He’s the researcher and occasional co-host of the popular Boagworld podcast and currently works in higher education building a wide variety of sites, apps and general ‘stuff’ on the web.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got into the web design and development industry?
Looking back on things, I took quite a circuitous route to where I am today so this might take a while…
During my school education my favourite subject was Design and Technology which was pretty much the sole focus of my time in education. I loved being able to design, plan, and then physically construct the product of my imagination. granted, the projects as a high-schooler were pretty simple such as a clock or a pair of speaker stands but they steadily increased in complexity and by the time I finished my A-levels I had been part of a small team which designed, built and raced an electric racing car in a national competition (which we won!) and designed and built a petrol powered go-kart as my final solo project. This led me to pursue a higher education in Automotive Engineering to which I was offered places at 2 Universities.
During my A-Levels I had a part time job for a large office supplies retail chain to get some extra money and – at the time – I loved working in retail and decided that I didn’t want to go through another 4 years of study and would rather pursue a career in retail management (the logic of which escapes my present self). I quickly rose through the ranks and was running one of the largest ‘business machines’ departments in the country. It was during this job that I started getting really hands-on with PC’s as I was heavily involved with sales and repair and led to me deciding I wanted to be an IT Technician. The department I worked in also sold IT books and had quite a few books on HTML and CSS which I would take into the staff canteen and read over lunch, then go and fire up notepad on the display PC’s and hack out some (admittedly, table based) HTML when I was supposed to be working.
This was around 1999, and was really the key moment which started my love of web design and development and I started mucking about on the web. I was a member of a large online music community at the time which boasted a hugely popular UBB forum with thousands of members from around the world. The forums of the time were relatively simple and didn’t have the functionality to add a profile, photo or any information about yourself. This led me to create a sister site to the forum which was – in effect – a social network. The trouble was that as I had no programming skills, they would submit their information to a mailto form which would print out in my bedroom, I’d then code up a new HTML page for each new member. This led me want to learn some kind of programming language, and after nearly making my head explode by reading a book on ASP, I settled on PHP and started making everything database driven and generally making my life a lot easier!
By 2004 I’d moved jobs a couple of times, first as the manager of an IT repair shop, then as an IT Technician at the University of Leeds. In my time at UoL I’d still play with building web pages and generally using my web skills to solve problems. Even though I was a PC Technician, I built a system for the UoL which would manage and display full screen advertisements and information on networked plasma screens dotted around campus and another to distribute secure door codes to students for out-of-hours computer access (both of which are still used).
Finally, I’d realised by this point what I wanted to be when I grew up and that was a Web Designer / Developer. I was having far too much fun building websites in and out of work but didn’t know were to start in turning a hobby into a full time job as I’d spent the last 10 years thinking I wanted to be an IT technician. Luckily, a position came up at the UoL Web Team which I was all over like a rash, and I’ve been here for nearly 2 years now, constantly learning and being involved with bigger and better projects and generally feeling bloody lucky that I’ve found my way into a career which I really love and am passionate about.
Do you consider yourself to be mainly a designer or developer (or a bit of both?)
My business card says “Designer / Developer” and I do think I’m slap bang in the middle, right on the slash. To use an analogy and think right back to my early days building racing cars I made a point to be involved with the whole project at some form, I might not have physically built the steering, but I was involved with how it was designed. I didn’t weld the chassis, but I knew my work on the transmission design and engine would affect how that should be shaped so would help to tweak the design to make sure everything worked as a whole.
Are there any other designers in the industry producing work that you really admire?
You recently helped redesign the Leeds University website. Are there any challenges you have found when it comes to designing a website for the Higher Education sector?
The University of Leeds Corporate redesign was a massive learning experience for me, the sheer size of the task meant that by the time it goes live, it’s been an active project of ours for a year. The way we manage projects evolved so much over that year and I’ll be taking those lessons forward into even the smallest projects which I undertake from now on.
There are a number of challenges which Higher Education poses, one of which is the sheer number of internal stakeholders that are involved with a project, especially of this size, which need consulting with, catered for and liaised with as the project progresses and a key factor is consolidating the feedback from these multiple sources, over a variety of methods before it reaches the development team and having the luxury of a great project manager is ideal here. Being a public sector organisation also requires us to adhere to strict accessibility and disability discrimination guidelines which affects many decisions across the project.
You’ve also been working hard on Coursefinder for the university which is due to launch soon. Can you tell us a little more about it?
The new Coursefinder at UoL was a project which involved replacing an archaic system which ran on a distributed Microsoft Access database which allowed departments to update the details of their academic courses. The new system was written as a custom module for our new corporate CMS so that we could take advantage of the new CMS features such as categorisation and workflow. Coursefinder is populated from data without our corporate systems and then allows CMS users access to these to add and modify information using their familiar CMS interface instead of requiring knowledge of a specific application like Access or Dreamweaver.
One of the most interesting things for this project was building context sensitive features on the front-end, which would change depending on whether the student was searching for Undergraduate/Postgraduate Research/Postgraduate taught courses, and also having to deal with often non-standard data held in the corporate systems.
I’m looking forward to watching how Coursefinder is used when it goes live, and hope to get the chance to iterate the functionality to bring in more useful features to help students find the best courses for them.
You are a researcher for the popular Boagworld.com podcast but have found yourself behind the microphone recently. Do you enjoy presenting and is it something you’d like to do more often?
Being part of the Boagworld podcast is a great experience and I do enjoy my guest appearances on the show and I look forward to being able to hijack the show whenever Paul and Marcus are off gallivanting on holiday. I’m not sure if I could do the show every week like Paul and Marcus though.
How do you organise your workload?
I use Trac (http://trac.edgewall.org/) to manage all of the projects that I’m working on at any point in time and Harvest (http://harvestapp.com) for time tracking. Trac is integrated quite nicely with our Source Control (Git) and has a decent system for managing issues/milestones/bugs and changesets. One of the key things I’m trying to do at the moment is stop the ‘drive-by issues’ where colleagues often mention something in passing, there’s the old saying of ‘a sale is not a sale until it’s closed’, my new phrase is “an issue is not an issue until it’s logged”!
Do you subscribe to any blogs, podcasts or magazines to help stay on top of what is going on in the web design world?
Being the researcher for the Boagworld podcast means I’m subscribed to an abnormal amount of web design blogs and the best articles I come across are all pushed out through my @boaglinks twitter feed http://twitter.com/boaglinks
Do you have a particular favourite web design conference or event that you never miss?
I’ve been to the Future of Web Design conference twice now, and would really recommend it and will be attending Future of Web Apps for the second time in a couple of weeks. I also attend GeekUp Leeds (http://geekup.org) every month which is a great excuse to get drunk with other geeks from Leeds.
Finally, do you have any tips for people starting in the industry?
The biggest tip I have is to get away from the keyboard and get out there and meet people, it doesn’t necessarily have to be at a conference, there’s local geek events all over the country and if there isn’t one near you, don’t be afraid to start one!