At the crossroads

Every once in awhile in my career, I come across a crossroads of sorts.

I started my professional life on the web in 1999 with a small Internet company in Edmonton.  The salary was crap, but they had taken a giant risk on me, an unproven web designer who was working in support for a dial-up Internet company. I had done some design work on the web already, building both a personal site, the germ of an online literary journal, and a wannabe graphic design company.  But, like I said, I was unproven. I'd like to think I proved myself there, and it absolutely started me on the path I've been walking down the last few years.

I quickly met the limit of what I could accomplish at Worldgate, and when my good friend Dana offered me a job to manage the web and graphic design at his startup, I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn't just the 200% jump in salary or the ability to work with my friends that made the decision for me; it was something else entirely. Dana had started a network security company, a field that was still relatively unknown and misunderstood in 2000. He understood that this was a very important issue, and had ideas for helping solve it.1 I had a very exciting opportunity with Dana's company: the ability to introduce this new field, and do so in such a way that people would understand and be excited about it.  I was able to really hone my design skill and aesthetic, as well as grow an appreciation for what good design is and does. I think that, ultimately, we were successful in helping people understand the field.  It's unfortunate that the company ultimately failed for other reasons.

I spent a couple of years after that bouncing around a little. I landed at an Edmonton-based engineering company first, where I started out as a designer for one of their web-based products. This quickly shifted to the webmaster role in their Marketing department, where I worked with an extremely talented graphic designer and a brilliant writer. It was here that I started to make my first major shift, from being a pure web designer towards being a web developer.  I still thought of myself as a web designer at this point, but was doing it less and less. By the time I left to work for a small web design firm, I had decided to stop professionally designing websites.  I had realized that my strengths lied more in building the designs through PHP, HTML, and CSS rather than in Photoshop or Illustrator, and that there were people far more talented than myself that I could work with.

In 2003, I took a side trip into technical writing and help development at a GE subsidiary that developed software for industrial applications, based on a recommendation from the previously mentioned brilliant writer. I think this was a critical moment for me. I was no longer really working in the web proper, but still made use of and built web-based projects on a regular basis. It also brought home what has become a central focus for me: a clear and simple explanation for seemingly complex operations. Of course, as a help developer, clear explanation was a central part of my job. But I found it leaked into all aspects of my professional life: the documents I was writing, the reports I would have to put together at the end of a project, parsing marketing and technical requirements, and finally, just as I was about to leave, proposing an open source documentation standard that would increase our documentation's effectiveness through the ability to create multiple output formats and reuse content easily.

I took a bit of a sidetrip from 2004 to 2007 through a Master's degree in the Arts, which I spent looking at the web, blogging in particular, and how it created communities. I took this MA in the Humanities Computing program at the University of Alberta.  Humanities Computing, now more generally known as digital humanities, is an interesting field.  It sits in between two very different disciplines: Humanities (in my experience, primarily literature and linguistics) and Computing Science.  Traditionally, these disciplines haven't had much to do with one another; in fact, they're about as alien to one another as you can get. Early Digital Humanities scholars saw that there was an opportunity to bridge the two, however, by applying computing techniques to some of the more mundane aspects of literature/linguistic study; for example, building concordances and word frequency charts. This kind of activity was pretty well formed by the time I got into the field, of course. And it wasn't something I was interested in.  More interesting to me was looking at what the effects of that collaboration were.  How was this affecting the scholarship itself, for example?  How could DH scholars make this work more relevant to people outside of the field?

Of course, the time came when I had to stop focusing on these questions and start focusing on my thesis instead. I chose to look at how interface builds and changes identity online, specifically within the activity of blogging, and worked out how literary and interface theory could be applied to this process. I'd like to think it was an important study, but don't we all want to think that? Regardless, the time I spent researching and writing my thesis reinforced within me how much effect these seemingly disparate things have on one another, how invisible this effect can be, and how important it is to talk about and shed light on this effect.

For the past four years, I've worked in an academic environment. I came here to be a faciliator as much as a developer, and it's something I've loved completely and fully, despite some grumbles here or there. Of all the positions I've had over the past 12 years, this has been the most challenging and the most rewarding.  I've been involved with projects that have spanned from social networking to virtual worlds, and they've all been focused on one primary goal: trying to learn something, whether it is how to more effectively detect plagiarism within a distance education context or whether an avatar within a virtual world enhances opportunities for learning. I took on a project management role over an institution-wide initiative last year, and have continued to enjoy what I do.

But once again, I'm at a crossroads. I'm no longer the web developer I was when I started this position; I've gained respnsibility over people, budgets, and projects, and I've taken a much more active role in planning things out and changing those plans when things come up. I can see the direction this is leading, and I've really tried to put some thought into how far down that road I want to travel. I've enjoyed supervising people and helping them to build some really amazing things. But I know I don't want to be a pure project manager. I love researching the solution for a problem, and figuring out what we have to do to solve it.  I'm less keen on the endless paperwork and progress reports that go along with it, and especially with the distance from web development it entails; while my developer was here, I did very little design or development work.

I realized a couple of months ago that the direction I should be heading is towards is being a web strategist.  In short, a web strategist is an individual that helps an organization make the most effective use of the web. Some of this has already shown up in my professional site, where I've attempted to rebrand myself to highlight my skills and experience in that area.  It gives me the planning, research, and supervision that I enjoy, while keeping me close to the web and web development. 

I still have a bit of a journey ahead of me, of course, and this post shouldn't be read as me itching to get out of my current job, which I should mention again, I really enjoy.  But I feel very strongly that I should be examining and reexamining my career on a regular basis, and be constantly growing. And this is where I think I should be going.

  • 1. And, for what it's worth, his ideas also predated the now very popular blade servers.