Being Professionals

Published 17 years, 8 months past

Looks like the idea of a professional organization for web designers is back in the feeds.  Mark Boulton, after listening to the Hot Topics panel from @media 2006, had quite a bit to say about the idea.  Richard Rutter followed up with thoughts of his own, and then D. Keith Robinson chimed in.  There are probably more posts out there by more people, because this is one of those topics that just spreads like a virus, infecting host after host with a copy of itself.  (If you have one, feel free to drop a link in the comments.)

Since Mark started things off by mentioning my comments about education being behind the times (but didn’t actually link to me like he did everyone else; where’s the love, Mark?), I’ll start there.  I still hold that certification is much too premature for our field.  Even if we could wave a wand and create a good set of certification criteria in the next week, it would be out of date within a year.  Anything that wouldn’t go out of date that quickly would be so basic as to make a mockery of the whole idea of certifying someone as competent in the field.

I’ll concede that if a relatively well-funded organization took on the task of creating and (more crucially) keeping up to date the criteria, they could be kept useful.  Hey, maybe an independent W3C!  Well, it’s a thought.

The deeper problem is in deciding what constitutes professional competence.  Does using AJAX get you bonus points, or automatically disqualified?  Does absolutely everything a developer produces have to validate, even if that breaks layout or interactive features in one or more browsers?  Web design isn’t like chemistry, where the precipitate either forms or it doesn’t.  If chemical engineers had to work in conditions equivalent to web developers, they’d have to mix their solutions in several parallel universes, each one with different physical constants, and get the same result in all of them.

Richard’s take is that certification could be based on relevant education and cross-discipline experience.  Well, that leaves me out: my degree in History isn’t likely to be considered relevant.  Then again, I’m not actually a web designer, so maybe Richard’s organization isn’t for me.  I might be considered a developer, but on the other hand, maybe I’m just a technology writer and need to go apply for membership in their club.

Richard’s approach doesn’t really seem to make the “what qualifies” problem go away so much as it abstract it into a non-issue.  You just have to have experience in a discipline.  Nobody says it has to be particularly good or bad—though evaluating that would, apparently, be up to the peers who review your application.  This introduces an interesting subjective element, one that I think may feel foreign to those of us who like to work with computers.  In any organization composed of humans, of course, you’re not going to get away from subjectivity.

In all this, though, the people who are interested in creating a professionals’ organization will have to answer a fairly tough question.  Given that both the World Organization of Webmasters and HTML Writers Guild already exist and offer certification, why aren’t they more widely known or highly regarded, and how will any proposed organization do better?  What will make it better or more influential?

Of everyone, I think Keith’s got the best idea with his proposed professionals’ network.  It’s probably game-able, but heck, so is entrance into a professional society.  I know I’d be very interested in participating in such a network, especially one that let people indicate who they’ve worked with, and on what.  Analyzing those link patterns could be endlessly fascinating.  If it includes community features similar to those of the original MeetUp, thus encouraging physical meetings of members, as well as the endorsement and networking features of LinkedIn, I’d be there in a hot second.

So… who wants to start forming the team to make that network come alive?

Comments (30)

  1. Often times we find ourselves comparing web designers to programmers when we should be comparing them to painters. I can get all kinds of criteria put together to determine my competence in the syntax of CSS but I’d struggle to lay out criteria for it’s proper application situationally. Who “certifies” that a painter is a master?? There is endorsement of work but no real certification to speak of (leaving aside authenticating the painter, of course). So would something like a review committee be a better proposition?? I like the LinkedIn idea of being able to endorse a certain person or their specific work. However, it would probably need to be a scale as opposed to a thumbs-up/down. Just my two Lincolns…

  2. “So… who wants to start forming the team to make that network come alive?”

    You do, of course!

  3. A few years ago I was on the part-time faculty at a community college, teaching HTML and Dreamweaver. I was the only person on the staff who really understood how to take a sliced image from Fireworks and translate it into clean HTML. I was also the only person who really understood how to work in code view and how to use CSS. (By the way, my degrees are in English and Education.) Eventually the state, in its wisdom, decided that part-time faculty had to be “qualified” to teach the classes. Real world experience was no longer a qualifier. A degree in computer science was considered proof of expertise.

    I think a missing piece from the two exisiting organizations you mentioned—and a task of any future professional organization that might emerge—is to mount a PR campaign that explains with absolute clarity just what it is that a web professional does. An explanation so clear-cut that middle managers, university department heads, state department of education decision makers, and hiring managers would know what is possible and what is needed.

  4. Some thoughts…

    No matter how we define “professional” we will have a group of professionals who agree on the definition, and other professionals, groups or individuals, who disagree. It’s like that in any field, so how should this be sorted/solved in a web professionals’ network?

    So far I haven’t found/read anything about such an organisation or network of professionals that goes beyond “who knows who” and “peer reviews”, so I wouldn’t know what kind of base any network of professionals should have apart from being a club for those who (think they) fit in within whatever a club or a network ends up as. That’s not a problem in itself, but any club and/or network that define itself can be whatever they wanna be, without being anything when seen from the outside. That’s the problem for the existing ones (in any field) that I know about, and that problem has to be solved somewhat if a new professionals’ network should be any different. Or maybe one doesn’t want it to be different, in which case there is no need for it, IMO.

    Another thing is: will such a professionals’ network be aiming for international coverage, or will we have to build up national/regional professionals’ networks? I can see a wide range of problems and possible solutions here, so I better stop now.

  5. I think most of your argument about the proposed certification idea smacks of the problems with nearly every certification I’ve looked into getting. Certifications can’t designate someone as being “professional”. At best, they can designate someone as being “knowledgeable”, or as you put it, having “professional competence”. In the same sense, obtaining a computer science degree doesn’t make you a good programmer — I knew one who never learned how to concatenate strings that had quotation marks in them.

  6. The web professional discussion seems to come around and around every year or so. I remember first reading and writing about it in 2004, and then again obliqely in 2005.
    Some food for thought:
    The dictionary meanings of the word “professional” seem to associate “earnings” or “means of livelihood” in the definitions. Technically, anyone earning wages or having as a means of livelihood a job where they are performing in a specifed vocation could be deemed a “professional” of that vocation/activity. Level of success and/or peer acceptance and/or certifications earned would all then be (some) indicators of competence of said professional. I guess then you need to define how you wish to structure the association of these professionals — all those who engage in the activity or all those who engage in the activity and have achieved a certain level of competence. The professional associations I’m familiar with (doctors, architects, project management) maintain credibility by requiring ongoing education of their members – yearly education credits requirements; some have testing requirements. (They also require fairly hefty association dues.)

    My opinion is that being a professional at your vocation means more than simply hanging up your shingle and advertising for work. It implies a willingness to commit to continual learning to further your knowledge and adapt with technology, to deliver the best service/product it is in your ability to do. I’m sure there’s room for ethics in there somewhere too.

    Keith’s idea is intesting but I can’t help feeling it would turn into yet another of the “cliques” he mentions.

  7. I find it deeply ironic that you should bring this up. Kimberly Blessing and I have discussed this on and off for more than six months as one WaSP colleague to another, but we’ve agreed that there’s a metric boatload of work involved. While we quickly identified you as an excellent person to bring into our conversation, we agreed even more quickly that you were probably too busy to justify the risk of bothering you.

    Based on my own musings and the message traffic I’ve seen, there’s a lot of support in the developer community for the IDEA of a professional association. Getting the genuine article into operation is a tougher proposition because:

    1. The core group of founding members will need to be credible experts AND extroverts, and willing to de-prioritize their commercial work for AT LEAST six months apiece – and who do you see taking that step who meets that list of qualifications? …Yeah, that’s what I thought.

    2. The risks of cliquishness and infighting within any resulting organization are distressingly high, no matter what checks and balances are put into bylaws.

    3. SOMEBODY will need to figure out how to pay for the professional services needed to get such an effort off the ground, which is a harder task than seems apparent at first glance.

    4. The issue of certification is a scaled down version of WWIII waiting to happen – and it can’t be sidestepped.

    Despite these issues, I believe that a credible and well-known professional organization is the missing link in the chain that will keep our trade anchored for good.

    Drop me a line if you’re at all interested in the backstory – there is one.

  8. “So… who wants to start forming the team to make that network come alive?”

    Well Eric, since I have read almost every book you’ve written, and I’ve seen you at two conferences (I know, I don’t get out much… working for auniversity with a very limited budget does that to people) I’d say if you start it, I’m in. Or if Jeremy, or Molly, or any of another half dozen folks I read regularly were to start it I would still be in.

    I’d have to agree with Virginia though when she said, “I was also the only person who really understood how to work in code view and how to use CSS.” as in my department I am one of the only ones who can work comfortably in code view. Everyone now a days doesn’t seem to want to know what the code does, or why, or how; they just want the software to do it for them as they can’t be bothered to learn something new. More’s the pity that.

    When I was interviewing for the position I am now in, the hiring committee in their infinite wisdom decided I actually had to hand-code a web page in a text-editor to prove I knew what I was doing. No worries really, only no one on the hiring committee knew how to do it so I wondered why they asked since noone could look at my code and say, “Yep, that’s right…”.

    I think I like the idea of a professional network more than I do the idea of a “certification” because as you pointed out it would be difficult to keep the qualifications current. Like say you’re a certified webprofessional, and a new version of PHP named PHP X came out. Because you don’t know anything about using PHP X would you be any less of a professional than someone who did? Would then not be certified as a web professional because you didn’t know anything about PHP X? I don’t think so.

    I think that my desire to be the best I can at what I do more than exemplifies my dedication to “professionalism” where my job is concerned. And much of what I know I learned from folks like you, Molly, and a few other “luminaries.” And for that, I say thanks to all of you!

  9. Maybe we’re looking at this on a grand scale, when we should be looking at it from the grass roots level.

    Perhaps we should start with a network of “groups” much like user groups, except that the goal is education, information, and work on “certification” or the criteria as the network matures and becomes more cohesive.

    Just a thought.

  10. Hi Eric,

    I wrote about this some months back, and Molly spoke about it at her breakfast at Web Directions south.

    I think the important question about an orgaisation is “what outcomes do you want?”

    One of my favourte quotes is from the French poet/explorer (they don’t make em like that any more) Antoine St. Exupery

    If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

    An that’s precisely what you have been doing for over a decade Eric. Long my that last,


  11. An explanation of what a web professional does? Not even that, but one:

    so clear-cut that middle managers, university department heads, state department of education decision makers, and hiring managers would know what is possible and what is needed.

    If you could unify general relativity and quantum theory while you’re at it, that’d be swell :)

  12. Eric, I was immediately struck by your comment (slap!) and the very first thought I had was of IEEE. My dad has been a member of their organization forever. They do have some competency qualifications, based mostly on academic standing or employment, that I think would be a great start for something like you are suggesting.

    The only real difference between their levels is that in the web world there are a lot of folks that don’t have the requisite academic training but are running full-time small businesses (like myself) and who would gladly fork over $75 – $150 year to be a part of an excellent organization that wasn’t just another cool website. In the meantime, we show our true colors by buying books from you and Zeldman (ha ha) or reading UK web development magazines.

    The web world is so vast (design, coding, Rails, Flash, and of course, standards) I wonder where the madness would end. I think if you guys stick with Standards as your creed and lifeblood, you’d have lots of takers. There would just have to be an “Amatuer” level for those of us still working on our IT degrees.

    We’d get a monthly Standards magazine (finally – something helpful we don’t have to read online!), a cool (geeky!) bumper sticker, and some sort of right to post an online “badge” of our membership – with profile, etc. And we’d be able to vote on upcoming standards ideas, that at the least would get forward to W3C. I’m sure it would expand fast from there. If you get even 10,000 – 20,000 people signing up, the thing will fly – and advertising support for the printed magazine would quickly follow.

    Please pursue this at once!

  13. Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about exactly this topic. Back then it was Andy Clark’s interview that started the whole discussion.

    Even back then, and moreso now that I’ve thought of it more, I find the term professional lacking in trying to define what we want. What I’d like to see promoted is an attitude of web development as a craft.

    As someone from a strong programming background, I’ve always liked the idea that Knuth and others have promoted of programming as a form of art. Web development, with its design side comes even closer.

    But in most cases, a good artist needs to be a proficient in their craft to create good work. At least as a amateur photographer I see the difference in a lucky shot and using skill to get the shot right.

    Craftsmanship is very strongly an attitue, a frame of mind, that we all seem to yearn for when trying to define web professionals. So why don’t we just drop professionalism out of the picture (esp. since degrees and work experience often come to play) and start defining what our craft is about? What are the core skills needed as a web craftsman? And what does it take to become a master craftsman?

  14. Eric,

    To back up the comments of Lawrence. IEEE or maybe ACM could be a good route to go down. Here in the UK (and elsewhere) we also have the BCS, the British Computer Society. In the first instance this means having some means of influencing these groups.

    The difficulty as always is to get potential clients / employers to then recognise the profession. Doctors, Accountants, Lawyers, Architects yeah fine, IT guy / web developer well…..

    It is going to be a long road. IT, never mind web development has only been around for a blink of an eye (in comparative terms)

  15. Something is happening Down Under, but I don’t know what (they’re are teasing us, I think, and I am too busy to nag ;))

  16. Richard”s take is that certification could be based on relevant education and cross-discipline experience. Well, that leaves me out

    I certainly didn’t intend to imply that relevent education would be a requirement – that would count me out too, what with my engineering degree. I meant to say that relevent education should be taken into account when quantifying the amount of experience someone has.

    While I like the sound of the network Keith proposes, it seems very inward looking and wouldn’t necessarily address the other needs that I believe an actual professional body should address – those of career development, diversity and outreach. If it did address those needs, in addition to the dissemination of best practice and innovation, and also required peer review for membership, then Keith has just invented a professional association I and others have been talking about.

  17. Molly brought this up a while ago, in a discussion about a professional code of ethics. There was a wiki set up, but there seems to have been mainly data-gathering rather than much discussion.

  18. D’oh! I stupidly http’d too much in the wiki link above. Here’s the correct one: web professional ethics discussion wiki.

  19. Oops. Sorry Eric. My post has been duly amended with a link.

    The network Keith proposes is a great idea, but my concern with all of this discussion – as Richard points out – is there’s a distinct lack of discussion about the client, career and business development and outreach work.

    Certification of best practice, as I think I indicated in my post, will not work. As you point out, any kind of criteria will be out-dated within months. But aren’t we barking up the wrong tree here? How many members of this industry would benefit from a trusted professional body which could produce, for example, sample invoices and t’s and c’s? Or guidelines on how to get indemnity insurance?

    I guess my point is, there’s a lot more that professional networks or associations can offer other than certification.

  20. Another topic that needs some discussion is “what level of specialisation is this body to represent?”. Is this “web designer” the equivalent of the one-man-band or a specialised musician such as a flautist? The latter can play solo when appropriate, but I wouldn’t hire the one-man-band for my orchestra.

    Web design can include usability, accessibilty, scripting, graphic design, server-side programming, database design, network management, content management and more. (If you staff each of these separately, you need HR as well!) It seems to me that separating “Web design” from IT in general is too arbitrary a distinction to justify its own professional body.

  21. You know I’d love to be on that team. As well, if anyone has an idea on how to target clients, etc. as Mark mentions, I’d love to be in on that as well. I can see how the “network” would address everything but it could be a start, as well the idea that it would be cliqueish or inwardlooking is certainly a potential risk, but it goes against the primary reason for such a network and should be avoided at all costs.

  22. It is always a pleasure to pay a visit…

  23. Eric wrote:

    Even if we could wave a wand and create a good set of certification criteria in the next week, it would be out of date within a year.

    What would not go out of date however, are anticriteria. Even though a list of anticriteria would grow over time, once a technique or method is condemned to the list, it stays on the list.

    If we cannot necessarily keep up with documenting the latest in best practices (perhaps because we are still figuring them out) which themselves may inevitably be out of date within a year, we can at least document obsolete techniques that are to be avoided, such as: (feel free to edit and insert list markup)

    * tables for layout
    * spacer gifs
    * font tags
    * <b>ed & <br>eakfast markup
    * <a>norexic </a>nchors
    * presentational class names


    While these anticriteria cannot be used to recommend someone, they could be used to disqualify those that would otherwise claim to be professionals, and hopefully provide an educational resource for professionals to recognize and shed obsolete techniques.

  24. We discussed this at The Webmaster Forums back in June. There are some interesting comments there from Abhishek who basically agrees with Eric here but goes on to fit web development in with software engineering. Another thread illustrates why there is a need for something like this – even the people deploring the lack of professional standards don’t seem to have many themselves.

    My opinion is that for anything to happen on this front a lot of influential people will need to come together. Nice to see people like Eric and Mark Boulton bringing it up. There is no doubt in my mind that something has to be done to educate both web designers and clients about what good web design is.

  25. Eric, my take on the “HTML Writers Guild” is simply this. Useless.

    Why you may ask?

    The Artful Spider

    Yet another “Frontpage is not your friend” example.

    If “Proud Members” of an organization produce crap like this… I want no part of it.

    While it would be a “huge” undertaking, I currently have it set firm in my mind that any certification program should review the first 10-15 projects a “member” puts together once certified. I know, it sounds nuts. However it would at least be able to keep its reputation somewhat intact from that alone. After completing X number of projects, one would move from an apprentice type level up to the next. Also if “forced” to keep within set guidelines over this period, it would help to build upon the foundation created by the certification process as well as further help in developing “good” habits. Granted it would take a lot of resources to pull off, but something would have to be done to prevent the proud and newly certified folks from turning out something as what is linked above.

  26. Regarding outdated knowledge, it’s fairly common in other professions to have regular re-certifications be a part of the process. As a lifeguard in high school, I was required to renew my certifications in rescue, CPR and swimming instruction as often as every two years. That doesn’t mean I needed to re-take a course each time, but I did have to challenge the updated test.

    Regarding specializations, there are still a fundamental set of practices most web designers should know, such as even USING CSS at all. There is nothing to stop a group from providing certifications that stack onto that basic certification.

  27. This piece raises many good points about the early development of professions. I particularly like the discussion about criteria for certification. The idea of a network makes very good sense to me. I frankly wonder whether the traditional patterns of forming professional societies works for web designers/developers. The communication patterns that exist today and are of most common use by such folks are so very different than those that have existed in the past, that it raises questions about what professional community, identification, apprenticeship, mentoring, and service might look like in an Internet-mediated age. I’d be very interested in how a network might build on the current context toward shaping a new kind of professional affiliation.

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