Your advice for students who want to work on the web

Next month I’ll be giving a presentation to some university students who are part way through a degree in web design and development. These students are hoping to join the industry in various different roles at the end of their course.

I would love to include some tips from other people working in the industry. It would be great to hear the thoughts of employers, of experienced web professionals and of recent graduates. Please leave a comment and let me know what piece of advice you would give to someone who will be graduating in a years time, what would you suggest they are thinking about now to help them be as employable as possible upon graduation?

Brian on the 27 Feb 2010:

Two things that I have always thought are important are volunteering and contributing.

Coming directly out of school, not many people have vast amounts of experience. To help get around this, you can volunteer for various organizations. Maybe it is as simple as cleaning-up an organizations wiki pages or helping people on mailing lists. It is something you can add to your CV which shows a commitment to hard work, interest in the field and willingness to seek out and learn about new technologies.

Another option is to start a small site yourself. Sites like http://scrunchup.com are created out of a passion for the field rather than a quick commercial gain. Having a small site like this both shows that you are committed to the field, always interested in learning new things, willing to take some risks, but also that you are volunteering your time, albeit for your own project.

If I knew that within the year I would need to be out in the real-world sending my CV to places, then I’d be sure that it had a few more points under the heading “experience” and what better way to learn and gain experience from either doing it yourself or going where the experts are and learning from them.

Zak Mensah on the 27 Feb 2010:

I graduated a few years ago and to get my jobs I found that having a web portfolio helped.

Use the library to get books instead of buying them (most colleges and unis have design books and magazines – if not ask them to get them as they have a budget)

you dont need fancy software, You can code in notepad just fine.

Tell everybody what you do, I got my first few projects from family friends, though not paying much I was effectively still paid to learn a real project.

Enjoy the presentation

Ben Bodien on the 27 Feb 2010:

Hi Rachel!

I’d recommend that graduates seek out a variety of different professional experiences, working in companies both small and large, with as many different kinds of clients as possible (internal clients, external clients, easy going clients, difficult/impossible/outrageous clients).

Don’t get stuck in one place or rather one position in a company for too long because the web moves too fast.

Start working on your best (and most fun – that’s so important) ideas as side projects in the evenings and weekends or any downtime you have. It’s these side projects that will push you outside your comfort zone and nudge you down a path of discovery and learning.

Be networking at all times – you’ll go further and faster if you have a group of friends in the industry who you can bounce ideas around with, share problems and solutions with, and exchange projects with on a regular basis (but give as much as you get!)

Hope that helps!

Ben

Paul Randall on the 27 Feb 2010:

Work on a personal project.

The personal projects I have worked on have been some of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever done. They allow creative freedom, learning new skills and working on things you enjoy.

Chris Casciano on the 27 Feb 2010:

I’d steal Nike’s slogan and say “Just Do It”…

Make time to work on personal projects, or sites for on campus organizations, tackling a problem you see every day, or looking for ways to contribute to a project. Get your hands dirty building and designing things that see the light of day. Maybe its not a site, but an iphone app, or contributing code or small UI enhancements to a favorite open source project. It will result in both you getting some real world experience with the tools and the process people work with today & to the outside it will be a way to demonstrate that you’re passionate about the web & it’ll grow your network of contacts before you’re ready to send around a resume.

It worked for me in 1997 having run a site for my school’s outdoors/hiking club. And I still see it working today for people looking for their 1st job or their 4th.

Scott Mallinson on the 27 Feb 2010:

As a 2006 university graduate and having since worked in the web industry since graduating, I would suggest building up a portfolio of work before graduating. I don’t propose that they distract their efforts from studying, but to consider how their university work (final year projects) can be put to practical use. Rather than ‘simply’ learning a programming language, put it to real use by building a simple website with it.

Attending conferences such as FOWA and FOWD since graduating has shown how the web industry operates outside of my immediate working environment. As student passes are available for most conferences with a heavily discounted price, I wouldn’t hesitate in attending to give an insight into how the web industry works. I only wish I knew about the conferences when I was at university.

Specialise. I don’t propose having a small niche skill set, but understand what you want to do when graduating, what employers look for and concentrate your efforts more on those skills. I learnt Freehand, Visual Basic and Director whilst I was at university, none of which I use today.

Kean on the 27 Feb 2010:

Having a portfolio is pretty much a given as a designer looking for work.

The best advice I can give to anyone about to graduate is to simply find a job as quickly as you can, don’t concern yourself with finding the perfect job with the perfect salary. All these things can come later as finding your second job after getting experience is much easier and it’s with experience that you can get a job more suited to you.

I thought getting a job as a designer working with other designers might have been better to learn and improve but as it happens I was the only designer in my company and it forced me to learn and push myself as well as giving me the opportunity to do it rather than someone else doing the majority of the work.

Ryan Townsend on the 27 Feb 2010:

I graduated last year and but I was working for a small web design company for 2 years before I started (in 2006). I’d agree with everyone about personal projects, but I wouldn’t recommend the idea of “Iā€™d recommend that graduates seek out a variety of different professional experiences, working in companies both small and large”, sure that’s an option, but I don’t think going through multiple jobs is going to get you anywhere as it takes a while to really get into the flow of a workplace.

The most important thing you can do is work on things that are interesting to you, if you’re not interested in something, why do it? You’ll just make yourself stressed, unhappy and unfulfilled. These don’t need to be for paying clients either. The key things are: document why you did them, document how you did them, and what was interesting/difficult during the project. Even if the mini-project failed. This will demonstrate your passion.

I truly believe the most important thing a web designer/developer can have is passion, because if they are excited by something, they can learn it. If someone came to me and said “I know HTML/CSS, take a look at my designs, but I am only starting JavaScript, I’m really enjoying it though”, when my job spec said “Requires advanced JavaScript knowledge”, I’d hire them anyway – because they are keen.

I don’t think anyone gets anywhere if they see web design/development as a 9-5 job and means-to-ends to earn money.

The awesome people are the ones that want to learn what CSS3 can do to help make their designs better, the ones that are desperate for all browsers to support HTML5, the ones that stay up until the early hours trying to make their website load in half the time it currently does, the ones that aren’t happy with anything just being ‘okay’.

Graeme on the 27 Feb 2010:

As somebody who is currently at university and is having serious doubts about whether to continue or to leave and try to gain employment, any advice would be good. In my experience, the content of university courses is poor and it is essential to leanr outwith the course which I have been doing and as a result get good grades and feel more prepared for exmployment.

I think it’s almost essential for students to have their own sites, as they can practice and experiment with things they pickup and learn. Work on some personal projects to gain experience, even if no-one sees them as that will help and if a designer work on mock-ups even if only for fictional organisations. Many web events offer good student discounts and I’ve attended FOWD and going to DIBI for very reduced rates and students should be encouraged to attend these and any local events, possibly with help from their university.

I would encourage students to learn outwith lectures, have a site to practice on and practice as much as they can.

Tim Parkin on the 27 Feb 2010:

I’ve run a couple of companies and worked for a fair few more and in my experience it’s the personal projects that sell people to me. They show me that the passion is beyond work boundaries and demonstrate what that person can do on their own or associating with a small group.

As for how to get going on a project, it’s important to have a goal and a guide. A goal means that you are creating the project for someone. That person can be you but if it is, the project should solve a real ‘need’ that you have.

You can make the goal up but it means creating that ‘need’. For instance, you might create a website for people who want to track which companies they have sent CV’s to and when? You could create a website that helps people suggest projects to you!? You could create a website that helps collect advice about what students should do to get a job.

Alternatively you could create a content website that indexes your local pubs, including microformat addresses, google maps, etc. etc. If anyone in your family has a charity or group, help them create a website/application.

The important thing is to make sure you have a direction for the project that you can articulate to someone else and then follow through with it.

As for a guide, I would highly recommend contacting someone you admire (not necessarily an infamous web developer or software developer, just someone whose work you think is great) and ask them if they would be willing to help you review your project as it develops and point you in the right direction. Make sure you point out that you’ll only send one email a month and only expect a quick reply to say “yep, looking good” or “perhaps you should look at developing in HTML5 instead of XHTML” .. the goal of this isn’t for the guide to teach you anything new (although it might happen) it’s to ensure you don’t end up travelling down a completely pointless path, developing an application/website that will be more embarrassing than inspiring. You could ask someone from a local company to help you out (contact individuals in the company though, don’t send it to ‘admin@’ or ‘info@’). Send out a few of these guide requests and I’m sure you will find someone who can help a little.

Whilst developing the project, you should also take part in as many online communities as possible, ask questions of other people about what you are doing, help people out when they have problems you know the answer to. This work will become your ‘social signature’, the evidence that a diligent employer will use to work out who/what you are. Don’t be afraid of asking questions in forums thinking it will show employers your lack of knowledge. It won’t, it will show employers your desire to learn!

Six months after starting a process like this you will hopefully have a project that demonstrates your skills and you will have learned a lot. Even if the project isn’t finished, employers won’t mind – they are more concerned about you demonstrating that you kept it up for six months in your spare time and that you’ve shown different aspects of your own skills.

As a word of advice, any CV that says ‘I worked on a website for BT’ is usually translated as ‘I did some validation work on a job for a micro department of BT on a project that never launched’ – i.e. it’s meaningless – this is true for most CV experience because employers can’t verify that you did any work. This is why personal projects are so much more useful for employers to assess individuals.

Rick Hurst on the 28 Feb 2010:

I was on a panel at “Web Dev Conf” in Bristol a couple of years ago which was mostly aimed at web design undergraduates seeking sandwich year placements, and this was one of the questions. My advice was that if nothing else, start a blog and/or portfolio site – most employers will be looking for enthusiastic and proactive people, and a potential web designer who hasn’t got a personal website is neither of these!

Mal on the 01 Mar 2010:

Not been involved in the recruitment process directly, but I have seen what people do when they look through CVs.

Whilst at college/university, they should start building websites as a hobby. Use it as an excuse to learn some bleeding edge technologies and ā€” more importantly ā€” learn to apply those technologies to real situations of interest. If those hobbies turn into businesses further down the line then all the better.

It makes the difference between someone saying they can theoretically do the work based on some contrived projects and exams, to someone who actually dedicates their spare time to building and running real-world websites/services.

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