles with the ad agency) and money (I was told that the advertising agency might have billed us $15,000 for this job that I did in two weeks). I could have taken a month off with pay after doing that job and they still would have saved a lot of time, hassle, and money.

Now I'm no artist, so we still turn to the ad agency for stuff that needs to look really impressive, but it's surprising how much you can do if you understand basic aesthetic principles and know how to use a page layout program. Conversely, it's amazing how much better a Web designer you'll be if you know enough PHP or ASP or JavaScript to add basic interactivity to your pages. Technical skills and communications skills work together to make you a much more valuable employee than someone who has only one or the other.
posted by kindall at 10:47 AM on May 26, 2001

No expert on programming, but I will say that in today's shrinking market, your best chance comes in being a jack-of-all trades.

Back in the old days (a couple months ago), there were jobs for specialists - no doubt when the business model gets perfected, there will be again. But the current state of the art is lean, mean, hungry and motivated; a select few row, bail, pilot and navigate as the situation calls for. One person does the job of five - not nearly as well, not nearly as slickly, but the job gets done without a gaping wound in the company's P&L.

I would suggest a good model to look towards would be the celtic mythological figure Lugh Samildanach.

posted by Perigee at 12:48 PM on May 26, 2001

We seem to be falling into two different camps; some suggesting a "Jack-Of-All-Trades" approach, others opting for specializing. It'd be interesting to see what our particular fields are - I'd be willing to bet that the JOAT folks are in more Web-centric fields, where changing technology forces a pick-it-up-as-you-go-along career strategy. I'm a C++ S/W Engineer, and I'm with the specializers. The current job market is obviously less than optimum, but C++ is just about the best skill you can have to build around right now.

Moz says he's got C++ and a degree. dhartung says there are plenty of C++ jobs in Chicago, but I suspect the difference is they all want EXPERIENCED C++ programmers. In this field, a couple years experience in the industry makes a heap of difference - in a couple years, the world will be Moz's oyster :). However, good recruiters won't touch people with just a degree, (bad ones will, though.)

Personally, I wound up having to take a QA job. But I made it clear (even during the interview) that I wanted a programming position, then kicked ass on the job to prove I was underemployed. Six months later, the job I wanted opened up, and I don't believe they even interviewed anyone else for it.

I'm getting windy here, so I'll take it offline.
posted by swell at 4:35 PM on May 26, 2001

Mm.. Yeah, I'd have to fit into the JOAT category. I do web stuff for Rentrak... Just took over last week from JCTerminal.

The reason I got hired is because I can do Perl, C, a little bit o' Java, PHP, *SQL, yadda yadda yadda, and I do all the web stuff fluently. I'm currently developing a bunch of stuff for their intranet. I also have almost 6 years experience with Photoshop and I can sub as their in-house photographer if they ever need one, and I take apart and rebuild computers (just put a new HD in mine at home...) for shits and giggles in my copious amounts of spare time.

Personally, I think what will get you the job is doing stuff that requires balls, like swell taking the lower job and then moving up. I would prefer to have two specialties even if I did specialize... Java is pretty similar to C++, (Yeah, just like a duck is a rooster...) so you could probably pick it up in a few weeks/months and then put that on your resume, as well.

Summary: I've found that you can never have enough qualifications.
posted by SpecialK at 9:32 PM on May 26, 2001

The JOTA camp comes from working in places where the core business is not technology. Only technology companies know which specialized technical skill they need in one person. Everyone needs IT/Technology people. Small and medium sized firms would generally hire someone who knows enough of everything than a specialized programmer. It saves them money (in a way) and also corporate headaches. They are not in the business of making smart software, they just want their emails working, web site looking pretty and crappy memos printing out on the network printer.

This is a choice someone has to make. What kind of company do you want to work at? "Web Design" as a skill has become too saturated. Every HR manager has a nephew in junior high with a web site on Geocities. (On the other hand, not many have nephews with Sushi making skills.)

While the merits of "certificates" can be debated till Kingdom come (I know too many ethnic stereotype certification jokes), the HR people now treats them like a filter of sorts. It is like delegating the "technical screening process" to the MCSE/Sun Certification people. While no one anymore assumes an MCSE to be proficient in anything, the HR people assumes that this person at least read all the f***** manuals. (Which can not be said about anyone else in the company.) Also having a degree helps (unless you are starting your own company; ie. Gates/Ellison).

And definitely NETWORKING. More jobs are had by knowing the right people and having the right friends.
posted by tamim at 9:37 PM on May 26, 2001

Tamim does make a couple of excellent points. All of my employers have been pure-play tech companies, and I don't expect that to change. I kind of like it that way. S/he will definitely have a broader palette of potential employers than I do. So it's really a question of "What kind of career do you really want?" (And yes, I know Tamim said almost exactly that, but I think the job/career distinction is important. The decision Moz makes now will absolutely affect more than that first job.)

Can't answer for Moz, but when I was in his shoes, the answer was "ANYTHING I CAN GET!". Which, I've found, is exactly the *worst, worst* answer there is to that question. In the original post, Moz refers to "programmer/web designer", but later refers to having a degree that emphasized C++. That's too vague to target.

What do you want to be doing in 5 years? If large scale C++ application design is it, then you'd be better off looking under either engineering or software than programming. If it's using appropriate technologies to create compelling web pages, then that seems to generally fall under information technology. There's a lot of slop between the titles because employers don't always know which they need. All of these folks are, in the end, programmers. The necessary skillsets are, for engineers, a limited number of things, the deeper the better, and for IT, a great number of things, the newer and broader the better (and obviously, which tools to use for which purposes). I'm not saying either is superior (or more difficult) than the other; the pay is roughly equal at similar experience levels.

OTOH, being "deep" in one particular technology does _not_ keep you from having to keep knowledge up-to-date. An ex-employer had standardized on K&R C while the world moved on to ANSI. By the time I left, the world had moved on to C++ and I was completely screwed. C++ is definitely not going to be forever.
posted by swell at 12:49 AM on May 27, 2001

for what it's worth, i think the most important thing to do is to do what you truly love to. as swell already mentioned comp sci is a fast moving field. what's popular today will be 'old' tomorrow. i don't work with the web but i use sybase and c++ and am about to start using java for work, so i do code. and once more i agree with swell that there are really few great coders out there but i think that has a lot to do with attitude as well. most of the really great coders i've seen are people who love what they do. i've also seen many people who went into programming cause they thought it would be easy to get a job or cause they wanted to make a lot of money and they tend to suck cuz they don't really like programming.

and a job is something that takes up a lot of time. many many hours of your week. so i think you need to do something you love. don't worry about what you lack. look around. talk to people who do things you think you might enjoy and find out more about their day-to-day life and try to formulate what kind of job you'd really like. and then go for that. build the background the job requires, whether it be depth or breadth of knowledge, and start making connections.

i know it sounds cheesy and unrealistic, but i truly think that if you want something enough, you almost always get it. it just takes some creativity and a lot of persistence.

sorry if this sounds corny and if it doesn't help. i just wanted to make sure that while you make a list of all the programming languages you must learn to get a job and what jobs you can get, you don't forget to think of what jobs you want to get.

posted by karen at 3:00 PM on May 29, 2001

And for those of you out there doing a history degree (well, ok, just me). Even if it means that you will never get a job in computing (which you would rather work in) at least you can write a decent essay, which is better than nothing.
posted by nedrichards at 6:04 AM on May 30, 2001

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