Interview with Randall Olson, an Experienced Website Developer

Randall Olson

Randall Olson isn't your average website developer. He is also the director of IT Operations and Marketing at Mobile Technical Institute Business Solutions in Alabama, where he has worked since 2003. MTI provides various types of career and business solutions training, as well as IT certification training.

Olson, 43, who lives in Mobile, Alabama, with his wife and three children, took some time from his busy schedule to chat with LoveToKnow Web Design about his job as an experienced website developer.

About Website Development

Tell me about your position at MTI Business Solutions. What is your primary focus and responsibility?

"These days I'm focused on our IT systems, websites and e-mail campaigns. I keep our systems and our small business clients systems working and updated. When I'm not building a new website, or designing and implementing a new e-mail campaign for our clients, I spend a little time teaching end user application classes, such as Microsoft and Adobe products to our business clients and their employees."

What type of schooling or background do you have in website development?

"When our company opened, we had a website built that was lacking in structure and professionalism. I decided that I would try to come up with something a little better, and five years later of learning and building numerous websites using Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP and Drupal CMS. I'm still working on ours when I can get free time."

What is the difference between what you do and what a web designer's job entails?

"The web industry, like any industry, has specialists. A web designer focuses on the personality of the website and directly the company in which it represents. Designers apply the look and feel of the site, typically using software applications used specifically for design work, whether it be for print or web. Designers are great at understanding fonts, colors, picture designs and building page layouts.

My job as a web developer is spent more on the functionality of the website. This entails everything else beyond design that makes the website work. I think like a lot web developers I'm a jack of all web trades and master of none. As a web developer, I spend time with design, code, database systems, servers, domain names, e-mail accounts associated with the website, and content management. The client tells me what they would like the website do for them and I make it happen."

Tools of the Trade

What web tools available today make your job easier to perform?

"There are just so many great tools out there these days that can be a tough open-ended question. As most of us already know Microsoft FrontPage is not a good direction to focus on learning because its code writing is going obsolete and not meeting new web standards. It has been replaced with expressions which is very useful to integrate with Microsoft database applications and servers.

These days, web pages need to be designed with Cascading Style Sheets that separate the content from the design. With that being said, no matter how much I didn't want to get evolved with writing code, sometimes it's the easiest way to get the job done. I use Adobe products (Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Photoshop) the most, mainly because the products seem more internationally friendly with their code writing. But these products have a learning curve and like a lot of higher end products, if you don't use it you forget how. Also if we outsource work, I find a lot of designers use Adobe product. So when I see a product that says it will make my life easier with Flash or JavaScript, I will most likely try it, just find out it is limited in with its process and I'll go back to coding directly or using an adobe product."

Tell me about the website seminar you teach?

"This seminar is designed to provide people with the hands-on knowledge of how to get a website up and running. In a four-hour, hands-on seminar, we cover how to, how to find, what to look out for and basic understanding of website publishing. The goal is at the end of the seminar, the individual can load onto their jump drive a workable website ready for publishing. We don't spend a lot a time in design, but more on 'How do I do that'."

What hurdles do you feel web developers face in today's market?

"The web standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) have changed for the better, making things more standardized in the coding language. This makes things much easier when trying to keep your website compatible with the many different web browsers on the market today. That's the good news.

The challenges of today are those said web page and/or site and keeping it user friendly and compatible in print, iPods, cell phones, rss feeds and gps devices. We also live in an age of fresh content, with most websites requiring database system that update content almost in real time. We develop these websites to be user friendly so the data can be entered by numerous people with assigned user roles and limited technical knowledge.

But the true struggle comes in trying to make all that data and information look good in design. It's that old struggle of the left brain and right brain. The analytical people are making the data work with function and code, while the creative people are trying to put flair and pizzazz to the information for marketing purposes. And there is always seems to be conflict."

Pros and Cons of the Job

What do you like most about being a website developer?

"I find it very gratifying to take a concept from nothing and produce a professional workable piece of resource that the whole world can use. Even better I can do it from anywhere I have my laptop and cell phone. I'm also a little bit of a control freak."

What do you like the least?

"It's not a very physical job and I can find myself sitting at the computer for hours without moving. So my therapy is to do more hands-on physical stuff like I remodel a kitchen and three bathrooms or I pulled the engine out of our car to fix the transmission to see how it works, that was tough. But don't get me wrong I love that my job is in the air conditioning in good ole Mobile, Alabama."

Advice to Newbies

For those just starting out and wanting to publish their first website, what advice would you give them?

"Plan your website on paper first. Think of it as a catalog or a brochure and what message you want on each page. Keep the pages small and keep the images web friendly because slow loading pages annoy you and your viewers. Be careful purchasing templates, because it's sometimes harder to manipulate someone else's work than it is to just create your own. Find someone you can ask questions with, or take a class. Classes or webinars are good option because you can network and build relationships in the industry especially if you have money making goals for your website. Remember your website is not worth anything unless people go to visit it, so make sure the search engines can see it. Use real content not just pictures, make sure pictures have descriptions, use meta tags in your headers like keywords and page description. This is just the basic, companies pay hundreds of dollars for search engine optimization on a monthly bases, which is worth it if your website makes you thousands of dollars a month. But I think all websites should at least have the basic SEO set-up which you can do yourself with just a little knowledge.

One thing you need to know about (shared) web hosting is that it should not be expensive. Any computer with an Internet connection can be a web server, and the software to make it a web server you can get free (open source). But just because you can doesn't mean you want to worry about security and the hardware. When you pay for web hosting the price should be based on the services and hardware provided. Shared hosting is less expensive than having a dedicated server by hundreds of dollars a month in some cases. Because shared hosting is like renting an apartment with those apartments sharing the mortgage, maintenance, and making a profit for the one building. With shared hosting, you're renting a piece of the server's hard drive. When you have dedicated web hosting you rent the whole building and have no neighbors. Understand that there a up sides and downsides to both options.

To find a hosting company you're comfortable with can be a challenge. To avoid the scam make sure you understand the company's cancellation policy and are comfortable with it if you decide to stop using their services. After you enroll with a host, use its customer service has soon as possible to see if your comfortable with it.

At MTI, we manage all our clients websites directly for them, from content, search engines, data backups, Google accounts, ad space, we can even manage their e-mail campaigns, so strong tech support is critical for our hosting systems.

The nice thing is there are a lot of good hosting companies out there, so don't put up with a bad one."

In your opinion, what is the one thing that makes a great website?

"Easy to find the information I'm looking for..period. If a visitor has to go more than three pages to find or get to the info and/or product on your site they move on to another site. This happens for a couple of reasons, first they just plan think you don't have what they need, or second they don't want to go too far from the search engine page. (stray from home) Most people who use a search engine page will click on the link check out the site and then back button to the search page again."

Interview with Randall Olson, an Experienced Website Developer