Web Development 100

3:15 PM

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This post is the first article of what I plan to be a series of articles about the growth of a web site and its developer. In the course of developing several web sites, I, as a developer, have grown too: learning about different technologies, acquiring new skills, and discovering various resources. When I started creating web pages, learning basic HTML coding was enough of a challenge. Thinking about other web technologies--for example, Javascript, PHP, Java, databases, blogs, WordPress, and more--seemed like complicated, abstract quantities that I never expected to use. Leave that to the professionals--or so I thought! I dismissed consideration of many of these technologies, picking a web host that offered only the most basic of services--and now I regret not giving more serious consideration to these technologies. If I were starting over again, I would do things differently. Over the course of the next several articles about web development, I hope to share my experiences, and offer some advice so that others can benefit from that experience. In this article, I will consider some factors that should be taken into account before even starting to code a web site, specifically, factors regarding naming and hosting a web site.

Picking a Domain Name

First of all, I do recommend registering your own domain and having it hosted rather than using a free hosting service. Having a real web site will give you experience with some of the basics of web development. If you continue on as a web developer, having experience with the nuts and bolts, and the business aspects, of having a site hosted is important. If you ever apply for a job as a web developer, and you do not have this most basic experience, you would most likely be disqualified from consideration for the position.

Second, pick a domain name that is descriptive of the theme of the web site and is intuitive. Do not pick a domain name that is nonsense, such as hffjhad1kj5.com. A domain name that is actually a word is much better. Ideally, the domain name should state the theme of the web site. For example, if you plan to create a web site about cooking, you should register a domain name such as cooking.com, mycookingsite.com, etc. Such a domain name makes it easier for people to remember; it is much more intuitive than picking a domain name such as, say, mysite.com. (Note: I am just making up these domain names for the sake of this article; I have not checked to see if these web sites exist.) In addition, later on, when you start working on building traffic to your site, some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts suggest that having a meaningful--and topic-relevant--domain name improves a site’s rankings in search engines, resulting in more traffic to the site. (More on traffic building techniques in a subsequent article.)

Once you decide upon a domain name, the next step is to register the domain. Many companies offer domain registration services; a search for domain registration or web hosting should turn up thousands of results (many web hosting companies offer registration services too). The question may now arise, should a person register a domain through the same company they are considering to host the site? The answer to this question is that it is a matter of personal choice. If the company is good, it doesn’t matter. Some people like the convenience of dealing with one company; other people don’t want to give all their business to one company. Myself, I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket, so I try to spread my business out among several companies.

Picking a Hosting Company

Several factors should be considered when selecting a hosting company. First, there are the technical aspects: How much web space and traffic is provided? How many email accounts come with the hosting package? Does the service include anti-virus and anti-spam filtering? What online services does the company support (for example, Java, PHP, MySQL, etc.)? Do not disregard these aspects, thinking that you will worry about them later.

I would like to elaborate on some of these aspects.

(i) Anti-virus and anti-spam filtering
When a web site is first created, traffic is pretty low, incoming emails are few, and worrying about anti-virus and anti-spam filtering is not a high priority. However, as traffic to your site increases, there is a good chance your email address will get on spam lists and your email Inbox will fill up every day with spam--which may include potential viruses. Having these emails identified--and blocked--before they arrive in your Inbox is a nice feature to have. Presently, one of my hosts does no filtering whatsoever. I receive about 1000 spam emails a day, causing me to waste much time every day simply cleaning out my Inbox. A host that identifies and blocks spam at the server is nice to have.

(ii) Java support.
Java is quite popular right now. Many companies fancy themselves avant garde and are really into Java. So if you think you might want to learn Java, to improve your employment prospects, or for other reasons, make sure your host offers the ability to run Java applets on your site. That way, as you learn Java, you can post your applets on your site. In fact, the same applies to any other web technology you might want to learn: being able to experiment on your own site as you learn is a real convenience.

(iii) PHP support.
PHP is very popular and enjoys a huge support base. With PHP, dynamic pages can be created for which the source code can not be viewed by visitors. (Javascript also allows dynamic pages to be created; however, some users disable Javascript in their web browsers, so the code does not run. PHP does not have this problem; since the code runs on the server, it does not depend upon settings within a user’s web browser.) In addition, several appealing services may be desirable on a web site that depend upon PHP: having a contact form that does not allow users to see the recipient email address, adding a forum, and having an RSS news parser, for example. Furthermore, PHP is one of the requirements for having a WordPress Blog on a site. If you are not into blogging already, don’t casually dismiss the possibility of adding a WordPress Blog to your site. Blogging can be an important aspect of your site, and WordPress provides one of the most powerful and popular platforms for blogging. PHP is offered by so many hosting companies as part of their basic packages, why go with a company that does not?

In addition to the technical considerations made when selecting a web host, there are the business aspects of the decision: location, cost, customer support, hours of operation, etc. If you do a search for web hosts, or read a computer magazine, you’ll come across the major hosting companies pretty fast. However, perhaps you would like to keep your business local. Sometimes it is nice to have your hosting company in the same time zone. On the other hand, you may want to spread out your business over different companies. Personally, I work on a few web sites and like to spread my business out over several different companies in different geographical locations around North America; however, there have been a few times when I have found it awkward trying to contact a company that is three hours ahead of me (I am on the West Coast; my hosting company is in the East). All these aspects have to be taken into consideration.

Summary

To summarize:

1) Decide upon a meaningful domain name, ideally one that is intuitive and directly relevant to the theme of your planned web site.

2) Register the domain. The company through which you register the domain can be the same company you also choose to host the site; the decision is yours.

3) When selecting a company to host your site, consider the two aspects of the services they provide:

a) business and customer service:
(i) cost,
(ii) location (time zones and hours of operation),
(iii) reliability and reputation,

b) technical aspects of hosting packages:
(i) web space and traffic allowed,
(ii) the number of email addresses included in a package,
(iii) other services supported, such as PHP, MySQL, the mod_rewrite Apache module, and Java. I would recommend getting a package that at least includes support for the first three. A host that supports these features will provide the basics of a plain HTML web site, plus it will allow you to add PHP-coded features, plus it will allow the option of having a WordPress Blog on your site.
(iv) anti-virus and anti-spam filtering. This option is nice to have, but not necessary. It does stop a lot of garbage email at the server instead of letting it through to your Inbox.

Online Job Applications a Waste of Time

12:53 PM

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Human Resources (HR) departments within companies have implemented some practices which counter their purpose of drawing good people into their companies. I cannot help but wonder, are these companies serious about seeking employees? I mean, they have taken the trouble to write a job posting and paid for advertising, but then they have thrown hurdles in the way of applicants to the point that many qualified people don’t bother applying. This practice is counter-productive.

Strike One: Requiring Applicants to Create an Account

Many companies now require job applicants to first sign up for a user account on the company web site. The process is free, similar to creating a webmail account with username and password, but it is still annoying and, as far as I am concerned, a waste of time. The vast majority of jobs for which I have applied have been one-time deals. I apply for a job and . . . that is it. I have never fallen in love with a particular company and never made a point of returning to the company web site, signing in to my account, and aimlessly surfed around to check things out. After I submitted my job application, that was the end of my interest there. So why waste job applicants’ time by requiring them to create these nonsense accounts? I do not want to have to remember yet more usernames and passwords. I am applying for a position with the company, not marrying the company.

Strike Two: Accepting Job Applications Through Online Forms Only

I have put a lot of time and effort into my resume: choosing the right words, arranging it just how I want it, selecting the right font, etc. – trying to make it look perfect. Yet after all that time and work, I then come to a company web site, find a job I think is a wonderful fit for me, but the only way to apply for the posting is to copy and paste my resume into a standard form on a web page that messes up the resume. I don’t know how it looks on the receiving end, but every time I have copied and pasted my resume into one of these forms, the formatting disappears and the resume looks like a complete mess. I have often wondered if it looks better at the receiving end. Do these HR departments have a filter or something at their end that puts the resume back together again and makes it look like it was supposed to? If not, it is infuriating to think the time spent polishing my resume was time wasted because it is just going to get all messed up when it finally gets submitted to a company.

Strike Three: Online Questionnaires

In addition to requiring applicants to create accounts on their web sites, and submit applications through an online form, some companies go even further: they also require applicants to go through an online questionnaire, mini-interview, supplementary application, or whatever they call it. This additional requirement for job applications is especially infuriating. I normally don’t bother with jobs that include these extra steps, however, a couple years ago I thought I would give it a try. I only made it through four of the eight-page questionnaire before deciding I had had enough: too many stupid questions about whether I prefer to be in a cubicle or an open area, if I don’t mind others hearing my conversations, who I would like with me if I was stranded on a desert island, etc. Enough!! Anybody with self-respect is right to get insulted by having their intelligence questioned in such a way. I have never bothered to even look at job postings from that company since then. If a company wants to know about me, and what I have to offer, they can call me in for an interview.

This online process is too impersonal. To me, it is similar to situations in which I call a company and am told to call such-and-such a number or visit such-and-such a web site for assistance; it makes me feel like I am being brushed off. And if the telephone help line is a confusing menu to navigate, with a myriad of options to go through, and I still cannot reach a living human being and get my issue resolved satisfactorily, then I really get angry. In those cases, I eventually take my business elsewhere; in fact, I make a point of trying to avoid dealings with such companies altogether. It may sound ironic coming from a techie for whom the online world is such a large part of life, but I still want to deal with human beings for many things–including applying for a job.

The use of online application forms produces another aspect that reflects badly on the companies that use them: the perception that the company is overly bureaucratic. After all, the whole point of these forms is to ease dealing with paperwork, which indicates that bureaucracy in the HR department of the company has a high priority. So it is reasonable for people to conclude that perhaps bureaucracy has a high priority throughout the company–perhaps too high of a priority. In fact, there is much truth to this perception: I am aware of many companies in which the bureaucracy has become overwhelming; highly-trained, experienced, technical people are suffocated and smothered under a load of paperwork. They spend over 70% of their time dealing with paperwork instead of doing tasks relevant to their expertise. Needless to say, employee turnover in these companies is high. In other words, when companies exhibit their love of administrivia in the form of an online process, it is usually safe to conclude that the bureaucracy and administrivia will be even worse once a person actually works for such a company. It is best to avoid such companies.

Furthermore, online application forms are pointless in small markets, for example, in a medium-sized city like Vancouver. Within most industries in Vancouver, anybody who is anybody already knows the other players in the industry (or at least has heard of them). For instance, if you are a manager in a company with over ten years of experience in your industry, chances are you already know everybody else in the industry with similar expertise; you have attended the same trade shows, industry conferences, golf game mixers, etc. If you are an experienced expert in your field, you are not going to like to be treated like a lowly rookie who is expected to jump through several hoops to apply to a job posting. (Plus, most high-level people I have met have focused on their expertise rather than becoming experts in the field of web page forms. They might be experts in their field, but even using Microsoft Excel was a challenge to them.)

Overall, the online job application process is virtually a complete waste of time. In fact, several books confirm this perception. Two are mentioned below; more books and articles can be found in libraries or online.

The first book I recommend is “What Color is Your Parachute?” by Richard Nelson Bolles. This book should be found in most book stores. (Alternately, the link above takes you to the book offered on Amazon.ca.)

A couple points made in this book really jumped out at me:
i) Most people job-hunt the opposite way employers search for potential employees: employers usually turn to the Internet as one of their last options when seeking to fill a position.
ii) HR Departments actually have a poor record of selecting employees that are a good fit within a company. A UK study indicated that HR departments did a 10% worse job of selecting employees than simply making random selections. Think of that statistic this way: a monkey drawing names out of a hat would do a 10% better job of selecting good employees than an HR department with all its (supposedly) highly-trained employees and sophisticated screening tests.

The second book I recommend is "The New Job Search" by Molly Wendell. Ms. Wendell is a networking and job search expert whose advice echoes the sentiment of Mr. Bolles: online job-hunting is not very effective. She also has a blog at the following URL:

http://executivesnetwork.wordpress.com/

Based on my own experience, they are correct: applying for jobs online is all but useless. Statistically, I am sure if you apply online often enough something is bound to turn up--eventually. However, there are much more effective techniques for job-hunting. My advice: don’t waste your time with the online route. The Internet might be a convenient tool for investigating an industry or company, but for actually getting into a company, going through people (networking) is the best way.

The HR practice of moving much of the job application process online actually counters the goal of drawing good people into a company. Requiring people to interact with an impersonal web site is a brush-off; this policy is the same antagonistic behavior exhibited by companies whose telephone help lines do nothing but create angry customers. Having to face these hurdles, and knowing the entire process is almost a complete waste of time anyhow, is a significant deterrent to job applicants. HR departments should stop offloading their job onto a web form and do as their job title implies: manage human resources. Quality people with self-respect are unlikely to let their intelligence be insulted by online application processes. In conclusion, this process has created a situation in which the very people the HR department wants most, are also the people least likely to apply.