Apparently the IT industry has recently been having a rough time of it in London… and everywhere else, for that matter. Since the well-publicised popping of the dot com bubble, it’s no secret that there are fewer jobs around — and just as many people trying to get them.
Only the other day I was at the pub talking to a guy who’s a very talented freelance programmer, and has only just landed a full time job with a large bank in London’s financial centre — after 6 months of unemployment.
He told me that he sat waiting for the fifth interview for this post alongside six other intelligent, talented individuals, none of whom had worked for a few months (at the very least). All were freelancers — the kinds of people who, just a year ago, would have been head-hunted right, left and centre — and would have politely declined a full time position as well.
Now it seems that London is plagued by bored, out of work, freelance Web developers and programmers. However, I notice that not all self-employed Web developers are talking doom and gloom.
Several of my friends are actually doing better in the present climate. But how? What makes them successful while others are doomed to spend the next six months watching daytime TV and eating baked beans?
While these guys move ahead, however, countless developers (who are quite a bit younger than me, and already have an astounding amount of technical know-how), are constantly entering the marketplace — yet they don’t seem to be getting the work.
This situation got me thinking about what actually constitutes a good Web developer.
I decided that a good place to start would be to look at what I would expect from a decent Web developer.
Obviously, good HTML and Flash skills are a given: I wouldn’t even consider someone without them. Also, some experience in another area is useful, whether it’s database development, XML, PHP…
But when I really thought about which of the people I’d worked with had been the best, technical skills started to take a back seat.
Let me explain. I work in a small to medium sized advertising agency and it’s probably one of the most demanding environments a developer can be in. The deadlines are short, you have to work quickly with designs that are not always ideal, and the quality of the finished product has to be very high.
That leads me to look for three things when I hire: speed, an eye for detail, and a sense of humour (though some of my more rotten colleagues might suggest that I wouldn’t hire myself based on those criteria).
You won’t find these requirements listed in many job ads, but let me assure you, I, for one, wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t posess all three.
Speed is obvious. I occasionally find myself with less than a day to program a microsite (for those of you now asking "a what?" — a microsite is our name for a small site set up for a specific campaign or product).
Not getting the job done is not an option. These microsites normally coincide with a press campaign whose first ad usually appears in the papers the next day.
An eye for detail is also extremely important. As a member of a team working on a suite of materials for a campaign, each person is responsible for ensuring the quality of the end product. That way — with everyone checking everyone else’s input — nothing slips through the net.
As I’m creating "new media" materials, I’m not just coding. I’m reading the copy. I’m checking it in several different scenarios. I’m making sure that every ‘t’ is crossed and every ‘i’ is dotted — on every page. We constantly create high quality graphical material, and we work to very high standards. If that button jumps a pixel when you go to the next page, it does matter. We can’t simply leave it and hope no-one notices!
I guess it’s a pride thing: pride in your work leads to good work. It’s quite simple really. You need the mindset that whatever you’re working on, you’re going to make it look as good as it can. And you’ve got to maintain that mindset, even if you’re secretly getting a bit fed up with the whole project.
A Sense of Humour
Finally, a sense of humour is crucial. That may sound like an odd requirement, but I guess what I really mean is that you’ve got to have the right mental attitude.
This is important in so many areas. As I’ve already said, ours is a pretty stressful environment at times, as anyone who’s ever worked in a serious, high turnaround ad agency will testify (and I don’t mean some small, trendy, three-client outfit in Soho — controversial, but in my opinion it doesn’t compare). Let me give you a few examples of high-pressure situations a Web developer will find him or herself in.
Firstly, there’s working with designers — and not necessarily Web designers. Working with other people to inform the designs of Websites is a skill in itself. It’s often difficult to strike a balance. As an Art Director said to me the other day, "I’m yet to meet a Web developer who just says ‘yes’." She was joking… I think. But it’s true: I rarely say ‘yes’ to everything, because I have to make the darned thing work. So design elements usually do get sacrificed.
The trick to not being seen as just some guy who says ‘no’ a lot is to keep as much of the design intact as you can, but never ever go to the other extreme of saying ‘yes’ to everything. Don’t get on the slippery slope of having to build Websites using technologies that are sure to alienate visitors, simply because it’s the only way the design will work. If that’s the case, then you shouldn’t have approved the design in the first place.
Here’s another one: it’s 4:30pm. A campaign goes live tomorrow. The first papers will probably be landing on people’s breakfast tables in about 12 hours time. You’re contracted to work 9 – 5:30 but you’re nowhere near finished. Do you go home or stay and finish the work?
Let’s put it this way: if you go home, you needn’t bother coming in tomorrow morning. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen — and if you have to work all night, then you have to work all night. Apart from anything else, if you’re someone who cares enough about their work to do that, then you’re someone I’d like to hire.
Or how about this? You’ve finished a site (for the second time, due to a client changing their mind) and you get asked if you can "just tweak" the background colour. You know that this is going to involve redoing all of the nice little images on the right hand side in Photoshop to pull them in to line with the colour change. Again, it happens.
As you can see, a sense of humour really is pretty important.
When it all Boils Down
Many Web developers find themselves out of work, in spite of their excellent technical abilities. This leads me to the conclusion that, though half of being a good Web developer is technical ability, you won’t get along very well without the other bits — flexibility, personality, speed and attention to detail.
After all, we’re in a saturated market nowadays. Anyone can get a book on HTML and learn how to do it (and they increasingly do — how many times have I seen someone reading ‘HTML for dummies’ on the Tube?). So it’s becoming less about how good your programming skills are, and more about how well you can fit into a team.
If I had the choice between the basic skills and the right mental attitude, or an impeccable technical CV and client list coupled with inflexibility, I’d go for the former every time.