Interview: Stephanie Leary, Texas A&M University System’s Web communications specialist

March 1st, 2006 Karine Joly 1 Comment

Web Communications Specialist at Texas A&M University System, Stephanie Leary fell into the Web in high school. At Texas A&M University, she works for the University System administration — not directly with any single university — composed of 10 universities and a few branch campuses with just over 100,000 students total and 7 state agencies. Reporting to the Director of Communications, Stephanie is responsible for the 30,000-page website that has just been redesigned. The website is made of straight-up HTML with includes, managed in Dreamweaver – while the press releases are being migrated from static files to a WordPress blog.

1) What’s your background? What did you do before becoming a higher ed web pro?

I began building websites in high school as a hobby. In college, I worked in the student computer labs on campus doing face-to-face tech support, and soon I was the go-to person for HTML questions.

I have a B.A. in English. The combination of writing skills and technical expertise has served me very well. The first couple of jobs I took out of college were catch-all positions dealing with tech writing, graphic design, and “web stuff” as an afterthought. I got tired of trying to be everything to everyone and decided to focus on web design, where I’d still get to use all three skills.

2) What’s your biggest achievement as a higher ed web pro?

It’s still getting off the ground, but I’ve helped start a sort of professional organization for the webmasters on our campuses. About half a dozen of us got together and said “we should have this,” so we put the word out and it came together. So far we’ve had a couple of meetings and held some training sessions, and we’re planning another series of training sessions for the spring. There aren’t many training opportunities in this part of the state, and the training that’s available through the universities is really geared toward beginners rather than professionals, so I’m really proud that we’ve been able to help our webmasters by finding peers who are knowledgeable enough to teach others. We’re also giving ourselves a collective voice to the administration, which can only be helpful for a group as thoroughly decentralized as we are.

3) What’s the most difficult part of your job?

Educating my content providers, who are generally administrative professionals without web experience, that “web design” is not creating a page layout in Word and exporting the HTML. They don’t care much about accessibility, usability, or even good design; they just know that they need to get their information “out there.”

4) In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge we face as web pros in our industry?

A fundamental lack of understanding about what we do. Our field is too new! We have no standard job titles, descriptions, or salaries, and there’s no career ladder — once you’re “the webmaster,” how do you move up? (Most of the time, I find, you don’t. You just move over, and become someone else’s webmaster.) People with the same responsibilities can end up in IT or marketing with wildly different salaries.

For people who do end up in marketing or communications, the challenge often becomes educating your own colleagues — perhaps even your boss — about what your job entails. They often don’t understand why a database project takes so much longer than any other (static) site, why we can’t use that nifty Flash interface they saw on a business site somewhere, or why we can’t say for sure exactly how many people (never mind students, parents, or legislators) have visited the site. I’ve gotten requests to fix everything from lost email attachments to printer cables from people who don’t understand how “web stuff” differs from other “computer stuff.”

We have a lot of educating to do.

5) Any good advice to share with your fellow higher ed web pros?

Find some way of managing content. Even if you can’t make the leap to a full content management system, use include files, site-wide stylesheets, and HTML templates to centralize your design and basic page structure. Use blogs for parts of the site with constantly-updated content, like press releases. Use RSS (or any kind of XML, really) to publish information in one place and use it in several others.

Also, make friends with your counterparts at other institutions. We all face the same problems sooner or later.

6) What about a couple of good links?

Just one: the University of Minnesota Duluth’s web dev listserv, which collects all the new articles worth reading into a weekly(ish) message. I read a lot of things to keep up with the state of the art, but if I had to pare it all down to one listserv or RSS feed, this is the one I’d keep. All the resources from previous issues get filed away in the enormous web reference directory.

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