Network Web Design: Suddenly the code warrior has become an endangered species

Being an HTMLer is no longer the highly specialised skill it once was
Willy: "The door of your life is wide open!"

Biff: "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen and so are you!"

- Death of a Salesman

When I got my first full-time job in the Internet business back in 1996, my title was "Web Designer". That job title meant I covered just about every role on a website project.

I talked to the client about what the site was being developed for; created flow charts and outlines; collected or created content as needed; designed the user interface and all of the graphics; built the interface in HTML; built out all of the pages for the entire site; tested it and got feedback from the client; made revisions; and then, finally, deployed the site on to the Web.

I did everything but the back-end engineering stuff like CGI and PERL. For the smaller sites I was creating at the time, this was no problem. I could handle the amount of work that this required, and was often working on several projects at the same time.

But times have changed and large-scale websites require a team of experts in various fields to produce them on time and on budget. These Web design teams need information architects (IA) to help identify the site's audience, purpose and content as well as to create the structure and user interface. They need art directors to worry about how the site looks and corporate branding issues, and to work with the IA on creating an attractive and usable interface. They need programmers to deal with back-end software, database management and servers. They also need "HTMLers" to take the work of the others and integrate this into the finished website.

HTMLers need to know how to use HTML and JavaScript, of course, but they must also be able to use graphic programs to create the site's widgets (all of the graphics used to make the interface). In addition, many HTMLers are adept at using Dynamic HTML (DHTML) in all of its various forms, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), PERL, Director and Flash. They should be able to wield these tools with particular artistry and create sites that not only look good and download quickly but also work consistently across the plethora of browsers on the market. This is not an easy task.

To make matters worse, the technology used to create the Web is constantly shifting and evolving. Web design teams have to stay on top of what is possible on the Web, but new technologies seem to sprout up every day, and the old ones are always being updated.

And then there are the browsers. What works one way in Internet Explorer 4 may not work the same way in Internet Explorer 5, much less in Navigator 4. A good HTMLer has constantly to research and learn all of the minutia of browsers and other technologies to keep the team ahead of the technology curve.

However, despite all of this, the days of putting HTML and JavaScript on your CV and expecting to get a high-paying job at a hot Internet firm are numbered.

When the Web first became a crucial medium for businesses, knowledge of HTML was in short supply because few people understood it. Back in the days when I called myself a Web designer, I used to joke that if our clients ever figured out how easy it was to learn HTML we would all be out of a job. Well, apparently they did.

Now it seems as if anyone who has taken a class at ZDU, read HTML for Dummies, and knows how to double click on the icon for FrontPage can call themselves an HTMLer. I have nothing against this, in fact, part of the reason I write this column and my books is to help people, regardless of their background, learn how to create Web pages. Yet being an HTMLer is no longer the highly specialised skill it once was. Just as word processors allow anyone to publish printed material, HTML allows anyone to publish electronic material. It still takes skill to create really tight, professional Web pages because of the issues that I mentioned above, and these issues will not disappear overnight.

However, things are changing on the Web. HTML editors such as Dreamweaver and Cyberstudio allow IAs and art directors to render their own designs. Increasingly sophisticated standards such as CSS remove the need for relying on clunky and unpredictable table layout. And finally, technologies that allow sites to be dynamically created are removing the burden of having to code each page by hand.

So where does this leave HTMLers? It's not as if the position will vanish altogether, but as more sites need maintenance rather than creation, HTMLers may find that they are increasingly called on simply to churn out basic HTML. The good news is that there are several avenues open to HTMLers who start looking to the future.

Many HTMLers are naturally suited to become IAs or programmers. However, a more intriguing option is that advanced HTMLers might become site managers; basically a Web-centric project manager. This position would allow them to oversee and direct the various aspects of the project and balance the needs of usability, aesthetics and code within the site. Since HTMLers are already called on to deploy a variety of different skills, who better to understand the problems of bringing a website together?

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML for the World Wide Web'. If you have questions, you can find an archive of this column at Webbed Environments (www. webbedenvironments.com) or email him at jason@ webbedenvironments.com

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