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Illustration by Justin Mezzell

Cultivating the Next Generation of Web Professionals

I’ve spent most of my career at institutions of higher education, and during that time, I have had the good fortune to work with several incredible students. Former interns are now LinkedIn connections working for television shows, book publishers, major websites, ad agencies, and PR firms, and the list of job titles and employers makes me proud. Along the way, I tried to give them interesting projects (when available), enthusiastic references (when merited), and helpful career advice (when requested).

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And despite their success, I feel like I fell short. I could have offered more to them.

Mentoring opportunities, after all, aren’t limited to internships and official programs. There is a lot that we as individuals can do to serve as role models, ambassadors, and teachers to the web professionals of tomorrow.

Skillsets will evolve and technologies will come and go, but we can create the digital experiences of the future today through the values and attitudes we instill in the next generation of web workers.

Finding new layers of learning

The web has matured significantly since it hijacked my career path back in college, and so have our understanding of and attitudes toward it. “Doing it right” calls for strategic skills like testing, measurement, and planning; interpersonal skills like negotiation, leadership, and collaboration; and technical skills in writing, coding, or design.

But has the education of the next generation of web professionals matured accordingly? How much are they learning bricklaying versus architecture? This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of curriculums at colleges and universities, where we are beginning to see more courses, certificates, and even degree programs that reflect this approach. This is more an acknowledgement of the new nature of education nowadays—experiential, fluid, occasionally roundabout, and highly networked.

We often talk about how the success of our work is determined by the strength of our relationships and our ability to work with people. This is what Jonathan Kahn has been talking about and working on with the Dare Conference. We need to extend that way of thinking to the relationships we build with each other, and, in particular, with the future professionals who will one day take our place at the client’s table.

I’ve always cherished the thoughtfulness that our industry regularly displays, and how, despite serious concerns about sexism, diversity, and harassment, there is an overriding sense of justice and support. Within our profession, we have built a special community. Since our future colleagues are among these students, let’s welcome them into it.

Bring your experience back to the classroom

Future web professionals require connections to peers and leaders in the field and to enhanced learning experiences. We can build those connections by meeting students where they are: in their classrooms. What undergraduate or graduate programs offered in your area align with your skillset? Reach out to the relevant faculty—in journalism, public relations, computer science, human-computer interaction, graphic design, technical writing, and other departments—to see if they are looking for guest speakers.

Brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein has spoken to undergraduate classes about a half-dozen times, and invited top names in the field to speak to her own content strategy class at Columbia University. My Meet Content partner-in-crime, Rick Allen, teaches a course at Emerson College in Boston on electronic publishing, and he’s been kind enough to invite me to speak to his graduate students twice (and sometimes I think the experience is more rewarding for me than for them!).

You can also reach out directly to college career centers. Amanda Costello, a content strategist at the University of Minnesota, has had success with this approach, working with them to organize and promote events where she can talk about her work with students who may have an interest in a web profession.

If you catch the bug after a guest-lecturing stint, reach out to those programs or your local community college to see if they are looking for new adjunct faculty, and teach your own course. It’s a huge time commitment, to be sure, but teaching is a great way to approach your work with fresh eyes and maybe realize a thing or two you didn’t know before—while sharing your knowledge with an eager audience.

Expand learning opportunities off-campus

Invite students to the next local industry event. Hackathon? Content strategy meetup? UX book club? It’s all good. Work with professors teaching relevant courses to see if their students can get extra credit for attending, or maybe host a “student night” of lightning talks where they can talk about their research or perspectives on the field so far. Similar to Costello’s approach, send information about your professional networking event directly to career centers so they can promote it to students who may be interested.

We can also make powerful connections outside the construct of a university setting. Karen McGrane recently wrote about how she pays forward the 30 minutes an academic whose name she can’t even recall gave her that helped steer her toward a graduate program and, eventually, a career.

With that post echoing in my mind, I recently agreed to meet with a young woman who reached out to me via Twitter. She was intrigued by my job title, curious about how I got to where I am, and wondering what her next steps might be. We closed our 30-minute conversation over coffee on an Au Bon Pain patio with me promising to connect her to a former intern of mine, whom I had counseled as she struggled to find her place postgraduation and watched as she emerged confident with a rewarding job in her chosen field.

I don’t know if that connection will help her, or if anything I said in those 30 minutes made sense, but if nothing else, I know that I helped reassure her that there are people in the industry who are willing to meet a complete stranger for 30 minutes on a Tuesday and talk shop. For someone just starting out professionally and looking to find her place, that’s significant.

Make conferences more accessible for young attendees

We are lucky to work in an industry with several opportunities for professional development, events where we can gather in person and learn from each other. We need to work harder to bring college students into this fold. There are two main obstacles: awareness and budget.

Building the pathways to make students aware of conference opportunities (both for presenting and attending) is doable over time, but a tougher problem to solve is budget. The average college junior does not have the resources to pay a conference fee, let alone airfare and hotel. Within a university, a student may receive funding from the provost’s office or a dean’s special-projects fund to attend an academic conference. But what about professional events?

As sponsorship dollars fly fast and furious around various events, let’s consider the possibility of offering scholarships to select student attendees or a discounted student rate, as some conferences (like An Event Apart) already do. In this vein, for two years running, Facebook has sponsored content strategy fellowships that fund three students’ attendance at the annual Confab Central content strategy conference, in addition to extending an opportunity to apply for a content strategy internship with the social-networking giant. Some conferences, like UXPA, organize a student volunteer program that helps staff the conference while providing a free conference experience (complete with networking opportunities) in return. If sponsorships and scholarships aren’t possible, conferences should work with colleges to allow attendance at events relevant to a student’s major to count as course credit.

But what about taking that a step further and creating a professional development experience just for students? Two such initiatives are currently underway. One is the Center Centre at the Unicorn Institute, a user experience design-focused education project spearheaded by Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman. Also, the HighEdWeb conference has introduced the CrowdSource Summit, a sub-conference geared toward college students with the stated goal of providing them with a multidisciplinary, human perspective on web professions. (Full disclosure: I spoke at CrowdSource Summit in October.)

While attendance is great, presenting is even better. In helping to organize Confab Higher Ed for the past two years, I am particularly proud of the fact that we have included sessions that feature not only student-generated communications efforts, but also teams with student copresenters. And offering those opportunities can yield results. Recently, I learned that one of last year’s student speakers, RIT’s Erin Supinka, landed a job as a social media manager at Dartmouth in part thanks to the recommendation of Dartmouth content strategist Sarah Maxell Crosby, who attended Supinka’s session. I hope to see this trend continue, and be echoed at other conferences.

This increased access for students would have to go hand in hand with making conferences’ social activities less focused around drinking and creating more all-ages social events. A List Apart technical editor and front-end developer Anna Debenham recently wrote about this on the ALA blog, observing that all of the efforts I’ve outlined here would be for naught if we don’t address the social component as well. “The more young people we encourage to join the fold, the more we are excluding from these events,” she observed. (Debenham has even crafted some handy guidelines for event organizers.)

Expand your interns’ horizons

If you have interns at your company, don’t limit their involvement to tasks like research, answering emails, or bug fixes. Get them invested in the culture of your organization by discussing clients, projects, process, deliverables, and industry trends and challenges with them. Let them sit in on a kickoff meeting, client pitch, or deliverables presentation, and encourage them to share their ideas in whatever way is most appropriate. Earlier this year, Jim Ross wrote for UX Matters not only about how interns can get the most out of their opportunity, but also how companies can give interns enlightening, productive work experiences. The Boston-based web design firm Upstatement offers a development apprenticeship that seems like it would be one such position.

The other day, I sat in on a weekly status call with a client. Our project manager called in our co-op student who had worked on a landing page design and asked her to explain to the client the different options and the reasoning behind them. The PM could have easily summarized the work, but instead she asked our co-op to represent her own work—which, I might add, the client liked.

In addition, have interns talk to people in roles that are distinct from their skillset or comfort zone—programmers, project managers, IAs, UX specialists, content strategists, designers, you name it. These mini job-shadowing opportunities will help establish a well-rounded approach to web work.

A couple of years ago, I wrote for Meet Content about how student workers can help support content strategy work (both from the staff perspective as the one managing the students and assigning them work, and from the student perspective of someone thinking about a career path and looking for paid work that will help advance them along). Last year, a design intern at Fastspot wrote glowingly on the company’s blog about how deeply involved she became in the agency’s process while working there. It’s within these purposeful, immersive early work experiences that students discover their true callings as professionals—as well as the things they don’t like, which is important too.

Building the future

In a 2010 HighEdWeb presentation, Dylan Wilbanks (then at the University of Washington) exhorted the audience not to let the politics of higher ed beat them down and make them bitter. “Love the web, love higher ed, love people,” he implored us.

In thinking about the importance of mentorship, I am drawn back to Wilbanks’s words. We may love the work that we do, yes, but we also love our field and the people within it. This love is why I care about what not only the web will look like in five, 10, 20 years, but also our profession and our community.

In an August post on The Pastry Box Project, Brad Frost reminded us of the importance in remaining self-aware as professionals, always asking ourselves why we do what we do and not just getting dragged along by the act of doing. “Understanding why we enjoy doing what we do better prepares us for whatever the future has in store,” he wrote. In short, we need to actively give a damn.

The more we openly communicate about what drives us, the better off we, our colleagues, and our future colleagues will be. We use forums like this to debate and evolve our understanding both of the web and of ourselves as professionals, to everyone’s benefit.

By the same token, because we care so damned much, we should be similarly engaged with the next wave of web professionals. We should work to cultivate their senses of passion and exploration, and their appreciation of a well-rounded approach to web work, so they can take the web places we’ve never dreamed it could go. Now that’s being future friendly.

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