The ultimate guide to getting your first job in the Web Industry

Jan 23, 2012

Table of contents:

  1. 1. What you can do is more important than your education
  2. Applying for a job
  3. During the Interview

The web industry is one of the only industries that is growing and creating new jobs through this latest world wide recession. New companies are being started everyday and existing companies are growing and looking for hot new talent. As the web industry continues to grow, it will become one of the best industries to have a successful and prosperous career. Here is my ultimate guide for getting your first job in the web industry.

The web industry comprises of many different roles that span a complex array of skills and talents. As you head down any career path, it is natural that you will begin to focus on a specific area of your job. For example you might start out as a “Web Designer”, but this could eventually lead you to become a specific “Interface Designer”. This guide is intended for applicants looking for their first job and is appropriate for people looking for a job in anything from Web design, to online PR, Marketing or SEO.

1. What you can do is more important than your education

So you’re just about to finish your degree and are looking for your first job in the Web Industry. Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that shiny new degree is not nearly enough to get you the job you want. Unlike other professions like Medicine or Law, the Web Industry is more focused on what you can do, rather than your education. If you start applying for jobs with only a degree to show your credibility, you won’t get far. It is far better to have a portfolio of websites or previous work so you can clearly show what you are capable of.

Of course having a degree is still incredibly important. In a lot of big companies you will reach a glass ceiling if you don’t have a degree, whilst others won’t even offer you an interview without one. However having a degree is not enough to separate you from the competition.

Here are my tips for what you need to do to compliment your education.

Create active websites

The best possible evidence of your abilities are active websites. When you look through a lot of people’s portfolios, they are often filled with websites that are no longer online, or made up briefs without a finished product. When judging someone’s ability, it is very difficult to get a strong sense of their skills if all you have is a picture of their work. Ensure you have a handful of active websites that you can show your interviewer. This could be either past client sites or even sites that you have created for your own benefit. By allowing someone to click around a website and get a feel for how things work, you will give them a much better indication of your capabilities.

Always keep learning new skills

The Web Industry is evolving every single day. New technologies, new design styles and new opportunities are arising all the time. As a Web Professional, you must take responsibility for keeping up to date with a huge portion of what is new, otherwise you will be quickly left behind. This will apply differently depending on what area of the Web you are looking to work in. Generally speaking, if you are a Web Designer or Developer, you should ensure you keep up to date with the latest technologies, and if you are someone looking to get into Copy Writing, PR, Marketing or SEO, you should ensure you have a good foundation knowledge of HTML, CSS and other complimentary skills.

There really isn’t an excuse for not keeping up to date with the industry. Some really simple things you can do is subscribe to a number of blogs or publications that will keep you up to date with just some light background reading. I would suggest getting yourself a subscription to .Net Magazine and subscribe via RSS to the following blogs, CSS Tricks, Smashing Magazine and as well as following lots of knowledgeable people on Twitter.

If you really want to increase your knowledge of the industry, subscribe to the following blogs via RSS;

SEOMoz - SEO related Seths Blog - Seth Godin’s Blog on various subjects ViperChill - Viral marketing and creating an audience Paul Graham - Business, technology and Entrepreneurship Line25 - Graphic Design Abduzeedo - Design inspiration TechCrunch - Internet, business and technology

If you want to give yourself the best chance of competing for hot jobs, you should take the time to teach yourself new skills and learn how to code. When I first started to learn how to code, it was either a choice between a dusty old book or reverse engineer an example I could find on the Internet. Now with the likes of Treehouse and Codecademy amongst others, you have everything you need in a simple web interface to learn the skills that are currently in demand. This is a huge opportunity as these types of sites could literally save you thousands in University costs. Take the time and make the small monthly investment to learn new skills to get the job opportunities you dream of.

Create new projects

I find the best way to learn something is to actually do it. For instance, I could read the greatest book on a new programming language, or be talked at by an expert in that language, but it’s unlikely that I would really understand it unless I got my hands dirty and started seeing how it worked for myself. This is a great opportunity because it kills two birds with one stone. Whilst learning a new skill, make an entire project based upon it. That way you have acquired a new skill and you have hard evidence of you using it to create something you can show people in an interview. For example, if you want to start using the Twitter API, instead of just reading about it, actually create something, no matter how simple it is, and put it online.

Learn WordPress (or similar platform)

WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are really quite popular, even outside our geeky web culture. I’ve had lots of non-technical people ask me about these types of websites and often they specifically want their website to use this software. If you can learn how to use these types of software, you will have a very high demand skill. For example, if you look at a lot of companies that are looking to hire one person to manage their online presence, they will often quote “WordPress experience” as a must. I would advise that you at least start your own WordPress (or Drupal, Joomla etc) website. If you want a job as a Web Designer or Developer you also should start learning how to create bespoke high-end templates and themes. Having a WordPress site also allows you to acquire another set of skills in driving traffic, creating content and SEO, all of which are extremely valuable to potential employers. If you have a solid example of your use of WordPress to create a beautiful and successful website, an employer looking for those skills would be mad to pass you up.

Be active

I think personal branding is one of the most important aspects of a well rounded job application. Try and get into the habit of blogging and being active on Twitter. Follow a range of people from the industry including the most famous, the rising stars and the people just getting started like yourself. Reply to people, make conversation, give feedback on their work and share links to build your following and connections.

Applying for a job

The following is really just “Applying for a job 101”, but these are important things to remember.

Write unique CVs for each job application

Each job you apply for will be looking for a unique set of skills, experience and personality. A lot of people cut corners and write a general CV to use for every job they apply for. These types of people don’t get the job. Take your time when applying for a job. Read the specification carefully and write your CV to highlight the things they are looking for. You might want to rewrite your previous experience, or put greater emphasis on how you applied a skill in a previous job or project.

To save a little bit of time, create a document with as much content as you can, organised into skills, experience and personal profile. Try and do all your writing here to really get down on paper all of what you have achieved and what you are capable of. Use this as a template to create your CV from scratch each time you write it. When you come to write a CV, highlight the bits of the job specification that you think are important, and then write your CV based upon how best you can fill that criteria. If this is your first job, your CV should be no more than a page long. Ensure you keep your CV clean and concise. Avoid vague descriptions and the usual bull shit people write on CVs. Don’t use big words or flowery language for the sake of it, and if you are going to say something, provide solid evidence of how you achieved it.

Highlight specific skills and show evidence

It’s very easy to say that you achieved something in a previous job and not provide evidence. It’s even easier if you say something where proving it would be extremely hard. Instead of hoping that the interviewer believes you, highlight specific skills and achievements that can be easily proved. This links back to learning new skills and creating specific projects. Instead of claiming that you have a particular skill, provide a link to one of your projects that explicitly show that you’ve used that skill to create something. It’s very easy to say “Increased sales by X%” or “Managed client projects using an Agile methodology” because you can’t show tangible evidence that you actually did that. Instead, take away the uncertainty, and show that you are the kind of person that gets shit done!

During the Interview

Congratulations, you got an Interview! You’ve reached the hard bit. In my experience, you can’t really give specific interview advice because different interviewers have different styles and different ways of analysing a prospective employee. A lot of the interview is about your personality, your first impression and how you will fit in with the culture of the company. Skills can be taught, but a company is really looking for someone who will fit into the team. Here are three pretty general things you should focus one when answering questions.

Talk about your project sites

Your projects sites should be your pride and joy, talk about them as if you were talking about your children. Explain your labour of love, what you were trying to achieve and what you have achieved. Show that you set out to learn a skill and you shipped a finished product. They will probably have already looked your projects up and inspected the work to see if it meets their standard. Talk about any difficulties you had and how you solved those problems. Show that you are the kind of person that takes pride in their work and you are capable of delivering a finished product.

Talk about your previous employers or previous clients

As I mentioned earlier, an Interviewer is looking for an indication of how you work with others, your communication and project management skills. Technical skills can easily be taught, but a person that is easy to work with and will fit into a team is born. Show how your delivered previous projects, what difficulties you had and how you overcame them. It’s a lot easier to be open and honest, rather than glossing over details. If you had difficulties in previous projects, explain the problem and show that you found a way to solve it. I think it’s a much better quality to be able to solve problems than to make it seem like you never have any problems at all.

Show your knowledge of the industry as a whole

The majority of jobs in the Web Industry are highly skilled jobs. By hiring you, the company will probably expect you to be an expert in your field. Show you general knowledge of your industry and the technologies behind it. Your interviewer will probably have some knowledge of the industry, or at least an understanding of areas or the the more mainstream news. I find the best way to move between answering specific technical or job specific questions is to talk about the Industry. If an Interviewer asks about a particular development, technology or news event, it is incredibly impressive if you can either answer, shed more light or share a deeper understanding of that question. This naturally creates easy conversation and shows that you have a well rounded understanding of the industry as a whole. As I said, your employer will be looking for an expert in their field. This kind of general knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the Industry give solid evidence that you really know what you are talking about.

To be able to answer questions like this, there really is only one way of getting the knowledge. First you must subscribe to as many Industry related websites as you can manage to read on a daily basis. The Industry moves so fast that if you let you fall behind on your RSS reader, you’ll fall behind the Industry too. Next ensure you are following the influential people in your industry and listen and understand their opinions and views. By listening and synthesising their opinions, you will start to form your own opinions mixed with your previous knowledge and understanding. And finally, consider starting a blog to showcase new techniques, share knowledge or comment on Industry changes. Writing instead of just reading will help you fully understand what you have read, and if you don’t understand it, you can guarantee someone will leave a comment to correct you. This will also incrementally build up a website of value that shows hard evidence of your understanding of the industry.

To conclude, there are literally thousands of opportunities every day to have a really successful and rewarding career in the Web Industry. Whilst there are many charlatans, it is also very easy to build your personal brand, show your skills and expertise and become a person of influence. Like nearly every other industry, getting to the top is increadibly hard. You will have to work at it incrementally every day in order to achieve the opportunities you desire. However unlike a lot of industries, we have an open platform that allows anyone, anywhere in the world to showcase their talents, ideas and innovations. Don’t waste this opportunity by being scared to ship your projects and put yourself out there for criticism. Those that do will always get the best opportunities in life.

Philip Brown


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