I find it exceptionally difficult to believe that I have any skills of note, and keep meaning to force myself to try and audit them just to check. So here I’ve spelled out what I do in my day job, and some of the challenges I’ve faced.
Although I’m still not sure I know any more than other people in a similar role, I have surprised myself with all the stuff I do (albeit badly, most of the time) without really realising it.
I’ve been working for the same organisation since 1995 (yes, 1995). I haven’t left in part because I’m rubbish at moving on, but mainly because I love it there (that’s a good thing for me; possibly a bad thing for them). I’ve been the Website Manager officially since 2002, but have been responsible for the corporate website (we have a number of others now) since we decided we wanted one back in 1998.
I had been using email and the internet for a few years, but I knew absolutely nothing about web development. We were recommended some two-person operation who ‘built websites’ and I went on a basic HTML course in order to understand what they were talking about. After that I downloaded and printed (printed!) the HTML 3 specification, and then the HTML 4 one. I bought myself a PC and in my spare time I faffed around with HTML, image editing, and general web nonsense. I never got into building my own websites, but instead concentrated my pedantic energies on tweaking the organisation’s pages.
Since then the organisation has gone through some major changes. It’s had to reappraise itself a few times due to the changing climate within which it was working, and has undergone major organisational restructuring. It has taken on lots of diverse projects and has almost trebled the number of staff. The website has had to develop with and adapt to all of this.
At this point I should explain that the website operates on a tiny annual budget, with which it has to support the entire organisation. That’s not a complaint, in fact it’s something I’m quite proud of, but it serves to add context to the developments we’ve made.
The other thing I want to explain at this point is that I have never changed contractors. I have thought about it once or twice; but the commitment, integrity, economy, friendliness and willingness with which they operate has just been too valuable to lose. They are a small outfit – there are three of them now – and I have still never been seduced by the sugary words and golden promises of the big, slick operators.
And I’m not good at making decisions; I tend to get stuck in a cycle of weighing things up. On the rare occasion that I have considered changing contractors, I have thought that my reluctance to do so stemmed from my fear of change and of committing to a decision. Maybe it did; but I’m bloody glad I chose not to move. Building such easy working relationships takes time; yes, some patches of that time are happier than others, but the relationships don’t develop if you don’t give them the chance. And the smaller and more personal the organisation, the easier it is bond with.
Added to that, it’s only fairly recently that I’ve begun to appreciate the different skills that we all bring to the job. In the outset I presumed they could do everything web-related: of course they couldn’t, any more than I can now. But those skills are all developed along the way: what I now have is a pretty good understanding of what we’re all capable of achieving, rather than what we can only demonstrate at any given time. That doesn’t happen if you don’t give the relationship time to evolve.
But back to the website itself. As the organisation grew, and the projects became more abundant and more independent, it became clear that we needed to devolve some of the responsibilities for the upkeep of the website to project staff. This meant procuring a content management system (CMS), which in turn meant understanding what the project staff would need to be able to do with it (with no way of knowing themselves, and all with different and changing requirements), and with next to no budget. So we built it ourselves. Or rather, I cack-handedly scoped it out and my contractor sweated blood turning my messy concept into a beautifully coded reality.
The CMS development suffered severe ‘mission-creep’, mainly because we were learning a lot of what we needed as we went along. The bespoke nature of the CMS, possibly along with a naivity on our part of what we were taking on, has meant that it is not all that user-friendly or intuitive. It also means that we now have a long list of requirements for any new CMS, and would have a hard job ensuring that everything is covered off should we move to a new one (as is possibly the intention). In itself this isn’t a big issue, provided we audit the requirements carefully; the problem is more that my understanding of the web is now more sophisticated, and I need to decide whether the nuances of those ‘requirements’ are actually still right for us.
Aside from the CMS, there are certain functions that the website has to discharge which don’t have a counterpart in the organisational structure. This requires of me expertise in areas that I have no real experience of – such as managing the sale and tracking of resources or organising an organisation-wide image library – in order to plan new developments.
In fact, I need to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.
I’m a web designer
I write a lot of the underlying HTML for the website, and most of the Cascading Styles Sheets (CSS). It could be a lot better, but at least I know that. I designed the concept and layout of the current site, and am trying gradually to introduce developing standards such as CSS3 and microformats. I edit and optimise images: I really want to be in a place where people can store, share, label and control images without having to worry about file formats and pixel numbers, but at the moment I deal with all of that myself.
I’m a writer
I have to be able to write well. I have written a lot of the content in the past, and am editing a lot of it now. This requires a good understanding of how to communicate on a web page, and a solid writing style. Oh well.
I’m an editor and a sub-editor
One of the problems with enabling people to manage their own bits of a website is how you ensure the integrity of the writing. Style guides and management structures help, but where those fail someone has to take responsibility for what’s published on the site. So far that’s been me.
I’m a learner
In order to be of any use to the organisation I have to keep up to speed with the constantly changing nature of the web. For example I explore the benefits of social media, and I manage and advise on our approach to social media tools. I also have to have a pretty solid understanding of the anatomy of the web and of web pages, in order to know how best to support the online work of the organisation.
I’m a teacher
I have to be able to explain abstract concepts in plain English to staff and managers. I have to train staff in the relevant areas of the CMS, and help them understand how the website – and the web in general – can support their work. As well as being clear I also have to be inspiring. Not sure I manage either of those, but hey.
I’m a web accessibility champion
There all sorts of reasons why I would be doing my job badly if I didn’t appreciate the importance of web accessibility, but I won’t go into that here. However, the charity I work for encourages and enables civic engagement, which to my mind means that we must be as inclusive as possible: and that means being as accessible as possible.
I’m a pioneer
I encourage and support staff in the use of web technologies, and gently push the online boundaries of the organisation. I try to adopt emerging technologies where appropriate, and make a point of personally adopting others (partly for fun and partly to keep up to speed).
I’m a manager
In theory. I’m not very good at this bit, but I do have to do it. The site would be nothing without the contractors and all the other contributors, but they all need pulling together. I also have to try and balance myself between the priorities of the External Relations team (which is where my role is located) and those of the individual projects.
I’m a communications professional
As part of the External Relations team I also support the core communications function of the organisation, which requires an understanding of communications more generally.
I’m a strategist
The work of our organisation is particularly diverse, and so defining what the corporate website is and how it supports the various needs of the projects is an ongoing and challenging task. I take a lead on how we communicate ourselves via the web; I never get this right in everyone’s eyes (least of all in mine), but I chip away at trying to make it better.
I need people to be confident that I know what I’m talking about, but I must never presume that I’m right. I can believe I’m doing the right thing, and for the right reasons; but if I ever get too complacent about standards or ignore other people’s views, then the organisation really needs to find someone else.
So there you have it. I don’t claim to do any of this with any flair whatsoever, but I like to think I might be good at some of it.