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Building a Better Web Team

Expanding your business online requires an integrated staff. But that's not a problem; it's an opportunity.
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The epicenter of my life is at that little dot where technology and media intersect.

I spend a great deal of my time working with businesses on practical steps they can take to develop their online presence. It's a great deal of fun, but it also forces executives and managers to step outside of their comfort zones when they make decisions. I've experienced the clash between the online and offline departments. It's rarely pretty, and often involves heated exchanges.

I assumed these problems of opposing interests would go away the further we moved into the digital age. When the current work force moves along, I thought, the next crop of "native digerati" would inherently understand what skills were needed to operate in the world and how those skills would be applied.

I was foolish to think that.

The last few months I've had one very basic question thrown at me from small and mid-size media employers, employees, and potential employees. The question has come, in various forms, from companies searching for people to lead their online departments, students hoping to secure a job when they graduate, and mid-career media types looking for a way to stay relevant in the digital age.

In a nutshell, the question boils down to this: What skills do companies need to effectively work with media and technology?

The top publishing executive of a small magazine with a staff of about 30 first posed the question in July. She wanted to move her business beyond the printed page. To do that, she realized she needed someone to run the online component of her business without upsetting her print staff.

She eventually boiled her company's online vision down to three simple areas: she wanted strong editorial stories, an elegant layout, and a Web-friendly display. It wasn't long before she realized that she had two of those three skill sets in-house -- the editorial and graphic departments -- but she didn't have anyone who could customize their off-the-shelf Web publishing system, which meant all of their content was posted with pre-made templates. It's impossible to have a unique and flexible site with pre-made templates.

With that knowledge in hand, she decided that her first hire should be a Web producer.

Good Web producers should have a strong background in programming (ASP.Net, C#, Java, Microsoft Visual Studio), a solid base in Web development applications (HTML, CSS, XML), and a passing understanding of graphics (Flash, Photoshop). It's imperative that this person has excellent verbal and written communication skills along with some project management experience.

Once her producer is in place, the publisher can use her in-house editorial and graphic design staffs to create her Web presence, and since she's using staff already with the publication, she can be sure that her online and offline platforms will share a similar editorial and graphic language.

That solved the publisher's problem, but it didn't exactly answer the question from my students' perspective. They are facing a dizzying array of choices at our university. Should they major in Computer Science, Electronic Media and Broadcasting, or Journalism? Which major will make them more attractive job candidates to companies?

I tell them, not at all sarcastically, yes and all of them.

Let's go back to our Web producer. Six months from now, once the publisher's operation is humming along, she will be forced to make another choice. The site has attracted a spate of new visitors and advertisers, so it's time to expand. Who is the next hire?

The answer is that for every new property you add to your site, you'll need to hire specialists in each area. If you want to add video and audio, you'll need a specialized C#/ASP.Net programmer who can manage that section of the site, you'll need someone who can shoot and edit digital video and audio (Final Cut Pro), and you'll someone to manage that editorial process.

At Northern Kentucky University, we offer a hybrid degree called Media Informatics, which trains students on media creation, database programming, and Web development. This hybrid degree is gaining traction in universities around the country, precisely because the job market demands students have a wide range of digital skills.

Which brings us to our last question: What should companies do about mid-career employees?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but these people offer the greatest opportunity for a small business because they bring specific institutional knowledge. As online operations grow, mid-career workers spurred on by attentive managers can get specialized training -- for instance, editing digital audio for podcasts -- that will allow them to more easily work across multiple mediums, while insuring that the online and offline properties don't spin off into two separate entities.

This is a boon for the company as they can bring experience to their new platform, while giving seasoned employees a new challenge.

Brad King is an assistant professor of media informatics at Northern Kentucky University, and he blogs about technology and culture at MIT’s Technology Review.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2006




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